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October 3, 2007
Coaches taking measures to ensure security
Coaches love the phrase "control what you can control," which can apply to work ethic, effort and preparation.
Increasingly falling into that category is keeping tabs on who watches practice, what injury news is available for public consumption and which players or assistant coaches can talk to the media.
Coaches are more likely than ever to build a wall between their programs and the outside world. The rationale is that this level of secrecy keeps unwanted eyes off the team and prevents too much information from leaking to opponents, a necessity in a climate where any piece of information can spread over the Internet in minutes.
"Caution" – some may call it "paranoia" – is the word of the day, and a look at events over the past several weeks is a reminder of why some coaches are concerned about prying eyes.
"One thing that has made coaches more aware or concerned is all the stuff can be on an Internet site right away," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "I think that scares people quite a bit, whether it's an injury deal or something going on. That's probably made people a little more paranoid."
Who is watching?
It's not only the media watching practice that causes headaches for coaches. Months before the New England Patriots were caught illegally filming the New York Jets' defensive signals, new University of Miami coach Randy Shannon noticed someone with a video camera in the parking garage near the Hurricanes' practice field. The Hurricanes suspected that person was spying after detailed practice reports surfaced on the Web.
"A person can be sitting at practice and with a BlackBerry send the information immediately," said former Baylor coach Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, an organization of football coaches at all levels. "It just goes with the times. It's something coaches have to look for and decide how they're going to handle."
Though coaches have concerns that the wrong people are watching, there have been no complaints turned into the AFCA ethics committee about anyone in college football doing what the Patriots did, Teaff said.
"I don't think that has been prevalent in any way," he said. "I have not heard anything in that light. I don't think that is much an issue as much as 'loose lips sink ships.' "
Coaches' concerns about spying, though, didn't start in recent years. Teaff, who coached at Baylor from 1972-92, remembers "indications" that a bowl opponent might have known what the Bears worked on in open practices. Teaff closed subsequent bowl practices for the remainder of his tenure.
Former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, too, knows something about closed practices and secrecy. During his 17-season tenure in Manhattan, Snyder was as adept at protecting information about his program as he was at building it into a league power.
Snyder got an early look at what an open practice could mean when he was a graduate assistant under John McKay at USC in 1966. With workouts open to whomever wanted to come by, major donors, movie stars and others would show up to watch practice.
"I see that it's somewhat a distraction to players," Snyder said. "Players are saying 'There's John Wayne' or whoever it happens to be. It took their focus away from practice."
Years later, when Snyder served as offensive coordinator for Hayden Fry at Iowa, Snyder remembered staffers finding a man with binoculars, a tape recorder and a notepad perched in a water tower overlooking the Hawkeyes' practice field. Iowa officials couldn't capture the onlooker but were able to take down his license-plate number as he sped away. They later found the tag belonged to a former coach who still was affiliated with one of Iowa's upcoming opponents.
When Snyder took over at Kansas State in 1989, he closed nearly every Wildcats practice, an unusual move at the time. He hoped by keeping the media out, what he considered sensitive information would stay inside the program.
"Coaches have people that bring information off the Web sites and get everything out of the newspapers," Snyder said. "The information, if it's made available to somebody, it will get someplace else. That's the feeling an awful lot of coaches have.
"The bottom line is if you close your practices, you're safe but not sorry."
Not all are closed
Not all programs are fortresses, though. Practices are open at 15 BCS-conference schools, the Football Writers Association of America directory shows. But many of those 15 bar opponents' media from attending practice.
OUT IN THE OPEN
The following 15 BCS programs conduct practices open to the media. Many require media members to sign in or bar opponents' media from watching practice during a game week.
Oregon State is an exception. The Beavers allow everybody – media, pro scouts, fans – to attend practice every day, although Riley has closed practices during preparation for rival Oregon from time to time.
"There are loyal fans that come every day; I'd hate to exclude them from that opportunity," Riley said. "I think our media has handled our open practice tremendously well. I think they have a good idea of the guidelines professionally of what to do. I don't feel that I've been burned by that. I like it for our players. I think it can absolutely add enthusiasm to the day."
But Corvallis hardly is a big media market. The nearest out-of-state Pac-10 opponent is Washington, which is 256 miles away from Oregon State's campus.
USC, on the other hand, is in one of the biggest media markets and shares the city with its top conference rival, UCLA. Yet both schools open practices to local and national media.
"If I thought someone was taking information out of here, then we'd throw them out," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "I'm not paranoid about it. I'd hate to have someone filming our practice or watching our practice the day before and seeing what we're running. But for the most part, I have absolutely no concern about it.
"I think that's highly overrated worrying about that."
Maybe it's a West Coast thing. Of the 15 programs with open practice, seven are from the Pac-10. As a comparison, one SEC program, Vanderbilt, opens practice to the media on a daily basis.
If a program doesn't close practice completely, it may open it for the 15 to 30 minutes the team spends on individual drills or stretching. During that time, media members can get photographs or video of players jogging or stretching, can check attendance and look for injuries – but little else.
"When you get to the team things, whether you're a pro scout or media guy or whoever you are, that's when you want your practices closed," Beamer said. "Individual stuff, that's not a big deal. When you get to team situations, that's when you'd prefer to have everyone out of practices."
Injury reports not always perfect
With the majority of practices closed, the media is dependent on coaches for injury information. "Day-to-day," "probable," "questionable," "doubtful" and "out" are instantly recognizable phrases in the football lexicon, thanks to the NFL's mandated weekly injury reports. College football injury reports are not nearly as uniform, although most coaches address injuries in some fashion.
The NFL's injury policy attempts to guard against "inside" injury information being funneled to gamblers. The NCAA has no such policy, and coaches are in no hurry to ask for one.
"I don't care about it being standardized in college football. Even in the NFL, it's not foolproof," said Carroll, a former NFL coach whose team includes an injury update in its weekly news release. "Why do we have to report injuries? I don't think we should have to report anything. Who needs that information?"
About a dozen Texas A&M boosters, presumably.
Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione two weeks ago ceased sending a newsletter to big-money boosters willing to pay $1,200 annually for Franchione's thoughts on the Aggies. The "VIP Connection" newsletter included candid assessments of players and injury news. Franchione had declined to discuss injury news with the media, citing privacy laws.
He told reporters he doesn't believe any inside information from the newsletter was used to gamble. Still, if the coach of a major university can pass protected injury information to boosters, what is stopping a student manager or even a player from selling information to gamblers?
An NCAA survey in 2004 found 5 percent of Division I football players had been involved in gambling-related behavior that could jeopardize themselves and their sport, which includes being asked to share inside information. In response to the findings, NCAA president Myles Brand said the "risk is real" that the integrity of the game could be compromised.
Still, the NCAA said it's not considering any type of formal injury-report system.
"A variety of releases and hurdles necessary because of privacy laws that would have to be cleared before the NCAA would ever be allowed to do this," NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Kearns said in an e-mail. "It is unlikely that the NCAA membership would authorize the national office to compile and release that type of information."
Without any of these requirements, injury news can be tough to come by because few teams release injury reports in their pre-game notes. Some that don't cite federal privacy laws that they say prevents them from disclosing medical reports. And even if coaches report injuries, they don't necessarily have to be truthful or forthcoming.
After LSU's victory over Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 15, some reporters noticed Tigers starting quarterback Matt Flynn favoring his ankle. He later wore a protective boot over the same ankle. In the days leading up to the next game against South Carolina, some Louisiana papers ran a story quoting Flynn's father about the injury.
Miles, who said information such as this is "a tremendous advantage for your opponent," wasn't pleased. He urged journalists to report injuries only as he described them.
"I think if you would review your own personal stance at how you report injuries – if it comes out of my mouth, you use it," Miles told reporters. "I would encourage you to see it my way. You should be respectful of the team you cover."
Snyder agrees injury news is an advantage for an opponent. After all, he wants opponents' injury information, too. A report on a quarterback's bum shoulder, for instance, could mean he will be limited in the throws he can make.
Snyder rarely shared injury news with the media; he said it was to protect his team's strategy and to prevent his players from being targeted. He took this policy so far that during a victory over Texas A&M in 1997, he ordered 22 players and trainers to form a shield around star quarterback Michael Bishop as team doctors worked on his injured ankle. The purpose of the shield? To keep TV cameras from seeing what was going on.
And even if a coach decides to release an injury report, there's no requirement that it be truthful or accurate.
Colorado has run a pro-style injury report in its weekly release since the 1980s, making the Buffaloes one of the few programs to put in writing the injury status of its players. The injury report goes from the trainers to the sports information department and into the release, though the Buffaloes refrain from being too specific on the injured body part. Colorado will report an "arm injury," for example, but not say if it's the left or right arm.
When Snyder was coaching Kansas State, though, CU made an exception. Snyder didn't reveal injury information, so neither did Colorado. Once, in place of the Buffaloes' injury report during K-State week, the CU sports information office distributed a phony injury report made up of movie characters – "Vito Corleone, gunshot wounds, doubtful."
Wake Forest also releases injury reports in its pre-game notes, which are released on Mondays. Although injury news is available for anyone to read, coach Jim Grobe said he doesn't feel his players have been targeted or his team negatively affected.
"I've never seen a benefit of being secretive about that stuff," Grobe said. "Most of our game-plan things don't hinge around players so much as what the other team does. We just have never been to the point where we tried to be deceptive or hide injuries. We never saw any benefit in that."
Speaking with one voice
When you control the messenger, you can control the message.
That's the basic tenet of the "one voice" policy employed by several coaches.
It's the reason Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, a former head coach, or Virginia secondary coach Steve Bernstein, a 64-year-old coaching veteran of 38 years, or Kansas State defensive line coach Mo Lattimore, who has spent 23 years of his coaching career in Manhattan, rarely see their words in print.
Following a policy handed down through the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick coaching tree, coaches Nick Saban at Alabama, Al Groh at Virginia and Ron Prince at Kansas State employ it at their programs. Saban is a former Belichick assistant, Groh has worked under Parcells and Prince is Groh's former offensive coordinator at Virginia.
In explaining the "one voice" policy, Groh recalled reading a story about another program this season where an offensive coordinator was critical of his unit in a newspaper article. To Groh, only the head coach should address those issues in the media.
"Scraps of stories don't get out there," Groh said. "It eliminates different layers of information. We think everybody here is on board with the same philosophy and everything is very cohesive, yet everyone is going to express things differently. Sometimes mixed messages get out, which probably isn't good for the program or betterment of the program or any organization for that matter."
How did it come to this?
Media members once traveled with the teams they covered to road games and had close relationships with coaches. Now, news organizations pay their own way on road trips, reporters keep what they think is a healthy distance from those they cover and the media is more likely to scrutinize what goes on inside a college football program.
Blame the media. Blame the Internet. Blame the pressure to perform on Saturday. All have done their part to contribute to the bunker mentality.
"Everybody has a job to do and that job has been defined a little bit differently in the last several years," Teaff said. "Part of the aggressive, investigative type of reporting has taken place. … (The media) started paying their own way. They weren't in anyway beholden to an institution."
As a result, some would say media members have become more cynical and negative. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, for instance, remembers a more sympathetic press corps when he first arrived in Tallahassee in 1976.
"It seems like we have more and more of that (cynicism)," Bowden said. "But that's the way our society is going … and that's the way the editorial pages and other parts of the paper are going. That's a big change from when I first got here. When I first got here, we had a writer … that defended us. You don't get that defense much anymore."
Arizona State's Dennis Erickson, in his 19th season as a college head coach, calls himself old-school. He said he never has closed a practice in his career. If someone wants to spy on a practice, the self-deprecating Erickson joked they "probably know more than me."
Chances are, though, his successor won't be so open.
"People are a little bit more guarded because things have changed in the press and so forth," Erickson said. "All I can do is speak for myself, but I think people are being a little too cautious."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.