Does Closed Practice Make Perfect?

FAYETTEVILLE — Houston Nutt, after welcoming fans and media for the first week of Arkansas football practices this preseason, has clamped down.

Following a trend around the country, Nutt has closed practice to fans and limited media access to the first 20 minutes daily, except on Tuesdays when the media can watch the entire workout.

This decision goes back to a meeting of Southeastern Conference coaches at Destin, Fla., when Nutt realized Arkansas was "behind the curve" when it came to practice policy.

Nutt recalled, "We went around the room and I said our practices had always been open. The other coaches said, ‘What? They are? The whole practice? Why?'"

These days, coaches are wary of information getting out.

Lou Holtz, who resigned at South Carolina after the 2004 season, said this week, "I closed practice during the latter part of my time at South Carolina. When the Internet came along, it changed everything. Too many people could get information. If you get on a player, they don't see you with him in the locker room later."

Holtz added, "What I found by closing practice — the media privately liked it. They could work from 4 to 7 p.m. and then I met with them afterwards."

At Arkansas, Nutt has put a tarpaulin around the practice fields and taken the additional step of not allowing boosters to attend practice during the season.

"I wanted to keep practice open," Nutt said. "But Gus (Malzahn) and Alex (Wood) said, ‘Coach, no way. There's too much information out there.'"

Malzahn, Arkansas' first-year offensive coordinator, said, "It was probably more me than anybody. We can't afford to give anybody an edge, can't afford to take a chance. I hope our fans understand we're going to do everything we can to help us win."

Wood, a former assistant in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, noted that around the NFL it's standard to have practice open to media for about the first 10 minutes and then close it.

"When I coached James Madison (from 1995-1998), I closed practice," Wood added. "Of course, that was I-AA and nobody really cared. But I liked to set a tempo of having a good focus."

Both Nutt and Malzahn said they liked having practice open early in preseason, for an energized fan atmosphere.

"That's like the NFL preseason camps," Nutt said.

Ed Orgeron, when he took over as Ole Miss's head coach last season, made news by opening his practices. This year he's gone the other way, closing them completely to fans and media.

"It really helps us for sure," Orgeron said. "Just knowing that we can be by ourselves and make position changes and guys can make mistakes and it's not paraded all over the place — I think those things take the pressure off our football team."

About last year's policy, Orgeron said, "I wanted things to be open. But we felt that some of the situations were unfair and the openness was taken advantage of. So we decided to close practice."

At Southern California, where the Trojans went 37-2 the past three seasons with two national titles, coach Pete Carroll opens his practices to USC fans, local and national media. Visiting media are allowed to watch the first 20 minutes, then get interviews after practice.

"Our fans sign up through the football office," said Tim Tessalone, the helpful USC sports information director.

Carroll creates an almost festive atmosphere, often tossing the football around with other coaches for 10 to 15 minutes after practice.

But if the Trojans work out in Bentonville after they arrive on Thursday, that will be closed, Tessalone said.

"Friday is a dead day for us," he added. "Our 30-minute walk-throughs in the stadium are generally open, but I'll have to ask Pete about that."

Arkansas assistant Louis Campbell said he doesn't mind closed practices.

"It's not that you're going to brutalize anybody," he said. "You just don't want any secrets out. And you focus better."

Asked which he liked better — closed or open practices — Campbell grinned and said, "I'm for whatever the head coach wants. You didn't really think I was going to answer that, did you?"

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