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Dumpster diving to hacked headsets: Tales of college football paranoia

IT'S THE FALL OF 1982 and a 25-year-old Houston Nutt is rummaging through trash cans around Oklahoma's campus. Boss' orders, he says. Two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson, then in his fourth season at Oklahoma State, has sent his ambitious graduate assistant to do some scouting of the rival Sooners, which means that in addition to timing kickers and punters and tracking distance, Nutt has to get his hands a little messy.

His task is simple: Look around and try to find every bit of information he can. And with wins and losses hanging in the balance, he and the rest of Johnson's GAs know to leave no stone unturned -- even if that stone is buried underneath a discarded cheeseburger.

Nutt can laugh about it now -- and does -- but back then that kind of dirty work was normal. Sometimes all he'd find was garbage, but other times he'd stumble upon a discarded depth chart or a play sheet with a few notes scribbled on it that had been carelessly left behind, he says.

It's that chance discovery, no matter how small and no matter how consequential, that feeds into a larger sense of paranoia that has been pervasive among college football coaches dating back to the beginning of the sport and continues today. Everyone is looking for an edge, and everyone is guarding against giving up theirs.

Pete Carroll may have oozed cool as the head coach of USC from 2001 to '09, but his former offensive coordinator Norm Chow admits that the two-time BCS championship winner was "unbelievable" when it came to his level of paranoia, believing everyone to be crooked. Not only did Carroll employ assistants to look for discarded play sheets -- "and they actually found some," Chow said -- but he took it a step further by having staffers leave behind fake sheets in the garbage in hopes that opponents would find them and act on bad information.

Today, technology has evolved to give some teams an extra layer of security. Digital playbooks can be easily stored on tablets, and when they fall into the wrong hands they are automatically erased by what one company calls a "dead man's switch" that activates after three consecutive incorrect passwords are entered or if the device's GPS shows that it's not within a predefined safe zone such as the team's facilities or dorm rooms. If a player transfers, coaches have the ability to remotely wipe tablets in a similar fashion.

Some coaches have moved away from using playbooks altogether, though, says former Texas legend Mack Brown. The Longhorns used to make practice video available to players online, but Brown sensed a "potential for abuse" and put a stop to that. Before Texas faced Iowa State one year, a trick play Brown planned to open the game with was leaked on the Internet the night before and had to be scrapped. "We never found out how it happened," he said with no small measure of regret all these years later.

Protecting information is integral to the game. Jim Harbaugh won't even release a formal depth chart at Michigan, and hardly anyone provides anything close to an NFL-style injury report. Before Alabama faced Washington in last season's College Football Playoff, Nick Saban became apoplectic when a reporter asked why he'd seen veteran wideout ArDarius Stewart throwing passes at quarterback during practice. First of all, Saban said, "If we had a good reason for it, do you think I would tell you?" Then, remembering it was four days before Christmas, he added, "I'm doing everything I can not to say bad words in the holiday season."

"Coaches are paranoid," Nutt said. "There's no doubt about it.

"And remember this: They pay you to win. You can talk about community service, you can talk about the graduation rates, and all that is very important. But I got fired for the first time in my life because I didn't win enough."

The line Nutt draws is repeated by current and former coaches alike: The pressure to win is enough to make anyone worry.

"You know your time is short," Chow said. "You know you're not going to make all this money for a long length of time unless your name is Nick Saban. So you do whatever you can to protect yourself.

"There's an enormous amount of pressure now to win football games. It's crazy. ... You got people getting that first 4 or 5 million-dollar contract saying, 'I got to hang on to this puppy.'"

NO STORY, WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION of the actual national championship game, took a backseat to the high-level intrigue that took place at Wake Forest last season.

On Nov. 11, 2016, the day before a game at Louisville, a Wake Forest equipment manager discovered documents inside Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium that appeared to show specific plays the team planned to run against the then sixth-ranked Cardinals. Coach Dave Clawson launched an immediate investigation, ultimately concluding that the team's radio announcer, Tommy Elrod, had shared sensitive information with Louisville and attempted to do the same with a number of other schools throughout the season.

Elrod, who played for Wake Forest and was formerly an assistant on staff, was fired and has not spoken publicly since.

But a curious thing happened when current and former coaches were asked about the scandal that came to be known as Wakeyleaks. As a whole, they basically shrugged.

"My first response, to me, was no big deal," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "I didn't think much of it."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is also chair of the American Football Coaches Association Ethics Committee, said: "Anytime you see that, it's disappointing."

But did it change anything? Did it make coaches more concerned about their own vulnerabilities? On the whole, not really.

They were never unaware of the risks in the first place.

"I'd love to say it's rare," Fitzgerald said, "but it happens every day."

He added: "Sometimes, maybe, is there some impropriety and guys cross the line? Yeah. To think about the great [coaches] I've had work for me and think that the great things we do here stay here and they don't leave here, I'd be the most naive guy in the world."

Even if you can keep your staff tight-lipped, it's almost impossible to keep them all together for years on end. Coaches move on to other jobs, and your information goes with them.

Before there was Wakeyleaks, there was Faxgate when, in the early 1990s, former Tennessee assistant Jack Sells was caught at Kinko's sending diagrams and notes from the Vols' playbook to friend and Florida defensive coordinator Ron Zook.

In 2014, Texas Tech defensive coordinator Mike Smith accused his predecessor Matt Wallerstedt of giving opposing teams the Red Raiders' signals.

Chow remembers a volunteer coach who went all through spring practice with him at BYU before leaving the team. Nine weeks later, Chow said, he looked over at a rival's sideline and saw the former coach holding a clipboard. He didn't believe it was a coincidence.

It's not just the coaching staff that had Brown worried, though. He often wondered whether walk-on players might be persuaded to share information since they didn't have the same money afforded to them as scholarship players.

Asked about that prospect, Chow said matter-of-factly, "Oh yeah, that's happened."

Enticements or the situation at Wake Forest cross a line, coaches agree. But ask exactly where the line is and no one is certain.

In baseball, gamesmanship is accepted. In college football, it's less out in the open but certainly there.

"I've been accused of being overly paranoid," Fitzgerald said. "I guess we all are."

CHANCES ARE THAT EVEN THE COACHES who say they don't care about things like stealing signs are the very ones using two or three dummy signal-callers to confuse opponents.

Then, in all likelihood, coaches will change their indicator sign once a quarter or once a half -- just in case.

It's all one big cat-and-mouse game.

Said one former Big 12 coach: "Stealing signals? That goes back forever."

Recently at Oregon, coaches held up what appeared to be five king-sized white bedsheets to block the view of Arizona State coaches they thought were watching their sideline a little too closely. Washington State coach Mike Leach told local reporters last season that he had heard "rumors" about Arizona State that included video equipment and well-placed microphones that could pick up what the quarterback was saying. He quipped, "It's like breaking the Enigma code with them."

But when asked how often he changes signals during the course of the season, he chaffed, saying it was "highly classified."

"Do we steal signals? Yes, we do," Arizona State coach Todd Graham told reporters, insisting that his team operates within the rules and does not use recording equipment as Leach suggested. "Do people steal our signals? Yeah, they do."

Remember, coaches don't shield their mouths with laminated play sheets during games to keep from spreading germs. They know that anyone could be watching them at any time. According to former Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver, the practice of deception began when then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier covered his face during a game against the Crimson Tide, believing that someone on their staff was capable of reading lips. For the record, Oliver says there was not.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino once accused NC State managers of spying on his team, and North Carolina coach Larry Fedora admitted that having ball boys on his sideline wearing the opposing team's gear bothered him.

Chow can top that, though. He claims that in the middle of a long winning streak at BYU, the Cougars inexplicably lost to UTEP. But it felt like more than a fluke or an off night, he said. He'd call for a draw play to the right and there were "15 guys standing in that hole." Draw left, and it was more of the same.

On the bus ride home, he thought to himself, Anybody can lose a game. But not like that.

"I found out years later that a guy on our staff had spoken to guys on their staff and they hacked," Chow said. "They intercepted our radio communications. They listened to our calls on the headsets. They had it all figured out and knew every play call we made."

Nutt said the safety of the team's communications, especially on the road, is a common concern among coaches. Switching frequency at halftime isn't an unusual practice, and now teams can take advantage of variable frequencies that change randomly every second.

"We were always worried about that," Nutt said. "It was like, 'Man, it's almost like they heard our play. It's almost like they knew the reverse was coming.' There were a couple of times it was like, 'Gosh, it's almost like they're in our ear.'"

Inevitably, Nutt said he would turn to his radio guy and ask, "Are you sure we're OK right here?"

PARANOIA IS NOT ONLY TYPICAL AMONG college football coaches, but it's essentially a requirement for doing the job.

No place is safe. Not even your own practice fields.

When Brown got to Texas, he immediately closed practice because, he says, "there was too much attention." Like many coaches, he was wary of NFL scouts talking to their buddies and giving away information, whether they did it purposefully or not. Prominent boosters, alumni and high school coaches were the only ones he thought deserved unfettered access.

Of course, there was susceptibility even in those ranks. Once, Brown says, an opposing coach had two people go to practice with fake IDs, posing as high school coaches. He found out only because he later hired a coach from the school's staff who fessed up.

"There's absolutely no doubt that some coaches have sent people in to watch," Brown said. "It's still happening."

Even people on the school's own payroll aren't immune to suspicion as it's not uncommon for coaches to ask staff with connections to an opponent, whether that's family ties or graduation, to skip practice the week of the game.

There are numerous stories over the years that seem to validate coaches' concerns over leaks, like that of West Virginia's switch to the 3-3-5 defense prior to the 2014 season. Reportedly, the new "stack" look on defense wasn't shown during open portions of practice and players and coaches refused to make mention of it during interviews with the media. Somehow it got out, though. Maybe a coach accidentally said something, maybe a player. Whatever the case, Alabama was on the lookout for the new-look defense and racked up 538 yards during the 33-23 win.

On Alabama's campus, there's a condominium building which overlooks the team's practice fields that has been the subject of much debate over the years. But the fields themselves are surrounded by chain link fence wrapped in a privacy screen, and anyone caught peeking over is quickly greeted by security. The football offices, on the other hand, have electronic key pads and fingerprint scanners.

Kentucky recently did a major renovation of its facilities, but Stoops says there are still vulnerabilities he has to look out for.

"We need to get some trees to grow so we can shield our practice slightly better," he said. "But we have security go around. If I see a car parked on a hill for too long, somebody is going to go up there and check it out and see if somebody is there.

"You definitely keep track of what's going on and who's at your practices."

Just this past week, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported that for the first time in school history LSU would close down training-camp practice completely to the media. The reasoning for Ed Orgeron, in his first full year as head coach, is obvious: control the flow of information. With no one taking notes, no one will know what to make of a defense replacing numerous starters or an offense undergoing wholesale changes under new coordinator Matt Canada. LSU appears to be the only SEC team with such a policy currently, but chances are that it won't be the last.

At Texas, first-year coach Tom Herman -- who got his initial taste of big-time college football as a GA under Brown in 1999 -- is tightening the reins as well. In a video ironically produced by the school's own website, Herman is shown telling players and their families during a "welcome back lunch" that "our business is our business."

"If your son tells you something, it's expected to stay within the family because that's family business," Herman said. "And we need your support. We need positivity."

Try as they might, coaches simply can't control everything, though. If someone wants on the inside badly enough, they'll probably find a way whether it's a crack in the wall, a misplaced playbook or an assistant with loose lips.

Technology has created greater security in some areas, but it's also led to more sharing of information than ever before.

What Nutt once found lying in a wastebasket might now be buried somewhere online in a reporter's practice report or deep within a fan message board. And make no mistake: Teams are looking. Fitzgerald says that if programs aren't scouring the web for information, then "they're behind."

"In today's day and age, you have to operate the other way and assume that everything is going to get out," Fitzgerald said. "I think if you don't, you're naive."