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February 15, 2013

Flock Talk: Closed practices?

To close or not to close

As the 2013 recruiting cycle fades into a hazy memory of early commitments, de-commitments, late surprises and long time locks, we move swiftly along towards another season. The 2013 season fast approaches, but before Nicholls State arrives to Autzen, there will first be spring practices and a spring game.

While there is plenty we know about who will be where in 2013, there is a question still up for debate, who will see anything prior to that late August opening kickoff?

Over the past four seasons, with Chip Kelly at the helm, Duck fans experienced a slow, but always trending towards more restrictive access to the football program. I have written in the past how the boosters needed to let it go; their need to "schmooze" with the head coach was not a necessity for success; merely their own ego boosting selfish desires.

Does this belief extend to those who feel that access to practice is just as important? In many ways it does; but in many ways practice access is critical for fan development. That's right fan development.

As many know, I grew up in the Eugene area. I remember plenty of Saturdays down on the turf at Autzen playing catch with players; meeting players; taking pictures with the players. To a skinny young kid, this was one of the most amazing experiences I could imagine. I was on the field with college football players.

With closed practices and Pac-12 rules regarding fans on the field; with the more businesslike approach that has come over time, much of this intimate feeling between fans and players has eroded. Today, kids still get to meet the players, but it is not the intimate relationship that it used to be; it has changed.

The players, especially over the last four years have been virtually off-limits to fans other than one "fanfest" day which has proven to be very difficult to really spend any time meeting and greeting. Long lines and short time frames have made it virtually impossible for fans, especially the young fans, to mingle and talk with players. Instead it is, essentially, nothing more than a long line of people who simply get an autograph, a handshake and a "move-along" when their time has passed.

Nonetheless, there is a reason for lack of access to players. As we have seen around other programs, free access between players and fans can create very serious boundary issues. The feeling around USC during the height of their 2000's success was sometimes equated to a "zoo" or a "circus." That is to say that there were so many celebrities, fans and hangers-on always around the team that it became difficult to mange the team.

There is value, beyond the simplistic concept of keeping the game plan secret, to closed practices. With fans and press at every practice reporting and talking about everything they see, sure, there is the possibility of opponents being made aware of special plays, game plans and injuries.

This is not the bigger issue, though, in my opinion. To me, closing practices is all about the "Win The Day" mantra. While just about everyone in college football and beyond (yes, even a yogurt commercial starring an Olympic Softball star uses "win the day"), none have done so with such weekly consistency as Oregon. The Ducks have lost focus maybe twice in the last four years.

Without fans or media inside practices, players are certainly able to focus on the tasks at hand much more effectively. Yes, there are those that think this is hogwash. Reality is, though, that these are 18-22 year old kids. Minds wander at that age. Keeping these young men focused is an extremely difficult task. When they are playing at the level the Ducks have been playing, it is even more difficult.

During bowl weeks, there is a 15 minute session at the beginning of practices that are required to be open. I like this concept. I think the solution to fan access is somewhere in this idea. Have the players warming up with everyone having access before practice. Let the fans see the players warming up, stretching, let them see the players do a couple of positional drill warm-ups before taking the players into their practice time. There is no harm to the players focus once they enter the real portion of practice and the fans get the chance to feel as if they are a part of the program.

In the end, fans are built not just by the winning, but from the ground up. There are thousands of kids all over Eugene who look at Marcus Mariota the way I used to look at Reggie Ogburn or Don Coleman; with awe. Let these young fans build a relationship that is more than watching from the stands and they will become lifelong Ducks.

Mark Helfrich is a very creative person, his "world tour" with seven coaches was a stroke of genius. I am sure he knows that with the winning came a lot of new fans, but retaining fans is going to require a relationship building effort. Let's see how he can change the perception while still maintaining the need for private preparation.

I am in favor of closed practices to the extent that I believe it helps the players learn how to focus for that two hour period without distraction. But I also believe that Duck fans need a better relationship to the program.

Helfrich took a giant first step with the change in policy towards media at the Casanova Center this week.

Hoops madness

Wednesday, the Duck mens basketball team accomplished two tasks. One which it had not accomplished in nearly 20 years, another which they had never achieved. By defeating Washington, the Ducks accomplished their first season sweep of the Huskies since 1995. The feat also gave them their third consecutive 20 win season, something which had never been accomplished prior to this season.

When Dana Altman was hired three years ago, many people questioned whether he was the right man for the job. He had spent most of his career at tiny Creighton; he had no clue, some said, about the pressure of running a major program. I seem to recall, though, another coach from a small college having quite a bit of success at Oregon.

The Ducks had entered the top 10 earlier this season, but that lofty ranking was quickly demolished with a three game losing streak that followed an injury to starting point guard Dominic Artis. This injury shows just how far the Ducks are from being a national elite team in basketball. Truly elite teams are not decimated by an injury to one point guard,

Altman has done a fantastic job building this team each season. But therein lay the problem; he has had to rebuild this team each year. Attrition has taken its toll on the Ducks roster and Altman has filled the void with transfers and role players. His ability to continue building the program shows just how good he is at the actual coaching part of the game. Once Altman is able to build the team with freshman recruits that last longer than three weeks into the season, he should have a Pac-12 powerhouse on his hands.

As it is, this team has an exceptional chance at winning the regular season conference title and getting a berth into the NCAA Tournament. Who would have thought when we were tracking Pat Kilkenny that three years later we would be sitting on three consecutive 20 win seasons?

Recruiting Buzz

No rest when it comes to recruiting. With the ink barely dry on the class of 2013, Duck Sports Authority quickly turned their eyes toward the class of 2014. We are going to work very hard this year to keep even more up to date with prospects this year.

We feel that this year will be our best ever. To that end, we are reaching out to recruits more often and will use every advantage we have to bring you the best information available.

This week, we took a look at defensive ends and offensive tackles for the next class. There are some very talented players with interest in the Oregon program at both positions. Malik McDowell is planning on taking a trip to Oregon as is Nifae Lealao. Those two are premier defensive ends that just about every program in the country would love to have on their team. By securing a visit, the Ducks are in better position than most.

Will the Ducks sign everyone that visits? Not likely. But it is much less difficult to secure a commitment from someone when he has visited the campus.

Expect the next year to be full of bumps, bruises, excitement, disappointment. But also expect it to be a fun ride with a load of great insight and information.

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