Commentary: Clemson reinvents media access

bgillespie@thestate.comMay 19, 2014 

Troy Clemson Football

Dabo Swinney

RICHARD SHIRO — ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • CLEMSON MEMO

    Clemson communications department duties and assignments:

    PHILOSOPHY: We work for Clemson University and serve the Director of Athletics. The athletics communications department is the voice of the athletic department. We are responsible for informing donors, fans, potential student-athletes and all who care about Clemson Athletics the results, history and stories of Clemson Athletics.

    Our goal is to tell the story to the largest audience possible. Through the official athletic site and social media channels, we can reach more than ever before. By concentrating on those outlets, we will continue to grow their reach. It will always be of importance to treat the media professionally and provide them with the tools to do their jobs. However, it is not the singular focus or even foremost priority of our department.

Tim Bourret arrived in Clemson in 1978, a product of Notre Dame and a protégé of its legendary sports information director Roger Valdiserri. For the next 35 years, he went about building goodwill for the Tigers’ athletics programs and – at the same time – good relations with the media who covered his teams.

Blending his solid sports knowledge base with the folksy management style of his mentor at Clemson, the beloved Bob Bradley (aka “Mr. B”), Bourret became, in most estimations, the best in the business. Reporters from newspapers, TV and lately a growing online presence knew that Bourret, while always presenting Clemson in the best possible light – there was never any question who he worked for and pulled for – also understood the media’s job and would do his best to help them do it.

By now, you may be wondering: Did this guy Bourret die? Thankfully, no. But his job – and, by extension, the relationships between media and Clemson – are changing. Whether that’s for better or worse is the question.

Last July, Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich announced Bourret would in the future “concentrate solely on football,” saying that the move was “to take advantage of Bourret’s encyclopedic knowledge of the football program.” In fact, that’s selling him short; Bourret knows more about EVERY Tigers team than anyone. He’s been the basketball radio analyst since 1980 and even co-wrote hoops books with former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, including “Basketball for Dummies.” He also spent nine seasons as baseball’s postseason play-by-play announcer – and that’s just the revenue-producing sports.

But Radakovich apparently has a different vision. It’s no longer enough to be good at working with the media; in hiring Joe Galbraith as director of communications, Clemson is en route to becoming part of the media. In fact, Radakovich wants his department to be THE source for all things Tigers sports.

That’s according to a memo sent to athletics communications staff recently (and reported on by Ed McGranahan for The Clemson Insider web site), which states that they are responsible for disseminating “results, history and stories of Clemson Athletics. Our goal is to tell the story to the largest audience possible.”

As for the “competition” – traditional journalists – well … “It will always be of importance to treat the media professionally and provide them with the tools to do their jobs,” the memo states, but “it is not the singular focus, nor even foremost priority of our department.”

That means the folks who control access – to Dabo Swinney, Brad Brownell, their assistant coaches and players – will be more interested in telling their story than helping reporters who aren’t part of the program tell theirs.

Part of this is money-driven (surprise). Media, notably online sites via subscription, make money reporting about Clemson sports; why, the argument goes, should Clemson give away information that has a marketable value? If ESPN, ABC and others are paying for rights to air the Tigers’ games, why should others get access for free?

But make no mistake: the other factor is control. Athletics directors and many coaches always have hated that a reporter’s story might reflect poorly (if truthfully) on a player and/or his school. Swinney during his tenure has clamped down on access, and Radakovich’s recent moves suggest that will get worse, not better.

Another indication of where things are headed came recently when Clemson announced Don Munson, a school employee, will replace Pete Yanity (sports director for WSPA-TV in addition to doing play-by-play for football and basketball, and hosting coaches’ shows) as football “voice of the Tigers.” Munson, who is close to Swinney, might be a terrific play-by-play guy – though his experience pales next to Yanity’s – but this appears to be more about his loyalty than his skills in the booth.

Understand, this isn’t only Clemson’s path. Lest we forget, a decade ago South Carolina replaced Charlie McAlexander, a long-time broadcaster, with former USC quarterback Todd Ellis; then-athletics director Mike McGee made no bones about wanting “a Gamecock” in the booth.

Like Clemson, USC also places controls on reporters talking to players and coaches.

Maybe you’re thinking: Don’t Clemson, USC and other big-time programs have the right, even the obligation, to maximize profits and promote the home team? Also, given the state of journalism in 2014 – with news/sports departments often gutted – perhaps we should expect nothing more than in-house-produced cheerleading, so long as it’s well-presented and entertaining.

On the other hand, perhaps you prefer a bit of salt with your sugar, a critical eye instead of a relentlessly rose-colored (or orange-colored) view. And though some college fans get up in arms when traditional media reveal embarrassing facts about their heroes – I’m looking at you, Jameis Winston – do you really want Clemson or USC coaches deciding what you know?

Fortunately for many reasons, Tim Bourret isn’t going away at Clemson. He’ll still be there, reciting obscure bits of Tigers trivia as no one else can and quietly doing his job well. Like Bob Bradley before him, he’s an institution; his new bosses no doubt realize you don’t replace a guy like that.

But unlike Bourret always did, the athletics administration likely won’t be trying to balance making Clemson look good with getting the facts out. They know what the priorities are going forward, and helping those who cover the Tigers but don’t toe the company line – according to that memo – is well down that list.

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