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It’s his nickel, not yours
Malamute, 27 June 2006

Tyrone Willingham, coach of the University of Washington Huskies, likens football practice to the classroom – where he and his staff are the professors and his players are the students.

Willingham believes that the media’s presence during practice is a distraction to the team. For example, reporters and columnists thrive on a quarterback controversy – which can be easily created by a few interceptions, some errant passes and a muffed snap from center, all courtesy of the starter coming off a loss.

There’s nothing sinister about closed practices. The football team isn’t plotting to lay siege to the upper campus and occupy the administration building. They’re learning to win football games.

Unfortunately, Seattle’s media won’t accept that paradigm.

Its print media are searching for stories that can be sensationalized to enhance circulation, especially considering their declining circulation numbers, which were down for almost ever major newspaper in the country over the past year.

In this respect, negative stories sell better than positive ones. Complaining about closed practices is in itself a negative story, so don’t expect the media to back off. It’s the constant repetition of negativity that affects public opinion and, as a consequence, hurts the program.

For example, in his story, “Who’s at Mercy: Teams or media?” Ted Miller of the Seattle-Post Intelligencer writes, “News consumers -- that's you -- might want to know about how your right to receive unvarnished sports news is being threatened.” He then lumps Willingham’s closed practices in with other more outlandish cases of media restrictions employed by other teams. “Do you think the (Portland Trail) Blazers would have tackled the story of team president Steve Patterson using former FBI investigators to interrogate employees about media leaks, like The Oregonian did?” Miller writes.

Perhaps, Miller was tilting at windmills as far as Willingham is concerned or maybe he’s been playing too much golf with fellow columnist Jim Moore, who roasts the Huskies on a regular basis. I don’t think Willingham is the only coach in football who closes practices nor is he going to hire former FBI agents to interrogate UW employees about media leaks concerning practices, which, in fact, are mostly boring to watch. Oh, sure, I’ve seen some things during practices that have raised some eyebrows, but mostly that stuff is kept between the beat writers and coaches. There seems to be an understanding between reporters and coaches as to what can be reported on and what can’t be. Diminutive reporters are easily cowed by burly coaches, as are UW fans who publish their own website.

Former FBI agent to UW employee, firmly: “Are you the one who told the media that Willingham ordered Isaiah Stanback to get his hair cut after practice?”

UW employee to former FBI agent, shakily: “Maybe, it was I. I told a reporter that Stanback missed a split end on a curl and that Willingham was unhappy.”

“Instead of acknowledging that negative coverage is entirely due to losing and administrative incompetence, officials want to cry about -- and punish -- newspapers and talk radio,” Miller continues. Stop the presses. Willingham reportedly invoked the same closed policy when he coached at Stanford and Notre Dame; in his case, he’s not punishing the Seattle media for their crimes against the Dawgs, though the schadenfreude prompted by their caterwauling is hard to ignore.

Closed practices shouldn’t substantially affect the amount of information the average Husky fan digests. The fans who feed on injury reports, lineup changes, and player and coaching interviews will still get the same amount of information. Washington’s Tyee members (a special category of donors) can attend practices upon receiving permission from the athletic department. The next day, following a practice, Willingham answers various humdrum questions about the previous day's practice: about seven-on-seven drills, who looked good in practice, about injuries and who did what to whom.

That part of practice concerning the development of new plays, new formations, new defensive schemes and other information that would be of interest to Washington’s opponents can be filtered by Willingham.

Not all has been lost on the media. This last spring, reporters attended several scrimmages, including the annual spring game that concluded practices.

Some members of the fourth estate complain about Willingham’s taciturn interviews and homilies. Those same critics complained about former coach Rick Neuheisel’s loquaciousness and the fact that he could give a twenty-minute talk off the cuff without saying anything. As far as bent-out of shape reporters are concerned, all I can say is welcome to the quiet world of Tyrone Willingham. It’s his nickel, not yours.

Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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