March Madness: What the comments of winning — and losing — coaches tell you

Whether their teams win or lose in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one outcome is certain: coaches will follow predictable patterns in what they say after the game. John Llewellyn has studied those patterns for years and even has a name for it: coachtalk.

“There is much more to the game than the numbers on the scoreboard,” says Llewellyn, an associate professor of communication. “Coaches are called upon to provide explanation and even consolation for their fans. Those stories are now an essential part of the game.”

Llewellyn analyzed the professional language of Division I men’s college basketball coaches for “Coachtalk,” a chapter in the book “Case Studies in Sport Communication.” He reviewed post-game comments from such legendary coaches as Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo and found recurring themes that both winning and losing coaches employ.

The most consistent theme with losing coaches is acknowledgment of the winner, or deference, says Llewellyn. They would often give their fans an alternate definition of winning such as, “It’s just an honor to be here.”

Llewellyn also found that losing coaches often explain on-court results to fate. After his team’s 30-point loss to University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said, “We were our best in March. This game was in April, huh?”

Winning coaches elevated all aspects of the game, while remaining humble, and reinforced the traditional values of sport.

Llewellyn points to Izzo’s reaction after Michigan State’s 2000 championship victory over the University of Florida as an example of expressing excitement in the context of humility: “This is more overwhelming than I thought it would be, if you want the truth,” Izzo told reporters.

Llewellyn says coachtalk reveals an underlying respect and regard that coaches have for each other and for the social world of athletics — a world where competition can be fierce. Coachtalk also allows for the idea of a “second season” at tournament time.

“Tournament time is a great chance for rededication and renewal, even though teams have played 30 games by the time this ‘new season’ comes around,” says Llewellyn. “Coachtalk is the language coaches use to generate hope and explain outcomes. It sustains the culture of sports.”

Categories: Athletics, Research