Dennis Erickson could only wonder why the repairman was staying attached to the telephone pole above the football practice field for so long.
And then it hit him: His offense was being watched.
"I swear, he had telephone gear on and everything," said Utah’s co-offensive coordinator, laughing about the story from the early years of his career. Then there was the time someone posed as an NFL scout, receiving full access to another of Erickson’s teams.
No wonder coaches worry about who’s watching them, even if Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is quick to say he’s "not paranoid" — and that potential spying is not the reason he closes practices. The strategy is geared toward having the players focus, without distractions.
"The spying stuff, to me, is overrated," said Erickson, a longtime college and NFL head coach. "Guys couldn’t come in here and know what the hell’s going on, anyway. They may think they know, but they don’t."
All practices at Utah State, the Utes’ season-opening opponent, are open through Aug. 24 — five days before the game. So should an Aggie win serve as a tribute to transparency? Should a Ute victory be attributed to superior security? No. But such theories are fun to kick around, in the buildup.
These spying stories all date to 25-plus years ago, but they remain part of college football lore around here. You can visit some landmarks in Utah, where espionage has occurred with varying degrees of sophistication.
There’s the steep hill above USU’s practice field in Logan, where former assistant coach Brian Billick made a slow charge to the top after a player said he witnessed someone with binoculars. There’s the Behavioral Science building, towering above Rice-Eccles Stadium, where a BYU graduate assistant dressed as a custodian to observe the Utes. And there’s Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, where a GA hired by LaVell Edwards worked with the BYU staff through preseason practice and then mysteriously disappeared right after the Cougars lost to Colorado State in their season opener.
In his 20 seasons with the Utes, Whittingham is unaware of anyone spying on his teams. "If they did," he said, "they’re doing a good job."
Yet other than allowing 20 minutes of media observation each day, Whittingham likes to keep his practices buttoned down. So while the Utes worked out at Rice-Eccles Stadium the other day, a staff member was making sure tourists with cameras remained on the plaza, away from the field.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall opened last Saturday’s practice, including a brief scrimmage, to the public and attracted about 10,000 fans to LaVell Edwards Stadium. Otherwise, the Cougars have become more restrictive than ever. Media are allowed to watch practice for 30 minutes, roughly every other day during camp. That schedule also reduces interview demands.
USU coach Matt Wells not only is keeping camp practices open, but he’s expressly invited fans to scrimmages. "A lot of community people like to come out and watch," Wells said.
Having said that, Wells is not oblivious to potential competitive issues. He’d prefer that trick plays and personnel information not be reported.
Wells also tries to some extent to monitor who’s watching. "Absolutely, I take inventory of who’s at practice," he said, citing incidents in previous jobs where "we’ve had a few guys removed from some practices."
In Logan, nobody’s sure if Billick genuinely chased away a spy as USU’s offensive coordinator in the late 1980s, but he certainly wanted the players to believe he succeeded. He’d started sprinting, only to wear down about halfway up the hill, barely reaching the top. "I can’t believe how stupid that was," he later told the other coaches, "but I couldn’t turn back."
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