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August 5, 2008

Column: FSU media policy misses the mark

For decades, Bobby Bowden has been known as the most accessible head football coach in the country.

He opened his locker room to the press when others wouldn't. He invited authors into his coaches' meetings so that they could pen books about the nuances of his program. He allowed filmmakers and others to document just about anything they wanted.

As long as Bobby Bowden was in charge, almost any interview request would not only be accepted, but appreciated. No matter how big or how small.

I remember the first time I sat in Bobby Bowden's office. It was the spring of 1994, and the Seminoles had just won their first national title a few months earlier. I was writing for the tiny Times-Enterprise newspaper in Thomasville, Ga., and I called down to see if I could come interview Bowden before the start of spring practice.

In hindsight, it was a pretty silly request. Why would one of the largest personalities in college sports take the time to chat one-on-one with a reporter from a small town in Georgia? You can bet Steve Spurrier wouldn't have done that. Neither would Dennis Erickson, the other big-name coach in the state at the time.

But Bowden didn't hesitate. He answered every last question.

What's interesting is when you talk to people in the media about Coach Bowden's open approach, they'll say, "That's just Bobby. That's his nature." They'll point to his similar actions in dealing with fans and boosters. How he always has time for an autograph. How he never turns away from a photo request.

But I would argue that there is a certain wisdom to Bowden's charm as well. While no one can deny that it is his nature to be giving with his time, it's also very plausible that Bowden understood from day one the challenging media landscape and the obstacles his fledgling program would encounter.

It is well-documented that Florida State's football program was in dire straits when Bowden arrived. But he also had to know that regardless of how hard he worked to turn this ship around, he was going to have a very difficult time making inroads with the state media.

For one, the University of Florida would always have a tremendous advantage in terms of coverage. The Gators have a much larger alumni base, which means more eyeballs to attract to newspapers and television screens, and UF also has benefited from having the state's dominant journalism program.

Second, there's the matter of geography. From every heavily populated area in the state, it's easier to get to Gainesville than it is to Tallahassee. That goes for the media as well.

But by being so accessible by filling reporters' notebooks with so many brilliant one-liners and opening his doors to anyone at anytime Bowden was able to stem that tide. He made Florida State a program that the media not only needed to cover, but they wanted to cover.

And that exposure made a huge difference as Florida State battled for top recruits around the nation, and as Seminole Boosters looked to broaden its base of donors. It also undoubtedly has paid dividends for the rest of the university.

Unfortunately, it appears that Florida State is beginning to head down a path that may negate so much of that progress. Just a few days before the start of preseason practice, FSU's sports information department released a new list of policies and procedures concerning the coverage of practices and games.

Now, there's obviously nothing wrong with that. Every athletics department in the country has similar rules in place, and Florida State should be no exception.

But while I'm not going to bore you with every minute detail of these policies where reporters can watch practices from, how long interviews can last, etc. -- I can tell you that the policy contains at least one item that is cause for concern.

For the first time in anyone's recollection, Florida State will not allow any "first-year players," including freshmen and transfers, to speak with the media until they "have made a significant contribution on the field."

Determining what a "significant contribution" means will certainly be a topic of spirited debate in the days following the season opener, but until then, the policy is clear no incoming players can talk to the media during preseason practice.

That means defensive end Markus White, the junior college star who is expected to challenge for a starting job immediately. That means fellow junior college transfers Corey Surrency and Tavares Pressley, who many hope will breathe life into the Seminoles' offense.

It also means freshman quarterback E.J. Manuel and freshman linebacker Nigel Bradham, arguably the top-rated recruits in this year's signing class.

FSU's new policy document didn't provide an explanation for the change, but the word is that the Seminoles' coaches don't want these newcomers to be distracted by the media. The feeling is that these young men have so much else on their plates, with school, meetings and practices, that they don't need any other demands on their time.

Well, that sounds OK on the surface. But the reality is that it isn't as if these players would be taking part in hours and hours of interviews. You'd be talking 10-15 minutes on any given day.

And the benefit of those interviews would be immeasurable. When your program is coming off of back-to-back 7-6 seasons, the greatest thing you can sell to fans is hope for the future. And in Florida State's case, that hope lies with this class of newcomers.

Fans desperately want to believe that Manuel, Bradham and company will help turn this program around. And that is precisely the reason why Florida State should be doing everything in its power to promote these young men particularly with season-ticket sales slumping during tough economic times.

Even if you were convinced that this policy makes sense in the long term, this would be the absolute worst year for Florida State to make such a change. With 10 or so players sidelined for the first two or three games including several starters FSU should be working overtime to divert attention from that storyline.

Instead, the media will be forced to focus on many of the players who won't be playing in the season opener due to academic- or discipline-related suspensions, as opposed to the talented youngsters who likely will be suiting up and contributing.

It's not surprising that there are changes afoot in the Seminoles' athletics program. That's what happens when you have a slew of new administrators and coaches.

But in terms of public relations and handling the media, no one has ever been better than Bobby Bowden. In any sport. At any level.

It would be in Florida State's best interests to revere that legacy.

Ira Schoffel is the Osceola's general manager.


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