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Assistants, Practices Should Be Fair Game

By Leonard Shapiro
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; 6:41 PM

Not long ago, in reporting a story that necessitated talking to a number of assistant coaches, I called one of the four teams in the NFL that has a gag rule prohibiting assistants—all of them grown men, most of them with many years of experience as high school, college and pro coaches -- from speaking to reporters without the permission of the head coach.

A few days after I put in one request, I had a voice mail from one of the assistants I’d called, apologizing profusely for not being able to speak with me. His team was playing a big game that Sunday, and his head coach was concerned that he might reveal something to me that could give the opposition an edge.

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Never mind that my story had nothing to do with the upcoming game, or that the story I was planning to write wouldn’t appear for several weeks after the game had already been played. He told me he could call me back the following week, which he did, and we both laughed about the silent treatment he’d been forced to follow the week before.

Upon further review, it really should be not have been a laughing matter. According to the Pro Football Writers of America which monitors such things and has been fighting for more media access to teams for years, three of the four teams that do not permit their coaches to do interviews without prior permission follow the Bill Parcells School of Media Relations.

Parcells, the Dallas Cowboys coach, is obviously at the head of this odious class. So is Tom Coughlin, a former Parcells assistant with the N.Y. Giants and now the Giants head coach. So is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who also worked for Parcells in New York with the Giants and the Jets. The fourth is Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego, and none of them ever had such a prohibition against granting interviews.

Ironically, each and every one of them once was once an assistant coach himself. Back when Parcells was an assistant in New England, he befriended the late Will McDonough, one of the finest pro football reporters in the history of the business. McDonough and Parcells got along famously, and Parcells, the smart young assistant, often was quoted in the Globe on various subjects. Many years later, McDonough even ghosted Parcells autobiography.

All of that early Parcells publicity certainly didn't hurt The Great Tuna when it was time to move up in the coaching ranks. McDonough also was plugged in to a number of league owners, and when any of them asked him who the hot young assistants were, Parcells usually was on his short list whenever a head coaching vacancy occurred.

Back in his days with the Giants in the 1980s, Parcells allowed Belichick, Coughlin and all his assistants to speak with the media. Their names also got out there as being talented assistants ready for the leap to the top job, and I have no doubt that their exposure in the New York media certainly didn’t hurt their chances of moving on up, Belichick to a head coaching job in Cleveland, Coughlin first to Boston College and then as the first head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But now, the assistants on those head coaches’ staffs are not allowed to speak with the media. In New England, for example, where offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell are rarely quoted in the local papers, I also have no doubt that the lack of recognition and exposure around the country has been a significant detriment to them in becoming head coaches.

Parcells tells people he prefers to have one voice speaking for the organization. That happens to be his voice. That’s what his two former disciples and Schottenheimer say, too. It sounds more to me as if they don’t even trust their own top assistants to answer queries from the press, a major problem for a football beat writer trying to provide as much information as possible for the fans who are paying those incredible prices to watch their favorite teams play every week.

No game or practice story ever won a Pulitzer Prize, a wise old sports editor once told me a long time ago. Assistant coaches are not about to tell anyone outside the locker room if a player is taking steroids, smoking grass or dealing drugs on the side. That’s not the sort of information beat writers generally are looking for. It’s far more about Xs and Os, and not being able to talk to the people who draw them up.

The same goes for allowing reporters into practices. The above mentioned four coaches and another dozen or so of their colleagues now hold closed practices. The Redskins are one of them, prohibiting reporters on the field except for the first 20 minutes of warm-ups, when nothing that matters ever really happens anyway.

I’ve always wondered why editors didn’t fight this restriction from Day One. Why bother sending a reporter out to cover a team when he/she can’t even see what’s going on? It certainly can’t be for the canned and often clichéd player interviews during open locker room sessions, when most teams’ stars are usually available for about 16 seconds.

Back in the early 1970s, I was a young reporter covering George Allen’s Redskins. One of the more paranoid coaches of his time, Allen also closed practices more often than not. He was so convinced someone might tip off the opposition, he had a security man tromping through the trees around old Redskins Park to search for spies. He never caught a single one.

When I was occasionally allowed to watch practice, I knew it would not be fair to report that the team was, for example, spending a lot of time working on the halfback option, or fake punts and field goals. That was strategy, and my own moral compass was enough to tell me that information really was classified, and not to be disseminated to the readers, until after the game.

Injuries were another story. That’s really why I went, to make sure the starters were practicing, and occasionally to report on an injury during practice that might keep a man out of a game, or many games. Even then teams were required to list players as being doubtful, questionable or probable, and even the suspicious Allen had no problems with that information appearing in stories.

Allen’s assistants were also always fair game. I can’t recall a single instance where they provided information that was stop-the-presses fodder. Instead, they filled in a lot of blanks, explained why a play worked here, why a player was switched there, the nuts and bolts of the game readers always seemed to appreciate knowing.

I always considered myself the middle man between the team and the people who were fans of that team. I could talk to the players on a daily basis, and fill my stories with their observations. They could not. I could watch practice on a daily basis, and generally report what was happening. They could not. I could interview assistant coaches and the head man, the better to provide more accurate information. They could not.

What a shame some assistants can no longer talk, and so many reporters are prevented from doing their jobs. The biggest loser is the reader, the football fan teams need to survive, and to thrive. Strange that the NFL really doesn’t seem to care. They should.

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