With the NCAA Tournament in full swing, I impaneled six national college basketball reporters to answer questions about which programs are the best to deal with from a media perspective—and what is something the public might not recognize about their job.
• Nicole Auerbach, USA Today
• Pat Forde, Yahoo Sports
• Myron Medcalf, ESPN.com
• Dana O’Neil, ESPN.com
• Matt Norlander, CBS Sports
• Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated
(Editor's note: The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers.)
What program/coach has historically been the best for you to deal with during the NCAA Tournament, and why?
Auerbach: I’ll give you two that immediately come to mind: Villanova (Jay Wright) and Notre Dame (Mike Brey). These coaches— and by extension, their staffs and players—have been terrific to me ever since I began covering this sport. But they’re particularly great during March because they understand that I am trying to find angles that have not been covered extensively, and they feel secure in helping that process. For example, right after Villanova beat Iowa in the round of 64 last year, a Villanova staffer mentioned to me that Kris Jenkins and UNC’s Nate Britt had grown up together essentially as brothers. I wrote that story during the Sweet 16/Elite 8, a storyline that many others followed up on during the Final Four. It was a great tip. Knowing that relationship was there made for a nice story and hopefully enhanced readers' enjoyment of the title game. Both Wright and Brey themselves are always up for one-on-one interviews outside of press conference settings, too, if you can grab them in the hallway or locker room. And they both also treat reporters exactly the same win or lose, which is something I admire.
Forde: Tom Izzo and Michigan State come to mind quickly. First of all, Izzo understands our jobs and is willing to work with us. He's not paranoid, has a good sense of humor, doesn't object to giving us access and actually seems to enjoy his interactions with the media. Imagine that. He's got great support staff—in particular SID Matt Larson and ops guy Kevin Pauga—his assistants are accessible, and his players usually have a willingness to share their stories with us. Winning certainly helps a program's demeanor, and Michigan State wins a lot in March. When the Spartans make a deep tourney run, they make a fun time of year all the more fun.
Medcalf: I’ve always had great experiences with Arizona and Sean Miller. The thing about the NCAA tournament is that everything is streamlined and organized, so we all tend to get similar access. The challenge is finding something more, something fresh, something unique within that structure. After Miller had his dustup with Steve Alford over a late timeout at the Pac-12 tournament, we all scrambled to get Alford’s response outside the UCLA locker room. As we were doing that, Miller was at the podium, and he’d kind of sidestepped the question about the late timeout. So we didn’t have anything good about the situation. So I ran toward the secure entrance, stood by the team’s bus and waited. Now, some coaches would have certainly ignored me in that situation. Miller didn’t. He walked over and talked about the situation at length when he could have just said, “I already discussed this.” Big-time program that’s always been great to work with.
O’Neil: I frankly think there are more schools and coaches who 'get it' than don't, so I could make a pretty good case for a decent list of coaches and schools. The common denominator is a coach that is comfortable in his own skin and recognizes the importance of being accessible, and a sports information director who tries to work with the media instead of as a road block. Villanova, Louisville, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas all fall under that list. Forced to pick one, I'd go with Michigan State. Tom Izzo is as honest and accessible after he loses as when he wins. He will do his required interviews at the podium, and then stand around and speak with reporters in a scrum afterward. Matt Larson, his sports information director, is always willing to set up extra time and interviews with players, and he's always game to listen to unique ideas.
Norlander: Depends on wins or losses. After a loss, you get a truer sense of the get-it guys, the ones who will give you the time for a few questions, respond with real answers and understand their role and how it relates to the media's job. If we're talking strictly during the tournament, Tom Izzo and Mike Brey have been the best over the years. They are two of the most professional and easy-to-interview coaches after a loss. It is no surprise that those two are also, truly, among the most respected and well-liked guys in the coaching business. From a program standpoint, if it's O.K., I'd like to highlight Virginia and its sports information director, Eric Bacher. And yet, I realize the three coaches/schools I just mentioned are no longer in the tournament. I looked at the Sweet 16 teams in the field, and I wanted to give you on that stood out, but honestly, the SIDs at half the teams left have been tremendous to work with over the years. The work SIDs put in is always taken for granted. Those men and women are vital to our jobs, and a lot of the time, it's thankless work. I'd love to hear some stories from their side of things come the Final Four. They also know where a few bodies are buried, too.
Thamel: The NCAA tournament is actually set up well for media access. There's open locker rooms every day and the assistant coaches and little-used players are often ideal for digging up stories and delving into themes. It'd be hard to pinpoint one team or program that's particularly helpful, as there's so much access available that there's usually little need for extra help.
What would you like to viewers/readers to know about your job during the NCAA Tournament that they are unlikely to know?
Auerbach: You can only prepare so much for unfamiliar teams, so when an upset happens, it's an hour-long (well, 30-minute) crash course in a chaotic locker room. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover three 14-over-3 upsets in the past three years, meaning I’ve gotten to walk into three locker rooms—Mercer, UAB and Stephen F. Austin—that were essentially blank slates to everyone but those from their home towns. It’s my job to go in there and talk to as many people as possible (including assistant coaches, strength coaches, walk-ons) to figure out the most interesting stories behind an NCAA tournament darling. It’s so much fun and also so rewarding to find those hidden gems and then get to share them with readers.
Forde: First of all, the job is a blast and this truly is the most wonderful time of the year to be a sports writer. But it does present some challenges, and this is one that I'm not sure anyone has fully mastered: which stories to tell when the games start. Most fans don't read much on the first four days of the tourney because they're too busy watching games and checking brackets. And for national writers, you generally have to make some decisions that can work well or fall apart in terms of choosing which game(s) to write. If there are four in a day, you may choose to write the first one and then the second game turns out to be a huge upset for a thrilling finish. Then you're writing two in a hurry. And then you might have more stories present themselves at night. You can end up with four good stories in a day, or none if you're at a site where nothing major happens, or somewhere in between. I remember being in Little Rock once and watching four ho-hum games won by favorites, while the tournament was going bonkers elsewhere. That's not a good feeling.
Medcalf: It’s not a solo effort. You might read one of my columns or see me on TV or hear me on the radio during the NCAA tournament, but you have no idea how many people are out there helping us do our jobs. Editors, producers, researchers, sports information directors, tournament officials, etc. Viewers and readers never see them but they’re essential. For example, the ESPN research department provides so many layers of information that help us explain what viewers are seeing on TV. You need editors and producers because you can be so locked into everything at your specific NCAA tournament site that you might miss something significant. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes you’re at a disadvantage when you’re courtside. In Las Vegas, Lonzo Ball hurt his thumb in a Pac-12 tournament game. I saw him holding it but didn’t think it was a big deal. Well, my editors told me the TV crew had talked about it throughout the first half. So I focused on that the rest of the way and found out he’d actually had X-rays on the thumb after the game (they were negative). But I would have missed that without the extra set of eyes. In the NCAA tournament, it’s always a team effort. Even if you don’t know the names of the people behind the scenes. We don’t get through these three weeks alone.
O’Neil: That I appreciate it. I know that sounds silly but if Twitter is an accurate litmus test, I think there can be a prevailing attitude that reporters are a cynical, coddled, crabby lot. O.K., we are. But I also know that every time I sit down at my press seat on the first day of the tourney, I remember how extraordinarily lucky I am. There are people sneaking peeks at games while the boss isn't looking while I'm getting paid to watch. That's a pretty good gig and it's one I take seriously. I have always believed that if my name is above a story, I'm going to be responsible for what's beneath it and that's especially keen during the tournament. I really want to do it right because the whole thing really matters to me. That doesn't mean I won't tick off a fan base or make a mistake. I will. That's also part of the job. But please know that I get how lucky I am.
Norlander: First, that I absolutely love it. Be it on the page or in podcasts, I hope my genuine enthusiasm for the sport and the tournament shines through. This is the best sporting event in America. I will never not love it—unless the tournament expands to more than 68 teams! As for a peek behind the job in March/April, it's late hours, early mornings, news changing by the day, and the only thing that could compare to covering the NCAA Tournament—and really, the conference tournaments first—from beginning to end is the Olympics. But you're also constantly mining for stories by late March, trying to find anything that isn't recycled or been told 10 times already. Fun problem to have.
Thamel: The complicating part of covering the NCAA tournament is that it often overlaps with the hiring/firing season in college basketball. Indiana announced the firing of Tom Crean one minute after the tournament started on Thursday. Mike Hopkins left his coach-in-waiting job at Syracuse on Sunday morning before the games started. Often times you are talking on the phone covering the off-court stories while the stories on the court are unfolding in front of you. Makes for an hectic few weeks.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. CBS Sports and Turner Sports said that live coverage on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV had averaged 9,325,000 million viewers, up +10% from 2016 (8,513,000). CBS and Turner said it was the most-watched viewership in 24 years through the first Sunday. They added that NCAA March Madness Live (MML) has generated an all-time record 69.1 million live streams through the first Sunday of the tournament, an increase of +24% over last year.
Some potential reasons behind this: The programs that historically draw good viewership (Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina etc..) advanced to the second round and beyond. Also, last year’s numbers were down so you expected an increase.
1a. Kentucky Sports Radio says the NCAA is lying about ordering them to remove a video of Lynn Marshall, wife of Wichita State coach, Gregg Marshall.
1b. From The Buffalo News sports columnist Bucky Gleason: 25 years later, remembering Christian Laettner's swish for the ages.
2. Episode 111 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Dave Meltzer, the editor of The Wrestling Observer newsletter, Wrestling Observer.com and a writer for MMAFighting.com. This is Meltzer’s second appearance on the podcast.
As part of this conversation, Meltzer discusses the success of the split between the Raw and SmackDown Live brands; how he evaluates WWE broadcasters; what he expects the WWE to do about the leaked release of explicit photos and videos of wrestlers Paige and Xavier Woods; what it was like to work at the National; how he would evaluate ESPN’s coverage of pro wrestling; his opinion of the Something To Wrestle With podcast and the criticism he gets from Bruce Prichard; whether Stephanie McMahon will ever be in a bout again; the potential of an Andre the Giant doc; how often wrestlers contact him; the possible returns of Hulk Hogan and C.M. Punk; how WWE brass feels regarding fans booing Roman Reigns; the health of independent wrestling in North America; whether a new promotion could become a legit competitor to the WWE in North America; why the WWE brass does not allow its wrestlers to appear on your radio shows; whether the McMahon’s close relationship-partnership with Donald Trump has impacted employee morale and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3. Would pro athletes open their lives up to a 24/7 live stream for big dollars? I asked some in this Monday’s Media column.
3a. CBS Sports Radio made major changes to its lineup with the departure of Doug Gottlieb. The new schedule, beginning Monday, April 17 is below:
Gregg Giannotti and Brian Jones: 6:00 – 9:00 a.m.
The DA Show: 9:00 AM – 12:00 p.m.
The Jim Rome Show: 12:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Tiki Barber and Brandon Tierney: 3:00 – 6:00 p.m.
TBA: 6:00 – 10:00 p.m.
Scott Ferrall: 10:00 PM – 2:00 a.m.
Amy Lawrence: 2:00 – 6:00 a.m.
3b. On Wednesday Fox Sports Radio made official what was reported last month: Gottlieb is heading to Fox Sports Radio and FS1.
4. Episode 110 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast featured ESPN executive Laura Gentile, the senior vice president of espnW and Women’s Initiatives.
In this podcast, Gentile discusses the mission and business of espnW, ESPN’s first dedicated business built to serve women who loves sports; why she believes espnW can last for the long haul; how ESPN has evolved for women both in front of the camera and behind the scenes women over the past decade; the amount of sexism that exists among sports television and digital viewers; whether espnW is critical enough of women athletes; whether a site can succeed if it embraces optimism; what can be done regarding the online venom faced by many ESPN female staffers; the purpose of the espnW annual sports summit; the skill set one needs to be good at field hockey (Gentile was an All-America field hockey player at Duke) and much more.
5a. NBCSN will air the $10 million Dubai World Cup this Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET. Arrogate, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic last November, headlines the race.
5b. FS1 announced it will air the upcoming BIG3 three-on-three basketball league this summer. The network will tape the Sunday games and package them for Monday night coverage, starting June 26. Fox said that Big Fox will air the league championship live on Aug. 26.
5c. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily: MLB Network drew 1.4 million viewers for the USA-Japan semifinal in the World Baseball Classic, the network’s best non-MLB-playoff audience ever.
5d. NBA.com’s Sam Smith on the death of Jerry Krause.
5e.Nice work by Detective Jay Glazer.