Many moons ago, I was an intrepid sports reporter and editor of a daily newespaper in a small town in the midwest.
One of my first assignments was a playoff preview of one of the area's varsity softball teams. Seemed simple enough, the team had only lost something like two or three games all year, and its freshman pitcher had allowed two or three earned runs while its first baseman led the conference in home runs and RBIs.
The story should write itself.
I had spoken with the head coach on the phone, letting her know I'd be there and requesting a few minutes to talk to her, the pitcher and the first baseman. She told me that would be fine.
I arrived at the field where they were warming up before practice, and walked toward the coach-like figure standing by the dugout. I naturally assumed that was the person to whom I had spoken earlier, and that my presence was expected.
Upon moving into earshot of the coach-like figure, I said "Hey coach, how's it going? I'm Neal Coolong, we spoke earlier."
The coach-like figure stared at me like I was something she dug out of her ear.
Through a scowl on her face, she mouth-breathed words that led me to believe she wasn't aware I was coming. My genius-level intellect quickly deduced she was not the person I had spoken to earlier, so I asked her if the head coach was around.
It was one of the many mistakes I made as a journalist.
"We don't have a head coach! We're both head coaches!"
I furrowed my brow a bit, trying to understand the concept of having two coaches and none at the same time (very Parcellsian, but something told me I wasn't immersed in that level of coaching philosophy). I simply asked where Coach Johnson was.
The coach-like figure informed me again both she and coach Johnson were head coaches.
"So you're saying you're both head coaches," I repeated, partially out of humor, partially out of annoyance. She confirmed my statement. Clearly, she wasn't budging from that stance, nor was I getting my story any other way but to acknowledge her rightful place as a position of authority on the team.
I was way too smart for that.
Instead, I informed her of the conversation I had with Coach Johnson and that I just needed to speak with "Jenny" and "Marcia" for a few minutes before they start practice.
"Don't you want to speak with me?" she asked.
"I don't, actually. I want to speak to Jenny, Marcia and Coach Johnson. Unless I'm mistaken, Coach Johnson is the head coach, right?"
"We're co-head coaches."
"Your athletic director said Coach Johnson is the head coach."
"We're co-head coaches!"
Officially convinced I was talking to the dumbest and most stubborn person on earth, I tried to reason with her, just telling her all I was trying to do was speak to Jenny and Marcia about the upcoming playoff game and their season in general for a story I was doing on the team for the next day's paper.
"Well, you can talk to me."
"But I don't want to talk to you. Can I just speak with Jenny and Marcia? It won't take more than a few minutes."
"You just want to speak to them? What about the rest of the team?"
"It's not a really long story, it seems like Jenny and Marcia are the key players here, and I want my readers to hear from them."
"How am I supposed to build a team if you're only singling out certain players," she fired back at me as if she had made some kind of grand statement.
"With all due respect coach, that's not my problem, it's yours. I leave the coaching to you, I just write about the team."
"Ok, fine, you want to write about the team? Here."
She power-walked toward the infield right as I noticed a lady getting out of her car, someone I assumed to be Coach Johnson. The coach-like figure returned with the entire starting lineup.
She proudly told me I could talk to the team.
Dumbfounded at this point, I looked over to where Coach Johnson was, and quickly noticed she was steering in a direction that would not require her to cross our path.
I asked a question (it's basically impossible to get a group of high school girls to speak with any substance when they're amassed together), and got a one-word response. I asked another to that same person (I have no idea who any of these people are), she giggled and backed up from the front of the group. I tried to be polite, but put my recorder back in my pocket, said thanks, and bolted over to Coach Johnson to find out what the hell was going on.
I got over there, and the look on her face was a combination of panic and apology. I ran the same "Hi coach! I'm Neal Coolong" line on her, and she just said "I'm really sorry, I should have said something."
I laughed, and asked what, exactly, I'm up against here, reminding her all I need to do is get Jenny's and Marcia's thoughts on the playoffs and the season and all that."
The coach responded, "Well..."
As I waited for further explanation, I realized the coach-like figure was power-walking toward me.
It was as if I was being recorded, or hazed or something, but the coach-like figure yells out, as if to announce her presence, "we're co-coaches!" as she strode toward us.
The coach just backed away, leaving me to deal with the power-hungry lunatic. I was too smart, though, to just head back to my car and find something else to write about. I stayed and continued to battle.
"Look, I drove down here, I've already been here longer than I needed to be, and your practice is about to start. I just want to talk to Jenny and Marcia, I'll take two minutes of your time, no more, I swear."
"But you just talked to the team!"
"I don't want to talk to the team, I want to talk to two players. Is this going to happen or not?"
"You can talk to the co-coach."
I became visibly upset, and as I started walking toward the car, I let her know the newspaper doesn't acknowledge a co-coach, and if it's going to be this difficult to get access to its players, the newspaper isn't going to acknowledge the team, either.
I went back to my car and unloaded the whole story on my editor. I told him I wasn't going to run anything at all. He talked me off the ledge, and I did eventually write it, but not without mentioning both coaches in the article.
The head coach and the "co-coach." Yes, I used quotations.
I've decided against writing the tongue-in-cheek story using "co-starter" Mike Wallace and starter Emmanuel Sanders, but two points here are important.
The co-designation is completely pointless and contradictory to the concept of there being one starter at each position. The fact Steelers coach Mike Tomlin went to the extreme of creating a useless label for his embattled wide receiver suggests the team's opinion is much of the same of the rest of ours.
He cannot bench Mike Wallace, but he can publicly humiliate him, and force him to answer questions about being the "co-starter" after the team's Week 13 game at Baltimore. If Wallace goes off for nine catches, 151 yards and a touchdown, the media will bash Tomlin for the stupidity of such a tactic.
More importantly, we'll debate the merits of such a motivational ploy, drawing on experience in our own lives of motivating employees, kids, friends, classmates, etc.
But most importantly, we're about to see what kind of testicular fortitude Wallace has. Anyone with a shred of pride knows Tomlin did something he doesn't do often - he called out his heart.
How Wallace responds to it will directly affect where and for how much money he makes next year.