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College Coaches Paranoid About Spying


Georgia is getting ready to face Alabama in a crucial Southeastern Conference game. The Crimson Tide is coached by Nick Saban. Saban used to work for Bill Belichick. Can you figure out where this is going?

Yep, for the first time in his seven years as the Bulldogs coach, Mark Richt has totally closed practice for the week leading up to a game.

While doing his best to persuade skeptical reporters that it has nothing to do with Saban’s tactics, Richt sounded downright paranoid Tuesday when going over his reasons for the lockdown.

“Things have changed in the last few years. It’s not like it used to be. It’s so easy for information to travel so fast,” Richt said. “Maybe if we had an indoor facility where no one was walking around or looking in the window, we would all feel better. The reality is: What we do is big. People care. Winning and losing has a profound effect on people’s careers.”

Richt is hardly alone in sounding like a CIA wannabe.

While Belichick’s sideline videotaping has brought cheating to the forefront in the NFL, it has long been a concern at the college ranks, where cloak-and-dagger coaches have always suspected opponents are spying on practices, stealing signals and using all sorts of nefarious tactics to get an edge apparently with good reason.

Vince Dooley used to hear of cases every year while serving as chairman of the ethics committee of the national coaching association, which has guidelines against illicit spying.

“It’s nothing new,” said Dooley, who coached Georgia for 25 years before retiring after the 1988 season. “There’s just an awareness of it now because of what’s happened (with Belichick).”

Dooley remembers one team sent someone to spy on an opponent from the sixth floor of the school’s library, which happened to provide a clear view of the practice field.

“He was just sitting up there writing away,” Dooley said, without naming either school. “It was just a blatant violation of the rules.”

Another time, a Georgia student managed to get on the field during the Bulldogs’ annual game against rival Florida posing as a member of the television crew. He was wearing headphones and giving signals, as if working on the broadcast.

“A Florida coach went around there and put him in a choke hold,” Dooley recalled, “and sent his ID card to me.”

Dooley investigated and found it was merely a prank. The student was motioning to his friends in the stands and not providing inside information to the Bulldogs.

Still, there have been plenty of times when coaches suspected someone was lurking in the shadows, charting formations, checking for trick plays and learning if any key players were injured.

“I wouldn’t put it past some guys,” said Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, one of the more suspicious coaches in the country.

The Sooners run practices as though they’re guarding state secrets. All workouts during the season are closed. The field is surrounded by high fences and shrubbery. Security guards in golf carts patrol the perimeter, pouncing on anyone who has the nerve to even walk by slowly.

Sometimes when Oklahoma lets in fans for a preseason scrimmage, Stoops will order one side of the stadium closed so the coaches’ backs are to everyone sitting the stands. In explaining his reasons, he sounds like a holdover from the Cold War.

“I don’t want someone sitting out here watching one of our scrimmages and we’re just sitting here giving it all (away),” Stoops said. “We put our back to everybody so if we’re signaling, I know no one’s over there on the west side. Hopefully no one’s snuck up in the press box and paying attention to what we’re doing.”

In Miami earlier this season, new Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon dispatched security officers to a parking garage next to the practice fields after allegedly seeing someone with a video camera. People in the program suspected it was case of spying, since detailed stories about what went on in practice kept showing up on some Web sites and message boards.

“That is a discouraging thing, when you are trying to do something and somebody is at practice,” Shannon said. “You don’t know who they are or who they’re working for.”

It’s not just the major schools, either. Two Alabama teams from the former Division I-AA got into a tiff before their season opener.

Alabama State coaches accused a local high school assistant and former Jacksonville State graduate assistant of spying during a scrimmage that was open to the public. They even confiscated his notes and handed them over to the local newspaper. Jacksonville State denied the allegations.

Richt usually allows family members and former players to watch practice, and he would also let in the media for the first half-hour before the team got down to its serious work.

Not this week with the No. 22 Bulldogs (2-1) preparing for a trip to Tuscaloosa.

“If it were up to me and I could get away with it, I would just as soon close it down (permanently),” Richt said. “There’s not much that decides between winning and losing. A lot of times, it’s one play. If the other team gets a one-play advantage, it could cost you.”

Saban, who’s guided No. 16 Alabama to a 3-0 start in his first season, worked four years as Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. In an interesting twist, the Saban-coached Miami Dolphins were accused of stealing signals from Belichick’s New England Patriots last season, but the NFL found no wrongdoing.

“We never did it,” Saban insisted this week. “We didn’t have any video cameras. We never had anybody’s signals. We had somebody watch their signals and try to figure them out, which we were never smart enough to do.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000 after the team had someone videotaping signals on the New York Jets sideline during the season opener. The team also will have to forfeit draft picks, depending on how well it does this year.

“I hear people say in the business world sometimes, ‘We’re always trying to create a winning edge,'” Saban said. “In sports, we’d all like to try to do that. But we all have to be careful that we always do that with full respect for the rules.”

Richt said he’s more concerned about information getting out over the Internet than he is about another school sending someone to Athens on a spying mission. It might be something as innocuous as a student assistant telling a friend about a particular play. The next thing you know, the friend has posted the info on a MySpace page.

And don’t forget the countless fan blogs that have popped up in recent years.

“When you’re out there practicing, doing whatever it is you’re doing, it wouldn’t take a veteran coach to understand what’s happening,” Richt said. “You wonder who might see it and who say something about it. It might even be your own people.”

So, who’s barred from practice this week?

“Any face,” Richt said, “that we don’t really recognize.”

AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Jeff Latzke in Norman, Okla., and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.

–Associated Press

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