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Caught In the Net Everyone's a reporter in the world of fan-driven, rumor- mongering college websites, forcing coaches and players to watch their every step

May 19, 2003
May 19, 2003

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May 19, 2003

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Caught In the Net Everyone's a reporter in the world of fan-driven, rumor- mongering college websites, forcing coaches and players to watch their every step

Late on the first afternoon in May, Michigan State basketball
coach Tom Izzo went from work to Crunchy's, a popular student
hangout near the sprawling East Lansing campus. He had been
invited there by the two full-time secretaries in the Spartans'
basketball office, who told him that they were sending off three
graduating student assistant-secretaries with "a burger and a
beer." Izzo says he hasn't had a drink in public since former
Michigan football coach Gary Moeller's job-costing drunken
meltdown at a suburban Detroit restaurant in 1995, and on this
day as he snagged assistant coach Doug Wojcik on the way to
Crunchy's, he planned only to mingle briefly and pick up the
secretaries' tab. Upon entering the bar, to make clear his
harmless intentions, Izzo loudly ordered a Coke, in a clear,
no-nonsense glass.

This is an article from the May 19, 2003 issue Original Layout

As he nursed his soda pop, embarrassing soap operas were
unfolding in college towns much like his own, and the careers of
Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy and Alabama football
coach Mike Price hung in the balance. Both men had been caught in
compromising situations--Eustachy holding a beer and kissing
coeds at a student party in Columbia, Mo.; Price throwing around
money at a strip club in Pensacola, Fla.--that would ultimately
cost them their jobs. Both had been initially outed by the
intrepid and seemingly all-seeing eyes of the Internet, and now
Izzo found himself in a rollicking watering hole packed with
students, each of them a potential cyberspace snoop.

"I'm standing by the bar," says Izzo, "and this girl comes up and
says, 'Coach, can I get a picture with you?' She's got a beer in
her hand, and I say, 'You know what? I can't do that.' Eustachy's
picture is on the TV right behind me. Honest to God. So you know
what the girl says to me? 'People told me you were a good guy.
You think you're so big you can't take a picture with me?' So I
say to my secretary, Beth [Marinez], 'We're going to take some
pictures. Just keep the beer out.' So Beth holds the girl's beer
and we take the picture. Then some girls from the nursing school
come over. There's like eight of them, and they want to take a
picture. I've done that 100 times, but now I'm sitting there,
freaking paranoid.

"What about the person sitting there [in the bar] saying, 'Hmm,
there's Tom Izzo.' He could paint the picture completely
differently. 'Izzo was in there drinking'--without saying what I
was drinking--'with girls all over him.' How many times has a
girl leaned over and kissed me on the cheek while getting a
picture? That's happened 50 times. Now if that happened? I'd be
paranoid. Now I'll probably go out a quarter of what I usually do
[Izzo is known largely as a homebody], and I'll become more
separated from the public than I already am. It's that bad."

Izzo's behavior was innocent and Eustachy's decidedly less so,
but both men live under the same microscope. Indeed, the high and
mighty of college sports have entered a new world. Big Brother is
watching. Probably Little Brother too, and maybe the whole damn
family, given that millions of Americans have digital cameras and
almost everyone has Internet access. Coaches are subjected daily
to trial by truth or by rumor or even by lie. There was a time
when the coach and the star player had the run of towns like Ames
and East Lansing and Tuscaloosa--and a hundred others like them
from Tempe to Tallahassee--but a generation of journalists
hatched in the post-Watergate era changed all that, and in the
last half-dozen years websites have brought a startling new level
of scrutiny. "You can't go anywhere or do anything and expect not
to be seen, because everybody is a reporter now," says Steve
Patterson, 36, who operates ugaports.com, a website devoted to
the coverage of University of Georgia sports that features The
Dawgvent, a message board that attracts several thousand posts a
day.

"I am a Missouri fan," says Nick Witthaus, 32, who owns and runs
tigerboard.com, a Missouri fan site. "If a person is doing
something that's going to bring down or embarrass our programs,
I'm going to write about it." Mainstream media, SI included,
often monitor website message boards to take the public's pulse
and, in some cases, look for news tips. Many college coaches also
monitor the boards, or have underlings do so, trying to stay in
front of the latest gossip about their teams or their lives.

Most schools operate athletic department websites, largely
vanilla pages with schedules, statistics, game stories and links.
The fun begins outside the boundaries of these sites, as hundreds
of other sites feed the appetites of fans hungry for news and
rumors. Rivals.com, a company based in Brentwood, Tenn., operates
83 sites devoted to college sports programs; TheInsiders.com,
located in Seattle, runs 87 such sites. There are countless other
independent websites, ranging from the ambitious to the nearly
invisible. A big-time school generating fewer than three
unofficial websites is rare. Most of these sites offer the same
type of material that is available on an athletic department
site, but their nerve center is the message board, where fans can
anonymously vent. Filling an apparent need first brought to light
by sports radio in the '80s and '90s, message boards are the
Cheers of the new millennium, except that nobody knows your name,
unless your name really is GatorHater358.

In the vast, murky Internet universe, it is impossible to
accurately measure the populace of fan websites. Volquest.com, a
Tennessee fan site owned by Rivals.com and operated by
28-year-old former talk radio reporter Brent Hubbs, has
approximately 2,000 subscribers who pay a monthly fee (either
$6.95 or $9.95) to access premium services. Yet other parts of
the website can be accessed for free, and volquest.com averages,
according to Hubbs, more than 250,000 page views every day and
more than one million on national football signing day in early
February. Alabama fan site tiderinsider.com has between 4,500 and
5,000 subscribers, according to its owner, Rodney Orr. During the
unfolding of the Price scandal, and in the midst of former
football coach Dennis Franchione's sudden departure to Texas A&M
in December, the site was getting more than 10,000 message
postings a day.

Whether the sites are driven by small groups of shut-in fanatics
or a full spectrum of the public is also unclear. "I've got
15,000 registered names on The Dawgvent," says Patterson. "I know
for a fact that they include Georgia boosters with money and
influence, people in the athletic department, truck drivers and
high school kids. And that 15,000 doesn't include lurkers, who
are just reading but not posting." On a given day, however, many
message boards are filled repeatedly by no more than a few dozen
tireless posters.

Regardless, there is little doubt that fan websites are
breaking--and making--news and dramatically reshaping the
relationship between college coaches (and their players) and the
public. Witthaus says that photos of Eustachy's partying at
Missouri were posted on tigerboard.com some three months before
similar pictures were published in The Des Moines Register.
Rumors hinting at Price's adventures in Pensacola were posted
first on a message board at an Auburn website, autigers.com, and,
according to Patterson, word quickly spread to Dawgvent and other
sites around the Southeastern Conference, several days before the
story went mainstream. Late last winter news of the deteriorating
relations between then North Carolina basketball coach Matt
Doherty and his players seeped out on insidecarolina.com.

In November 2001, Ohio State quarterback Steve Bellisari was
arrested for drunken driving during the week of the Buckeyes'
game against Illinois. News of the arrest broke on the-ozone.net,
an independent website covering Ohio State sports and operated by
John Porentas, 55, a former self-employed importer-exporter who
started his site in October 1996 and calls himself a "web
publisher." Bellisari, who pleaded no contest, had been arrested
at 2:20 a.m., and the news was posted barely three hours later.
"We had no confirmation ourselves," says Porentas. "However, the
poster, who turned out to be an attorney, had a link to the Ohio
State police blotter."

On occasion the swiftness and reach of the medium surprise even
its operators. In fall 2000 Hubbs attended a Tennessee practice
and witnessed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth getting into a
fight with a teammate. After the incident Vols coach Phillip
Fulmer called together all media at the practice--including
Hubbs--and reminded everyone that reporting what happened could
result in losing practice observation privileges. "When I got
back to my computer, there were already posts about it on our
message board," says Hubbs. "Who posted them? a player? a student
manager? They all have Internet access, and they were all there."
However, there apparently was no reporting of the incident in the
following day's newspapers.

Gene Williams, a 37-year-old attorney who runs warchant.com, a
Rivals.com-affiliated Florida State site, says, "A little while
back some people saw [Seminoles quarterback] Chris Rix eating a
cheeseburger in a restaurant. Right away I read a post that says,
'What's Chris Rix doing eating all that greasy food? Shouldn't he
be eating healthy things?' It's pretty amazing how fast this
moves and the things you see."

Their reporting of negative news has thrust fan websites into the
mainstream glare, but dirt is only a minuscule portion of their
trade. Most of the sites were founded during the Internet boom of
the mid-to late '90s by people with a passion for their teams,
seeking like-minded cyberfriends. The sites feature much more
talk about coaching strategy and recruiting--especially the
latter, wherein lie the roots of the entire phenomenon--than
about scandalous public behavior. Some website operators are
fully credentialed media who enjoy cordial relationships with the
schools they cover.

Most site operators try to enforce rules (no swearing, no posting
pornography, no libel), and most say that they attempt to confirm
news through reliable sources, as the mainstream media do. Yet
there is little question that message boards have run out of
control, forcing webmasters to hire employees to monitor
postings. Rules are far looser when it's a rival school being
trashed, and in the end, only so much can be done. "I've taken
down posts," says The Dawgvent's Patterson. "But with the speed
of the board, if it's posted, it's out there, even before we take
it down."

The consequences of aggressive posting can be unforeseen--and
troubling. At 9:03 on the morning of Nov. 25, 2002, Texas A&M
freshman defensive end Brandon Fails died from complications
caused by a blood clot traveling to his lungs. News of Fails's
death was posted on texags.com before university officials could
notify Fails's parents, who were en route to College Station
after hearing their son had fallen ill.

Brandon Jones, 30, owner and administrator of texags.com, says,
"The posts [about Fails's death] started in the morning. We
started removing those because we had no way of confirming. Later
that morning we did get confirmation that he had passed away, so
we started allowing those posts. We did not know that his
parents"--who ultimately learned of their son's death from the
coaching staff--"had not been informed. Nothing like that will
ever happen again."

Brave talk. The web world changes by the second. Rest assured,
something like that will happen again.

For more from Tim Layden, check out his Viewpoint column every
Friday at si.com.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN WEBER; PHOTOGRAPHS IN ILLUSTRATION BY BILL FRAKES (2), L.G. PATTERSON/AP (2); SEAN DEVEREAUX (2); AP; RODNEY WHITE; JASON GETZ/TUSCALOOSA NEWS/AP; MICKEY WELSH/MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER/AP; CHRIS DONAHUE/AP; DAVE MARTIN/AP; GARY BOGDON; VASHA HUNT/OPELIKA-AUBURN NEWS/APCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SPARTAN REALITY Izzo, who had already stopped drinking in public, now says he won't go out as much as he used to.COLOR PHOTO: TOM DODGE/COLUMBUS DISPATCH/AP FIRST WORD Bellisari's arrest broke on a fans' website three hours after the Ohio State quarterback was stopped by police.
Izzo says that girls have leaned over and kissed him on the cheek
in photos 50 times. "Now if that happened?" he says. "I'd be
paranoid."
Message boards are the Cheers of the new millennium, except that
nobody knows your name, unless your name really is GatorHater358.