The Fifth Down

President's column:
Baby steps

Football coaches like to say the season is a marathon, not a sprint. But when you're the president of the FWAA and serving a one-year term, the year is a sprint and not a marathon.

I had 365 days to pound home the message about reduced access, about how we can take steps to fix something that is rapidly rolling downhill and headed off the cliff.

So I spoke to anyone who cared to listen. The Big Ten SIDs, Southeastern Conference football coaches, the Alabama Sportswriters Convention, CoSIDA, a conference call with outgoing Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.

Did it work?

In this issue of The Fifth Down:
President's column: Baby steps
2008 FWAA All-America Team
Alabama's Smith wins Outland Trophy
Texas' Orakpo wins Nagurski Trophy
Nine finalists named for Eddie Robinson Award

There has been progress. Baby steps, maybe, but progress.

For instance, the SEC opened its locker rooms for the first time at the championship game. Alabama writers who hadn't had access to true freshmen all year (a Nick Saban rule) were able to interview ALL players at their lockers. It was like the Berlin Wall being torn down.

Also, thanks to Charles Bloom of the SEC, there's now a media committee in the league comprised of writers, SIDs, assistant athletic directors and Bloom. It's a sounding board on hearing some of our complaints (such as getting players to interview rooms slowly on night deadlines).

The National Football Foundation executive director Steve Hatchell put together a forum last spring in Dallas, with coaches, athletic directors, a president and a conference commissioner. When it came to discussing the media's relationship with coaches, there was good, honest exchange.

This thing is going to be an annual event. It's worth attending.

My goal as president this year was simple. I wanted the voice of the FWAA heard loud, long and unapologetic. We have been backing up too long, with access continually shrinking, and we had to draw a line in the sand.

The line is still there. Although I'm leaving office, my next job with the FWAA will continue to keep that line drawn.

We have to keep pressing the issue. We must keep talking with athletic directors and coaches and most of all conference offices.

Every conference needs to follow the SEC, be proactive and realize there are access issues and other problems. The SEC has a commissioner in Mike Slive who realizes the value of the league having a professional working relationship with the media.

This year, we did have members speak up when there were access issues, and as an organization we addressed them. Some schools and one conference in particular didn't like being publicly called out, but that would have never happened had they not treated the media unfairly.

Along the way in my one term, I discovered a lot of people deeply care about college football, guys like Bob Mancuso, who runs the Outland Trophy banquet in Omaha, and John Rocco, who does the same for the Bronko Nagurski Award in Charlotte. They put an extraordinary amount of blood, sweat and tears into those awards that the FWAA sponsors, and we like being associated with Bob and John.

Also, I want to make sure there is a clear understanding that most of the sports information directors are not our enemy. They are caught in the middle between us in the media and in many cases uncooperative paranoid coaches who view talking to us like getting teeth yanked at the dentist.

I want to urge all of our members to push the access issue, but do it in a professional manner with constant communication with your conference and your SID. Let's be responsible in our reporting so we don't give coaches any bullets to fire at us when we press for more access.

As we head to South Florida for the BCS national championship game and I turn my office over to George Schroeder of the Eugene Register-Guard, I want to thank my wife Paige for her support in me flying all over the country this past year to spread the FWAA gospel.

So as your president, this is a goodbye. But as the FWAA watchdog (and George Schroeder's personal bodyguard), I'm just getting started.

FWAA president Ron Higgins covers college football for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. He can be reached at rhiggins@commercialappeal.com.

KEY FWAA CONTACTS

Bert McGrane Award nominees: Mark Blaudshun (blauds@aol.com)
Volney Meece Scholarship nominees: Dave Sittler (davesitt@aol.com)
Website, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Team of the Week: Ted Gangi (webmaster@sportswriters.net)
Membership Directory: Charlie Fiss, AT&T Cotton Bowl (charlie@attcottonbowl.com)
Ethics/Press Relations Committee: Kirk Bohls (kbohls@statesman.com)
College Football Playoff Liaison: Gina Lehe, College Football Playoff (glehe@collegefootballplayoff.com)
Eddie Robinson Award: Steve Richardson (tiger@fwaa.com)
Fifth Down Blog/FWAA Best Writing Contest: Ken Stephens (ken.stephens@sbcglobal.net)
Bronko Nagurski Award: John Rocco, Charlotte Touchdown Club (jrocco@touchdownclub.com)
Outland Trophy, All-America Team: Steve Richardson (tiger@fwaa.com)
Grantland Rice Super 16 Poll: Phil Marwill, National Football Foundation (pmarwill@footballfoundation.org)
Discover Orange Bowl/FWAA Courage Award: George Schroeder, USA TODAY (gschroeder@aol.com), Ron Higgins, Nola.com (rhigg@aol.com)
Freshman All-America Team: Mike Griffith, MLive Media Group (mgrif32@aol.com)

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