Shine a Light on Darkened Corners

The shutters are coming down around the Wake Forest football program with tomorrow’s practice. Preseason camp has given way to game week and, from this point on, practices will be closed.

If you’re like me (I know, a scary thought), then you’ve thoroughly enjoyed this month’s coverage by Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest and Conor O’Neill of my long-time haunt, the Winston-Salem Journal. Both have been all over their beat, filing one dispatch after another from the practices and scrimmages leading up to next Thursday’s opener at Tulane.

And it is to Coach Dave Clawson’s credit that they were there. The shutters on most college football programs – most especially those competing in Power Five Conferences – were never open. They might have been cracked a bit from time to time to give a fleeting glimpse or two, but for the most part, the Alabamas and Clemsons and tragically, Marylands, of the college football world are locked down tighter than Los Alamos in the 40s.

Last season was the first in my experience that practices were closed at Wake. The move was said to be in response to an insidious incident of betrayal, and as Conor laid out in My Take on Wake, Clawson has every reason to feel burned by Tommy Elrod, the turncoat ex-color man who will live in infamy for having told coaching buddies at rival schools far more than any loyal color man should tell.

But access at Wake football had become an issue before the term Wakeyleaks was ever coined.

O.K., I readily admit I was spoiled during most of my time spent as Wake beat reporter. Jim Grobe was the coaching exception to almost every rule I ever encountered as a sportswriter, and if I missed a practice from time to time Jim would want to know why.

None of which is to say I reported everything I saw. I recognized that my coverage might reveal plays or game plans or certain injuries that would provide an opponent with a competitive advantage.

So we would work it out and determine a time when I might write the story that would give me a jump on all the other news outlets while not alerting the competition too early.

Professionally, it bothered me not writing all I knew, but I’d also been around long enough to know that if I did so, then Jim couldn’t afford to have me at practice. The example that comes quickest to mind was in 2008, when Grobe, coming off a 26-0 loss at Maryland, changed in entire offense in a week’s time to have an I-formation ready for the trip to Miami.

I watched him do it, and didn’t write about it until filing a My Take on Wake just minutes before kickoff. Wake’s first 22 plays were running plays, and the Deacons opened the game with a 66-yard march for a touchdown before eventually succumbing 16-10.

So I was lucky to have the opportunity to cover Grobe, and I was lucky that Clawson replaced him. Wake is lucky to have Dave as well. He’s a razor sharp, engaging guy who is as good at what he does as anybody I know.

But generally speaking, no sub-species I’ve ever encountered takes itself more seriously than football coaches, and the sadly avoidable fatality at Maryland during off-season workouts has sparked a backlash to the gestapo-type secrecy that shrouds most college programs.

You might have seen the articles by Dan Wolken in USA Today and/or by Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post. Sally was scathing in her indictment of “crude, knuckle-dragging stupidity’’ at play at Maryland, but when 27 football players keel over dead during conditioning drills over the past 17 seasons, then her main points, at least to me, are inescapable.

So, yes, I was fortunate to cover Wake at a time practices were open. But the point should be made that Wake was smart, and fortunate as well, to be able to open practices.

First off, many programs that opened practices would be swamped by far more media types then they could accommodate, much less keep track of. Wake opens practices and two reporters, Les and Conor, care enough to show up. Clawson and Steve Shutt, the media relations director, know Les and Conor, and they can lay out the ground rules they can expect to be followed.

Second, by opening practices, the coverage of Wake football is far more extensive and detailed. I’ve already mentioned how much I’ve enjoyed the preseason coverage and how much I know about the team getting ready to kick off against Tulane next week.

There’s a buzz in the air about Wake football, much of it stimulated and fanned by what we’re reading daily from Les and Conor.

And last, and certainly not least, I can bear witness that the neanderthal practices that permeated the program at Maryland – and we can only surmise at other programs as well – did not take place at Wake. Of the hundreds of practices I attended, I never saw one incident of what I would describe as abuse.

I saw coaches driving players hard. I heard loud language. I saw exhausted players running post-practice wind sprints. But I also came to know, and like, Brandon Hourigan, the hyper-intense Deacons’ strength and conditioning coach, and I could see the bond he developed with players even as he was exacting the best he could get from them.

Again, I never witnessed one incident of what I would describe as abuse.

I couldn’t make that claim if I wasn’t there.

Dave and I did lock horns a couple of times. Again, it got back to my frustration of not being able to write what I knew. I was never able to build the same lines of communication I had with Grobe and his staff to the point I could take care of my job without hurting his.

In hindsight, my problem was not as much with Dave as it was with the stupidest policy in the history of the ACC – the so-called “injury policy,’’ which, because it was never enforced was universally ignored.

Dave’s point was why should he give out information that his rival coach is going to keep under wraps? His point was well-made. My point was why should there be a policy in the first place it it was not going to be enforced?

It took the ACC long enough, but finally it came around to the same conclusion. The conference announced last month it won’t even ask member schools to report injuries.

There is a serious issue about gambling in college sports, though, and those people whose job it is to know about an injury are going to know. Eventually the matter will have to be addressed.

But the best resolution to this whole matter, in my mind, is the one Sally Jenkins laid out in her piece. The NCAA should do what the NFL does. There are good reasons that it has been 17 years since an NFL player died of heat exertion, and one of them is that practices are, at least for the most part, open to outside observers.

If the NCAA were to follow suit, look who would win. The players would win because fewer would die. The fans would win because they would have more coverage to get and keep them fired up about their team. And the media would certainly win because they would be allowed to do their job the way it should be done.

And who would lose? The gamblers would lose, and so would the football coaches who have yet to understand one basic tenet of their sport.

Football doesn’t build character. Football reveals character.

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