Thiel: No secrets anymore in college football

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on September 18, 2012 at 7:36 AM

Updated Wednesday, Sep 19 at 1:30 AM

In the void after the glorified scrimmage against Portland State Saturday and the bye before facing frightful Stanford Sept. 27, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian admitted Monday that he is fully engaged in a highly unscientific tactic to help beat the imposing Cardinal.

As you may have heard, Stanford stunned second-ranked USC 21-14 Saturday, is ranked ninth in the AP poll and has crushed the Huskies four times in a row by an average of 28 points a game, including 65-21 last season.

No, Sarksian is not bringing a live tree to practice to simulate game conditions. It’s a home game. Washington players have seen trees.

What Sarkisian is doing is “crossing my fingers and hoping we get some (of the Huskies’ many injured players) back,” he said.

He may as well throw in prayer, voodoo and some lottery tickets.

Truth be told -- not that the Huskies would go that far – health of Washington’s front-line players is more important to the outcome than the game plan, or any strategy. As has been seen in the last four games with Stanford, and was underscored by the 41-3 smackdown against LSU, the Huskies don’t match up very well man-for-man against teams outside the Big Sky Conference.

And it keeps getting worse. Check out this list of missing starters on the offensive line: G Colin Porter retired earlier in the year because of injuries, T Ben Riva broke his arm in the opener, G-T Erik Kohler re-injured a knee against LSU and is out indefinitely, as is G Colin Tanigawa, also with a knee injury.

Two of the top three running backs, Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, are out for the season. WR James Johnson is hurt.

And that’s just on offense. Defensive starters missing Saturday included LB Travis Feeney, LB Jamaal Kearse, DE Talia Crichton and LB Nate Fellner.  And prize DL Danny Shelton sat out the second half against Portland State.

Sarkisian and his entire staff of assistants don’t possess enough fingers to get the crossing job done that’s needed for Stanford.

Naturally,  Sarkisian can’t complain too loudly. He knows it, even invoking one of ex-Seahawks coach Chuck Knox’s hoariest bromides when he talked last week about his team’s need to “play the hand they’re dealt.”

What he did do was a little bit of the converse: He quit talking about the problem by answering no further questions about injuries. In the middle of last week, Sarkisian abruptly reversed his penchant for openness that helped get him the job by cutting off injury information and asked reporters not to do part of their jobs.

The new policy put out by the athletic department stated that reporters attending practice are “hereforth prohibited from reporting on strategy or injury-related news observed during practices.”

Strategy, we get.  It’s been a custom in sports reporting for decades. Injuries? Never been an issue until this year. Two new coaches,Mike Leach at Washington State and Jim Mora at UCLA, politely told reporters to drop dead regarding injury questions. USC’s Lane Kiffin tried to ban a Los Angeles reporter for finding out injury news outside of practice.

Sarkisian defended his action by saying Washington was put at a competitive disadvantage by having an open policy when other schools did not. Predictably, much media consternation ensued, including an editorial by the Seattle Times chastising UW for the policy, conveniently overlooking the same practice taking place at WSU.

“For whatever reason,“ said Sarkisian, “it’s a pretty big deal that I wasn’t expecting.”

Addressing the hubbub, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott over the weekend said the conference would look into creating a uniform policy. UW athletic director Scott Woodward talked to Scott and was in favor, even though he said his personal preference was to keep practice and information open.

“Openness works at the University of Washington, it works for Seattle – we like to be open,” said Woodward, who used to work with a coach at LSU, Nick Saban, who makes the former East Germany look like a secrets-spilling episode of “Oprah.” “But I’m not going to do anything at the expense of our team.

“I’ll back our coaching staff. I think a uniform policy is a great idea. It’s not fair to guys who who are open.”

The NFL has long had a policy, mostly for the benefit of gamblers, that requires teams list players as probable, questionable or doubtful.

“Not having lived in the NFL, I don’t know what works best, but I don’t want to recreate the wheel,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a happy medium.”

He ascribed the dust-up to “you guys,” pointing to media members who have so many platforms and outlets than years ago, presumably meaning when secrets could be better kept.

Actually, blaming the professional media misses a key point. What’s happened is that in the last several years, everyone who so chooses can be a media publisher – the student next to Keith Price in his English class, Danny Shelton’s best friend in high school, Josh Shirley’s ex-coach, the football-loving Stanford student whose girlfriend at Washington is tight with one of the Huskies’ student trainers. Not to mention the gambler whose kid is a housemate of Micah Hatchie’s.

(So there’s no misunderstanding, those are made-up relationships. But there’s no making up the number of potential situations.)

Whoever is in contact with players is capable of publishing information. As well as disinformation (remember, disinformation is information deliberately sent out to deceive the recipients).

When social media combines with fan websites that advocate for the local school with purported insider knowledge, the potential for manipulation and misunderstanding is potent. To date, no one has figured out a way to control it, nor has there been a good legal or moral argument made that it should be controlled (see Saban/East Germany analogy).

The financial stakes in big-time college sports are so high, with careers on the line that are far away from football (the entire athletic department depends on football success), that no edge can be overlooked that might provide a clue to a win. But the attempt to suppress information will have the reverse effect: It will make the information more valuable, and more pursued.

Don’t be surprised, Mom/Dad of a Huskies player, if you get a late-night call from a journalistic-sounding stranger inquiring about the status of your son’s injury that you knew nothing about.

While a uniform policy bears examination, either of two choices makes better sense: Keep practices and information as open as possible, or shut down access to anyone.

The problem with the latter is it probably will make things worse. But hey, East Berlin worked for 40 years, sorta, until it didn’t.

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