Is Butch Jones leaving? University of Cincinnati flunks public relations

The news conference with no news

CINCINNATI - The best PR guy I ever knew was Andy Furman.

Before he became a tough talker on local and national radio, Andy smoked big cigars and generated publicity for Latonia Race Course. Latonia, now known as Turfway Park, was the Northern Kentucky stop on the leaky barn circuit.

Latonia was a tough sell. Each night it presented a bad Trifecta. Bad horses on a bad track and usually in bad weather.

It didn't bother Andy. He did anything and everything to scare up attention and keep Latonia in the news. He once had Cris Collinsworth race a horse. Once he staged a camel race. Andy even got married in the Winner's Circle.

I recall one time when the jockeys and horsemen were refusing to race because the track had thawed and dangerous shards of the sub-surface were being kicked back at the jockeys and horses.  I was doing an interview with a jockey who was ripping the track left and right for its incompetence.  Yet, in the background I could hear an excited Andy Furman saying "yes...publicity...I love it!"

Andy would take whatever he could get. He just always told me to spell "Latonia" the right way. That's what he cared about.

That form of PR worked at Latonia. It doesn't work everywhere.

I've never studied public relations, but my guess is that its intent is to maximize attention, to enhance the image and to create a positive vibe about a person, a place or a company. When a high profile figure is involved in a scandal, usually the person they hire after a lawyer is a public relations specialist to help turn around their image.

I wondered Tuesday if they have anyone doing public relations at the University of Cincinnati. I'm not talking about the sports information guys who trot out the coaches and the athletes on a regular basis and provide us with facts and figures. I'm talking about a real-live public relations expert whose job is looking out for the best interests of the university. If there is one, he or she must have had the day off Tuesday.

That's when UC scheduled a news conference to talk about the Belk Bowl, the postseason game in which the Bearcats will play. We were advised by email prior to the gathering that it was intended to discuss the bowl game and not Butch Jones' search for a new job. Twice, prior to the news conference, we were reminded not to ask any questions about Jones' situation.

Please. This was an incredibly naive thing to do. There were probably 10 to 12 cameras in the room and about 25 reporters. They weren't there to talk about the Belk Bowl, or Charlotte, or the price of eggs. They were there to get some answers to a story that has been at the top of the news since Sunday evening. That's when Coach Jones was spotted interviewing for a new job at Purdue. The next day he was interviewing for a new job in Colorado.  Maybe in some towns that's not news.  But it is here.  And considering the man is paid $1.5 million a year by a public university in our town, it seems to be a legitimate story.

So Coach Jones, UC President Santa Ono and Bowl Committee Executive Director Will Webb walked into the news conference.  Ono looked uncomfortable. Webb looked unwelcome. And Jones came off as downright unfriendly.

It wasn't as bad as the infamous Marvin Lewis-Mike Brown King of Awkward press conference of 2010. But it was pretty darn close.

As you might expect, the first two questions were about the coach's job status. Jones became agitated when he was asked if he would coach in the bowl game. "That's not why we're here today," he said. "If you guys don't, we can end it right now," he added.

Sounds like the stressed-out grumpy dad who has a pack of tired ornery kids fighting in the back seat of the car on the way to the Wally World. I expected him to say he was going to turn the car around at any moment if we didn't behave.

But it wasn't his fault. He was put into a very unfair situation. All three of the principals were. It was an injustice to the coach, the president, the bowl guy and the media.

It's like the White House scheduling a news conference with the president and saying that there will be no questions regarding the fiscal cliff. It's not reasonable.

There never should have been a news conference. And if there was, Coach Jones shouldn't have been in attendance. 

Why not just escort the bowl guy from media outlet to media outlet? He could tape a quick interview with us. Do 15 minutes on radio with Lance. Do a Q and A on the bowl game with Bill Koch of the Enquirer. It's been done before.

Meanwhile, let Jones decide where he wants to coach. Let him do that in private. If you parade him out in public, he has to be ready to answer questions. And don't call a news conference when there is no news.

Maybe UC should ask Andy Furman to teach a class in public relations. He could call it "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."  I'll give him a video tape of Tuesday's news conference for the chapter on Ugly.

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