A GRIP ON SPORTS
Do you like Madden football? Do you like the way you can control the computer players, make them go exactly where you want, run the right pattern, hit the correct hole? If you do, you would make a great football coach. Read on.
• Yesterday afternoon the news broke from the University of Washington the school's football program was instituting a change in its practice rules. Would the players be wearing different jerseys? Arriving earlier? Staying later? Nope, the changes were directed at the media. As a condition of being allowed to watch practice, the media had to agree to not report on strategy (something that's been an unwritten agreement for a while) and player injuries (a new element) observed during practice. Any violations of the rules could result in the reporter being banned from attending practices. The policy comes on the heels of USC banning L.A. Daily News reporter Scott Wulf after he reported the reason the Trojan kicker missed the Syracuse game was due to knee surgery (that ban was lifted Wednesday after a meeting between USC AD Pat Haden and sports editors of the local papers). Wolf didn't report the injury at practice (adhering to the Trojans' policy), he waited until the starting kicker didn't appear in a nationally televised game and then answered the basic journalism question of "why." With this situation hanging in the air, Washington announces its policy before the handful of media attending Wednesday's practice. In the discussion after the announcement, it became clear to the assembled reporters they would not be able to cover much of anything from practice anymore, because it might give the UW opponents a "competitive advantage," coach Steve Sarkisian's reason for changing the policy. For example, say Keith Price has a strained hamstring. To save the quarterback wear and tear, the Huskies use the backup with the first unit all practice while Price watches and helps. Can the reporters write about how well the backup practiced? Probably not, because that would beg the question of why Price was missing time. And answering that would violate the policy.
• Why should this matter to you? Let me be honest, when I was covering Washington State for the last five football seasons, my least favorite part of the gig was standing (or sitting if I could wrangle a chair) and watching football practice. Almost all of them featured the same drills, done at the same time by the same players. It was a bit like Groundhog Day without Andie MacDowell to brighten up the scenery. If the Cougars had moved indoors where no one could watch (as Oregon does) and we had to wait until after practice to talk with folks, I would have mumbled and groaned but really, I would have been fine with it. Heck, it would have meant a free eight hours or so a week, and when you are working 50 or 60 hours each week to cover a sport, any free time was appreciated. But being at practice meant I could keep you folks informed and that, at the crux of it, is the job. Reporters may get paid by their newspaper, but they are employed by you. My dad told me years ago the best reporters were the ones who understood that and let it guide their days. You can't be at practice, so I – and everyone else – was there for you. Simple. It's all about keeping you informed, whether it be about what street in your neighborhood is going to be paved next, how your tax money is being spent and what's happening with your favorite sports team. Now I understood there were certain elements of practice, mainly game strategies, that were considered background information. Watch and learn, so that your reporting would be better, but don't write about the fake-punt formation or the new end-around. I understood it, but I didn't agree with it. Why? Because WSU's practice facility was open for everyone to see. Even now, when Mike Leach has put up screens to keep those walking by from peering in – and further isolating the football experience from the rest of the student body (but that's a discussion for another time) – anyone can go to the top of library, to the stairs nearby or any of a number of spots and watch practice. If an opposing team is going to try to surreptitiously attempt to gain a "competitive advantage" from watching practice, they easily can. I'll give you an example of when that probably happened. Last season, WSU practiced a reverse pass occasionally, though didn't use it in a game. Weeks passed and though the play appeared once in a while during team elements of practice, the Cougars didn't use it. Until late in the season when they felt they needed to. Now remember, no one ever wrote a word about the play, it was never on film from a game and the guy who was going to throw the pass, Marquess Wilson, had never shown that he was capable of making the throw – outside of practice. So what happens? The players told me when they lined up for the play, the defense started yelling about a reverse pass. And when Wilson received the ball and attempted to throw, there were defenders in his face and the receivers were covered. How did they know what was coming? Not from reading the newspapers, that's for sure.
• Which gets us back to my main point today – alluded to at the top. These type of policies aren't really about any "competitive advantage." That's a smokescreen. Heck, USC's practices under Pete Carroll were open to everyone (that's Will Ferrell at a USC practice in the picture at right) and the Trojans won a lot of games without that "competitive advantage." No, it's about trying to assert control. Football is a game of control. Control the line of scrimmage. Control their passing game. Control mistakes. When coaches talk about execution, as in "we need to execute better," what they are really saying is the players need to do what they want them to do better. And that's fine. Learning to work together as a unit is important and a key element of the game. But not all things can be controlled and that bothers some guys. The ball bounces funny. The media writes stuff. And injuries happen. Should fans know about them? Many coaches think not, because if their fans know, then the opposing coaches know and that's not good. Of course, if putting some doubt in the opponent's mind can help come Saturday, then that's OK. See, they want to control the dissemination of such information to their benefit. And that's what they mean by "competitive advantage." But college football players and campuses are hard to control. Washington is trying to limit the reporting of injuries, but what happens when everyone in Montlake sees the starting linebacker on crutches as he heads to class? You don't think in this day and age such information isn't going to find it's way to a discussion board or the comments on some blog – and into the hands of the week's opponent? Sure it is. But the guy covering the team, trying to keep the fan in row 27 informed on what's happening, he won't be telling anyone. He's under control.
• What's the solution? The NFL has a mandatory report a couple days before the game, but that's a big business and we all know college football isn't big business. But if it is truly about some sort of advantage, then there should be some sort of conference-wide agreement (or even a national one) concerning the dissemination of the information. It shouldn't be all that hard to work out.
• Washington State: By the way, Leach doesn't talk about injuries, but there is no attempt at WSU to limit reporting of them. When Jeff Tuel didn't practice this week, everyone knew (and would have even in the Cougars had practiced indoors away from view, because news like that would leak out through social media, count on it). Armed with the knowledge Tuel was not practicing, Christian Caple took this look at backup Connor Halliday (above), who will probably make his second college start this week. ... Christian also held a live chat yesterday, which you can read here, and had a post-practice blog post. Then he put up this post and his football picking contest before heading to Vegas today. ... Christian has his Pac-12 picks for the week. There are more, of course, including the guys at ESPN.com and Jon Wilner's for the Mercury News. ... The Cougars missed out on a basketball recruit that had told them he would visit Pullman.
• Gonzaga: If Mark Few and the Bulldogs soon have to play against Jabari Parker at BYU for one or more years, Few might have to blame WSU's poor showing in their football opener. Parker, the nation's top recruit and a member of the LDS church, was at the game and now will have BYU coach Dave Rose in for a home visit. Cause and effect?
• EWU: Success can be hard to handle at times. In his Big Sky notebook, Jim Allen talks about the success Sacramento State has had against the Pac-12 the past couple seasons along with some notes about EWU. ... Two games into the season and Portland State fires its defensive coordinator.
• Idaho: Athletic director Rob Spear is having more trouble filling his football schedule for next year – the Vandals first as an independent – than he anticipated last month. Josh Wright has the story. ... This could be a special season for Utah State, especially if the Aggies can get by Wisconsin.
• Preps: It's Thursday, which means it's Prep Page day. Greg Lee starts it off with a column on Saturday's big game in the Kibbie Dome. There is also a cross-country roundup from Mike Vlahovich, along with a soccer preview and feature from Jim Allen.
• Seahawks: When Dallas comes to town, Tony Romo has to address the fumbled snap, doesn't he? And I don’t have to explain that, do I (other than showing you the picture at right)? ... The offensive line is being reworked again. ... Doug Baldwin gave his all trying to catch a pass late in the Arizona game.
• Mariners: The M's won another one-run game, defeating Toronto 3-2 behind the pitching of Kevin Millwood and the bullpen.
• Sounders: With Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson on fire, the Sounders hope for some payback against the Timbers on Saturday, the first meeting between the two in years in which former Sounder Roger Levesque will not play.
• NBA: Not everyone is enamored by the arena deal, including the Mariners.
• That's our Thursday morning report. Until later ...