The dean of Packers' beat writers: Bob McGinn covers Green Bay like no one else
- Since joining the team beat in 1984, Bob McGinn has become a Packers institution, covering Green Bay with a painstaking fervor (or perhaps obsession) few reporters could match.
GREEN BAY — “Yeah, I know a lot of people hate me,” Bob McGinn says nonchalantly at his kitchen table.
By “a lot of people,” he means much of his target audience.
McGinn, 64, is the dean of Packers beat writers, an unofficial team historian heading into his seventh conference championship game (and potentially his fourth Super Bowl) covering Green Bay on Sunday. He started chronicling the franchise full time in 1984 and begins every morning the same way: in his kitchen, with a ruler and scissors, cutting the Packers clips out of his paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He stores those clips—every story ever written about the team by the papers that have employed him (he also worked for the Green Bay Press-Gazette) since 1979—in now dusty manila folders that line secondhand gray filing cabinets in his basement. The collection is at once a historical, statistical record of a franchise that ranks among the most storied in sports and a fire hazard, with more paper than a school supply factory.
The Packer fans in nearby houses—which is to say every house in the neighborhood except his—must dream of McGinn’s job. His access to the players. His commute, a five-minute drive to Lambeau Field. His proximity to the legends, names like Favre, Wolf, Holmgren, White and Rodgers. McGinn even agrees with them, although not for the same reasons. He scrutinizes the Packers from a vantage point removed, aware of the history but not romanticized by it, grounded in an objective reality that doesn’t always lead to fan mail—unless said fan mail is laced with colorful descriptors such as “idiot” and “moron.”
It’s mid-January, and McGinn’s colleague, a talented young writer named Michael Cohen, is setting up the equipment for their podcast. McGinn is not, shall we say, technologically advanced. He only uses his cell phone on road trips, transcribes his interviews by hand and insists romantically that “stories look better on the printed page.”
For this particular podcast, McGinn fetches from his file dungeon the story he wrote the last time the Falcons won an NFC Championship Game, which Atlanta will attempt to do again this weekend against Green Bay. The newsprint, from 1999, is fading but intact. He bounds upstairs, past the Christmas tree made out of rolled up newspapers—“an ode to Robert,” his wife, Pat, calls it—and sits back down, surrounded by notes, rosters and media guides laid out on an orange tablecloth.
“Alright, Mike, what do we want to blab about?” McGinn asks. They discuss the clip—the Falcons were big underdogs and won on an overtime field goal against the Vikings—and various matchups for the weekend. Then Cohen kicks things off. “It’s Wednesday morning, 11 a.m., here at McGinn headquarters,” he says, noting a temperature uptick that has started to thaw the treacherous sheet of ice covering McGinn’s driveway.
The podcast unfolds over the next hour. McGinn knows the rough size of Aaron Rodgers’s throwing hand (10 1/2 or 10 1/4 inches), the exact size of Jared Cook’s shoes (16) and what scouts think of obscure players on the Falcons defense.
Whether this is preparation or obsession makes no difference to him. Even for the podcast’s song of the day—“Sweet Southern Comfort” by the country singer Buddy Jewell, a ditty that often moves McGinn to tears—the lyrics are printed out, with key phrases underlined and circled.
“This is weird,” McGinn says of being interviewed, after 40 years of interviewing.
He hasn’t missed a Packers kickoff since 1984. He has come close. Like the time Pat mistook her fungal infection medication for her contact solution and needed a ride to the emergency room after she burned her cornea. McGinn dropped her off but had her take a cab home so he could cover a game. Understandably, that did not go over well. Another time, McGinn arrived at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and officials hadn’t left a press pass. By the time he made it to the press box, the Packers’ kicker had already lined up. McGinn would have missed the kickoff but a gust of wind magically blew the ball off the tee, allowing him time to slide into his seat.
That’s the thing about McGinn. Stars retire. Coaches get fired. Regimes change. But his stories are always in the paper, as consistent as the “G” on the Packers’ helmets.
Over the decades, he met some characters, had some run-ins, heard from a few (thousand) who disagreed with his opinions. No one helped him more than the late Dick Corrick, who ran the Packers’ draft operations for years, or Ron Wolf, the general manager who always called back and never held a grudge.
Safety Leroy Butler was the smartest player McGinn interviewed. Defensive end Reggie White had a personality, McGinn says, “that was larger than life.” Quarterback Brett Favre possessed an encyclopedic memory, and McGinn used to follow him after games to the team bus, seeking detail on random third-quarter first downs. “My whole thing was trying to unravel the mysteries of the game,” McGinn says. “And there’s a lot of them. There’s 22 guys with helmets on. You don’t know what they’re thinking. You watch a basketball game and the 10 people on the court have facial expressions. You’re on top of the action. It’s just different.”
Everything around McGinn changed. More writers. Less access. Players don’t invite him over anymore. He doesn’t turn out the lights in the locker room like he did in the mid-80s. He can’t call assistants every day. Journalism changed, too. A few years ago, his bosses asked him to try Twitter. He amassed 30,000 followers but disdained the negativity. Now he authors stories and does the podcast, work he describes in simplistic terms. “If they win, I write it,” he says. “If they lose, I’ll write that. I write no matter what happens. Every game. Every draft. Every off-season.”
That approach sustains McGinn. It’s also a fairly complicated process.
“No,” McGinn says somewhat sheepishly when asked if he has ever thrown anything away.
After finishing the podcast, he heads downstairs. He breezes past the Wisconsin Sports Writer of the Year awards (six total), the old desk (he kept his old desk) and into a back room crammed with shelves and filing cabinets.
The cabinets are divided by years. There’s a drawer for 1993 to ’96, for instance, and inside each drawer, there are manila folders, four for each year, divided into categories: off-season, training camp, regular season and game stories. All the clips, all his stories and all his colleagues’ stories, rest in those folders, in reverse chronological order.
But that’s not all. One shelf is filled with cereal boxes. Cereal is McGinn’s favorite food. He keeps around 12 boxes at one time and eats various brands and styles in a rotation.
Still not all. McGinn saved his tests from his college days at Michigan. He stored all his scrapbooks. He collected decades of Sports Illustrated magazines (editor’s note: God bless him). From his stint coaching youth baseball—he has three children and one stepchild ranging in age from 28 to 37—he kept the notes on his players, along with his game books and programs. When he watches any sporting event, even soccer, McGinn prints out the rosters and statistics for both teams.
Nearby, the 50-inch television McGinn uses to watch tape and chart every imaginable statistic rests on a stand. After home games, he’ll spend seven to eight hours grading film; after away games, he always takes the first flight back, leaving him between five and six hours to review before he must start writing.
McGinn has tracked some stats long before they were in vogue. Many longtime NFL writers believe he was the first person to record targets. But he also archives pressures, quarterback knockdowns and hurries, dropped passes, sacks allowed and what he calls bad runs (gains of one yard or less in non-goal-line or short-yardage situations). He can—and did on Wednesday—find who allowed what sack for the Packers from their season opener in 1986. This can leave little time for things like, say, eating. On game days, he gorges on hotel buffets, because he won’t eat again until after he’s home and has started on the tape, which is usually a full day later.
Players don’t know the full extent of McGinn’s process but they notice the results. Kicker Mason Crosby, for instance, says McGinn is the only writer who consistently pesters him about the hang time on his kickoffs. If one wobbles in a meaningless game against the Browns, McGinn wants to know why. “Meticulous,” Crosby says.
For the draft, McGinn does his own player ratings. He transcribes dozens of interviews with scouts, talking to around 35 of them. “It’s kind of an anal thing,” he says, adding, “I know it’s sort of ridiculous.”
“It was like holding onto the Holy Grail,” McGinn says of the first time he held a stat sheet.
McGinn grew up in Michigan, in Escanaba on the Upper Peninsula, population about 12,000. His father, an attorney, received newspapers from as far away as Chicago and Minneapolis. He died from a heart attack when McGinn was 9.
When he was 13, his mother took McGinn to watch Michigan play in the NCAA tournament. Once it ended, McGinn stumbled by press row and saw the statistics left there for the writers. He picked one sheet up and took it home. He still—shocker—has it.
He went to Michigan to become an attorney, like his father, until one afternoon when his roommate pointed out an advertisement for the Michigan Daily. The student newspaper wanted writers. McGinn volunteered for desk duty, and on the first college football Saturday he worked, he picked up the Purdue media guide. “I was hooked,” said no one ever about a Purdue media guide, except the man who has every NFL team guide from 1984 onward lining shelves in that fire hazard of a basement.
Forty-some years after McGinn started at the Press-Gazette in 1975, TV reporters who might otherwise interrupt one-on-one interviews see McGinn with certain players and pivot away, out of deference. Those players, many of whom may not love everything McGinn writes, answer his questions. After he cornered Corey Linsley, I asked the center about McGinn. This was too strange for Linsley to process. He mumbled something about experience. “He asked tough questions,” former center Scott Wells said in a phone interview unrelated to McGinn. “You had to be on your toes with how you answered it. Had to remain focused or it could get you in trouble.” (In journalism that’s a compliment.)
Bryan Harlan, who runs Harlan Sports Management and whose father, Bob, was the Packers longtime CEO, has known—and read—McGinn for more than three decades. McGinn even wrote about Harlan’s interception in the Wisconsin state championship in 1978. “The stuff he references is crazy,” Harlan says. “Wonderlic tests. Arm length. It’s fascinating and borderline crazy.”
He pauses and turns sentimental. Frankly, he says, “there’s no one like him.”
McGinn plays down his historian status, as he flips through a Packers media guide. “Boy, there were a lot of players who hated me,” he says, chuckling.
Punching his byline into the keyboard day after day nourished him. Living in Green Bay allowed him to raise a family. That was all he needed: the stories, the family, the work. “Let me say this in a delicate way,” he continues. “Some writers, the game becomes them. Baseball, more so, I’ve heard. They love the game. I love newspapers. I love my industry.”
Then: “This is an assignment. I could have been assigned to anything.”
Which is true and not true, accurate and typically understated. McGinn would prefer to lose himself in his files, the Packers history as he knows and charted it. He grabs a folder from 2016, with his notes from Green Bay’s opener in Jacksonville. How many defenders the Jaguars rushed and when they zone blitzed ... how many steps Rodgers dropped … how many times the Packers ran play-action, rollouts, bootlegs, screens, snaps from shotgun, or shovel passes … which linemen pulled and who was the lead puller … distance and hang time and landing spots for kickoffs and punts.
Should the Packers lose this Sunday, McGinn will do his normal tape review on Monday. On Tuesday morning, he’ll take all his notebooks for the season and begin to add them up.
Then he’ll get started on his draft prep, this journalistic metronome.