Conspiracy Theories & Confirmation Bias: How We Got It All Wrong

Now that the Texas Longhorns' coaching search - at least, the search for the head coach - is winding down with the hiring of Charlie Strong, it seems a good time to reflect back on the past 2+ months of insanity that gripped the Longhorn fanbase. One could argue this delusional merry go-round began in Provo, where Mack Brown's "This is Our Year!" bandwagon started shedding passengers faster than a ValuJet flight over the Everglades. With every Taysom Hill gallop, the agents for all the head coaches in the country started smiling a little bigger until their collective erection could be used as an emergency slide for the International Space Station. When Texas was gashed by Ole Miss & Mack had to shatter the "Break in Case of Manny Diaz" glass containing his GERG-sized emergency parachute, it was only natural that the speculation intensified into not only "is Mack done?" but also "who will replace him?".

None of this is unusual in and of itself, coaching changes happen every year at schools all over the country. What is unusual is the school involved: Texas is not any other school. With the revenue Texas generates, the Longhorn Network(available somewhere within 300 miles of you, probably!), the enormous fanbase, and the deep pockets likely to be involved in hiring a coach, the circus was coming to town and it was going to be enormous. And just like every circus, it needed carnies promising fantastic rides to anyone who paid for a ticket. The various Texas 'insider' sites all played their role in promoting these rides, each with their own narrative that they swore was the insideriest of them all, and they all said something different. These are the names I personally saw as 'the favorite' at one point in time:

Nick Saban
Jon Gruden
Jim Harbaugh
John Harbaugh
Charlie Strong
Nick Saban
Larry Fedora
Nick Saban
Pete Carroll
Mike Tomlin
Gus Malzahn
Bill O'Brien
Nick Saban
Urban Meyer
Nick Saban
James Franklin
Jim Mora
Jimbo Fisher
According to Jim(I might have made that one up)

There may have been more I didn't see, but this list alone shows a slice of the kind of names being thrown around by supposed 'insiders' who are paid to report on these kinds of things. It didn't end there, either; the financial numbers being thrown around by these sites for some of the coaches were just as outlandish. Most of them were attached to the White Whale aka Nick Saban - where I read everything from 10 years/$100 mil up to & including speculative oil deals that would 'make him whole' from (also alleged) bad real estate deals - but it wasn't hard to find contract offers to Fisher/Malzahn/Harbaugh that were $7-8 mil/year, either. Add on reports of wives touring/buying Austin homes, VIP security details on the 40 Acres, supposed sightings at Austin-area golf courses, and illicit meetings between coaches & guys like Red McCombs - again, not from random Internet posters but from people who are paid to vet these things - and the amount of unsubstantiated bullshit was as impressive as it was appalling. Hell, I haven't even mentioned the alleged tug of war between Powers & Patterson over Mack & the White Whale. It's frankly stunning to go back & recount the various stories that have floated out over the Longhorn Interwebs in the past 90 days.

And you know what? I bought into some of it. I thought Saban was coming to Texas, despite my best attempts to avoid confirmation bias & the echo chamber that is Texas football reporting. The Saban narrative included the AP confirming a long-whispered rumor(which, if we're being honest, was something one of the 'insider' sites nailed) that Texas boosters had reached out to the White Whale at the end of last season & he showed some interest. It's one of the few rumors that had an actual paper trail, a tangible piece of evidence to hang onto for the more skeptical amongst us. That's why I fell for the narrative despite it being a literally unprecedented coaching move in the history of the NCAA. (If somebody can find evidence of a college coach with multiple NCs at a top-5 school leaving for another college job without being fired or spending a stint in the NFL, please enlighten me because I haven't found it.) There's an allure to the narratives; they're enticing and they've got the requisite amount of truthiness to appeal to our innate desire to make every random event fit into an orderly reality.

The problems with most gossip 'insider' information are two-fold, 1) there's usually only a kernel of truth involved & 2) the source of this information has their own reason for passing the nugget along. As our esteemed colleague W.W.McClyde - he used to be a reporter, you may have heard him mention it - loves to say, everybody has an agenda. This is one of the basic truths of reporting: people rarely tell you anything just for the sake of telling you. They stand to gain something by handing you this information; it could be any number of things from financial rewards to status enhancement to altering the outcome of a fluid situation. It's safe to say that a number of the 'insiders' are relying on information from a combination of agents, boosters, and their hangers-on, which would make sense if you're trying to find out what's going on behind the scenes. The flip side of that coin is that these are the same people who stand to gain or lose the most by a particular narrative being pushed, so if you're one of the writers for you need to guard against somebody pushing a narrative on you. This is where these sites have failed repeatedly over the last couple of months.

The specific reasons why each writer failed - be it incompetence, apathy, complicity, or some combination therein - is secondary to the source of the collective failure of this market to gain the credibility they so desire. (I don't mean to imply it's immaterial, but the purpose of this post is not to call out specific writers; I'm not here for scalps.) There has been a sea change in this particular market over the past couple of years. There have always been rumor mongers online, sites that would hand over every random piece of informational detritus they heard no matter how unlikely it seemed. There have also always been sites that were mouthpieces for various factions in the Texas sports landscape. The change is that they are now the rule rather than the exception. Sites that previously would hold off on posting anything before they could verify the veracity of their information are now hammering out notes full of allegedly 'confirmed' anecdotes that seems just as unlikely as the sites that were considered mouthpieces only a couple of years ago. It's as if most of the writers involved in this endeavor have turned off their information filters in favor of opening up the firehose.

Why have they done this? Because it's profitable. Because we devour it. Because as much as we hate to admit it, we're all entranced by the junior high rumor mill bullshit. We want to hear which Hobby Lobby Terry Saban is buying her macrame patterns from because JUST WAIT UNTIL I TELL EVERYBODY ABOUT IT ON TWITTER. We enable this behavior with our subscription fees, and we enable it when we openly root for one site & trash talk the others, essentially turning the various 'insider' sites into yet another field of battle with 2 teams to root for/against. We're feeding the beast, myself included.

This phenomenon isn't without precedent. The 'insider' sites are following the same well-worn path blazed by other news media. Even though it was about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the scrotum in making its point, 'Anchorman 2' hits the nail on the head when it shows the devolution of media from thoughtful reporting to its current form. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the 'insider' sites have devolved into being mouthpieces for various factions(I'll let others decide who is Fox News, MSNBC, & Infowars), I just wish it wasn't that way. The writers for these sites - assuming they aren't content to pass along whatever they're told to print - would be well-served spending a little time in February taking a hard look at everything they reported during this coaching search & analyzing where they missed, why they missed, and how they can avoid it in the future.

If you were led down a specific (and clearly incorrect) path by their sources, perhaps it's time to take advice from noted financial guru, GZA and diversify your sources. I'm not expecting any writer to be right 100% of the time, with a situation as fluid as this one there are going to be misses. What I am expecting - and what I'm willing to PAY for - is a site with writers who can sift through the agendas & find the reality of the situation at a given point in time. This isn't an easy task, I understand that. That's why I'm willing to spend my money supporting those who can demonstrate their ability to consistently cut through the bullshit to the heart of the situation. I can get ridiculous rumors & off-the-wall conspiracies for free from Twitter; what I'll pay for is analysis, even if it is a bit slower than the other sites. I may be in the minority in valuing substance & quality over immediacy & quantity; this may be the clarion call of an endangered species. It doesn't make it any less disappointing that the niche of reporting I used to thoroughly enjoy is losing ground to TMZ-style rumor mills.

Be excellent to each other.

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