Inside TSL 2: Life in the Press Box
by Will Stewart,
TSL Extra, Issue #15

This football season, I was able to do something that I had never done before: work in the press box for Virginia Tech football games. As a matter of fact, I worked three Tech games. All three were on the road of course, since the Virginia Tech Athletic Department does not grant press credentials to

Tech only plays five road games a year plus a bowl game, so there are only a few opportunities to attend a game as "working press." We also have a very limited travel budget, so flying to games is out of the question. In odd-numbered years such as this past season, the road schedule provides a handful of games within relatively easy driving distance: West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Temple, and Virginia. put in media credential requests for all of the listed games, plus the Gator Bowl (we skipped the Rutgers road game because of driving distance from Southwest Virginia). The Pittsburgh request was flatly refused with a "we don't credential web sites" response, and the Temple game request was also refused.

(I heard through the grape vine that the Temple Sports Information Director, or SID, took a look at the message board in the weeks following the Syracuse and Pitt losses, groused that it was an "awfully negative" message board, and used that as a reason for refusing access. Of course, this leads me to wonder if a credential would have been issued had they looked at the board a couple weeks earlier).

West Virginia, however, granted access with no questions asked, as did the Gator Bowl. As for Virginia, they refused access for TSL but reminded us in their written refusal that had a press box pass and a field pass for each game (for those of you who don't know, and are owned by the same parent company). So for the Virginia game, I worked the press box with the job of recapping the game for TSL and The Sabre, and Mike Ingalls of The Sabre took photos on the field for both web sites.

As for working games in the press box for the first time goes, it was an educational season. I got to see how things work, what resources are available to the working press, and how those who have been doing it for years approach the job. And I thought it might make a good "Inside TSL" article.

The Good News Is, I Wasn't Attacked

With the ripping that many newspaper beat writers and columnists take on the TSL message boards (comments like "Lipper's an idiot!" and "Randy King hasn't written an original thought in his life" come to mind), I'm sure your first question is how the beat writers reacted to my presence in the press box.

As near as I can tell, they didn't mind. Most of them were very accepting of me and treated me nicely, even Randy King, TSL's favorite whipping boy. King has always been cordial to me and has told me to my face (well, okay, via email) that he has no problem with me personally. Randy's not entirely comfortable with "web media" getting press box and press conference access, but that's okay -- he has told me why, and I understand where he's coming from.

Beat writers (for Tech and UVa) Doug Doughty, Bob Lipper, Mike Harris, Jeff White, Bucky Dent, Norm Wood and others were friendly to me. Does that mean they all think it was a great thing that I was finally in the press box? Well, I can't answer that, because I didn't ask them. But I was surprised how many times I was introduced this season to a member of the media that I had never met before, and they said within the first fifteen seconds, "You do a hell of a job with that web site," or some such variation.

Journalists know how important access is to their craft. They feel it is nearly impossible to write about a topic or cover a team without being able to access informational resources and interview the people who are being written about. And I think that most of them probably respect what I'm able to do, given that I'm not allowed to talk to anyone at Virginia Tech.

Plus, the beat writers aren't dumb. They're able to separate out me as an individual from what gets said on the TSL message boards. I don't comment about beat writers or take shots at them in print, so they generally have no reason to dislike me, at least not for anything I personally have done to them or said about them. Perhaps I could delete the "Writer X is an idiot!" comments from the board more than I do, but journalists, at least the ones I've met, are big boys and girls who can take the heat. That doesn't mean I'll allow open season on them on the TSL boards, but they're a tough lot. Do they like the shots they take on the boards? No, but they get over it.

So, from what I can tell, there's no hostility towards me from the beat writers, at least as a group. I imagine that if there is, the people who feel it are just avoiding me or hiding it.

How it Works

Two types of media access passes are handed out: a press box pass and a field pass. There are also "full access" passes that enable an individual to go anywhere they want, but I don't know if those are issued by the SID to working media, or by the athletic department to employees, etc. -- or some combination thereof.

Press box passes get you access to the press box, of course. Within the press box, there's a directory of where everyone is supposed to sit tacked to the wall. The seats are numbered, and you find your organization on the chart, read the number, and go to that seat. The individual seats are also labeled, so it's not as if it's first-come, first-served. There's a place for everyone, and everyone in their place.

During the game, at the end of each quarter, the SID staff of the home team prints out statistics and play-by-play and hands them out, so by the end of the game, you have up-to-date quarterly statistics. This allows you to get an idea of the ebb and flow of the game in statistical terms, and some writers, me included, will actually write a recap of the game as it's in progress, using the quarterly printouts as a guide.

As the game nears its conclusion, most places will escort you out of the press box and down onto the sidelines, where you can watch the last few minutes of the game and then follow the team into the tunnel. Typically, each team will have a few moments behind closed doors where the coach will address the team, and upon completion of that meeting, the coach will come out and address the press in the media room.

The comments that the coaches make in these sessions are usually copied down, printed out, and made available by the SID staff. This means that if a writer sits in on Beamer's post-game comments, he or she can still find out what the opposing coach said by getting a copy of that coach's post-game comments from the SID later. This is why you see so many quotes re-used in so many different papers.

There are separate media rooms for home and visiting teams, so it is pretty much impossible for one person to cover both teams. After the coach makes his comments and answers a couple of questions, players will come out of the locker room for interviews, and so will assistant coaches.

Contrary to popular belief, the press rarely goes into the locker room, and at the games I worked, they didn't go in at all. Typically, the press requests the SID to bring a player out of the locker room for interviews, and if the player agrees, he'll come out. One notable exception this year where a player did not make himself available for interviews was when Ernest Wilford refused to come out after the Miami game. I didn't work that game, but most articles mentioned the next day that Wilford refused to answer questions.

When the players and coaches start to come out of the locker rooms, that's when the fun starts. Rule #1: the quarterback gets mobbed. Rule #2: anybody who screwed up or who did something great also gets mobbed. Rule #3: be patient and wait your turn. Not that reporters don�t ask questions on top of each other, but if you want a little face time with a player, you're going to have to wait until the mob clears out.

What's the Advantage of Sitting in the Box?

If you've ever seen one of the stats packages that Virginia Tech (and many schools) put on their official web sites for games now, you know that incredibly detailed statistics for a game and even detailed play-by-play drive charts are now readily available to the general public. Anyone with the time and inclination could sit down and write a pretty good game recap, so what is the advantage of being in the press box?

I can answer that by saying that it's not so much the press box during the game that benefits a reporter, as it is the chance to interview players and coaches after the game.

During the actual game, though, being in the press box does have its advantages. You're in there with professionals who watch and break down games for a living, so it's nice to have your fellow writers as a resource. Most or all of them are more observant than I and can answer the "Who made that tackle?" and "What down and distance was that?" questions that I always have, not to mention point out important trends in the game as it unfolds.

Bucky Dent of the Bristol Herald Courier is one the best writers to sit next to. I sat next to Bucky at the Gator Bowl. Bucky works a lot of high school sports, where stats packages and drive charts are not, as you can imagine, provided. So Bucky has developed a somewhat elaborate system of keeping his own running stats and play-by-play charts. I don�t know what Bucky's system is, but I do know that he's got one and that it works. Bucky can tell you at any point in the game what any player's stats are, and every time I had a detail question for him, he knew the answer.

But, as I said, the biggest advantage is being able to ask the coaches and players after the game about things that happened. At the Gator Bowl, for instance, I never saw a decent replay of the first two long passes that Ronyell Whitaker gave up, so I got to ask him face to face what happened (he described it in detail for me). I was able to ask Andre Davis if those slants, or crossing routes, or whatever you want to call them, had been in the playbook, or if they were new ("They've been in the playbook for a while, we just were playing a defense today that gave them to us"). I got to ask Bud Foster why Greg Jones of FSU was able to gain 23 and 22 yards on consecutive carries with the game on the line (he ran right through Mike Daniels on one play, and a linebacker over-pursued on the other).

One other instance that sticks out in my mind was when I asked defensive line coach Charley Wiles after the West Virginia game what he thought of defensive end Jim Davis' interception return for a touchdown. "He did just what we told him to do," Wiles said, "He was getting cut-block, and we tell 'em if that happens, get your hands down, shed the guy, and then get your hands back up in the air (because a pass is coming your way). He did that, and the ball hit him in his big ol' hands and just stuck there."

Surely you've watched a game and thought to yourself at some point, "What happened there?" or "What was he thinking on that play?" Well, imagine if you could jot down a note and then ask the player or coach your question right after the game was over. It's pretty cool � if you can fight through the mob to ask your question.

I Might As Well Be Invisible

But without a doubt, the biggest impression I'm left with, after covering three games as working press, is this: it doesn't matter if I'm there or not.

What do I mean by that? Well, it does matter to my analysis of a game, as I pointed out above. I can get clarification from the coaches on why things happened, and that enhances the articles I write and therefore enhances your enjoyment of the site.

So in what way does it not matter that I'm present? It doesn't matter in the sense that there are dozens and dozens of people involved in the press box and post-game, and to have one more person present, just doing their job, doesn't make one bit of difference.

I think a part of me thought that letting a writer, from -- egads! -- a web site of all things, into the press box would have some sort of impact. But it didn't. I showed up, I worked, I interviewed players and coaches, I wrote my piece, and I went home, just like everyone else. It didn't change the game, it didn't change the operation, and the large majority of the people involved didn't even know I was there. And among the ones who did notice, I don't think a single one of them cared.

I was just another tiny piece of the game-day puzzle. There are way too many people there with way too much work to do for it to have made one whit of difference to them if some guy from a web site was in attendance. WVU's got that figured out, and so do UVa and even the Gator Bowl.

I stayed out of the way and did my work. The coaches and players answered my questions without batting an eyelash, and were very accommodating, as a matter of fact. Not once did anyone ask who I was. I was just another guy with a notebook and a voice recorder. I'm pretty sure Coach Wiles knows who I am, and I think maybe Coach Beamer does (I've met him twice, and if he's got a good memory for names and faces, he knows), but I doubt Coach Foster knows who I am, and I'm sure none of the players do.

It was refreshing to find out that I could go in, do some work, and get some valuable content out of it without it causing a stir. I guess it's self-important to think that it would have gone any different.

In any event, I learned a lot, and I hope you enjoyed this little look inside the press box and game-day media operations. Any questions? Send me an email and ask me, and I'll answer them next month in "Inside TSL."

No Contest This Month

A couple of issues ago, I promised you a contest every month, and I have failed to arrange one for the last two issues. It seems that I always run up on my deadline (for example, it's 1:30 a.m. as I write this, and this issue has to be released tomorrow), and the last two months, I haven't had time to come up with a decent contest.

I apologize for that, and I'll try to put something together next month.

Speaking of next month � see you then.



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