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SI 60 Q&A: Rick Reilly on figuring out what The Citadel really was

In this SI 60 Q&A, Rick Reilly discusses his impactful story about hazing among athletes and the dangerous culture at the Citadel.
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In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, is republishing 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's selection was "What Is The Citadel?", which originally ran in the Sept. 14, 1992 issue. associate editor Ted Keith spoke with Rick Reilly about the piece and the impact it had on him, and the school.

SI: Let's talk about the Citadel story.

REILLY: Oh yes, wow. That may be the story I’m most proud of because the stuff that was going on was so heinous and awful and out of control, and I think we fixed something there. I really do. I’m so glad you're bringing this up. I don’t hear that much about this story and I just thought it was one of the best stories we ever did. It was so rich and detailed. It was incomprehensible what these kids were doing to each other.

What Is The Citadel? For some athletes, it was a place of nightmares

SI: How did it start?

REILLY: I got a letter from some parent who said, "You can not believe what’s happening to my son, a freshman at The Citadel." I wasn’t even sure what The Citadel was. Was it a government institution? I really stared looking into it, went down there and they let me spend a couple nights there, which was crazy.

When the piece came out, it made a huge splash in the news down there. And [novelist and Citadel alum] Pat Conroy said, "Well, they let the wrong guy spend the night in the barracks." The whole week kids would call me in my hotel and say, You won’t believe what happened to me. They hit me with oranges in a pillow case, or They made me march for 10 straight hours. And it was sophomores running freshman around.

Read each entry and Q&A in the SI 60 series

SI: How did those kids find you? And why did the school let you stay there?

REILLY: It made the paper when I arrived in Charleston that I was doing a story on The Citadel. Just a little tidbit news and notes thing, and pretty soon I had called that kid and he gave me a bunch of other kids’ names. And I started calling them and they’d always say, "Wait, I have to call you later tonight," because they were in dorms and on pay phones. It just started gathering momentum. I was getting call after call, but no one would meet me in person. And finally I convinced [the school] to let me spend a night and the students would come to my barracks room. And it just got worse and worse. It was like Lord of the Flies. And that cruelty begat more cruelty. It was more than hazing, it was taking it just to the edge of ... well, there could have been charges made. We really did change the culture there. Not long after that a young high school girl said she wanted to be the first girl at the Citadel. They said why, and she said she’d read my piece. She didn't stay there long.

SI: How long did it take you to gather all this material?

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REILLY:I think we all know that was a wrong that needed to be corrected. It was just so urgent. As soon as I got the letter, it was like, Oh my god, this is a piece. And it was from the parent of an athlete who wanted to quit the team. I remember it not being a thing that could wait very long. It took less time than usual, just go, go, go.

SI: How did Citadel people respond?

REILLY: One time, maybe a year afterward -- because Charleston is just about my favorite city in America -- I went to go see [longtime SI writer] Gary Smith, and a guy comes up and he just puts his Citadel ring right in my face, with a fist and he didn’t even say anything.

I got some threats. I remember getting threats to never come to Charleston again. 

Pat Conroy, who wrote Lords of Discipline, said, Yep, he got it right, and he did a whole long interview about how accurate it was and how the Citadel needed to change with the times.

SI: Did anyone at SI get skittish or try to hold off on publishing the piece, knowing how explosive it might be?

REILLY: No, zero. And that was a wonderful thing about working at Sports Illustrated. They just wanted the best story. The quality of the place -- the editing, the photography, the writing -- was just like nothing I’d ever experienced. When I first got there someone told me: "This is how it is. If you’re doing a story, all they care about is the story and you have to bring it. If you have to hire a crazed ex-Vietnam pilot to go up in a snowstorm to get you there, you do it. They will pay for it but you have no excuses." That turned out to be true. As long as you delivered really good stuff, they didn't care.

I once did a 10-page piece on Don King, spent so much money, and then they killed it. It wasn’t good enough. I did another one on great athletes lost to the gangs, to prison -- this kid used to score 70 points a game, and this kid was this fabulous football player but the gang chased him on to the highway and he died -- and they killed the story because they couldn’t fact check it. I said, "These guys are dead!" They said, "Sorry, we can’t fact check it." There were so many more people on every story and so much more money spent. You'd go on a story with the photographer and they’d hire two assistants. The last six years I’ve shot photos myself with my phone.

SI: What was the school's reaction?

REILLY: The school never said I got it wrong. There were so many stories from so many different people. A lot of people were surprised that The Citadel was not linked to any branch of the military. You didn’t go into a branch. It’s not the Air Force, it’s not the Naval Academy, it's not the Army. It’s just kind of make believe. There was no direct link to the military. The people running it also struck you as kind of playing soldier. Of course they’re going to react like someone has tried to bomb their platoon.​ ​

SI: Have you been back there since?

REILLY: I just love Charleston and it’s a shame that I have to, but even today [when I go there] in the back of my mind, I'm looking over the back of my shoulder.