For Mingo et al, 'Honey Badger' could haunt NFL combine

by Walter Pierce

Seemingly every NFL team at the annual scouting combine will ask LSU prospects about their relationship with former college teammate Tyrann Mathieu.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Barkevious Mingo is ready for questions he will face this weekend in Indianapolis.

Seemingly every NFL team at the annual scouting combine will ask about his relationship with former college teammate Tyrann Mathieu and whether he ever hung out with the troubled cornerback.

The answers could make as much difference in Mingo living up to his projection as a first-round draft pick as his time in the 40-yard dash. So the LSU star has left nothing to chance, carving out time to prepare for the 15-minute interviews.

"It's one thing that all the guys that came out from LSU are going to face," Mingo said during a telephone interview. "We know what kind of guy he was and we're always going to be there for him."

Interview training has become an essential component for draft hopefuls. Most, if not all, of the 333 players expected to arrive in Indy for the combine have been instructed in how to answer coaches and general managers properly.

This year, the questions run the gamut.

Running back Marcus Lattimore is trying to prove he can return from a gruesome knee injury. Mathieu, a cornerback, and Da'Rick Rogers, a receiver, both were booted off the teams they intended to play for last fall after failing drug tests. Linebacker Alec Ogletree will have to answer for a series of problems that included a suspension for violating team rules early last season, and linebacker Manti Te'o will likely contend with the girlfriend hoax all over again. And those are just the big-name guys.

Lee Gordon, a former television anchor, runs a training program for Athletes Performance, whose client list includes Mingo and Lattimore. His advice: Be appealing, believable and accentuate the positive.

"We tell them up front that coaching you on this is similar to tackling techniques and the things you do on the field, but you have to be yourself," Gordon said. "You can't be fake or people will see right through it. What we do is give them a chance to see the media and the (team) interviews as a business opportunity."

Obviously, the advice deviates greatly from player to player.

For instance, Gordon suggested Lattimore explain to teams that he will be ready on opening day, if that's what he truly believes, and to provide supporting medical evidence to prove it.

Some don't need as much training as others, though everyone seems to benefit. UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin, another of Gordon's clients, worked as an intern in the Los Angeles mayor's office and filmed a teen reality show in which he was depicted as a role model for inner-city children. Going through this program, though, gave Franklin a different perspective on how to handle things in Indy.

"In the mayor's office, it's more about helping people and saying things to give people hope where you help them believe things are going to happen. Sometimes it takes time. So in the mayor's office, you have to speak more patiently," Franklin said. "Here, you have to be more aggressive and more hands on and let them know you're going to be the man."

All this coaching has made things infinitely more difficult for the teams to sort out.

Over the years, Bill Polian, the architect of four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and two in Indianapolis, grew so wary of these "coached" answers that he changed the way the Colts did business. Instead of asking the questions himself or having other front office personnel or coaches conduct interviews, Polian used a psychologist who could immediately tell the difference between honest answers and scripted ones. If the person believed the answers had been programmed, the order of the questions changed.

Even today, Polian is skeptical that teams will get the answers needed to make the right choices.

"I wouldn't put any stock into the answers they give you. You know it's spin. I'm not saying they're not being truthful, but you have to go through it and figure it out for yourself," he said when asked about the responses from players with drug issues or criminal allegations in their past.

He later added: "It's not like what most people would think of a job interview. Here you have agents and advisers involved, and the agent's idea is 'Let me give you as little information as possible about this kid until the draft.'"

Breaking down that information is entirely up to the teams, and that's not the only thing that has changed about the combine.

Over the past decade, NFL officials have moved media interviews from hotel hallways to podiums. Hundreds of reporters are now credentialed to cover the event as opposed to the dozens who used to show up 15 years ago, a scene Te'o might have to contend with this weekend for the first time since the hoax story broke.

This year, the league will introduce a new measuring tool -- the NFL Player Assessment Test, which has been billed as a compliment to the Wonderlic intelligence test. Polian described it as more of a personality test than a psychological examination but acknowledged most teams have been examining the personality traits of draft hopefuls for years.

What else is different?

The lessons Gordon gives on social media, the same medium that turned Te'o from a national inspiration into a national punch line.

"What we do is have interns go find out who we'll be working with and try to friend them, and usually about 85 percent of them will say yes," Gordon said. "We'll tell them we're all real people with real pictures and then we'll show them how easy it is to get access to their life and their world. We'll tell them that people are truly disguising themselves as other people, and if you don't know them to defriend them because regardless of who it is, these people can see your pictures and all that stuff. We explain that these NFL guys, they know everything. So we tell them to clean it up before it's too late."

And he does mean everything.

While the stories of Mathieu, Ogletree and others have been well-documented over the past year, it's not just those players who will face questioning this weekend.

"I've been asked that already," Mingo said. "He knows he messed up, he made it harder on himself. He'll be prepared for it (the questions)."

Just like all the other pro prospects this weekend.