Calling 7:45 p.m. starts “painful,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen induced a backlash from ESPN, which runs college football a bit like a famous film family ran New York.
The good news for Huskies football fans is that Chris Petersen showed neither scars nor stress from his encounters with Tesio, Clemenza, Luca and other members of the family that owns college football. Far as we know, ESPN did not put a horse’s head in Petersen’s bed.
But neither was he moved to repeat his lamentations about game scheduling that caused ESPN to give him the stink-eye all day Saturday for his apology to Huskies fans over repeated night kickoffs, calling them “painful.”
So I asked, since the network basically owns his industry, is it a good idea to piss off ESPN?
“I don’t know about that,” Petersen said benignly at his Monday presser. “I don’t have the answers. All I know is, the better we do, the better it is for Washington.”
In his mind, Washington does better when games are at 1 p.m., because the house is fuller, the players get Saturday night off and the games can be seen nationally by more recruits. Not fans, recruits.
In the dust-up over Petersen’s remarks — none of which mentioned ESPN specifically, but everyone in the industry knows who the capo dei capi is — his point was not about the interests of fans, but future players in the Midwest and East who may be charmed by purple chrome helmets, a lakeside stadium and fat-guy touchdown plays.
But Saturday nights for athletic 17-year-old boys typically are not spent around screens that are not filled with Snapchat and sexting. So all the TV ratings data that have become part of the national discussion he stirred are irrelevant to Petersen’s desire to reach recruits, not fans.
But Sonny Cor . . . uh, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, one of the hosts of ESPN’s GameDay Saturday, cast Petersen as an ingrate for not appreciating the wonders that ESPN provides (major cash — $1.5 billion over 12 years).
“You should be thanking ESPN for actually having a relationship, thanks to (commissioner) Larry Scott with the Pac-12,” Herbstreit said, “because now your games are seen.”
Actually, Washington played college football on regional/national TV before the invention of the Pac-12 Networks, and even before the invention of ESPN. What’s changed is the amount of money ESPN (and Fox) are willing to pay to control game times so that they can fill up a Saturday with programming that reaches affluent West Coast audiences, who buy the products sold during commercials that pay the salaries of Herbstreit and Petersen.
Herbstreit has just as much cause to be grateful for the Pac-12 as he claims Petersen should have for ESPN. Petersen, as I wrote last week, also has to know that his salary and those of his Pac-12 colleagues are the biggest expenses for athletic departments that are operating mostly in the red.
So I asked Petersen whether, if it meant more control over scheduling in the next negotiation, he would consider taking cuts in salary and staff positions to help the athletic department operate in the black and gain leverage with the national nets.
Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t dismiss the question and storm off.
“I haven’t spent a bunch of time thinking about this stuff,” he said. “I think there’s probably people looking at this to try to keep some sort of balance.
“I think if there’s better ideas out there, everybody’s open to new ideas.”
That vague response is at least a hint at some accountability by adults making money off free labor. But it’s not a new idea to avoid spending more money than the department earns.
Part of ESPN’s pique with Petersen had to do with his unwillingness to meet in person Friday with broadcasters Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore and the production staff for Huskies game with Cal, a standard part of most coaches’ work week.
Jones and Gilmore brought up dismissively Petersen’s late-start complaints during the the first and fourth quarters of the broadcast, Jones describing Petersen as “irascible and somewhat cantankerous.”
But going back to his Boise State days, Petersen has done TV production meetings by phone instead of in person, because it’s easier and faster for him.
“Since I’ve been here, I think I’ve spoken to everybody on the phone, at the times they wanted,” Petersen said Monday. “The media thing is important. I get that. But there’s always a line you draw. We got to take care of our team. We have a bunch of other things to do.
“I think I’ve always spoken to production people for a half-hour, whatever they want. Every week.”
That explanation apparently did not mollify ESPN, which Saturday lined up a visual dig at the Huskies.
During the second-half slows in the 38-7 Washington win, sideline reporter Quint Kessenich put on the ground three cupcakes, representing Washington’s routs over Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State.
“Cupcakes and creampuffs out of conference,” he said, “which could ultimately put them in peril in terms of the College Football Playoff.”
The ever-so-modest bakery wit undoubtedly will be deployed by ESPN when the Mercer Bears play Alabama Nov. 18.
The Huskies deserved the discredits last season and this season for weak scheduling. But getting singled out for mockery in an embarrassing industry-wide practice is a telling bit of arrogance that has often been a part of ESPN’s relationships with individuals and organizations.
Petersen seemed a little leery of the food fight.
“(Big-time coaching) is like a political job and I’m not really a political guy,” he said. “I just try to be honest. There are times you do stand up for certain things. Then you move on. What I need to do is move on and concentrate on Arizona State (Saturday in Tempe). One of the things we do around here is to keep players focused on what’s important.”
Smart move. But it was Petersen who brought up the “painful” night starts unsolicited a week earlier and gave the old story fresh life. Poking at the family that provides protection is fraught with peril.
Nobody wants to be Fredo.