Access denied

One October day in 1988, with the Tennessee football team in the throes of an 0-5 start, I noticed several players practicing at new positions in preparation for Game 6 with Alabama.

As the Vol beat writer for The Knoxville Journal, I immediately made note of the changes. Before the practice ended, however, I was informed that head coach Johnny Majors ordered that the media not report on the position changes.

So I didn't. Nor did my competition, the beat writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. That's the way it was in 1988. The coach said "Don't write that," so you didn't write that. Heck, it was his practice field. If you didn't play by his rules, he'd ban you from covering practice.

Twenty years later, everybody is banned from covering practice, whether they play by the rules or not.

I must admit that I'm not losing any sleep over this. I spent six years (1986-91) as primary beat writer on Vol football for The Journal – watching the same 10 coaches put the same 90 guys through the same drills two hours per day 100 or so days per year. Trust me, I've seen enough practice for one lifetime.

Still, I kind of miss the days when reporters had complete access to workouts. Whenever I'd see Johnny Majors really chewing out an obscure reserve I'd make a note to myself: "Majors is getting Joe Blow ready to play this weekend." I'd write a feature story on Joe Blow and, sure enough, Joe Blow would play a beefier role that weekend.

"How about that?" friends would say. "You write a story on Joe Blow, then he has a big game. You sure got lucky."

I wasn't lucky at all. I was observant.

This, of course, was in The Old Days ... the days before talk-radio was such a big deal ... the days before every Tom, Dick and Harry had his own website ... the days before some coaches viewed the media as Public Enemy No. 1.

I was reminded of The Old Days last week. It seems Ron Higgins, sports writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and president of the Football Writers Association of America, got an audience with the 12 head coaches attending the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla.

Higgins is concerned because more and more college coaches are banning media from covering practices and interviewing freshman players. Higgins hoped a face-to-face plea might convince the coaches to grant greater access to media. They shot him out of the saddle like the black hat in a cowboy movie.

At Tennessee, the squeeze on football reporting began in the early 2000s. Suddenly, all reporters had to observe Hudson Field practices from a set of bleachers. Apparently, this rule was designed to stop guys like me from roaming all over the outskirts of the practice field, determining which obscure reserves were getting chewed out/coached up for the next game.

A few years later Tennessee's coaches decided that rookies tended to be a little too candid in their comments to reporters, so interviewing freshmen was forbidden. The coaches also decided that media should only observe the first 20 minutes of practice, which essentially consists of stretching exercises.

I've watched an awful lot of football in my life but I must admit: I've never figured out how to tell the good players from the great ones just by watching them stretch.

To Phillip Fulmer's credit, he allows reporters to attend Tennessee's scrimmages. That's great for the media and the fans alike, since one scrimmage yields more worthwhile information and insight than five practices.

Some of Fulmer's paranoid peers in the profession won't even give the press that table scrap, however. Alabama's Nick Saban doesn't allow members of the media to attend scrimmages, yet he allows members of the "Tide Pride" donor group to attend them.

Basically, here's the deal: Instead of having a dozen or so professional reporters printing information about his team in their newspapers, Saban has hundreds of non-professionals posting misinformation about his team in their chat rooms.

Makes perfect sense to me.


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