On Monday, beleaguered UT football coach Steve Sarkisian spoke to reporters about the team’s latest loss (this time to lowly Kansas) in what’s been a disastrous first season. The Sarkisian era of UT football may be off to an inauspicious start, but for fifty-odd seconds of Monday’s press conference, the spotlight was off Sarkisian and focused squarely on Horns Illustrated’s Terry Middleton, who asked one of the longer and more narratively involved questions you’re likely to hear at a college football coach encounter.
If you’re still processing all of that, here’s a transcript:
“Coach, a couple years ago, one of my good friends and I were faced with a massive problem we couldn’t solve. And in his wisdom he said, “You know, at this point we need to stop and ask ourselves: what would an extraordinary person do in this situation?” And this resonated with me the whole weekend, and I realized that of all the coaches who could be standing at that podium right now in those shoes, you are that extraordinary person, and you have a team of what I call coaching juggernauts. This is not only my opinion, this is a fact—I don’t think anyone can dispute this. So my question is: we write, you know, the Sarkisian era story, and we’re not even done with the first chapter yet. Can you unfold some of the onion of what are you working on, how are you solving this problem? I realize that you might not even know. But, you know, I want to steal from Julian Edelman: ‘It’s gonna be one hell of a story.’ ”
Middleton’s question quickly went viral. Mediaite described it as “the most bizarre and confusing question in the history of college football pressers.” Defector, referring to the question in a headline, wrote, “We Must Do Everything in Our Power to Stop This From Happening Again.” On the Yahoo Sports college football podcast, Sports Illustrated‘s Pat Forde declared, “If I were in the room, I would have . . . sprinted over and tackled that guy.”
Middleton makes an easy target for reporters who self-consciously worry that their own utterances could someday lead everyone to judge them: they might express a bad opinion at some point, but they’re unlikely to spend a full minute relating to Steve Sarkisian a tale about the time they tried to solve a problem by imagining what an extraordinary person might do, and then telling Sarkisian that his extraordinariness will allow him to “unfold some of the onion” regarding his team’s five-game losing streak. Middleton is also a real person, however, who writes for a website whose audience seeks out stories that make them feel good about the Texas Longhorns, and he was a bit unprepared for the ensuing pile-on. Texas Monthly caught up with him to understand what he was aiming for with his question, how he views his role in the media room, and what the problem that he and his buddy couldn’t solve really was.
Texas Monthly: How have the past 48 hours treated you?
Terry Middleton: It’s like reading Mean Tweets on Jimmy Kimmel. My colleagues haven’t been so nice, but that’s okay. I don’t look for fame and fortune. That’s not who I am, but when it comes upon you and it’s negative, it’s like now you understand how the people who get this, maybe in Hollywood or something, or even the Texas football team and the players, you kind of get a small sliver of what it’s like for them, right?
TM: Why do you think people have responded the way they have?
Middleton: I have asked that of not only myself, but some mentors and peers. You know, the team is losing. And there is a big part of the conversation that’s very, very, very negative. The questions are phrased professionally, but very—I’d call it disrespectful. Right? And so I didn’t want to be a part of that. That’s just not who I am personally, and so I don’t subscribe to it. These people have worked their tail off to get where they’re at. I wanted to be positive because we just focused on the score. You miss this wonderful story of men of character, a man of integrity, men of extremely hard work.
TM: Do you mean that you wanted to say something nice to him, and let him know that you saw him outside of just the record that the Longhorns have?
Middleton: Yeah, absolutely. I was careful with my words, and I had a couple of objectives. People have said some pretty mean stuff on Twitter, like I was sucking up to them. Well, I don’t know him, and there’s nothing I can offer this man. But what I do have is ultimate respect for him and his players, for the team, for the University of Texas. I was trying to convey to him that I recognize who you are not only as a coach and your credentials and his staff’s connections. You know this. I feel blessed to even be sitting in that room to be afforded to ask the question. And in the media, there’s disrespect. So my goal was to shine a light and recognize him and the entire team and what they were doing, and then ask a direct question and say, “What are you doing to fix this?” and to let him have a chance to express it, because I knew that he was probably going to get eviscerated.
TM: Do you think the question still would have worked if you’d just said, “You’ve got a good group of coaches, how do y’all plan to turn this around?”
Middleton: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the million-dollar question that I’ve been mulling over as I try to better myself. What did I do wrong? Could I have done better? And that is something that many people have said: “Hey, you could have shortened it by half.” As I’ve replayed the interview a couple of times, I could hear the reporters in the room coughing and things like that, which, you know, okay, I’ll take note of that and I’ll get better at crunching down that question. I had other objectives, but yes, the next time I will be shorter.
TM: I know you’re trying to figure out why it went viral, and I think a big part of it is just how long it is.
Middleton: Absolutely. And you know, as much as I talk about respect for the players and the coaching staff, regardless of the score, I recognize that, you know, if I’m going to ask those questions, I have to respect my fellow reporters. If I’m taking so long to ask the question, well, it doesn’t give them time to do so. You know, I have to eat my own words and say, “Hey, look, I get it.”
TM: Your publication is explicitly for Longhorns fans. Not every sports reporter is covering for a fan base in that way. Do you see yourself as having the same job as the other reporters in the room?
Middleton: I spend some time looking at our social media and the people who subscribe to us, and sometimes I’m taken aback when I realize that this is the mom or the dad of a player, or a brother or a cousin. One of the tennis players, his high school coach started following us, and I realized that I want to tell the story of those people who help that person get there, so that when they see it, it’s lifting that player up or that coach, or even coach succeeding talks about his parents. So I absolutely do see myself telling a different story. I’m not criticizing anybody for the way they’ve done their stories. In fact, I follow several of the people that were in that room because they have a great slant. There’s a few people in there that, gosh, I wish I was more like them. I have a high respect for them.
TM: So I have to ask, what problem did you and your buddy get into that made him ask what an extraordinary person would do in that situation?
Middleton: In a former life, I used to be in IT, and I used to write software. I worked with a gentleman, and I almost put his name in there, I’m so glad I didn’t, but he’s like the smartest guy I know, and we were working on a technical problem for two weeks we couldn’t solve and he finally said, in his wisdom, we must take a step back and ask, what would the extraordinary person do?
TM: Before the press conference, you tweeted that “you simply won’t believe what I ask him.” What did you mean by that?
Middleton: We’ve had, what, nine press conferences now. And I’m this little guy off in the corner. It’s like, how can I ask a question so that when Sarkisian or whoever I’m talking to, because I talk to all the coaches, will walk away and say, ‘You know what, I’m genuinely glad that I got to answer this or I got to talk about this, or I feel good that this guy asked the question.’ All I want to do is be a positive light. And I don’t want to stop asking tough questions.
TM: So was the idea behind the tweet that you think your readers are also tired of the coaches being asked negative questions, and would be excited to hear you ask a question in a way that might have changed the narrative?
Middleton: Maybe subconsciously. I was making a statement that this question is going to be positive and I’m going to try to balance out the negative. I feel honored and very blessed that he called on me—and I got to be called on first, which doesn’t happen a lot—so I was making a statement that I was going to be positive, instead of negative.