Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Wire We Different? | by J-DUB

Late autumn, 1994. I am 28 years old and have the greatest job in the world as far as I am concerned: writing the "Inside College Football" section at Sports Illustrated. The final column is to be an awards-style roundup of the season and the previous four months' peregrinations have yielded quite a harvest. There is, for instance, this classic quote courtesy of then Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum regarding the difficulties involved in running a clean program: "John, back in the Garden of Eden they had two people and just one rule...and they couldn't even handle that."

There were just two problems. First, there was only one page of space for the column and second, my sense of glibness was a hit-or-miss affair with SI's top editors. It was like being Adam Lambert without quite that much talent, but with just as much nail polish (I know).

And, well, I no longer write for Sports Illustrated, and I imagine you're good at math, so...

But I will never forget what my editor, a wonderful mensch of a guy who was then in his early thirties, told me that day after my column was panned. He called me into his office and thanked me for the effort. Then he said, "You have to remember that you're not writing for the entire country here. You're writing for that small group of men down the hall. Those are the people you have to please."

The top editors. Those were the people. A coterie--an oligarchy, actually--of mostly Ivy League-educated, mostly white males. The "Princeton Junction Boys" (in honor of the New Jersey Transit stop so many of them used), as it were.

My editor was right, of course. But that was the twilight of an era, the last days of disco of sports print journalism. The "Print is dead" age was nearly upon us.

Today, thanks to the internet, space is never an issue when covering college football (though brevity remains a wildly underrated trait--if only I could apply it) and the scope of your audience is as limitless as literacy itself. The coverage of college football is, for the most part, better for it. A sport so overflowing with passion and populism fosters an insatiable appetite among readers, one that only the web can begin to sate. It's like dining at a Texas Roadhouse and actually being able to save room for dessert.

Moreover, something closer to a democracy bordering on meritocracy begins to take shape. Twenty years ago, the most difficult step toward becoming a successful journalist was landing the job at a brand-name outlet (Why else would J-School exist?). Who cared how talented a writer or reporter you were if you had no access to spread your message?

Today? Launch your own site and, if it connects with readers, word-of-mouth will do the rest. Phil Knight launched the world's most successful athletic apparel brand out of the back of his car. Steve Jobs began the world's most influential digital-age company out of his garage. And Bill Simmons became the most popular sports journalist of this decade only after being unable to land a job at the Boston Globe and instead starting his own site called "The Boston Sports Guy". If it weren't for the web, Bill Simmons might still be the funniest (and most opinionated, which is saying something) bartender in Boston today.

Too, there is something to be said for young people having a voice in the coverage of college sports (as if the idea itself were heresy). I recall fact-checking a story in 1991 written by Sally Jenkins. She described a wide receiver at the University of Washington as being heavily into "grunge" music. The editor changed it to "groove" music. He was UP HERE and I was down there on the masthead, but I politely stood my ground. He was dismissive, even suggesting we kill the reference. I stood my ground, having been schooled by people I worshiped such as the Ricks, Reilly and Telander, to fight for a writer's lines. The editor reiterated that no such thing as grunge existed.

(Looking back, it was all very "Moors" "Moops" of us: "Groove!" "Grunge!" "Groove!" "Grunge!")

What could I do? This was pre-internet, so I couldn't simply tell him to Google "mudhoney and flannel". Only after I ran down to the magazine stand in the bowels of Rockefeller Center and procured an issue of Rolling Stone did he relent. It isn't that a man in his mid-forties should have been familiar with the grunge scene before the release of "Nevermind". It is simply that the prevailing mindset of the day--that people under age 25 should be obscene and not heard, or something like that--was so withering.

The enthusiasm, the cheekiness of college-aged fans is certainly better represented on "EveryDayShouldBeSaturday" than it is by Beano Cook. And there's room for both. In the past, however, only the latter voice was heard.

And too often the mainstream media failed/fails to provide an anti-establishment voice to college sports, whose denizens are at an age where questioning the establishment is a given. Case in point: During the second half of Saturday's Michigan State-U Conn Final Four contest, CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz broached the topic of the alleged NCAA violations by the Huskies as exposed by the recent Yahoo! Sports investigation. While not discrediting the report, Nantz seemed to go out of his way to note that Jim Calhoun has a "spotless" record in Storrs. Considering that one of UConn's players on the floor at that moment, A.J. Price, had once been suspended for stealing a fellow student's laptop (and another, Stanley Robinson, hasn't received a grade for a class since the 2007 fall semester), Nantz might have at least acknowledged that the Yahoo! Sports story raised some valid questions as to propriety and UConn basketball. But hey, this was just a story that appeared on the internet. It wasn't as if Katie Couric had broken it.

There are two reasons--besides humor--that Jon Stewart has a more devoted following among people under the age of 35 than Couric or anyone else delivering the news. Trust and candor. Stewart makes the jokes on-camera ("Mess o' potamia") that the more established anchors can only make off-camera. And they do. Stewart's on-air candor, meanwhile, gains our trust. And so it is with college football sites such as EDSBS ("Every Day Should Be Saturday"), which gives us the Fulmer Cup (a yearlong standings of miscreantism in the sport), or "Deadspin", which boasts the "Hugh Johnson Project", a fall Saturday staple where readers comment on the vast array of games in real time, transforming the site into the pigskin equivalent of "Mystery Science Theater 3000".

To be fair, Sports Illustrated has never backed down from pursuing investigative pieces in college football (or any avenue of sports). And just as it is much easier to sit on your couch and say, "I could've made that catch" (which begs the question, Then why didn't you get a free ride to an FBS school?) when watching a game, it's a lot easier to opine from the safety of your own home or cubicle than it is to stand face-to-face with a player or coach and ask the difficult questions. We live in a "Guitar Hero" culture; a Wii republic, where too many equate bowling a 200 on a video screen with being a good bowler.

Deadspin founder Will Leitch infamously told Bob Costas last spring, "It's hard goddamn work writing a blog." You know what else is? Writing a captivating story in 1,000 words or less (hence, I have failed on both counts here) by interviewing various and often contradictory parties, foraging for facts and drawing conclusions. Is it just a coincidence that while Bill Simmons' mailbags are freaking hilarious, his columns that appear in ESPN: The Magazine are just average?

The reason so many of us veterans appear to be screaming at the wind so often is because the blogosphere places too little emphasis on accountability, on accuracy, on real talent. You want to read an outstanding college football piece? Read this 1997 story in SI by my friend Steve Rushin about Scott Frost and Nebraska. And Steve was not even on the college football beat (nor did the constraints of SI allow him to make any wiener jokes...though God knows he often tried to slip one past).

I'm rambling (once again, God bless the internet for allowing me the space to roam, to wonder aloud about such things as, "If I don't look anything like someone else, does that mean I bear a canny resemblance to them?" with no threat of being edited). Here, then, are a dozen top sites and why I visit them (and I've avoided naming any individual school site, though there are many excellent ones, of course, including this one and my personal favorite, in terms of names, the WVU site "We Must Ignite This Couch"):

1) College Football Data Warehouse

Every score, every coach's record, even a link giving you the outcomes of the misnomered "Kickoff Classics". This should be the first site anyone covering or interested in college football should bookmark.


I don't know anyone who has the time to read all of the insightful analysis and stories posted on this site, and I often disagree with their columnists, but I do know that I never miss Pete Fiutak's weekly "Cavalcade of Whimsy" column each Tuesday during the season. And I enjoy their sense of fun, such as rating a games on a spectrum of great TV ("Extras") to horrendous TV ("Flavor of Love")


Founder Jay Christensen spent some two decades at the Los Angeles Times, but his legacy should be this outstanding site, which plucks the most newsworthy stories from around the country while also providing its own original items. Daily dosage highly recommended. And, perhaps because he is old enough to remember the bicentennial, Jay's items are refreshingly free of profanity and the "Anyone who is successful must be a phony" attitude.


Having worked there for nearly 15 years, I'm intrigued by the manner in which the site (and its writers) has usurped the magazine in the public consciousness. Austin Murphy has been covering college football for the main mag for more than two decades, and there is no more universally-liked writer in the sport (he also happens to be immune to the aging process...damn him!). But Stewart Mandel has ambitiously claimed the web as his turf and has endeavored to become as knowledgeable as anyone on college football's byzantine ways, from the BCS to the fact that the Big Ten is comprised of eleven teams. Stewart's the smart kid in class, and he prides himself on that. It shows in the work.


Want to know who led the nation in rushing offense last season (Navy) or who finished last in passing offense (Army)? Visit this site, find the "statistics" link for football, and dig all you want.

6) Dr. Saturday

Matt Hinton and a small staff of contributors serve as a digital version of the Times Square ticker, keeping you up to date on the newsworthy and the bizarre, which often find themselves overlapping. Today, for instance, the site had an item concerning the position switch of Demetrius Jones' to linebacker at Cincinnati (how much more can this kid take?).


This unabashedly Florida-centric site is crude and funny, with inspired bits such as the aforementioned "Fulmer Cup" and "Mustache Wednesday" earning it a devoted fan base akin to that of the "Daily Show".

8), "The Hugh Johnson Project"

Remember how you and your friends would watch a game in your dorm room and mock the announcers or the players with the weird names (Elvis Peacock?!?). Well, imagine if all the other idiots in all the dorm rooms all over the country were doing the same thing? And if someone could somehow filter all the remarks so that only the funny ones made it through? We welcome you to Hugh, also known as the worst thing ever to happen to Pam Ward.

9) The Quad Blog

The New York Times gets out in front of the digital age with a blog of its own that is updated about half a dozen times daily. Writers such as Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans are that rare breed in this age who both go out and report their own stories (much to the chagrin of Mack Brown) while also writing a fairly popular blog.


Like The Wiz of Odds and Dr. Saturday, this site acts as a terrific filter for absorbing all the news that's out there and providing it to you in a less daunting fashion.


If you know that the A-11 is neither the latest, greatest innovation in steak sauce nor the conference of the Rhode Island Rams, this site may be for you. If you care to learn the intricacies of how the A-11 is run, this site will keep you enthralled for hours.


Have to admit that I'm partial to this site because, like me, it does not want to see a playoff in college football. Before you condemn us, look who else is part of our coalition: Chuck Klosterman, Mike Greenberg and Megan Fox (okay, I'm just guessing on that last name).


This is a many-layered topic, of course. For instance, where are the boundaries drawn? If West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart can Twitter us about having thrown his kickers out of a team meeting (ooh, tough guy), then why can't a blogger "friend" that kicker on Facebook and ask him what really happened without requesting an interview through the sports information director?

Or, how do sports information directors define who warrants a press box credential? After all, as with parenting, journalism is not a vocation that requires a license. Does a beat writer from a newspaper with a circulation of 20,000 readers deserve a credential over a blogger with five times that many (not that the blogger would request one on most occasions, but what if he or she did?). And should the NCAA have the right to prohibit live blogging during a game? You might as well order Google to stop mapping the planet.

This much I do know. Fifteen years later, the "Inside College Football" section of SI is well-written, meticulously edited, fact-checked and copy-edited. But the earliest you'll ever read it is five days after Saturday's games. In terms of 21st century college football coverage, it may as well be written on papyrus.