Richt explains closed practices

ATHENS – Georgia coach Mark Richt is willing to admit it, as the hairs on his temple begin to gray, the thoughts his head turn more to conspiracy theories.

The No. 22 Bulldogs are closing practice this week as they prepare to face No. 16 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday, and the lockdown may be permanent.

"If it was up to me and I could get away with it, I would just as soon close it down (year round)," Richt said Monday. "I wasn't that way when I first got here. Things have changed in the last few years. It's not what it used to be."

Richt insisted the move is a reaction to general paranoia and no specific incidents, but an report said the Bulldogs think they have been the victims of ill-gotten information in the past.

"We've been skunked in the past," an unnamed source told the Web site Monday. "We know it because of the way some teams have reacted to our (offensive) plays in a few games. We're trying to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Georgia's move, combined with the fact Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban's former boss, Bill Belichick, was found guilty of spying in the NFL, has added a "Spy vs. Spy" feel to the Bulldogs' week of preparation.

Richt doesn't believe an opposing coach or team would spy on his team, he said. He's more worried about the home folks, and his new rule extends beyond the media and photographers to "any face that we don't really recognize," he said.

"If a bunch of new lettermen showed up this week, we would probably say, ‘I don't know about that,'" Richt said.

In the age of the Internet, it's easy for even a well-meaning fan to disperse information that could benefit an opponent, Richt said.

"When you're out there practicing and doing what it is you're doing and you know it wouldn't take a veteran coach to understand what's happening out there, you start wondering who might see it and who might say something about that," he said. "You've got student assistants this and student assistants that, and they might want to tell dad something. (People) might see something and want to say it to friend and the friend puts in on the Net and it becomes clue for someone."

In previous years, Richt has practiced plays for a week and then not used them during games because he thought someone might have given them away, he said.

"Whether it's happening or not, I think everybody is a little bit paranoid," he said.

Last week's incident in the NFL in which Belichick's Patriots were penalized for videotaping an opponent's hand signals made everybody in the college game a little more anxious, Richt said.

Spying is not unheard of at the college level either. A West Virginia student was detained at a Marshall spring practice in 2006 because he was taking detailed notes on the Herd's formations and plays. Security officials discovered he had the home, office and cell phone numbers of several West Virginia coaches on him at the time.

"That's why we're closing practice right there," Richt said when told of the incident. "You just don't know."

If the Bulldogs close practice for good, they would join Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky as the SEC teams who allow no media access to their workouts. Most teams allow reporters to watch the first 15-30 minutes of each practice or selected practices each week, but the paranoia is beginning to seep throughout the South.

Tennessee officials told media members early this season that they would ban for one year any reporter who wrote about injured players seen in practice. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville closed his team's preseason scrimmages to the media for the first time this fall.

Vanderbilt is the only team in the SEC that allows media members to watch all of practice. The most notable example of the all-access theory is Southern Cal, the No. 1 team in the country.

"I think their guys are so good it just doesn't matter," Richt said. "I don't know how many games they have that come down to 16-12 or 31-30. You look at our scores, and it's like this (holding fingers slightly apart). It's that much that decides winning and losing and a lot of times it's one play."

The University of Oklahoma posts security guards around its campus to keep interlopers away, and Georgia may soon take similar measures, Richt said.

"We're probably getting a little closer to that," he said.

Georgia practices on four fields which are next to the school's track and a major road through campus, and they can be seen from the Butts-Mehre building, which is open to the public during part of practice most days.

"It's not as easy to secure as you want it to be," Richt said. "That'd be another advantage of an indoor facility."

Georgia's players are barely aware of the change and don't much care either way, several said this week.

"I guess there is a lot of stuff going on in football these days with the whole Patriots' scandal, so I guess he's just trying to be protective," center Fernando Velasco said. "A lot of stuff gets out quickly, whether it comes from inside the team or the media, I don't know."

Quarterback Matthew Stafford said he didn't notice any fewer people around during Monday's practice but said he would now stop throwing footballs left-handed, which he occasionally did to mess with photographers, he said.

"I guess that's why (Richt) gets paid the big bucks because he has to worry about those kind of things," tight end Tripp Chandler said. "I'm just here to play ball and answer some questions here and there."

However, at Richt's level, it's serious business, he said.

"The reality is what we do is big," he said. "People care about winning, and losing has a profound effect on peoples' careers and everything else. The saying is, ‘Loose lips can sink ships,' and it's true."

Around the SEC

The media's practice availability varies throughout the SEC. Here's a look at the rules at every conference school:

Alabama – First 15 minutes open Monday-Wednesday
Arkansas – First 20 minutes open Monday-Thursday
Auburn – First 15 minutes open Monday-Thursday
Florida – Completely closed
Georgia – Completely closed (formerly first 30 minutes open Monday-Thursday)
Kentucky – Completely closed
LSU – First 20 minutes Tuesday and Wednesday
Ole Miss – First 30 minutes open Wednesday
Mississippi State – First 45 minutes to an hour open Monday-Thursday
South Carolina – Completely closed
Tennessee – First 20 minutes open Monday-Thursday
Vanderbilt – Completely open to local media

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