During his 29 years covering Bradley athletics, Peoria Journal Star reporter Dave Reynolds can recall "many, many times" when he was the only journalist at a Braves game.
He was there when Bradley played in the Sweet 16 in 2006. He also was there during ugly 12-, seven- and five-win seasons.
Now Bradley is preparing for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years, thanks its Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship last weekend. Time for the program to bask in the glory of this accomplishment, right? But what does Bradley do?
Well, Reynolds' fair and objective reporting apparently insulted the thin-skinned Braves, and they decided to stage a vendetta against a long-time, well-respected local reporter. When Reynolds showed up Friday to report on the Braves' tournament preparation -- an undeniably feel-good occasion -- Bradley was as petty as a scorned teenager, telling Reynolds it was denying him access because he didn't "promote the Bradley brand."
"It's way beyond a small-town squabble between coach and beat writer," Reynolds told the Tribune on Saturday. "This touches everybody. It's like you're banning every newspaper in the country."
On Saturday, a day after the Journal Star reported the rift and Bradley received national backlash on social media, the athletic department lifted the ban and issued a statement: "The Bradley Athletics staff appreciates the importance of having a media presence presenting fair and accurate coverage. We recognize that the media is not responsible for promoting the Bradley brand and that was never our expectation. We did not handle this situation appropriately and for that we apologize."
University president Gary Roberts also issued a statement Saturday, noting that Bradley institutionally does not believe media should promote the school.
But the damage to Bradley's reputation has been cemented. The Braves unnecessarily painted themselves in a negative light far more than any story Reynolds has written.
Here's some advice: When you're trying to become Cinderella, don't behave like an evil stepsister. A midmajor program can't buy advertising like it receives by making the NCAA Tournament.
Just look at Loyola's 2018 Final Four season.
The Ramblers received a boost in admissions and donations and earned a national reputation as an endearing, easy-to-root-for program. A good reason why is because coach Porter Moser and the athletic department had the foresight -- and common sense -- to recognize and capitalize on the opportunity.
Moser swung open the doors to reporters for access so the nation could learn about his likable players, his coaching philosophies and the university.
Bradley did the opposite.
Coach Brian Wardle, a Hinsdale Central graduate, has accused Reynolds of being too negative before. Bradley removed Reynolds' email address from its media distribution list that advised about access weeks before the MVC Tournament.
I've looked through Reynolds' clips, and by all accounts, he's fair. The Braves lost their first five conference games this season. They probably deserved harsher criticism than Reynolds delivered at the time.
Reynolds said he and Wardle have sparred through the years, but the coach took particular exception to an overwhelming/y positive story about fan support because it mentioned some online comments calling for his job. The program, Reynolds said, also didn't like a story in which he wrote that the locker room wasn't overly joyous after a narrow victory against Evansville -- a game the Braves were expected to win easily.
Wardle recently complained about the Journal Star's coverage on Doug Gottlieb's national radio show. Reynolds said he appealed to Wardle in a text message.
"I think he's a good coach. I think he's a smart guy," Wardle said. "I told him, 'The story was all supportive of you. ... This doesn't serve anybody, your fans who are my readers. They want to know about the team. They don't care about a feud between you and me. They want to hear about their team. Can we move past this? You guys have done something great.'"
Wardle didn't respond, and at the first media availability after the MVC Tournament championship game, Reynolds was told he wasn't welcome because he doesn't "promote the Bradley brand."
In an era in which media distrust is high and the White House calls reporters "enemies of the people," what is Bradley teaching its students about free speech and the role of the press? Silence the media.
What is Wardle teaching his student-athletes about being able to handle criticism -- or ignore it -- and focus?
Every sports reporter has had tense moments with a coach who didn't like what he or she wrote. (Interestingly, it's usually during losing streaks.) But it typically blows over. Coaches, like reporters, need to have thick skin.
Reynolds praised the Bradley players when we spoke, calling them "good citizens and good students." They've been accommodating.
He wants to tell their stories. That's what good reporters do.
More than anything, he said, he felt bad for the Journal Star readers who have come to the paper for decades to read about the Braves.
"They're getting shafted," he said. "People pay money for the paper and go online to read about Bradley, particularly this time of year. I just don't understand."
It was an inexplicable, self-defeating, petty move by Bradley.
Reynolds assumes he'll cover the Braves in the NCAA Tournament, at which teams can't dictate access. He hopes it's without tension.
A good way for Bradley to rectify the situation would be to apologize to Reynolds publicly and privately. Going forward, the Braves should simply allow him to do his job.