Who said there was no access to Bo Pelini this week?
About 4 p.m. Wednesday, my cell phone rang. It was Bo.
He was on his way to practice. First, Pelini wanted to share his side of this three-day media lockout or blackout or whatever you want to call this thing that has become national news and has his critics saying Bo's having another tantrum.
Pelini was calm yet firm in making his point on the telephone. He's got a concern about how Sean Fisher's injury came out on Tuesday — a concern that more college football coaches are facing in this age of “new media.''
To that end, I believe something good, and important, can come from all of this.
Still, there were at least two Husker injuries that Pelini wasn't going to talk about until Saturday, keeping the “blackout” story alive. It would have kept everyone wondering about the official extent of Fisher's injury, and left questions about the other injury that Tom Osborne referred to in a Tuesday night radio interview.
For those of you who don't spend your life following what happens with Husker football, Pelini on Wednesday morning announced that he was shutting down all access to NU coaches and players until Saturday. That meant no daily post-practice reports or interviews the media uses to fill its pages and airtime with.
Stay tuned on that, though. In a phone interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday night, the third-year coach said he might relent and allow access sometime before Saturday.
“I don't want this place to be Fort Knox,” he said. “That's not my nature.”
He also confirmed to the AP that Fisher broke a leg and is out for the season. And he said backup cornerback Anthony Blue tore his anterior cruciate ligament Tuesday and is out.
So that clears some things up. Still, there's the issue that caused the blackout in the first place. It's about control. Pelini wanted to control how Fisher's injury went public. Pelini thought he — or NU — should have been the one to release news of the injury.
He said he had seen Fisher being carted off the field, but had no idea of the extent of the injury; Pelini said he sees players being carted off all the time, with various results.
Tuesday was not Pelini's day to meet with the media, who had no idea about the injuries. After practice, Pelini did two one-on-one interviews, one with ESPN.com reporter Pat Forde, and the other with yours truly. He was on his way to get an update on Fisher when someone told him the “story'' was already on an Internet message board that Fisher had broken his leg. Pelini was furious.
He wanted time to tell Fisher's family members about it first. He wasn't happy when media outlets called Fisher's family and his high school coach in efforts to confirm internet chatter.
That's admirable and understandable. But as I told Pelini, journalists have a different timetable than coaches — if a top-line player is hurt, we're going to try to confirm it now. We're a news organization. It's our job to get news out accurately and quickly. I've had this conversation with 100 coaches in the past. I'll probably have it with 100 more.
It was interesting that Osborne, NU's athletic director, went on Husker Sports Network radio Tuesday night and mentioned two injuries that occurred at practice. When he was coaching, Osborne used to routinely announce daily injuries after practices — back before practice onlookers could rush to their computers to “report” what they'd seen.
I told Pelini that NU could have done everyone a favor by releasing a simple one- or two-sentence statement — after the family was aware — saying that Fisher had a leg injury and Pelini would have more information on it Wednesday. Pelini said he still wanted to do it on his time, and, besides, he said the news was already out there.
That's the heart of this issue and Pelini's frustration: coaches have less control than ever over what information gets out.
Maybe now Pelini has a little more.
If he wants to punish the media — and ultimately, fans who want information about their team — Pelini can do what he has to do. But what about the real leaks: the boosters, former players, friends of the program and sometimes even family members who attend closed practices and run to their computers to tell the world — which was the case again after Tuesday's practice?
Well, on Wednesday, NU announced that all personnel not directly associated with the team are barred from practice indefinitely, including family members of players and coaches, boosters and former players. I think that's good. It's about time. If you're going to close practice, close it to everyone.
Florida, Georgia Tech and Texas have done the same — for the same reasons. An injury at Texas reached twitter before coach Mack Brown could tell the player's family.
Pelini should keep practices closed to the boosters and friends of the program. Would a donor pull his money because he couldn't watch practice? Even so, in today's world, things will still get out from underneath Pelini. The coach was born 30 years too late. Pelini would have loved the 1970s or 1980s, when two beat writers attended practice and there was no instant access via cell phone or the internet.
In 2010 there are 25 media members at every practice, dissecting every aspect of this team for a nationwide Husker audience with an insatiable appetite for Big Red news and more ways than ever to find it. As head of this operation, Pelini has an obligation to be a spokesman, and at the same time he's obligated to protect the interests of his program.
It's a tough balancing act, and one that Pelini admits is one of his biggest challenges. He closed off access to his program this summer when he didn't like how a Niles Paul incident was reported. This week, he turned a practice injury into a national story, another round of Bo vs. the world.
Know this: Pelini gives the media and Nebraska fans more access than many college football programs, including Iowa and Texas. He's also learning to be better with the media. But he's still going to be Bo. He's going to draw the line where he sees fit. Pelini insists that, even though NU is a publicly funded state institution, the media and Husker fans are not entitled to know everything that happens in practice or in the program.
Everything? There's some truth to that. We can debate that one the next time we get together. Whenever that is.
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