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Writers Discuss Difficult Acc Topics

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

By Dave Glenn

March 31, 2005

The ACC Sports Journal asked several veteran sportswriters this question: What kind of noteworthy things happened in the world of ACC sports during the 2004-05 season that for one reason or another were difficult or impossible for the mainstream media to cover, and what can you tell us about those topics? Below are some of their responses.

Where are the quality officials?

It's said that the best-officiated games are those where the officials are merely facilitators to the action, blending into the background. The less visible, the better.

Over the last half-dozen years or so, some officials are taking the visibility issue to the extreme in the ACC. In fact, some of the league's most distinguished men on the whistle either have vanished altogether or significantly reduced their exposure along Tobacco Road.

The list of those who have taken flight to other leagues is impressive. It includes John Clougherty, Steve Croft, Steve Gordon, Donnee Gray, Rick Hartzell, Rusty Herring, Frank Scagliotta and Curtis Shaw.

Why? There is no shortage of opinions. It's a topic that's particularly difficult for the mainstream media to tackle, largely because coaches and athletic department officials decline public comment for fear of repercussions from the league office, and the officials themselves certainly aren't interested in burning any bridges.

Privately, some have said that the league's coddling of ill-behaved and foul-mouthed coaches is partially responsible for the defections. Of course, the two biggest offenders, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Maryland's Gary Williams, also are responsible for landing the league's last two national championships.

You didn't need a course in lip-reading to discern exactly which F-word Krzyzewski expressed directly and frequently at an official during a late-season, nationally televised game against Wake Forest. One former official called Krzyzewski's behavior in the first minute of that game – in an apparent attempt to inspire his players and the Cameron crowd, the coach went absolutely ballistic, even over calls against Duke he knew were correct – among the most ridiculous he'd ever seen at the college level. Not surprisingly, the incident did not even earn the Blue Devils' coach the T-word – technical.

Williams' rants are legendary, though his profanity-laced theatrics – often directed toward his own players or assistant coaches on the bench – tend to buy him some latitude with officials, because they aren't seen as showing them up on the floor.

"There is no doubt that coaches feel more comfortable with certain guys in their game," Clougherty recently told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. "In the same sense, they probably cringe when they see certain referees. Referees enjoy going to places where the coach is not real active and doesn't get a lot of (technical fouls). He lets you referee without badgering you all the time. … Some places are a lot harder to referee because of the coach."

A Raleigh native with more than 20 years of service in the ACC and four national championship games to his credit, Clougherty eventually pulled up stakes and now splits time between the Big East, SEC and Big 12.

Others suggest that many officials are unwilling to pay appropriate homage to ACC director of basketball officials Fred Barakat, who's sarcastically (and privately) known as the "Greek Godfather," in exchange for more favorable assignments.

Regardless, a number of ACC coaches have both publicly and privately decried the lack of quality officiating in the nation's top basketball conference.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt received a stern reprimand for lashing out at the crew that worked Duke's ACC championship game win over the Yellow Jackets on his radio show. Another coach, who has more than two decades of experience on his resume, said the ACC is the "worst-officiated conference in the country," and he wondered aloud why so many of its top officials had moved on to other leagues.

Those critiques likely will continue unless Barakat can effectively replenish his roster of available officials with quality newcomers. With Boston College coming on board next season, there is an even greater sense of urgency, which likely will put the officiating issue on the agenda for the league's spring meetings.

Changing of the guard.

For those who followed the story of ACC expansion closely through the media last year, the names Al Featherston, Dave Droschak, Tim Peeler, Josh Barr and Gregg Doyel should be familiar. They were among the lead writers – from some of the most respected media outlets – who covered the biggest news event since the conference's inception.

What you may not have noticed, given the lack of byline recognition by most readers, is that those human fountains of information no longer are pumping their prose in the mainstream. A majority of them met untimely and unsuspecting fates with their employers, while Doyel took has controversial act – he largely was viewed as the media's Darth Vader by many league and school officials and some media members – to CBS.Sportsline.com.

Featherston fell prey to a popular industry move when the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun was sold. As one of the paper's most senior – not to mention most valued – employees, he became a financial liability in the eyes of the new ownership group and was cut loose. Featherston's reputation as one of the ACC's most respected journalists opened a number of freelance opportunities, including with the ACC Sports Journal, but at the expense of Herald-Sun readers.

Droschak, whose name had become synonymous with the ACC after his 21 years as the Associated Press sportswriter in North Carolina, also moved on. The one-time UNC baseball pitcher, perhaps the most candid and unbiased reporter of his kind, has managed to keep his hand in the business as a freelance contributor to the ACC's official website. When he's not still courtside, he's found a way to orchestrate a near-perfect marriage with his gift-for-gab and love of golf in the public-relations field.

Peeler's untimely parting of the ways with the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, on the eve of this past football season, was immediately felt in the Triangle, his home base. Within 24 hours of being cut loose, Peeler received phone calls from N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler, football coach Chuck Amato and basketball coach Herb Sendek.

While newspaper management might blanch at the notion that Peeler had formed strong relationships with those he covered, his objectivity on the job was never compromised. He was the rare example of a writer who was willing to criticize and pursue negative news about the schools he covered, yet remained well-liked and respected and was considered professional by those he covered. He now writes for N.C. State's official athletic website, among others.

Barr has been off the Maryland beat for two years at the Washington Post, his talents under-utilized in the prep ranks following a reshuffling of assignments by a new sports editor. It was Barr's relentless reporting that made the Maryland beat important again at the ACC area's largest newspaper, after years of burial deep in the bowels of the sports section.

Not even the ringing endorsements of the department's two heaviest hitters, veteran columnists and modern-day TV personalities Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, nor his work chronicling the rise of Maryland football and the school's national basketball championship season, could earn Barr reprieve.

You need know only that the Post opted to use two writers to replace him.

Media: Do your homework.

There were few if any complaints when the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association (ACSMA) released the results of its All-ACC men's basketball balloting. No surprise there, given that the bulk of the ballots come from the state of North Carolina, home to the league's powerbrokers and some of the nation's most astute hardwood observers.

The same, however, cannot be said for the All-ACC football balloting, where the confluence of the voting majority and historically mediocre programs (Duke, UNC, N.C. State, Wake Forest) led to some difficult-to-explain honorees.

Now, it's a given that selecting a pair of 25-member football teams from 11 (soon to be 12) schools is significantly more difficult than identifying three five-member basketball squads of standouts. The unwieldy nature of football, with hundreds of players to follow and almost everyone playing on the same day every week, makes it very hard to be an expert.

It's not easy to evaluate offensive linemen, for example. That's an area where both college and NFL coaches struggle the most to identify the best prospects. In many cases, media members are left to select from a list of nominees provided by coaches and supplemented with a mish-mash of statistics from sports information staffs eager to sway popular opinion in exchange for accolades.

But let's pose a question: If you are selecting a five-member ACC All-Defensive team, do you go strictly on statistics and observations, or do you ask opposing coaches and assistants for their honest assessments?

The best guess, based on this year's selections, is that the answer would be a little of both. Certainly, the unanimous selection of Duke center Shelden Williams was a slam dunk, based on his shotblocking and lane-clogging presence.

But how about Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul, who was the second-leading vote-getter? Though Paul led the league in steals, Wake clearly had one of the league's worst defenses. Was he a better defender than Duke's Daniel Ewing? At least two coaches from outside of North Carolina said they would take Ewing first, followed by honorable mention selection Raymond Felton, before Paul.

Of course, nearly everyone agreed that UNC's Jackie Manuel was one of the ACC's best defenders, yet he didn't show up among the league leaders in virtually any category. How did we know this? Because we observed and asked.

Back to the point. ACSMA has done a great deal to assure unbiased voting, including last year's passing of a provision that allows members' ballots to be released to the media as an additional check and balance against the executive secretary's discretion. The organization also worked with the ACC to ensure that the balloting remained open until the final regular-season game was completed.

That provision was especially critical this season, when statistically challenged Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall made off with MVP honors after leading the Hokies to the ACC title with a win over Miami in the final game. In the final analysis, Randall won the award as much for his leadership and dogged determination as he did for his numbers.

Selecting All-ACC teams strictly on statistics, public relations promotions and popular opinion is a practice that undermines the credibility of the process. The result is that you get a player such as Florida State cornerback Antonio Cromartie – who tied for the team lead in interceptions and returned a pair of turnovers for touchdowns – on the first team over his teammate Bryant McFadden.

Cromartie is without a doubt gifted, but he didn't start a single game in 2004 and was responsible for yielding more TD passes than any other FSU player. McFadden did not yield a single TD pass, in part because few receivers were ever open in his area, and as a result of his play he likely will be drafted no later than the second round by the NFL.

There were a number of other glaring examples.

Wake Forest punter Ryan Plackemeier edged Maryland's Adam Podlesh 43.9-43.7 in punting average for the ACC lead, which earned him first-team honors. Yet Podlesh ranked seventh nationally in net punting (Plackemeier was 37th) and had a 21-17 edge on punts inside the 20. Most coaches agree that those are far better standards to gauge effectiveness.

Maryland guard C.J. Brooks earned first-team honors for a second consecutive year, though he was benched late in the season for poor play, and the Terps' offense was one of the league's worst.

It's important that ACSMA retains its responsibility of being the sole official source for All-ACC selections. That's not the case in the SEC or the Big Ten, where the coaches and media select separate teams, one of which is often more politically motivated.

Secondarily, last season's selections are used as a base list for this coming season's preseason awards watch lists. If you don't believe that those lists have an impact on the eventual award winners, you aren't paying attention.

Why do you think Cromartie, who has exactly one start in his career, is a candidate for Playboy All-American honors? Why was Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks a finalist for the Butkus Award and a second-team All-American after earning ACC rookie of the year honors in 2003, when Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson was clearly the league's best linebacker?

What better example to set for the profession that putting forth a little more time and homework prior to submitting ballots. After all, the media doesn't hesitate to criticize coaches (and players) who don't do the same. In the long run, it's worth the effort just to maintain ACSMA's reputation, but more importantly, the athletes who are getting overlooked in haste certainly deserve better.

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