The world's best tennis players are in Australia this week. The sport's best analyst is not. Mary Carillo quietly left ESPN last year during the middle of the U.S. Open, leaving the network with one year remaining on her contract.
If you've read this column, you've read about Carillo. Last year SI.com named her the best game analyst of the 2000s for excelling in a sport that far too often soft-pedals commentary because of the many conflicts of interests and relationships. As my colleague Jon Wertheim once wrote about the analyst: "Her bold, 'I don't care who might be chapped by what I'm about to say approach' separated her from too many of her colleagues."
Deluged with e-mails on the subject of Carillo's departure, Wertheim dropped an interesting line in a column two weeks ago, saying there was a "philosophical difference" between Carillo and ESPN, and that she left the network on her own accord.
It doesn't take a leap to surmise that the philosophical difference rested in Carillo believing the tone and tenor of ESPN's coverage was closer to cheerleading than reporting. Sources told SI.com that Carillo was distressed by a culture that frowned on critical analysis of the top players on tour, particularly American stars. When last year's men's final switched from CBS to ESPN2, Carillo did not follow. It was a surreal end for a broadcaster who elevated ESPN's tennis coverage to new heights.
Reached at her home last week in Florida, Carillo declined to comment on why she left ESPN. She remains with CBS and NBC on tennis, and works as a correspondent on HBO's Real Sports. Author James Miller, whose book on the history of ESPN comes out next April, echoed what many tennis fans are likely feeling this week: "ESPN begins Australian Open coverage tomorrow without Mary Carillo," Miller tweeted. "Her choice, but departure could have been prevented. She will be missed."
SI.com spoke with ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson last Friday to ask him about Carillo's departure. "Mary, for years, helped build ESPN's tennis coverage and she was a valuable asset which made us very strong," Williamson said. "People come and go and you can ask me that same question about different sports at different times. Bill Parcells was here with the NFL. He leaves and you try to supplement the coverage.
"The one thing about Mary is we had discussions with her agent, Sandy Montag. He called me at some point during the mid-year [of 2010] and said with sort of the grind she had -- she was working for HBO, NBC, CBS, and ESPN -- that she wanted to experiment and do some different things beyond just tennis. The load of the ESPN tennis was not allowing her to do that, and that's when the first discussions came out. She had one year left on her deal then. Given everything she had done for ESPN and the high level she had given us, if that was what she wanted to do, of course we would accommodate her. But it's very hard to replace a Mary Carillo."
Williamson said he did not have direct conversations with Carillo on tennis philosophy. Those conversations would have occurred with ESPN's event production people in charge of tennis, such as Jamie Reynolds, an ESPN vice president who oversees tennis. Asked directly if ESPN shared the same philosophy as Carillo when it came to covering tennis, Williamson said, "I think we did. ... We sort of want people that are working for us to challenge us because we are going to sit here and tell you that we are not right all the time. We may underplay some stories. We may overplay some stories. We need that give-and-take from the experts we employ that are serving the tennis fan as best as possible."
No sport does conflicts quite like tennis, dating to former agent Donald Dell, who provided commentary of matches involving players he represented and tournaments his firm owned and managed. That's morphed today into ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez interviewing a player (Roger Federer) represented by her IMG agent husband. The affable Fernandez also draws a salary from being Fed Cup captain, where the Williams sisters' commitment is often the key to winning or losing. Patrick McEnroe, who this column enjoys as a broadcaster, makes a six-figure salary from the USTA, which puts him in a tricky situation when questions come up yearly about the U.S. Open scheduling and the stadium's need for a roof.
The sport's television entities have long fostered a climate where players are subjected to questions about as soft as a Francesca Schiavone drop shot. It's hard to believe such flagrant conflicts would be permitted in other sports. As one longtime U.S. tennis wag joked to me while watching the coverage, "We now go to Mrs. Boras for a report on Alex Rodriguez."
Carillo was the opposite of that culture, and more akin to those on the print side who often play the heavy for fans of the sport. "You always want people who played the game," Williamson countered. "You always want people who have relationships with people in the game. At the same point, you don't want to fool anybody. You want to tell people, 'Yeah, there are some relationships here but that does not pollute someone's objectivity, their ability to analyze or give you strategy or their take on a potential news story.'"
Tennis stars can be fickle when it comes to press access and there's naturally a delicate dance covering them. Last year Serena Williams posed for the cover of ESPN's Body Issue and has been a featured presenter at the ESPYs. Uncompromising journalism about Serena is particularly important because she is a polarizing figure in the sport.
"I will tell you when Serena had her issue at the Open [Williams was penalized a point on match point against Kim Clijsters in 2009 after cursing and shaking her racket in the direction of an official who called a foot fault.] I don't think any media entity covered it more, played the clips, and had diverse views on it, from Skip Bayless on First Take to Patrick McEnroe to Mary Carillo," Williamson said.
"We like to have relationships with those we are covering and we try to separate church and state," he continued. "There are issues with other athletes that we ask to pose for magazines and things like that. But if you look at the breadth and scope of our coverage with the Williams sisters, and especially the issue that Serena had and the number of times we covered that incident, and the follow up, I would stack up our coverage related to Serena Williams with anyone in the media."
This column appreciates Williamson's time (even when we don't agree with his answers) and he addressed a number of questions that readers have asked SI.com over the last couple of weeks:
SI.com: You told USA Today that you laughed at Brent Musburger's "This is for all the Tostitos" line at the end of the Auburn-Oregon game. Why did you think that was humorous as opposed to an outright sales job for Tostitos?
Williamson: There was no sort of agenda for a sales job for Tostitos. Clearly ESPN Inc. has a business arrangement with the BCS and we subsequently have commercials. Tostitos logos are on the field and there is signage in the stadium. It's not like we are trying to hide that Tostitos is the sponsor of the game and then at the last minute say, "Hey, Brent, slip it in."
It was so overt, and talk about transparency. It was just the moment. No disrespect meant to Tostitos, but it's a funny name. It had no bearing on anything. It was a fun, flip, offbeat humorous moment. I think sometimes people get a little bit crazy. They are looking for conspiracy. So you can break some news here: I'll tell you that because Brent put that in there, he is getting a lifetime supply of Tostitos as long as he lives. You caught us! (laughs).
SI.com: Matt Millen was assigned to the Big Ten this season and did a number of Michigan games. As someone who lived in Ann Arbor in 2009 and has contact with a ton of Michigan alums, there are a huge majority of people in the state who do not like hearing him on those games, rightly or wrongly. Social media backs such sentiment up given Millen is obliterated on Twitter during games he calls. Why would you assign a guy to call games in an area when he is so intensely disliked?
Williamson: You are making the leap that Michigan fans don't want Matt Millen there and maybe it's not much of a leap. I will tell you that Matt Millen with Kirk Herbstreit and Todd Blackledge, with no disrespect to any of our other college football analysts, they are on our top three teams at the moment. I don't know the breakdown of how many Big Ten games Matt did but he and Sean McDonough work that 3:30 p.m. window on ABC. I'm not sitting here saying "Wow, we have a Michigan game so let's stick it to Michigan fans." That's not what we want to do. We want everyone to enjoy their team and to be passionate about it.
At the same point, we are doing a regional and sometimes national telecast and I have to put the best people on the best games to get the best dissection of analysis and perspective on those games. That's my job. My job is not to aggravate any fan bases. Ultimately, you have to look at the bigger decision. You put the best people in the best opportunity to succeed. I don't really get [the] Michigan football connection with Matt. I get the Lions. But I get that it's clearly an issue among some fans in that area. The extent of the issue is the question.
SI.com: Have you offered Urban Meyer a job?
Williamson: We have been in discussions with Urban. He came up for the Las Vegas Bowl and we hired him to work for us at the BCS, so we already have a short-term relationship with him. He was really good and he made people better. He pushed producers and researchers and fits in really well. If Urban decides to tell us or someone else that he absolutely wants to do this full time, we'd be very interested in him joining ESPN full time doing college football.
SI.com: Do you see him as a studio analyst or game analyst?
Williamson: Both. We are not growing studio analysts or game analysts. Herbstreit is the model for that. If you do both, you are much more valuable to us than doing one or the other. I think he'd be good on games and he's proven already that he's articulate, thoughtful and analytical in the studio setting.
It was the most lopsided title game in history, and the image spoke to everything UNLV represented in the 1990s: strength, power and flash. The front of the April 9, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated featured UNLV's Moses Scurry soaring over Duke's Brian Davis and Christian Laettner. Wrote SI's Curry Kirkpatrick at the time: "Choose any of the sociologically significant polarities enveloping the national championship that you wish, but when the Runnin' (positively Ragin') Rebels of UNLV got finished with poor Duke -- Miss vs. Match: The official number was 103-73, if you are keeping track on your keno ticket -- they had turned a morality play into astonishing theater of the absurd."
Few teams have been more polarizing and popular than the UNLV basketball squads of the early '90s, and this week HBO completed the rough cut for its upcoming Runnin' Rebels of UNLV, a documentary of the program under coach Jerry Tarkanian. The program will debut March 12 on HBO at 9:30 ET/PT. It will be shown in HD.
Last week, HBO Sports co-producers George Roy and Steve Stern recorded the voiceover for the hour-long program (the documentary will be narrated by actor Liev Schreiber) and are now putting the finishing touches on the program. "The signature elements of it are somewhat obvious -- the 1990 and 1991 teams were the teams that everyone connect to UNLV," said Roy. "But this is also about Jerry's era. He got there in 1973 and almost right away changed the face of basketball at UNLV and brought a lot of attention to the school, positively and negatively.
Naturally, the documentary will feature plenty of Tarkanian, whom Roy described today as a "fiery pepperpot." The former coach splits his time between Fresno, Las Vegas and San Diego. "He is still adamant about his love for those teams and his despising of the NCAA," Roy said.
Among the other notable interviews in the piece: CBS broadcaster Greg Anthony (who grew up in Las Vegas), and fellow former Rebels Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel (who grew up in Vegas) also provides some perspective. Roy said HBO attempted to get NCAA vice president David Berst, the original investigator in the case against Tarkanian and UNLV, but he and many others in the NCAA declined to speak. To offer the other side of UNLV's story, HBO did speak with Doug Dunlap, who was a member of NCAA"s enforcement staff who worked on the case.
As for the famed Richie (The Fixer) Perry, who appeared famously in a hot tub with three UNLV players and pleaded guilty in the mid-1980s to conspiring to commit sports bribery as part of a gambling scandal at Boston College, HBO was able to track him down in Florida, but that was as far as it went: "We were trying to connect him through an attorney he had an association with, but it kind of hit a brick wall and we were told he had no interest," Roy said.
Roy said the film took seven months to produce and given the buzz for the UNLV era in the sports blogosphere, it has the potential to be a big hit for HBO.
"Those 1990 and 1991 teams took on the aura of a professional team," said Roy. "They sort of had an outlaw, streetball ethos and for a time the UNLV hats were just as popular in Jersey City or the suburbs of Chicago as they were in Las Vegas. Their style of play and rebellious attitude toward both competitors and the establishment made them transcend basketball in a lot of ways. It was a fun one for us to do."
ESPN's Mike Tirico examined a fascinating topic last week as part of his Open Mike podcast, an original bi-weekly podcast which is produced with no predetermined length. The subject was how pro teams and colleges search for a new head coach and the podcast featured a head coach (Lions coach Jim Schwartz), an agent (Matt Baldwin), an athletic director (Rick Greenspan of Rice University) and an executive from a search firm executive (Glenn Sugiyama, an executive VP and Global Sector Leader of Sports for DHR) discussing the search process from their experience. It's a terrific listen.
"We knew we wanted a few completely different perspectives on the topic," said ESPN Radio talent producer Shaun Wyman, who books guests for the podcast and works with Tirico and producer Rob Kelly to come up with story ideas and guests. "We looked for a coach who had been through the process recently and Jim worked out great. We wanted an AD or GM that admittedly has made some mistakes but also some great hires, and Rick was suggested through a mutual contact. Mike wanted to hear from an agent that represented coaches and executives and suggested that firm, and with Googling and a blind call, I found Glenn. It took about 10 days from when we started the guest ideas until the finished product."