The great philosopher George Costanza once mused that "it's not a lie if you believe it." It's not just as easy as believing, of course. Saying the sky is green and believing the sky is green do not change the reality that the sky is actually blue.
NPR has told its reporters and anchors that they can accuse a person of lying only if they have proof that the person made a false statement with the intent to deceive. The New York Times defines lies a bit differently, saying proof of intent is not required if a person continues to repeat an untrue statement after it has been disproven and the speaker knows it.
This brings us to Wednesday afternoon as Tom Herman was discussing the high school players who had just signed with the University of Texas. Some couldn't help but notice that some of the players were guys who had been heavily recruited by Herman's former employer despite a vow by Herman to not go after those players. Herman disputed that he broke any promises.
"We offered these scholarships, basically, when the University of Houston had no head coach, and I felt okay with that," Herman said Wednesday.
This is where those pesky facts come into play. Major Applewhite was hired by the Cougars on December 9, 2016. Offensive lineman Samuel Cosmi, who had been recruited by Herman while Herman was the UH head coach, announced that UT offered him a scholarship on January 26 (an offer Cosmi accepted). That is, of course, after UH hired Applewhite, meaning that Herman's statement was inaccurate.
Add that to Herman’s telling an ESPN reporter not to believe everything in the news less than a day before he accepted the UT job when asked about rumors he was taking another job and, voilà, suddenly there's a pattern established of Herman trying to control narratives by spinning a falsehood that is easily disproven by his own actions.
There's nothing wrong with what Herman did. There's no NCAA rule that says a coach has to stop recruiting players he began courting at another school. Just as there's nothing in the NCAA rules preventing a coach from jumping to another school even though that coach has a multi-year contract. But what makes it messy is when a coach vows to not do something, does it anyway and yet still claims he didn't do it.
In many ways, this is no big deal. Herman is a football coach, and football coaches are known as control freaks who share as little information as possible. And it really doesn't matter if a football coach lies about contracts or recruiting. It's not like he's a president who has a staff claiming that things that have been disproven as true are actually true because of alternative facts.
And there's little doubt that Herman believes what he's saying, at the moment he's saying it. Which, according to George Costanza, means it can't be a lie.
But lie or not, this type of thing may come back to hurt Herman. As long as he wins football games, he can essentially do whatever he wants. But should he start to lose games or should the program become engulfed in controversy, he's not going to be able to make up his own alternate facts that he can shape to provide a narrative to his reality.
Players depend on the honesty of the coaches, and if they sense a coach isn't honest, they might start saying no — remember how angry Herman got when 610 accused him of seeing a player during an impermissible period — so he needs his reputation to be sterling. Because these players often go to schools because they want to play for the coach, and they're the ones who get stuck at a school when a coach splits for another job. So if they think the coach lies or won't stick around, then it's not going to matter if Herman believes what he says is true.
Tom Herman's now on the national stage. He's coaching at perhaps the premier football school in the state of Texas, and he's coaching in a city that, though smaller than Houston, has a lot bigger and more intense media focus because the Texas Longhorns are the only team in town. Herman needs to start working on making sure the narrative of his reality matches the reality of everybody else.
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