Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 2/22/12

Northwestern’s head football coach Pat Fitzgerald joined Stewart Mandel (Sports Illustrated) and Pete Thamel (New York Times) in a media panel entitled “Beyond the Box Score: Covering College Sports in 2012.”

ESPN’s Rachel Nichols moderated the discussion, which focused on a variety of topics including pay-to-play stipends, football playoffs, social media’s role in college sports, how sports teams change/affect a school’s identity and the role of athletics at more academically demanding schools.

Fitzgerald was definitely “on” this evening. It wasn’t a regular college football Saturday post game media session, so he had a chance to break out and be himself, letting his sense of humor show.

“I thought we looked like Barney (the animated dinosaur), with a silver helmet, but the guys loved it and the guys designed it,” Fitz said of the all-purple uniforms versus Penn State.

“It’s all about branding the program. If I had trademarked the phrase GO CATS! 7 years ago, I could have retired by now,” he remarked about his well-known catch-phrase.

“Everyone gets a rating like (they are) a piece of beef, and it’s like being in a restaurant, every piece of beef better be 5-star or I’m not going to be eating there,” he said, once again reiterating his disbelief in the 5-star system widely used to evaluate recruits these days.

Fitzgerald made a lot of good points in deriding the system used by Rivals, Scout and ESPNU among others to rate high school prospects as they move on to college football. I agree when he said that recruiting season has become a “second season” for the fans. The hype (worst exemplified by National Signing Day) does often lead to a sound and fury signifying nothing. Of course, the same can be said of the NFL Draft, where boom-or-bust occurs with the same frequency and expectancy of a 20th century Texas oil town.

“When I was a kid if you were in the South-Town or The Star it was a big deal,  your Mom would cut it out of the paper and hang it on the refrigerator, if you were in the Tribune or the Sun-Times it was like WOW! And today a kid sees ‘I’m only a 3 star, and might think, hey I’m not good.’

The tremendous boom in the business of recruiting services has led to a proliferation of media organizations that have the same colors as the school, and focus their content exclusively on that institution. The New York Times’ Pete Thamel, says programs have “media cheerleaders,” as we’ve seen a shift from down-the-middle media to program-specific media getting most of the access.

“The access has gone to the cheerleaders…and that has been the most interesting shift to me, you might as well let the dance team or the guy in the student section write the story,” Thamel said.

I certainly see his point, as every time I’m out in the field, I see journalists dressed in regalia displaying their corporate logo; and it looks very close to how the school Sports Information Directors are dressed. It’s a thorny issue, as the college sports fan bases keeps growing, and with it the demand for coverage.

“Coverage of recruiting is only going to get bigger because the sport is getting bigger, it’s the second most popular sport in America,” Thamel said of the college gridiron.

The most important aspect of any good lecture and panel discussion is what you learn from it, and there were two Thamel soundbites that really stuck with me. He said only 5 BCS schools are truly academic oriented: Northwestern, Vandy, ND, Stanford, Duke and that it was “good to see them do well.”

Secondly, he advised current and future sports writers to spend a summer covering the police/court system beat. It would be tremendously beneficial for the sports writer to know how the system works and all the terminology. With a lot of the stories I’ve done lately, I couldn’t agree more.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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