Head coach Willie Taggart is changing the way the Oregon football program interacts with the media, and reporters seem happy about the changes.
On Wednesday, Taggart opened the Ducks’ first spring practice to the media. It’s a major diversion from policies of previous head coaches Mark Helfrich and Chip Kelly, who closed practices to prevent their plays, schemes and other strategies from being publicized.
Taggart allowed reporters, photographers and videographers to roam the sidelines for the first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s practice and will continue to do so for the rest of spring. Three practices will be completely open to media and the general public, from start to finish.
Taggart told the Emerald he plans to follow a similar regimen in the fall.
“I think it’s good for [reporters] to come over and get to talk about our football team and get the information out to our fanbase,” Taggart said. “[It] helps them do their job a little bit. It’s something I’ve always done at every place I’ve been.”
Reporters say the increased access will enable them to better understand the team as the season progresses, which will ultimately improve their reporting.
“You can kind of see guys along the way, not just the final product in some ways,” said Andrew Greif of The Oregonian. “It always helps to put your own eyes on things.”
Oregon’s practices were completely open for media and public viewing until 1997, when the school began limiting access by closing practices on Wednesdays. Dave Williford, the team’s sports information director for the past 30 years, said two Oregon coaches claimed that, while they were coaching for other schools, they built their scouting reports of the Ducks based on footage of the team that they had seen on TV broadcasts. So then-head coach Mike Bellotti took measures to limit access to practices.
In 2010, then-head coach Chip Kelly barred media from all practices, claiming it inhibited the team’s ability to prepare. Furthermore he required reporters to request interviews with coaches and players at least 24 hours in advance and refused to disclose players’ injuries to media. The restrictions particularly impacted TV and internet reporters, who relied heavily on getting “B-roll” footage at practices.
Taggart said, in his experience, he’s never run into problems with having media at practice. But Mario Cristobal, Oregon’s co-offensive coordinator, said the media’s presence at practice frequently became an issue when he coached at Alabama under Nick Saban, who is infamous for his spats with reporters.
The Register-Guard beat reporter Ryan Thorburn, who started covering Oregon football in 2013, said opening practices is “better than the alternatives.” He said the Denver Broncos, the NFL team on whom he previously reported, allowed reporters into practice but prohibited them from reporting anything they saw. If reporters broke any news from practice, coach Mike Shanahan banned them from attending future practices.
Thorburn said, come fall season, having open practice will allow him to see which players are practicing in particular position groups, which will give him a better sense of the which players are on the first team and second team.
Erik Skopil, a reporter for Duck Territory, said when practices were closed, he tended to see the same stories being reported by different outlets, because reporters could only rely on group interviews post-practice to get their information, instead of first-hand accounts. He said videos from practice will enable him to diversify his coverage and foster interest in the website.
Greif said it is “appropriate” for reporters to write about what happens at practice — fans certainly have an appetite for the information. He said his coverage may shift more toward what happens during practice, as opposed to what is said in interviews before and after — at least at first.
“There’s kind of a mystery about Oregon practices and what exactly they even do there, especially with the new staff — how they’ll run practices,” Greif said. “I think at first it’ll maybe be a little more, for practices reports, ‘Here’s what I saw.’ As we go on I’m not sure the novelty will still continue.”
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