STATE COLLEGE - We in the sports media are supposed to be skeptical, but more often than not we are cynical. Make us a promise and we're supposed to say that maybe it can be done, instead of saying that it cannot.
We're not supposed to be particularly optimistic, where we hear a promise and assume that it can be done. We know that readers don't want us passing along newsmakers' unfiltered hot air, so we generally try to limit our endorsements of public promises.
There's a virtue in skepticism, and with a healthy dose of it I say that new Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien's media dealings are off to a pleasant start and a notable improvement over his predecessor. O'Brien told a roomful of sports editors from around the northeast last Tuesday during an Associated Press Sports Editors meeting held at Penn State that he wants to open the program to the media so people can see what it has to offer.
Given the turmoil of the last six months, that's a wise move.
Joe Paterno deserves remembrance as the greatest college football coach of all time, Jerry Sandusky scandal aside, but his media policies were as restrictive as any in the nation. Ed Storin, the long-retired sports editor of the Miami Herald, once told me Paterno never got enough credit for creating the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick media character who restricts access and then says little when actually granting it.
I usually found Paterno fascinating whether he was telling a story about a 1959 recruiting trip or stonewalling one about who would play Saturday, but the barriers he put up around the media certainly helped raise plenty of questions about how Penn State operates this past winter.
Paterno's general public media availabilities in recent years consisted of Tuesday and post-game press conferences and a Thursday call-in radio show he increasingly ditched in favor of an assistant. There'd be a pre-spring and pre-season media day, and that was about it away from bowl season. Player availability was limited to two selected players in-person after the Tuesday press conference and maybe a half dozen players available on conference calls to as many as 20-25 reporters lasting less than half an hour.
On game days, it was all the requested players that the tireless sports information staff could corral from the locker room, with star players and game MVPs almost always available. Freshmen were off-limits, besides for maybe one or two late-season exceptions. No open practices, except for a couple 15-minute windows where all we saw was stretching. One-on-one interviews were rare.
That's nearly identical to Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose results make him the best coach in college football today but is perhaps the sport's most noted modern control freak. Saban makes most players except true freshmen available once early in the week, but is known to deny access to players on the injury list and held first-year starting sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron from most media opportunities last fall.
Coincidentally, Saban once coached under Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. So you can imagine some cynicism within the local sports media when Penn State hired O'Brien. He also coached under Belichick, whose New England Patriots press conferences present all the informational and entertainment value of watching wood rot in real time.
I never understood the value of protecting 18-22 year-old athletes from the media, unless the coach does it for his own gain. After all, the less you let a player spout off, the less likely they are to motivate the other team. But there's educational value in learning to behave like a public figure. I'll never forget former Williamsport Crosscutters manager Jeff Branson reminding us to talk to his players after losses because they likely hadn't done it before and would need that experience should they ever reach the majors.
But O'Brien hasn't been secretive like that, not so far. Sure, his introductory press conference in January looked carefully managed - two sessions totaling 30 minutes in a Nittany Lion Inn ballroom, interrupted by a chance to meet school supporters in the next room and curtailed for a public visit to the women's basketball game across campus.
But since that day and Super Bowl XLVI he's met with reporters in his office, opened a workout session and parts of some spring practices, and made more players available in-person than before this time of year. O'Brien told us Tuesday he hasn't defined media policies for the fall, other than to say he wants to make sure major injuries are first disclosed to the families.
O'Brien deserved some praise for simply meeting with us sports editors Tuesday. We first lined up school president Graham Spanier back in the fall, but that fell through with his firing. Successor Rodney Erickson initially agreed to honor Spanier's commitment, we were told, but that fell through for undisclosed reasons.
Here's hoping, with a healthy dose of that virtuous skepticism, O'Brien will deserve more praise in his future dealings with the media. We will cover him aggressively whether he cooperates or not. But in matters of public perception, people tend to think you have less to hide the less you act like you're trying to hide something.
And right now, O'Brien's new employer shouldn't be trying to hide anything.
Brigandi is sports editor at The Williamsport Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.