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In-state Newspapers Confront Virginia Over Football Access Issues

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff
September 27, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- As Virginia football coach Al Groh was preparing his team for a homecoming game with Duke, battle lines were forming on another front, although he may not have been aware of it.

Soured by a lack of access to Virginia players and assistant coaches, editors from two Virginia dailies said they would stop mid-week staff coverage of UVa football and proposed a boycott of the team's weekly Tuesday news conference.

The issue reached a head following a media event on Sept. 20, three days after a 27-24 victory for the Cavaliers over Syracuse, when the four players made available to the media were freshman offensive guard Branden Albert, nose tackle Keenan Carter, linebacker Mark Miller and defensive lineman Kwakou Robinson.

Inside linebacker Kai Parham, the Cavs' best defensive player in the first two games, had a class conflict but did two phone interviews later that evening, after practice.

Normally, Groh meets with the media at 12:15 p.m., after which players are available for 30-45 minutes. As is the norm, Groh spoke for 45 minutes, describing a variety of topics, except for the status of injured linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who had not played in the first two games.

The only mention of Brooks came when Roanoke Times reporter Doug Doughty asked, "If you might indulge a question about Ahmad, could you describe him as either ‘close' or ‘closer?'"

Groh shot back, "Actually, I'm not indulging any questions about Ahmad today. So I thought we could cut the silliness off at the pass."

Why the questions about Brooks represented "silliness," only Groh knew. In 2004, as a junior, Brooks was a first-team All-ACC selection and one of three finalists for the Butkus Award that goes to the nation's premier linebacker. He was a preseason All-American this year, and he's a likely first-round NFL draft pick, assuming he's sound physically.

In a Thursday teleconference before the Syracuse game, Groh had discussed the Brooks issue at greater length, again without providing any
answers.

"You know what, this is getting to be like a Senate hearing," Groh snapped at Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jeff White. "They just keep asking the guy the same question so they can catch him in a different answer. You guys are going to get your information one way or another, aren't you?

"Doesn't that (Brooks) situation wear you guys out? Well, why do we keep talking about it? Doesn't anybody want to believe the factualness of what we say? When he's ready to play, we're going to tell everybody."

Given Groh's history of less-than-full disclosure, media members remained skeptical. The coach was even more petulant Sept. 21 in the ACC's coaches' teleconference, when the first caller was Kyle Tucker from the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

TUCKER: "What can you tell us about Ahmad Brooks?"

GROH: "Nothing."

TUCKER: "Nothing?"

GROH: "Right."

TUCKER: "What would you have us, when we get the question from our readers, the folks who buy our papers and probably folks who buy your tickets, tell them about what they're going to see on the field Saturday?"

GROH: "You can give them the same answer I've been giving you all along. When his status has changed and he's ready to play, I'll tell you. Other than that, it's just a distraction to the players who we're counting on to help us win."

TUCKER: "What is distracting about knowing whether or not a guy is available to play or healthy or unhealthy?"

GROH: "Look, it's not worth the conversation. The status hasn't changed. I said what it was last week. You go back and read your paper from last week, and you'll have the same answer."

Since Tucker is the Virginia Tech beat reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, chances are that he didn't really need to know about Brooks. Maybe it was a set-up, but if Groh had been a little bit more forthcoming from the start, maybe the media wouldn't have been bracing for a fight.

When he was given an option by Doughty, who has covered the Virginia beat for 25 years, Groh could have answered "close" or "closer" or "neither" or "hard to say." Instead, he adopted the condescending tone that he so frequently uses with the media.

The foundation of Groh's approach to the media is the "one-voice" policy favored by NFL head coaches Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Parcells and Belichick don't like their assistants talking to the media, and neither does Groh.

For his first three seasons, Groh would allow his assistants to talk to the media during a one-month window during the preseason. Then, in 2004, upset by the reporting of off-field incidents, he didn't let his assistants talk at all. This year, he let them talk for five days during the preseason.

Even that concession may have been part of the negotiations that ended with Groh getting a new five-year, $1.7-million-per-year contract. The "one-voice" policy hasn't caused Groh to make his players off-limits to the media, but there is no indication that he encourages them to talk, either.

Meanwhile, the media can talk to Groh after games, in a Sunday teleconference, a Tuesday on-site news conference, the Wednesday ACC coaches' teleconference and a Thursday teleconference. During spring practice and preseason practice, teleconferences are conducted nearly every day.

"Access to Coach Groh has always been outstanding," said Tom White, college and pro sports team leader for the Virginian-Pilot. "He's as available as just about any coach out there. But his program is a closed society in too many other ways.

"Want to speak to an assistant coach, as we do routinely at the state's other Division I-A university? Sorry. Want to talk to a trainer about injury trends, strength and conditioning techniques, speed training, etc.? No.

"Can we get a special photo set up after practice next Thursday (as we did at Virginia Tech with no advance notice)? Don't even bother to ask."

White noted that, in the week prior to the Virginia-Syracuse game, the UVa sports information department made available a list of 12 Syracuse players who would be available over a three-day period.

"Want to talk to a specific player or two at (Virginia's) Tuesday news conference?" White said. "(Virginia says), we'll ask, but it's up to them whether they show up or not."

Even the timing of Virginia's news conference is inconvenient. For nearly 25 years, it was held on Mondays. This year, it was moved to Tuesdays at roughly the same time as Frank Beamer's press luncheon at Virginia Tech. With fourth-ranked Tech preparing for a home game with No. 15 Georgia Tech, media attendance at Virginia that week was as slim as anybody could remember.

Groh said he moved his news conference to Tuesday because he wanted to have the benefit of one day of practice, instead of discussing the previous game for a third straight day, but it's not as if he shares many details from practice, which is closed during the regular season.

It might be noted that Groh's predecessor, George Welsh, occasionally would place his players off-limits to the media and was not known to encourage them to attend news conferences. On the other hand, Welsh always had a core of team leaders — current UVa quarterbacks coach Mike Groh was among them — who felt it was their place to come to the news conferences.

Current UVa quarterback Marques Hagans made a brief appearance at a Tuesday news conference Sept. 13, but he was not available after the Syracuse game (he was receiving fluids intravenously) and neglected an invitation the following Tuesday. Reporters who interviewed Hagans in Hot Springs at the ACC's Football Kickoff would attest that he's a good interview.

"We simply want our reporters to be able to do their jobs to the best of their ability, so that we can give our readers the stories they deserve," said Doug Roberson, sports editor of the Daily Press in Newport News, Hagans' home area. "I can't understand why the University of Virginia would choose to deprive their fans -- our readers -- of information.

"It's been proven by successful athletic programs around the country that working with the media doesn't prevent teams from winning, or student-athletes from graduating. Al Groh's actions seem to point to his belief that he can do our jobs better than we can. We've been told that the university is going to take steps to repair this damaged relationship. We hope it happens. Newspaper readers deserve the best product they can get."

Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage recently responded to several reporters in a manner that indicated that player response will be better in the future. He also stepped in prior to the Virginia Tech-UVa game last year, when players turned out en masse. What UVa beat reporters fear is that the situation will improve for two or three weeks, and then return to its former, lackluster state.

"We've stayed the course and tried to provide solid coverage of the team, despite the access limits, because we know we have readers who care about the team," White said. "It's a shame that the coach and players don't allow us to do our job better.

"UVa suffers, we suffer and the readers suffer. There are no winners -- other than maybe Virginia Tech, which has used its open access with the media and on-field success to elevate its status in Hampton Roads."




ACC FOOTBALL ACADEMICS

The following signees from 2001-05 had documented academic shortcomings on signing day and failed to gain eligibility at their ACC schools of choice during the spring or fall semester in the year they signed. (Those listed with asterisks enrolled only after attending prep school, junior college or sitting out a semester.) Partial qualifiers enrolled during the year they signed but, under the NCAA rules in place at the time, were ineligible during their first year on campus.

N.C. State (20): RB Josh Brown* (partial qualifier), DT Kennie Covington*, WR Tramain Hall* and TE Lamarr Smith in 2001; WR Lamart Barrett*, LB Elijah Dukes, DB Garland Heath*, DT Alex Lumpkin and WR Richard Washington* (partial qualifier) in 2002; RB Darrell Blackman*, DE Raymond Brooks*, RB Brian Dennison, DE Chad Green and DB Miguel Scott* in 2003; RB Andre Brown*, DT Brandon Setzer and DE Willie Young* in 2004; DE Chad Green, OL Brandon Jeffries (Tennessee transfer) and OL Doug Palmer in 2005.

Clemson (19): WR Derrick Higgins, RB Michaux Hollingsworth, DT Leo Reed, DE Wendell Singletary and WR Tymere Zimmerman in 2001; DE Irvin Brisker, DB Chris Carter, RB Duane Coleman* (partial qualifier), DT Cory Groover* and WR Tymere Zimmerman in 2002; DB Brian Staley in 2003; TE Durrell Barry*, DT Elsmore Gabriel*, OL Cory Lambert*, DT Jacquez McKissic*, DE Phillip Merling* and WR/DB Phillip Morris in 2004; DB Terrell Smith and WR T.J. Williams in 2005.

Florida State (18): DE Chauncey Davis* and DE Justin Tomerlin in 2001; DT Chris Anderson, DT Chris Bradwell*, TE Lonnie Davis, WR Dishon Platt and DT Chris Turner in 2002; DT Chris Anderson, WR DeCody Fagg*, DE Anthony Kelly* and OL Aubrey McPhadden in 2003; DT Emmanuel Dunbar* and DB Jonathan Warren in 2004; DT Callahan Bright, RB/LB Matt Dunham, LB Dan Foster, OL Matt Hardrick and DE Justin Mincey in 2005.

Miami (18): OL Randy Boxill, TE Kevin Everett*, DT Jeff Littlejohn and DB Jovanny Ward in 2001; LB Nate Harris, DB Devin Hester*, WR Darnell Jenkins*, LB/DE Antonio Reynolds and WR Terrell Walden* in 2002; LB Arlington Highsmith, DE Eric Moncur* and LB Leo Waiters in 2003; DT Antonio Dixon*, OL Kellen Heard, TE Cedric Hill, DT Joe Joseph* and OL Josh Kerr in 2004; TE/DE Richard Gordon in 2005. In 2003, UM denied admission to DT signee Nate Robinson, but he met NCAA minimum standards and soon enrolled at Rutgers. In 2004, UM denied admission to RB signee Bobby Washington, at least in part because of alleged standardized testing irregularities, but Washington met NCAA minimum standards and immediately enrolled at N.C. State.

Virginia Tech (15): OL Reggie Butler* and WR Fred Lee* in 2001; DB Demetrius Hodges and DT Lamar Veney in 2002; QB Cory Holt*, OL Nick Marshman* and DB D.J. Parker* in 2003; OL Brandon Holland and TE/DE Sam Wheeler* in 2004; DE Steven Friday, OL Brandon Holland, WR Todd Nolen, DT Sergio Render, LB Deveon Simmons and DB Stephan Virgil in 2005.

North Carolina (11): DE Ike Emodi, WR Derrele Mitchell* and Jarwarski Pollock* (partial qualifier) in 2001; DE Melik Brown* in 2002; DT Marcus Hands, DE Terry Hunter*, DT Khalif Mitchell* and DT Kenny Price* in 2003; DT Marcus Hands in 2004; DB Dwight Fluker-Berry and DE Darrius Massenburg in 2005.

Virginia (8): LB Darryl Blackstock* and DT Mawase Falana in 2001; DT Robert Armstrong, LB Ahmad Brooks* and DT Keenan Carter* in 2002; DB Philip Brown* in 2003; OL Branden Albert* and LB Olu Hall* in 2004; none in 2005. In both 2003 and 2004, UVa denied admission to FB James Terry, but he met NCAA minimum standards and soon enrolled at Division I-AA Hofstra. The Cavaliers also twice denied NCAA-eligible OL Robert Jenkins, who eventually ended up at Maryland.

Maryland (6): DB Marcus Wimbush* in 2002; RB Keon Lattimore* in 2003; OL Jared Gaither* in 2004; DE Melvin Alaeze, LB Chris Clinton and RB Morgan Green in 2005. In 2004, Maryland denied admission to DB signee Kent Hicks, but he met NCAA minimum standards and soon enrolled at Virginia Tech.

Boston College (2): WR Dorien Bryant in 2003; DB Andre Jones in 2005.

Georgia Tech (1): LB Anthony Barnes in 2005.

Wake Forest (1): DE Jyles Tucker* in 2002.

Duke (0): none.

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