Last night TV cameras caught an odd interaction between Ed Oliver and his head coach Major Applewhite during the first half of the Tulane game. Here’s the incident as reported by ESPN last night.
And here’s Major Applewhite’s explanation of the dust up.
First, let’s get this out now, these events are amplified at the moment. Social media helps throw gasoline on the fire. This will all blow over, and for people who think this might affect Oliver’s draft stock, may we present Baker Mayfield, crotch grabbing, flag planting, Baker Mayfield. None of those things mattered come April. When you have a skillset as unique and valued as Ed Oliver, a disagreement over a coat won’t matter. This will blow over.
Second, the sideline, the locker room, the practice field, these aren’t typical social interaction spaces. These aren’t casual dining restaurants; they are emotionally charged atmospheres because as a player you’re asked to go out and put your body, your long-term health, and your reputation on the line. Conversations and situations elevate. Coaches don’t say please and thank you; some might call it toxic masculinity, 90% of it is just football. If you don't have the stomach for it, that's ok. I don't have the stomach for poetry readings or Mumford and Sons.
In my limited experience, I saw teammates engage in similar arguments over seats on a bus, the line to have your ankles taped, even over water or Gatorade in the coolers. It’s a different world and when cameras catch what’s going on it’s hard to understand and process, but in the team environment its just one of dozens or more episodes that happen and the team moves on. Usually without much attention paid.
Jimmy Johnson was asked once how he handed out punishment and consequences and generally how he treated his locker room. Was everything equal? Were stars given better treatment? Johnson said he didn’t treat everyone equally, because the reality was that they weren’t identical. What Johnson tried to do was treat everyone fairly. Fairness didn’t equal equality in the Cowboy locker room. Emmitt, Troy, and Michael, they were different. They brought more value to the table; their fairness scale was different than the 53rd man on the roster or the 25th man on the roster.
If you’re Major Applewhite, you’re faced with a similar dilemma, do you treat everyone the same or do you treat everyone fairly? Similar but different. The Houston Cougars aren’t the Dallas Cowboys. Applewhite deals with egos and attitudes on a wide range and scale from seventeen-year-olds on their first time away from home to vets to grad transfers. Unlike Jimmy, if Major doesn’t like a guy he can’t put him on waivers, he can’t fine him, but he has to maintain discipline inside his program.
A dirty little secret, by the way, a fair percentage of players on any team can’t stand the coach. They aren’t playing enough; they get tired of coaches riding their ass, making them go to class, work out. Maybe it’s little things that pour gas on the fire; they didn’t get the number they wanted, they didn’t get a jacket on the sidelines. Again, there are dozens of these issues at any given time, Applewhite is trying to spin a lot of plates, in the midst of a game those plates multiply, and sometimes, even after you’ve lost your starting quarterback to a potentially season-ending knee injury during a crucial league game, you’ve still got to deal with a jacket. You’d rather not have to do that on camera.
A lot of folks will have the hot take that you make an exception for your superstar and that’s reasonable, just not in a collegiate locker room. You’ve got 105 personalities to deal with, you have to set a culture and rules. If Applewhite sees jackets as his hill to die on, it might seem arbitrary to us, but we don’t have nearly the full picture. We got less than fifteen seconds of footage, Applewhite’s got 24/7, 365 days a year on the situation.
We’ve been as guilty as anyone of pumping up Ed Oliver as this transcendent talent, and he is. He’s been told by just about everyone that he’s the second coming, but he’s not infallible. The cameras caught that and put it in everyone’s living room. We’re sure he’s prone to emotional outbursts just like most of us are. He’s not immune from criticism. Neither is his coach. Oliver may use this as his opportunity to skip to draft prep altogether, and that’s ok. Maybe even preferable given his draft stock.
Could the situation last night have been handled better? Certainly. But in the heat of the moment, these interactions are commonplace. The cameras brought unwanted attention, but the team keeps trucking along. That’s the way they operate.