The article in the University Daily Kansan ran on Sept. 11, 2008, just a few months before the United States elected Barack Obama to be its president, and a full semester before I graduated from college. But the story behind The Coaching Tree, the worst graphic illustration in the history of college newspapers, actually dates back another four months.
The story is one of ineptitude and laziness and a marvelous serendipity that would only take place on a college campus. It is also pretty hilarious. In nearly 12 years of working at newspapers, both in college and after, I’ve never stumbled upon a funnier story. I’ve witnessed a helpless intern compile a wire roundup (a small batch of notes) where she surmised that former NBA guard Sergio Rodriguez was going to go play soccer for Real Madrid. (Spoiler: He wasn’t; he had signed with the Real Madrid basketball team). I watched a college reporter show up to a Bill Self press conference after a victory over a non-conference team in November and inexplicably open the questioning with an inquiry into the talents of Baylor. I have seen many mistakes, both humorous and not so much, and many errors, and yet I have never seen something quite like The Coaching Tree.
I don’t mean to oversell it, of course. But you’ll see. But first, let’s start at the beginning. It was May of 2008, and I was working as a KU basketball beat writer at the Daily Kansan, the student newspaper at the state school. Unlike some college newspapers, the UDK was entirely student run. We had one news advisor, an adjunct professor who critiqued our work each day. But that was pretty much it. Everything in the paper, from the stories to the editing to the headlines and the design, was all the work of students.
On one hand, this is the way it should be. You learn by doing. You make your own way. You learn from your own mistakes. The product takes on a student voice.
On the other, it led to quite a few hilarious disasters. The stories were often rushed. The design team was limited. The typos and errors were not always caught.
As a student who grew up reading newspapers like The Star and The New York Times, it was often frustrating. Our paper was ugly — unless one of the good designers was working that night. The stories could be great. They could also just suck.
There was, however, one saving grace. Each semester, the juniors and seniors in the “Advanced Reporting” class would spend months on a final project. There was oversight and advice from a professor. There was planning and design. There was often months of painstaking research and reporting.
As a result, there was a glorious two-week stretch at the end of the semester in which the final projects would run. So for two weeks before finals, the UDK transformed from a hapless enterprise to a fine-tuned machine of hard-hitting and interesting in-depth stories. As a journalism nerd, it was fun.
So back to that May. I was not in advanced reporting that semester, but all around the newsroom there had been rumors of a particularly juicy story. One of our editors, a strong reporter named Darla, had unearthed a story of an evolutionary biology professor who had been inaccurately claiming to be a Comanche Indian. Darla had spent months on the story, and it was potentially explosive—well, relatively speaking. The student newspaper was holding a professor accountable for lies. It seemed big.
The details of the particulars are now a little hazy. But for weeks, Darla had attempted to get a comment from the professor. She had documentation. She had other sources. But the professor had gone silent. He did not want to be found. He did not want to talk. Finally — and I cannot remember if this was before or after the original story ran in print — he gave in and emailed. Still, it was not much.
In the end, the story did not do much. If there was any blowback on campus, I don’t remember it. The professor kept his job. He remained quiet. He never talked.
And quite inexplicably, the most explosive story in recent Kansan history had come with two rather hilarious issues. 1. The design of the story was quite boring. Because there was only a mugshot of the professor, there was no photo with the story. It was simply stripped atop the front page. It was easy to miss. 2. And even worse, the designer forgot to add the reporter’s byline to the story and no editors noticed. (Yes, the byline! The “game-changing” investigative piece ran with no byline. As I said, we made a lot of mistakes.)
So then came the summer, followed by another school year. I was entering my senior year of college then and had moved into the sports editor role at the newspaper. My friend, Mark, was a managing editor. Another friend, Andrew, was the assistant sports editor. A third friend, Matt, was editor-in-chief.
The role of sports editor involved coordinating the coverage of all the fall sports. The primary responsibility was overseeing the coverage of the football team, which, at the time, didn’t quite suck as it does now. We would employ two KU football writers and they would write stories most days. We’d generally talk in the morning and finalize the plan by the early afternoon.
That year, KU was coming off a victory in the Orange Bowl. And in early December, the team had a rather important non-conference road tilt against South Florida, a team coached by a man named Jim Leavitt. If you follow college football, you probably know that Jim Leavitt was once an assistant coach at Kansas State under Bill Snyder. You probably also know that KU’s coach then, Mark Mangino, was also an assistant at K-State in the 1990s. If not, I will say this: Our reporter, Taylor, certainly knew this. And he opted for a story on that Friday about how Leavitt and Mangino both had roots in the same coaching tree.
This was, of course, quite an obvious story line. But it was the kind of thing you might see in a college newspaper. In addition to Mangino and Leavitt, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Arizona coach Mike Stoops, his brother, had also been assistants at K-State. This was the story.
So on a Thursday morning, Taylor comes through the newsroom and explains what he plans to write. A few hours later, I pull a designer aside:
“OK, so Taylor is writing about these coaches and how they come from the same coaching tree,” I say*. “So we need, like, this illustrated in some way.”
*This is not what I actually said. But it was close.
This, I believe, is the only instruction I offered. I left the newsroom maybe an hour later and probably went to a bar that night. I woke up the next morning and stumbled onto campus, looking for a copy of the paper. And this, in all its glory, was waiting for me:
OK, so where to start? Well, for one, the designer had taken my instructions quite literally. There was a tree. A large tree. An odd looking tree at that. How come no limbs are hanging down?
There was also, as my friend Mark reminds, an even more egregious problem on the front page of the newspaper. It was Sept. 11, the seventh anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, and there was no mention of it in the newspaper. The centerpiece story on the front page was about a student who had tried every flavor at a local place called Tad’s Shaved Ice. But there was also the tree. Back to the tree. Let’s inspect what’s going on here.
1. That’s a K-State logo at the top. I guess that’s supposed to represent Bill Snyder. Remember, he is the start of this tree. Yet he is at the top. So … moving on.
2. Below that are photos of Bob Stoops, Jim Leavitt and Mark Mangino, living in the tree like the Swiss Family Robinson. This looks very weird. But not quite inaccurate!
3. Next, there’s a Nebraska logo at the bottom. I’m not sure why. By my recollection, there was no mention of Nebraska in this story.
4. And finally, there’s an Arizona logo in the bottom corner. This apparently is there to represent Mike Stoops, who had also been an assistant at Oklahoma before taking over as the head coach at Arizona. In reality, it was perfection.
So I don’t exactly remember what happened next. I know we laughed our asses off in the newsroom. I know the reporter, Taylor, was furious. I know we discussed the particular issues in our usual morning meeting.
But mostly, I remember one thing: That afternoon, Matt, the editor-in-chief, came walking into the newsroom. He had just gotten an email about the coaching tree. It was from a professor named Ray — yes, the same one who had been outed as a liar the previous spring and then was never heard from again.
It began like this:
“I’m emailing about the image of the coaching tree in the newspaper this morning. I just want to say it did not make sense on a number of levels.”
Fantastic! As a UDK veteran from the olden days of the late ’70s I can totally see this happening in just about any era. We had an editorial cartoonist at the time who once did an illustration for a column about misdeeds in the football program that included an image of a fanged football with two stick-like arms holding pennants. When we told him it looked like a flying hamburger he got pissed. What did your designer say when people starting laughing about the tree?