Congratulations, WakeyLeaks. Wake Forest’s game-plan breach from a highly unlikely source — radio analyst and former assistant coach Tommy Elrod — managed to make already-paranoid college football coaches even more paranoid.
That is no small achievement.
“You don’t have nearly enough time [to talk] about why college football coaches are so paranoid,” former UCLA, Colorado and Washington coach Rick Neuheisel says, laughing. “The paranoia should be the subject of a long, long thesis.”
No detail is immune from being closely guarded by college football coaches as if it were a military secret. Coaches go to great lengths to protect schemes, formations, personnel, injuries and trick plays from outside eyes.
Practices open to the media are now typically a distant memory. Television announcers who watch practice and receive inside access to the team are closely scrutinized by coaches. Covered fences prevent prying eyes from seeing anything at practice. During games, coaches even cover their mouths when talking to their players or into their headsets in case any alert lip-readers might be watching.
Conditions get placed on beat reporters during their only viewing time — the first 15 minutes of practices, which essentially amounts to stretching and catching a few passes. Some schools ask that media not report who isn’t practicing until they speak with the head coach, even if the head coach isn’t available for interviews after practice. Some teams practice on faraway fields during the rare time the media can watch.
Now along comes WakeyLeaks, a scandal in which an insider provided specific strategic information over a three-year period to Louisville, Army and Virginia Tech before Wake Forest’s games against those teams. Though WakeyLeaks was a very unusual example of football espionage, the paranoia needle has now gotten dialed up even more for coaches — and maybe for good reason.
“I think coaches are paranoid and have reason to be because it’s a very competitive business,” says Gerry DiNardo, a former LSU, Vanderbilt and Indiana coach. “What somebody else does has an impact on your program. I’m not sure it’s that direct in other businesses. If I have an Italian restaurant, what the steakhouse does doesn’t really impact me. If someone wants a steak, they’re not going to my restaurant. That [football] play they’re running? That impacts my business. That recruit they’re talking to? That impacts my business as well.”
Coaches have all sorts of stories that feed into their paranoia and their desire to tighten restrictions.
In 2015, then-Georgia coach Mark Richt approached an AL.com reporter at practice during the week of the Georgia-Alabama game. The reporter was one of several journalists shooting video of receivers running routes with quarterbacks near the end of a media-viewing period.
“[Richt] asked what was being filmed and asked that tight shots of certain routes not be shown,” AL.com wrote a couple of days before Alabama routed Georgia 38–10. “The coach said he didn’t want Alabama seeing what they were doing at that moment. Richt then asked all video recordings cease. The three viewing periods were open to photographers and videographers. Restrictions on what could be filmed were not listed on an advisory to media viewing practice.”
When Mike MacIntyre became Colorado’s coach, he initially allowed the majority of his practices to be open to the team’s fans. That lasted one season.
“I got burned,” MacIntyre said in 2015 about open practices, according to BuffZone.com. “Last fall camp I did more, but I also got burned off that. I know for a fact, but I definitely want to do it.”
As LSU’s interim coach last season, Ed Orgeron opened practices far more than predecessor Les Miles had. Miles hadn’t opened an in-season practice to reporters since at least 2006. Orgeron opened certain periods, especially on Mondays, which he called “Tell the Truth Monday” for coaches to honestly analyze players’ mistakes.
Whether Orgeron will stay this open as LSU’s permanent head coach remains to be seen. In an interview last fall, Orgeron said he wanted to be more open with the media.
DiNardo had open practices everywhere he coached. During the week of an LSU-Georgia game, then-Bulldogs coach Jim Donnan called to tell DiNardo he needed to read some blogs.
“They were telling everyone what we’re doing at practice,” DiNardo says.
Neuheisel used to have open practices. In hindsight, he now says he wishes he had been more secretive as a college head coach.
“If anything, I was too loose,” says Neuheisel, who is now a commentator for CBS Sports and Sirius XM. “Anybody could come to practice. I never had a closed practice. I didn’t have the media not allowed in. I didn’t hide injuries until late in my career because everybody else was hiding them. I don’t know if people realize this or not, but if you lose a head job, it’s hard to get back. I think as salaries are going up and expectations go up with them, you’re not going to be careless.”
Neuheisel questions the location of a new hotel built right next to UCLA’s football practice field.
“There are windows not perfectly designed to look at the field, but without much craning of the neck, you can see it,” Neuheisel says. “Every coach is going, ‘You’re building what?’ It’s a very questionable decision when you’re sitting there wondering who’s occupying those rooms.”
Such is life for paranoid football coaches. Potential spies lurk around every corner.
Another careful calculation for coaches is which staffs they invite onto campus for offseason X’s-and-O’s chats. College football is very much a copycat business. One innovative idea turns into another, and before you know it, the coach with the original idea now must defend against it.
“I always stressed, ‘Let’s not share our ideas with the wrong people,’” DiNardo says. “When I was at LSU, Brad Scott was at South Carolina. We didn’t play each other on the schedule. He asked to send his offensive staff to LSU during an off week. I said, ‘Brad, I just can’t do it.’ You never know where your coaches will be in the future.”
Sometimes coaches even take advantage of visits with other staffs to help their own recruiting.
In 2013, Clemson brought in a strong recruiting class but lost highly recruited defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams to Auburn at the very end. Clemson assistant coach Jeff Scott said Lawson and Adams told him that Auburn’s superior housing for athletes was a major factor in their choices.
So one day after meeting with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s staff, Scott decided to see the Auburn apartments for himself. He snuck into one of them and asked a player if he could take some pictures.
“He didn’t know who I was, but I’m in there taking pictures of his room,” Scott says.
Scott showed the pictures to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and university officials. Now the university is in the process of spending $2 million on renovations for an apartment complex that houses football players and non-athletes.
Paranoia knows no limits for college football coaches, even when considering rules changes. Neuheisel remembers how he once got considerable blowback from fellow coaches about a rule that most of them wanted, but they were suspicious because he was the one proposing it.
At a meeting for the American Football Coaches Association, Neuheisel proposed more leniency for medical redshirt players. By limiting a medical redshirt to no more than three games, he wanted players who got hurt early in the season to have the ability to return later to beef up rosters as injuries mount. Most teams just have a doctor fudge that the player was hurt the whole year anyway when in fact he can often return, Neuheisel says.
“Every head coach looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one on them,” Neuheisel says. “It’s the perfect scenario of the world of paranoia. They think because Rick Neuheisel has this reputation of being creative, the rule is a deal-breaker. I realized then the deal wasn’t so much the rule I proposed, it was me. They didn’t trust me.”
After that incident, Neuheisel took a different approach with rules. One year at the Pac-12 coaches’ meetings, Neuheisel wanted to increase the conference’s travel-squad numbers (60 players per team) closer to the Big Ten and SEC limits (70 players).
But Neuheisel knew he was toxic, especially in a room with so many big egos, such as Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh and USC’s Carroll. So Neuheisel had then-
Oregon State coach Mike Riley pitch the idea.
“Mike is the nicest guy in the world, so he pitched it to the ADs and we got 70,” Neuheisel says. “Had Rick Neuheisel pitched it, we’d still be at 60. No one looked at Mike Riley and ever thought there was a hidden ball trick going on.”
Harbaugh now faces this same paranoia at Michigan. He maneuvers through the NCAA rule book, such as taking the Wolverines to spring practice in Florida and Italy and holding summer satellite camps around the country to look for players.
“He’ll never get any legislation passed he wants,” Neuheisel said. “But if you go get Mike Riley from Nebraska, you’ve got a hell of a chance to get it done. Case in point, I saw it first-hand.”
Injuries may be the most common area where paranoia sets in for coaches. Understandably, for competitive purposes, coaches don’t want to identify who’s hurt and what body part.
Yet the NFL has required weekly injury reports for years. One major reason to do so is to attempt to limit inside information that could be used for gambling purposes and potentially compromise the integrity of games.
In college football, injury reports are a free-for-all. There is no commissioner for the entire sport to tell people what injuries they have to disclose. Some conferences have tried to create injury reporting standards through the years, but they really haven’t worked.
“Who wants to volunteer that the quarterback isn’t good?” DiNardo says. “I think now with the [health privacy] law and all that, the coaches can hide behind that. I don’t like when a coach is sarcastic about it — upper body or lower body. I’d rather hear, ‘None of your business.’ I hate when a coach uses it to stick it up somebody’s butt when a reporter is trying to do their job. A reporter has to ask if the quarterback is back.”
DiNardo is now in the media business as a commentator for the Big Ten Network. He feels like a beat reporter when he visits Big Ten schools.
“You’ll be amazed what they tell me and what I see, but I feel it’s privileged,” DiNardo says. “I think the NFL is different. As long as you’re under the education umbrella, I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing my principle if I say, ‘Of course, Urban [Meyer], I won’t say Mike Weber sustained an injury in practice.’ But if I’m covering the Bears, don’t tell me what I can or can’t report.”
All of this raises an interesting question:Why do football coaches seem more paranoid than in almost any other sport?
“I think there’s more plays, more secrets,” Neuheisel says. “I don’t mean to make light of basketball, but you hear guys say, ‘We guarded better.’ It’s not like we sprung different coverages or something. There’s just more intel, more stuff that we do that’s different of how we do it. Everybody’s got film.
“Because football plays change, the coverage that we call on any one play is going to look different based on what you did against that coverage. It’s all a response to what the offense did to create that coverage. All your principles, all your game-planning is kind of a hush-hush thing you really believe in. You’re always suspicious to what someone’s motivation is, and am I giving up an advantage? Paranoia is the No. 1 reason we haven’t had a change to the signing date. They can’t figure it out if it’s better or not for each coach, because if it’s not better, it could cost you.”
Now radio analysts employed by the university will be subject to future scrutiny. You can’t fault the coaches for this paranoia.
A WakeyLeaks Primer
The oddity of the Wake Forest espionage scandal provided lots of laughs. Since when do radio analysts provide inside information to the opposing team? The story even had a clever and funny name — WakeyLeaks.
But in reality, there’s nothing funny about what happened. The story broke after Wake Forest lost to Louisville last season. Wake Forest radio analyst Tommy Elrod, a former Demon Deacons player and assistant coach, had shared several plays with Louisville offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway.
The Demon Deacons learned they were compromised the day before the game. At Louisville’s stadium, they found documents of plays they had used in practice but not games. There were formations and alignments Wake Forest had never run but had planned to use against Louisville. Instead, the special plays got scrapped once the coaches realized their opponent knew a little bit too much.
“After the game, our players were upset,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said last December. “They wanted to know why did we work on all these things, why did we practice them all week and not use them? They felt we had not given them best the opportunity to win the game. So we had a team meeting and told them something was compromised, we’re not sure how.”
Text messages obtained by CBSSports.com strongly suggest Galloway and Elrod met the night before the game. Phone records for Galloway showed he initiated a 25-minute call with Elrod three days before the game. That contradicted Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich’s statement that it was Elrod who called Galloway the week of the game.
Jurich initially tried to downplay any blame Galloway deserved in the incident, even calling the story a distraction for Louisville’s bowl preparation. That logic didn’t work publicly. So Louisville, which joined Virginia Tech in being fined $25,000 by the ACC due to WakeyLeaks, suspended Galloway for Louisville’s bowl game.
Army and Virginia Tech also received insider information from Elrod. Army fined defensive coordinator Jay Bateman $25,000 and suspended him two weeks in the offseason for his role in WakeyLeaks. Georgia fined assistant Shane Beamer $25,000 because of information he received as a Hokies assistant from Elrod.
It’s common for coaches to share information about teams they played or used to coach. But WakeyLeaks reached a new level because it involved insider information provided by someone connected to the team at the time of the espionage.
“Go back to the Patriots and SpyGate,” former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel says. “If you know what formations and personnel groups people are doing, you’ve got a huge advantage. Stories came out that these (Louisville, Army and Virginia Tech) coaches didn’t write anything down when they were told. But guys are getting suspended and fined. I’d say there was probably a lot more fire than smoke. It’s unseemly for the coaches. I was shocked that at a place like Army that a head didn’t roll.”
Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden says he used to call graduate assistants who left other programs and “kind of pump them for information.” But getting information from an in-house mole who’s still at the school?
“I’ve never heard that happen,” Bowden says. “If he left the program and went somewhere else, that’s normal sharing information. But not in-house. It just ruined the guy’s career. Originally, when it happened, I thought [Bobby] Petrino or his assistants went to the locker room and looked in garbage cans [and found Wake Forest’s game plan]. Most everybody does that.”
So what should a coach do when an in-house mole calls with info?
“I’d like to say I’m holier than thou and I wouldn’t accept the information,” Bowden says. “But in the heat of the battle, you’re trying to save your job and need a win, people do desperate things — even Christian guys like me who pray for forgiveness instead of permission. I’ve never heard it to this extent.”
Former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo says he thinks he would not have accepted the plays.“I can’t judge anyone,” he says. “I certainly can’t condemn anyone. I just hope like hell if I was faced with that I would do the right thing because of how competitive and paranoid the game is.”
Written by Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonAspen) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.