Column: Sports Talk with Coach Bacon

Keeping your head in the game, one cliché at a time
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

In America, you’re “behind the eight ball,” if you will, if you can’t “Talk Sports.” Jay McInerny once wrote that sports fans constitute the largest fraternity in America, and not knowing how to talk about them will put you on the outside of every airport and elevator conversation you encounter.

Now, normally, that’s a wonderful thing – but on the rare occasion you actually need to make small talk in such situations, Coach Bacon is here to cut through the clichés so you can bull with the best of them.

First, you’ve got to see through the silly semantics. They love to talk about the “respective captains from each team,” which means “the captains from each team,” because “respective” adds nothing to that clause. And, of course, the “ensuing kickoff,” which means “next.”

So far, so good. Now you’ve got to master the pseudo-psychological phrases, like this old chestnut: “Check out the character of this man, in the face of all this adversity.” That usually means the guy’s playing when he should be in the hospital, and what you’re looking at is not character but a compound fracture. Or when they gush: “Would you look at that concentration!” No, they can’t see concentration, either. All they’re saying is the receiver is watching the ball – I mean, really watching it – which, after all, is his job.

Announcers also like to use pseudo-scientific phrases, to make the simplest of actions sound like quantum physics. So, when you hear some color man say, “Note Nagurski’s ‘low center of gravity’ as he totes the pigskin.” All he means is: “Nagurski is holding the football, and his knees are bent.” Not that complicated.

Then they start saying things like, “The ball was clearly in the cylinder,” or “It definitely broke the plane,” which mean, respectively: The basketball’s directly above the basket, and the football has crossed the goal line. Keep your slide rule in your holster, folks. You won’t need it here.

Sometimes sportscasters are simply awed by commonplace events. For example, sportscasters like to say – with tear-jerking admiration – that “This guy comes to play every day.” Which – I guess – means that he consistently wears the correct attire at the correct location at the correct time. In other words, he’s doing what a Wal-Mart greeter does every day of the week. Which is not a lot to ask, it would seem, of a high school drop-out making a million bucks to play a spirited game of catch.

Here’s another popular expression, especially among coaches. “We’re just gonna take ‘em one game at a time.” What the coaches are forgetting here is that you’re not allowed to play two games simultaneously. Imagine a coach saying: “Well, we figure we’ll take on both the Blackhawks and the Bruins this Saturday, playing alternate periods, and we’re gonna keep it up the entire season. That way we’ll be done by March, and take April off to rest up for the playoffs.”

Now that you understand the basics of balderdash, it’s time to master a couple catch phrases that you can use on your friends and family. These are the gems of gibberish, the Hall of Famers of hot air, the all-stars of asinine assessments. To wit, they are: “Mistakes really hurt,” and its corollary, “Turnovers’ll kill ya.”

These phrases are so powerful, you often hear sportscasters say things like, “Well, you know, Howard, whoever makes the fewest turnovers is gonna win this game.” No, Howard, whoever scores the most points is going to win that game, and every other game – except golf, of course, where the player with the most ridiculous outfit takes top prize.

If all else fails, just blurt out, every ten minutes: “Oh, man! You gotta be kidding me!”

If your friends like sports, they’ll think you’re some sort of super genius.

Sports talk can be confusing, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t learn it over night. Just remember: you’ve got to take ‘em one game at a time, and come to play every day. Oh yeah, and turnover’s’ll kill ya.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Tom Bourque
    March 12, 2010 at 9:15 am | permalink

    John: You could add “He always gives 110%” to your list. Since it is impossible to give more than full effort, this is standard sports hyperbole for giving full effort every time. Once again, it would seem this would be absolutely standard for getting paid to play a game and not something that should merit special mention. By the way, no cheap shots at golfers :)

  2. March 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm | permalink

    Coachspeak could have its own column. My favorite came from Lloyd Carr, who once answered a question with this treasure: “If nothing changes, nothing will change.”