George Solomon’s Fall 2017 Column

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George Solomon’s Fall 2017 Column
Aug 31, 2017

It’s been 47 years since Little Brown published Dan Jenkins’ best college football stories in an anthology called “Saturday’s America.”  It would be wonderful for sports journalism students to read the book; and even better if today’s college football coaches dropped their game planning for a couple of hours and gave it a read.

Of course, that won’t happen. I don’t believe the majority of college football coaches  read much of anything, including the sports pages, during the season. One coach even told me he chooses never to read a newspaper or website ever. Even better, a few years ago a football player in one of my classes at Maryland, when asked how he got his news, replied, “whatever my coach tells me.”

But in another day, about 60 years ago, Jenkins, who covered college football for Sports Illustrated about as well as Tom Boswell covers baseball for The Washington Post, was in Texas for a huge game involving his alma mater, Texas Christian University. Before the game, Jenkins greeted the TCU head coach, Abe Martin, who suggested they take a walk.

Where would they walk?  On the field, in the middle of Martin’s players, warming up, minutes before for the game. As they walked among the players, Jenkins wrote, and recently reflected to me, Martin, in the most intense of football situations, said, “We’re gonna have us a spellin’ bee today.”

How fitting. And what a contrast to the late August news that the Michigan head coach. Jim Harbaugh, was playing “games” with the media and Florida Coach Jim McElwain by not even releasing his 2017 roster until a few days before his September 2 game in Dallas. Forget about Michigan’s depth chart, or naming a starting quarterback. Harbaugh kept his roster under wraps.   When he finally released the roster, it did not include heights and weights of the players.

“Harbaugh isn’t the first difficult coach by any means,” Jenkins said in a recent exchange of e-mails.  “I’d still rank Ara Parseghian (the Notre Dame coach who just passed away) and Wayne Hardin (Navy) ahead of him. [Harbaugh] just delights in being an ass. It’s his way of letting his players and the alums know he’s in charge.”

Sports journalists covering major-college football today face more challenges than ever. The majority of practices are closed to the media, except at a few colleges, including media-friendly Navy; player interviews are restricted and often monitored by someone from the athletic department. Coaches, when available, are careful not to say anything to upset a rival or give away information. At least once a year someone such as Alabama’s Nick Saban provides a lecture in media ethics.

Student journalists walk a fine line, between objective coverage and offending classmates on the team, aware a grieved coach or sports information director can result in a pulled press credential.

It wasn’t always this way. In the ’50s and ’60s I remember colleges (and pros) sending their sports information directors days in advance of the team’s arrival at the site of the game for the purpose of getting newspaper coverage — the SID’s eager to provide the phone numbers of their coach for interviews, as well as players. But that was before billion-dollar television windfalls, donor-supported sold out stadiums and coaches making more money than university presidents.

“It’s a different world,” said Pepper Rodgers, 85, a friend of mine for more than 60 years and a football coach much of his life, with head coaching positions at Kansas (1967-70), UCLA (1971-73) and Georgia Tech (1974-79) plus a stint with Memphis of the USFL. “It’s world I don’t understand.

“Coaches get weird with their rosters and what for, other than to upset mothers and fathers who want to see their son’s names on a roster. To me, that stuff disrespects the game. But over the years, college football coaches have always tried to gain an edge; I think the CIA copied their snooping practices from college football coaches.

“My practices in the day were open, except the day before the game.  We had stands for fans to watch practice. And I talked to the sportswriters as long as they wanted to talk to me. I also read the papers, including when I was hired by Georgia Tech and the Atlanta-Journal headline read, ‘Georgia Tech Hires Pepper Rodgers.’ Six years later they ran the same headline, with one letter changed: ‘Georgia Tech Fires Pepper Rodgers.’”

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In June, I attended the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) annual convention in New Orleans, visiting for the first time in several years longtime friends among the sports editors, as well as meeting many of the new breed.

I was impressed with the drive and determination of the attendees, many looking for new ways to attract readers in a media landscape that seems to change every day. Panels and workshops that emphasized movement towards to the digital world, videos, virtual reality, podcasting and the like.

A session on sponsored and promoted content — “how to make money without crossing the line” — was a concern. But in an era of news organizations losing money, staff and space — and fighting off charges of “fake news” by the most powerful — smart people like the ones I met are doing their best to create a future where sports journalism can survive. I hope.

 

 

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