The folks over at And The Valley Shook asked me to do a Q&A on Auburn's spring practice for them. I was happy to oblige, but right off the bat I was concerned I wasn't going to be able to give them much in the way of entertaining reading. Question number one was asking whether Auburn has looked more pass-oriented in the spring than in Gus Malzahn's previous two seasons.
The answer? I don't know. I really have no clue what Auburn has looked like this spring. In today's world of football all I can do is make guesses based on the small information available.
Let me be clear from the start that this isn't just an Auburn issue. It's all over college football as more and more coaches make the decision to shut their practices away behind closed doors. I have never paid much attention to other schools' practice reports other than Georgia Southern's (and theirs are in big open practice fields next to two major roads and have always been wide open), but I know others are dealing with the same issues.
I don't mean this to sound whiny. I'm not a beat writer whose job depends on the stories I write. I'm a blogger. I do this pretty much entirely for the fun of it. I love providing a fan perspective, and I am the classic example of a college football fan: I know enough to argue about details and to know deep down that I'm mostly clueless about the minutia of what actually goes on in the games. Thankfully we have others who write here that can give you those details.
Mark Schlabach quoted Gus Malzahn today in a report about spring games about how much A-Day means to the casual Auburn football fan. The article discusses the balance of what's best for the teams while still providing as much excitement as possible for the rest of us. I think one of the reasons for the increase in attendance at spring games over the last few years is because it's now almost the only chance the football team is visible to the public other than actual game days.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze was quoted in the above article that he would rather see a scrimmage with another school or a regular practice open to all fans. Those are decent ideas in their own right, but to me this all underlies the bigger issue for fans in terms of being able to know what's going on with their favorite team.
Lack of Media Access
Information management is the name of the game these days in college football. Coaches maintain strict control over media access to players, coaches, practices, and all aspects of football. I love Gus Malzahn, but his press conferences are never very revealing or exciting.
Beat writers used to have more access to practice. There are even some places where the practice fields are open to public view and fans can watch practices as I mentioned above. At big-time programs like Auburn? Access is now strictly controlled. Beat writers are subjected to brief periods of access at the start of just a few practices. You may be able to find a few spots where you can glimpse practice around the fields, but not enough to really see what's going on.
We all know the coaches never show anything interesting during those observation periods. We're able to glean little tidbits from their viewings about who was in full pads, who had a non-contact jersey on, who was missing, etc. Then the beat writers ask their questions during press conferences, but the coaches aren't very forthcoming from there.
It makes the beat writers' jobs extremely hard. It makes "jobs" like mine as a blogger almost impossible. I would love to have a lot more information for everyone on how Auburn's spring is going, but all I can really do is link to the beat writers' reports that are almost uniformly the exact same information worded slightly differently.
If there's one thing it has improved though, its subscription websites who offer their readers VIP "insider" information.* Fans are dying for any extra information about what's going on. They want to know how each player has looked in practice. Is the defensive line struggling? Have the DBs gotten any better? How do the running backs look? We don't know. The only way you can get that information is from an "insider" who talks to someone. Then it's put behind a pay wall (even though it leaks out within minutes from there, typically).
Preseason prognostications used to have at least some basis in visible knowledge. Now? It's guesses based on past numbers, weight gains or physical body changes, what little information gets out from press conferences or players meeting with the media, and from those "insider" reports. It really makes the long off season even more boring, but makes that spring game methadone even bigger for the fans.
I understand some of the reasons coaches do it. They can work on things that other teams won't have any knowledge on. They can control reports on just how serious someone's "nagging" injury is and whether they may play in the upcoming weeks. They are attempting to make sure that only the information they want known gets released to the public.
What's Wrong With This Method?
Rumors and Innuendo
The downside is that it leads to more rumor. I remember well the rumors and "insider" reports from just before last football season about Robenson Therezie. Slowly word came out that he wasn't practicing. It led to all sorts of the typical message board fodder about what he may have done.
No official information was ever really released other than he was facing an "eligibility issue," but he was ultimately cleared before the first game against Arkansas. Before that, there was talk of suspensions (Auburn's policy on half a season for a second drug/alcohol issue was often discussed), and plenty of people were running down the character of a young man just because of rumor.
Tightly held information like Therezie's situation led to all sorts of disparaging comments on various message boards. That type of thing can get back to players and recruits and lead to its own issues.
This discussion can come across as whining, I know. I completely understand why the coaches are attempting to do what they're doing, I just don't think it really works. I think it can hurt relationships with the media. I think it can lead to rumors getting out that are much more negative than facts (because for some reason we love to expect the worst, nowadays). It just seems like in the end that it's a bad policy.
The information is going to get out there somehow, anyway. Almost every big piece of information out there over the past few years in Auburn football - Lawson and Kozan's injuries, Therezie's "eligibility issue" - were known on message boards for months or weeks before they were official. I applaud some sites and services for not reporting until they could verify, but there were plenty of others free with spreading rumor and innuendo.
Coach Speak and Expectations
Coach speak is almost its own language these days, and there's a lot of it. So much so that I created an Alot of it.**
Coaches try their best to temper expectations with this coach speak. Part of the problem is that often the vague statements work against the coaches. How many times have you heard Coach Malzahn talk about practice being "physical," or how proud he is of the team's effort? Well in the days where all fans have to go on are the recruiting rankings of the players, we often see that and then see a failure to produce on the field as being the coaches' issue with not getting the most out of the talent they have on the roster. That leads to fan discontent. It leads to coaches being fired.
How often have you seen fans question who is starting or getting the most playing time? Too often the responses are that "you don't see what goes on in practice." Well, no. We don't. That's what the reporters have always been for. I would temper my expectations of the coaches if I had an article in front of me about how some players we think should be awesome based on their star rankings are actually struggling to grasp the college game on the practice field.
Instead, we get reports that praise some players' work ethic and sometimes say that others need to step up their game. We don't even know a little bit of what's going on, and since nature abhors a vacuum we fill it up with our thoughts of what SHOULD be going on. Since we're fans, those expectations tend to be greater than they should be and that increases our discontent when the season doesn't go as we imagined in our minds.
One of the biggest frustrations I think Auburn fans had during the 2012 season is that Gene Chizik's press conferences were never very different as the season progressed. They told the same story. I'm not saying that being honest and more open would have saved Gene Chizik's job, but it couldn't have hurt. Fans grew increasingly frustrated as the team struggled and we weren't hearing explanations or admittance from the staff about the problems. Knowing that the coaching staff understood the cause and had a plan to fix it would have assuaged my anger and frustration a good bit, that's for sure.
Some coaches are brutally honest. They say exactly what they see. Sometimes it works out for them, sometimes it doesn't. I don't think there's a clear glide path on something that will work at every school all over the country. However, it just seems to me that completely closing off access does nothing but alienate the media, the fans, and doesn't really result in keeping the information out of the public eye, anyway.
So What Would Make It Better?
It will never happen, but I would like to see a return to the days when access to football programs was more open. Hugh Freeze doesn't like the spring game? I bet it would have been a whole lot easier to cancel it 10-15 years ago when interest in it wasn't as high because fans were reading about spring practice in the newspapers.
The Spring Game is nothing but a glorified scrimmage. It rarely tells us anything at all about what the football team is going to look like in the fall. Auburn threw it all over the place in the 2014 spring game. Cam Newton looked mediocre in 2010's A-Day. The coaches aren't going to get too complicated, show their hand on special players/formations/plays, etc. It's an experience for the fans and we love it. I've called it football methadone and it really is. It's something that helps gets us through the long, dark days of the off season.
I would be much less attached to it with more information about the team during the week. Managing expectations would be easier with that information, as well. That might mean to more longevity in a job, although I think we're too far gone into the "winning is the only thing" mentality for that to be true, now. Coaches could nip rumors in the bud before they start growing legs, getting crazier, and develop into serious accusations against the character of 18-22 year old kids.
College football is at the height of popularity right now. It could easily slip away if fans aren't kept engaged, though. Social media has helped keep fans involved and I would like to believe that little blog sites like ours here help since we can do crazy things that newspapers and traditional media can't, but as programs close off access more and more, it's going to cause more frustration among the fans. Try to shut down something like the spring games and it's only going to get worse.
Auburn's A-Day is April 18th. Will you be there?***
*Full disclosure on that: I'm a member of one such site and I love it. I also try to make absolute sure I never let that "insider" information out in my writing on here until it leaks into open source locations.
**Check out that link. Please. You owe it to yourself to read that.
***I won't. Stupid drill.