Under new coach Mike Shula, practice has been all but completely closed to the media and public for the past three weeks, a policy which will continue through next week's season opener with South Florida at Legion Field and throughout the 2003 season -- at minimum
There is no denying the inherent advantage of closing practices and scrimmages to virtually everyone but a few selected and trusted members of the Alabama family.
Because Shula was hired in early May, he maintains a veil of secrecy over his offensive, and, to some extent, defensive plans which makes opponents' preparation far more difficult than in a normal campaign.
Beyond a few vague euphemisms and scrimmage statistics, the news media must form its opinions and story-lines surrounding the team by talking with the players and coaches after practices.
There is no other way.
Even the smallest windows of opportunity have been slammed shut by the closed-practice policy. Sure, the first 20 minutes of practice are open, but they provide virtually no insight to media allowed inside. The media window's first 10 minutes are devoted strictly to full-team stretching drills, and the next 10 minutes aren't much more revealing. They are typically devoted to things like special teams drills and offensive blocking drills. Meanwhile, quarterbacks warm up for what sportswriters won't see by tossing footballs back and forth at short distances.
The only real news comes by glancing at which injured players are riding the stationary bikes parked near the indoor facility.
When the 20 minutes are up, the media files out in orderly fashion. Later, they re-congregate outside the gates at the time scheduled for practice to end. There is no peeking over the fence, or through cracks not blocked by yards of green tarp.
As one morning workout wound down last week, practice ran long, leaving reporters to wait patiently at the gate. Heads and shoulders of players -- little more -- were visible to sportswriters who stood 10 feet from the section of temporary fence. Mere minutes later, a team manager stepped outside the sanctum and "requested" the group move 15 feet back, behind a yellow construction barrier.
The following day, the offending fence had been raised even higher -- with green tarp backing it all the way up.
Ha ha! That'll show us sportswriters for daring to peek.
Scrimmages are no better. News media were kept outside the gates of Bryant-Denny Stadium until Tuesday's third and final scrimmage had concluded, and given statistics kept by a member of the UA media relations department.
Understand this is no slap at Shula, his staff, Alabama players, or the media relations department.
They have been extremely accessible all through pre-season practice; Shula is an affable, relaxed man who often stands around after media sessions chatting idly with reporters. Players and assistants who are requested for interviews typically wait patiently until the last request is done, from Brodie Croyle to special-teams reserves.
And they are honest.
When Shula likes work his team has done in a practice or scrimmage, he says so without prompting. So do his players -- the mood was darker after Tuesday's third scrimmage than it was after the first said exercise a week earlier.
But it is difficult to accept their words without a grain of salt. Part of a reporter's training is basing what he writes in fact, not conjecture. And in a closed society, fact is the most difficult of commodities to discern. Because reporters cannot see, they must rely on the messengers: Shula, his staff and his players.
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What does this lack of access mean in the grand scheme of things?
We as sportswriters don't know.
We'll find out the same time as the legions of Alabama fans do -- a little after 2 p.m. August 30, when the Tide enters Legion Field to face South Florida. That Saturday, the topic that has crossed virtually every state reporter's lips or fingers -- what will the offense look like -- will begin, at long last, being answered.
Shula, offensive coordinator Dave Rader and players have hinted that balance within a pro-style offense will rule the day, which could mean a number of things.
It could mean a balanced, half-run, half-pass offense will take the field against the Bulls.
Or it could be an elaborate Bear Bryant wishbone-style ruse, designed to shock USF and Oklahoma into submission.
Either way, it will certainly be interesting and revealing -- giving Alabama fans something more important to talk about, like whether the offense works or not.
By 5:30 p.m or so, that green tarp won't look so daunting anymore.