NCAA coaches seek freshness on TikTok

Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney
Screenshot: ESPN

What made South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer’s TikTok song and dance challenge to Soulja Boy seem effortlessly cool (so cool, in fact, that Soulja Boy himself l retweeted), while Clemson’s Dabo Swinney was almost universally clowned around doing the popular “Griddy” dance (somewhat forgetting the fact that he was raising money for breast cancer in the video)? Why do we still laugh at Brian Kelly’s awkward dance video with a rookie he later lost, when we love Lane Kiffin creating a goofy Twitter account for his dog?

With a growing demand in the social media-centric recruiting scene for coaches to stand out with some sort of “it” factor, we’ve seen our fair share of hits and misses as middle-aged men do their best to figure out what this factor is doing. It’s not just doing the dance or trending TikTok, it’s doing it right, and no amount of effort can do it – it just takes be.

What is this immaterial? Is it age? That could play a part – although Beamer is 45 and Dabo is 52, that doesn’t seem like a big difference. Is it relativity? When I think “cool coach” right now, I think of Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman. He’s young at 36, but he’s at a totally different stage in his life than the guys he coaches, in his 12th year of marriage with six kids at home.

It’s not a particular conference that’s cool, or a particular program, or even a sport. We loved it when Roy Williams danced in the locker room with the UNC basketball team a few years ago at 64. Jim Harbaugh was accidentally cool for a while when his daughter posted funny videos on TikTok of him, but that was because she’s the generation that implicitly understands what type of thing works without necessarily being able to put a concrete explanation of what makes it funny.

And yes, while a coach’s online presence may not make a huge difference to many fans, it’s certainly not overlooked by sports communities on Twitter and even young rookies looking to assess personality and the culture of a coach’s program. I mean come on, Brian Kelly explicitly used this weird video as a recruiting tool, so it would be foolish to pretend that social media is irrelevant in the recruiting process, although there could be dozens of other factors, many of which are more important, that play into an athlete’s final decision and commitment.

With no traditional script to follow in front of them for this sort of thing, flying by the seat of their pants in a world where the Detroit Lions comment on random people’s TikToks and it’s somewhat encouraged that official team accounts are enjoyable and funny, these trainers are in a whole new era. Would a football coach ever do the equivalent of the Griddy when Dabo was in college? Was Bear Bryant caught doing the Twist at an official event in Alabama?

And the player-centric orientation of this new era, with NIL and lax transfer rules, makes some coaches even more eager to please or prove they can be the “cool” coach regardless of age. It’s certainly not a bad thing that coaches are more attuned to players’ needs and interests than they were in previous eras of the sport, but it’s a strange new road to blaze.

So, I guess I don’t really have an answer to what makes the “it” factor in these types of online trends, videos, and posts. There is no scientific formula. We, as the general college football-loving public, discover at the same time that these poor coaches are ready to be hailed or mocked, with no way of knowing who will come. Is it the voluntary and enthusiastic participation of the athletes themselves? That could be it. Does it look authentic or like a fabricated forgery? But what could really be genuine here?

And it’s still the offseason – it doesn’t matter if you’re “cool” or not if you can’t win games in the fall.

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