Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The ‘six-and-six bowls’; bands charged for tickets; thank you for the response to the book (and my apologies) and much more…

Let me start today with what is most important: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and, of course, Happy Festivus to all. I hope everyone thrived—and survived—the holidays.

We are now in the midst of the bowls, which began 10 days ago and go on until January 9th. As someone who was closely associated for 14 years with a school that aspired each year to reach a second tier bowl, I am not one to put down what I sometimes refer to as the ‘six-and-six bowls.’ I did a count last week and I believe there are 11 teams with 6-6 records who have ‘earned,’ bowl bids this season. That does NOT count UCLA, which is 6-7, or North Carolina State which was 5-5 against Division 1-A teams and padded its record to 7-5 with a pair of wins against 1-AA teams. (Sorry NCAA, still not buying into your new euphemisms for your football divisions).

As I said, having done Navy games for 14 years and knowing what it meant to the players and the fans to go to second-tier bowls for the past eight seasons, I don’t put these bowls down. I see a reason for their existence although the number of empty seats at many of them—including some of the BCS bowls—is remarkable and hearing the poor announcers trying to say the corporate names with a straight face time-after-time is laughable. Did you catch last night’s AdvoCare 100 Independence Bowl? Of course that game has come a long way from the days when it became symbolic of second-tieredness (I know, that’s not a word) when it was known as The Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl.

N.C. State is playing in what is now known as The Belk Bowl. If you scoring at home, that’s a department store that is based, I believe, in North Carolina. At least that’s where I’ve encountered it. The Belk, as I like to call it, is played in Charlotte. It has existed for about 10 to 12 years and this is, I think, its FOURTH corporate sponsor. When Navy played in it in 2006 it was The Meineke Car Care Bowl. It can be tough to know which bowl is played where because they change names just about every year. How about this: The Cotton Bowl—can’t remember the corporate name and I’m not going to look it up—is now played in Jerry Jones Stadium while the actual Cotton Bowl stadium hosts something called The Ticket City Bowl. This makes almost as much sense as the fact that Manhattan College is located in The Bronx.

I honestly don’t care who wins the national championship game whenever they finally get around to playing it. I sort of like Les Miles because he comes off as a goof ball but is clearly an excellent coach and I don’t like Nick Saban since he apparently thinks he’s God. (Don’t tell Tim Tebow). So, I’d lean to LSU but the chances that I’ll still be up at midnight when that game finally ends are somewhere between slim and none and slim has to be up at 6 the next morning.

How about this little piece of news for you: In order to send their bands to the championship game Alabama and LSU will each have to pay about $500,000 apiece. A large part of this is because they are being charged $350 a ticket for seats in the stands. Aah, the down home traditions of college football, right? Are you kidding: $350 a pop to get your band into the stadium? Here’s what the two schools should do: They should tell The Sugar Bowl people—who are in charge of the championship game this year—where to stick their $350 tickets, leave the bands home and give that money to one of The Katrina relief funds.

How do you think ESPN would like a band-less national championship game? I now believe I was wrong when I labeled the NCAA the most corrupt organization on earth. It is tied with all the bowls who use their power—teams desperately want to play postseason football SOMEWHERE, even in Mobile and Shreveport and Detroit—to blackmail the schools into paying for tickets that will never be sold and now, for tickets for their BANDS.

What next, buying standing room tickets for the players and coaches on the sidelines? Can these people be any more obnoxious and corrupt?

When Navy participated in bowl games in the past we were always required at some point to have on some bowl official in an ugly jacket as a halftime guest. Needless to say, I didn’t participate in those interviews. I don’t think I missed much.


Since my book tour is now pretty much over, I want to thank all the people who came out to the book signings I did in Washington, Indianapolis and Raleigh. It was really heartening that so many people came although I have to apologize on behalf of Little, Brown for the lousy job that was done with distribution which caused book shortages at the signings and, apparently, in quite a few places.

This is a good news/bad news deal for any author. On the one hand I can say, ‘we’re into our fifth printing (which we are) in only three weeks.’ On the other hand that’s a sign that the publisher badly miscalculated how the book was going to sell and then was slow to react when the book began selling beyond what they expected. It’s embarrassing for ME when booksellers say they can’t re-order books and it is downright frustrating when for close to a week both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com are posting that books can’t be delivered before Christmas because the book is out of stock.

I say that not to rip Little, Brown which, for the most part, has published me very well dating to ‘A Good Walk Spoiled,’ but so people understand that no one is more upset than I am when they can’t get the books that they want to get.

Obviously, sales have been good and the reviews and the feedback I’ve gotten have been gratifying. There are now—finally—enough books out there. I know that doesn’t help those who were looking for holiday gifts but given that the overall word-of-mouth has been excellent I hope people will continue to look for it in the coming weeks and months. The book was as much fun as I’ve had in a while.


Finally: I’ve been asked quite a few times in the last few weeks if I watched the ‘Showtime,’ Army-Navy documentary. Any of you who know me know the answer to that question: No. I did see a couple of the promotional trailers they (endlessly) sent out and, because I know anything I say will come off as biased and jaded (which it is) I’ll keep most of my opinions to myself. All I’ll say is this: Given the money that was spent and the access that they had I thought there would be new ground broken. I didn’t hear or see anything about Army-Navy I hadn’t heard or seen before. The production was impressive and glitzy. I was also amused every time I heard someone from CBS talk about the project as if NO ONE had ever thought to do something like this before. Please.

Am I still pissed off? You bet. And I make no apologies for feeling that way. For those who are inclined to write and day, 'get over it,' I will. Just not quite yet.

My newest book is now available at your local bookstore, or you can order on-line here (we hope): One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Two stunning announcements: John Thompson is retiring from radio, George Vecsey no longer a full time columnist

I woke up this morning to find two stunning announcements in my morning newspapers.

One was a relatively small item inside The Washington Post saying that John Thompson would be retiring from hosting his radio show on WTEM when his contract is up in February. The other was a column in The New York Times written by George Vecsey that was his farewell as a fulltime columnist.

It isn’t as if either man is young—Thompson is 70 and Vecsey must be closing in on that age if not there already (his Wikipedia doesn’t include a birthdate but he started his career in journalism in 1960)—but having known both of them as long as I have it is still kind of stunning to think of either stepping away from the stage.

As anyone who lives in Washington undoubtedly knows, Thompson and I have had many battles through the years. We squabbled early and often over access to his Georgetown teams when I covered them for The Washington Post. In ‘One on One,’ I describe a scene where I was dumb enough to offer to go outside with Thompson after a game at Capital Centre and also tell the story about what happened when I wrote a piece in The Sporting News that included the phrase, “Hoya Paranoia.”

We have also disagreed for years over Georgetown’s—or more specifically John’s—refusal to participate in The BB+T Classic, the local tournament played in Verizon Center for the last 17 years that has raised almost $5 million for kids at risk in the D.C. area. We had a discussion about that subject as recently as two weeks ago. We still disagree.

But our relationship changed over the years, even before he got out of coaching. I think it is fair to say that two of the most important people in John’s life were Dean Smith and Red Auerbach. Most people know how I feel about Dean and Red. John was absolutely devoted to Red. So was I. We shared that. He would often thank me for all the time I spent with Red without mentioning that he often went to see Red at his apartment late at night, knowing Red was almost always up watching games. The only reason I knew about that was because Red told me.

I was never a huge fan of his radio show. If the subject was basketball you listened because John didn’t get into the basketball Hall of Fame by accident. Other subjects, not so much. If I wanted to hear what, “Joe the Fan,” thought of a subject I didn’t need to listen to the radio.

WTEM paid John a lot of money, in large part because he’s an icon in Washington. But it was also because he had David Falk negotiate his contract. I wouldn’t trust Falk to tell me the time of day but he’s not stupid. When the station decided to cut John’s show from three hours a day to two hours a day I’m told (reliably) that Falk called the station GM and said, “okay, so how much more are you going to pay John?”

“More?” the GM reportedly answered. “We’re making the show SHORTER not longer.”

“Read the contract,” Falk said. “It says any CHANGE in the format means you have to pay him more. This is a change.”

I know John has some things going on in his personal life that have made it tougher for him to put in five days a week on the show. I have no idea what WTEM will do to replace him. I’m pretty confident I won’t be offered the job. But in an odd way I’ll truly miss knowing John was there even if we agreed on very little. John once told me he didn’t like me but he respected me. I always respected him. And, being honest, I also like him.

I also like and respect George Vecsey. I would say he’s been a role model for me except I’ve never come close to handling myself as calmly and evenly as George did in almost all situations. I do think one thing we had (have) in common is that George liked to write about people—regardless of who they were or what they did. He covered religion, he covered country music, he covered sports and he covered politics. He was good at all of them.

I never got his obsession with soccer but he probably never got my love of golf. I still remember when he showed up for the last round of the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee (he was there mostly to see his daughter Laura who was working in Seattle at the time) and was stunned when he learned the media was allowed to walk inside the ropes.

I honestly thought George did some of his best work the last couple of years. I had meant to write him a note about that but—as I often do—forgot. When I ran into him somewhere I told him that I thought he was on a serious roll, not that my affirmation is a big deal, but I like to tell people when I think they’ve done good work because I know how much I enjoy it when people do the same for me.

It says something about how George handled himself and his job that all three of his children are involved in journalism in one form or another. Laura, like her dad, started out in sports and is now covering politics. Who knows, maybe she will come full circle too, as he did.

In any event, The Times will miss George’s thoughtful columns and his graceful prose. I have no idea who will replace him although I’m guessing it won’t be me. (Hey, give me some points for consistency). Being a New Yorker I have read The Times all my life. Once upon a time being a Times columnist was what I most wanted to be not because I haven’t loved every minute I’ve spent at The Washington Post but because I am a New Yorker at heart and I learned to read as a kid getting up in the mornings to read The Times sports section because I needed to know how the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants, Knicks and Rangers had done and didn’t want to wait for my parents to wake up.

Whoever replaces George Vecsey will be someone I will envy. He or she will also, to use a cliché George would never use, have very big shoes to fill.

My newest book is now available at your local bookstore, or you can order on-line here: One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book tour highlights; Why I’m not appearing on Tony Kornheiser’s show to discuss the book

People have asked me often if I enjoy book tours. The answer is yes—and no.

I’d be a liar if I said I don’t enjoy getting the chance to talk about a book. Since the book usually comes out about six months after I finish writing it, a good interview tends to bring back a lot of memories about the process that produced the book. And, it is always gratifying when a host has taken the time to read the book. It makes for much better television or radio than when someone opens the interview by saying, “So, tell me what you’re book is about.”

What makes book tours difficult—besides the travel, which is never easy whether you fly or, like me, drive—is that you have one agenda and many of the people interviewing you have a completely different agenda.

There’s also the issue of the pressure you feel because you want people to buy the book and to like the book. The former is important professionally; the latter personally although my brother once played in a pro-am in Indianapolis year ago with a guy who said to him: “I bought your brother’s book (Season on the Brink) I used it for firewood.”

My brother shrugged and said, “As long as you bought it we don’t really care what you did with it. Buy a hundred and start a bonfire.”

In truth, in the 25 years since the publication of ‘Season on the Brink,’ people in Indiana have been almost universally kind to me. That’s one reason why I wanted to start the tour for ‘One-on-One,’ which is keyed to the 25th anniversary of that book, in Indianapolis. It didn’t work out exactly that way because I did spend a day in New York doing Mike Francesa’s show on WFAN and taping a ‘Fresh Air,’ segment, but it was close.

I did a book-signing at an independent book store called, “Big Hat Books,” which couldn’t have been more enjoyable. I’m a big fan of independents because they are so hard to find these days and because I’ve always found that the people who work there really CARE about books and writing and reading. That’s not to say the chains don’t have people like that, there are just fewer of them.

“Big Hat,” is run by Liz Houghton and a group of people who clearly care a lot about what they’re doing. Even on a miserable rainy night that reminded me of a lot of my nights in all those years ago in Indiana, there were more than 100 people crowded into the store and Liz told me her only problem was that she had run out of books—she’d ordered 250—and was having to take orders while she tried to get more from Little-Brown. (The really good news is that they’ve had to go back for two more printings in just one week).

Every person who asked me to sign a book or books was enthusiastic and had something nice to say—with one exception. “I agreed with Knight about the profanity,” one man said. “I thought there was too much of it.”

I told him I appreciated what he was saying but wondered if he knew that I left about 90 to 95 percent of Knight’s profanity out of the book.

“Really?” he said.

“If I’d written it all I’d still be writing,” I said.

“Oh my,” he said, clearly confused.

The next morning I appeared on ‘Bob and Tom,’—which was, as always, great. Twenty-eight books, twenty-eight appearances on that show. Maybe I should have dedicated a book to those guys.

From Indy I went to Chicago where, in spite of a cab driver who had never heard of WGN, I made it to my early-morning TV appearance there. Before I left town I taped an interview—which will air this week—for ‘Chicago Tonight,’ on WTTW, the local PBS station. Phil Ponce is the host, someone I’ve known since his days in Washington working as a reporter for the ‘Newshour.’ Not only is he a good guy and a good interviewer, he did read the entire book. His being prepared made my job easy.

Along the way, there were the usual frustrations: Reports of not enough books in Indiana (good news and bad news); a similar problem at Amazon, which at one point was saying it didn’t have enough books to guarantee delivery before Christmas (since corrected); an old friend on a Baltimore radio station trying to turn the interview into a Q+A about my column two weeks ago on Randy Edsall (there’s always one of those along the way); a couple of satellite issues causing cancellations during Friday’s TV satellite tour.

All in all though, the first week went about as well as could be hoped. After my TV satellite on Friday, I went to the DC convention center where the sponsor of the Army-Navy game, USAA, had set up a mini-‘radio row.’ My first instinct when I was asked to take part was to not do it—I’ve steered clear of all things Army-Navy all fall since my decision not to do Navy on radio—but the simple fact is it was a good opportunity to let more people know about ‘One-on-One,’ especially since large chunks of it, including the epilogue are about the kids (now young men) I wrote about in “A Civil War.”

The only problem with doing this was that as I talked about why Army-Navy is so special to me and the relationships I’ve had with the players I started getting very emotional about it all. As it turned out I was fine watching the game on television and I didn’t miss dealing with the extra security that comes when The President and Vice President are at the game. As I said I was fine—until they played the alma maters. Then, as always, I lost it. Some things never change.

This week I’ll be in North Carolina for a couple of days including a trip to Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Wednesday night. (7:30). That’s another very cool independent book store where I’ve been in the past. My hope is that Little-Brown will have to go back for another printing by the end of this week.


One other note: Those of you who were expecting to hear me Tuesday on Tony Kornheiser’s show, you won’t. You WILL hear Tony talking about the book and why I’m not there. The simple answer is Chuck Sapienza, the station’s program director. No doubt you’ve heard Tony talk about how much he loves him in the past.

When I left the station last summer to go to WJFK in large part because Sapienza had cut the money I was being paid to appear from a small amount to almost nothing and WJFK offered a good deal more than that, Sapienza and I talked after he’d taken a weird cheap shot at me claiming he was glad to have Darren Rovell (who I like) on the station instead of me because Rovell is younger.

At the end of the conversation Sapienza said this: “Just so you know, I understand Tony will want you to come on when you have a book out and you can always do that and come on the station to talk about any new book you have.”

I thanked Sapienza for that and even made sure Chris Kinard at WJFK knew about it so there wouldn’t be any confusion when ‘One-on-One,’ came out. Kinard was absolutely fine with it.

Thursday, Tony called and said that after he had promoted my appearance, Sapienza had told him I couldn’t appear. When Tony reminded him about what he had said in the summer, Sapienza said, “I know. I changed my mind.”

He’s entitled to do that. What he isn’t entitled to do is to walk up to me Friday at the Army-Navy radio row and say, “I just want you to know it’s nothing personal.”
Of course it’s personal. He never thought I’d leave which is why he kept cutting the money back—almost daring me to do something about it. When I did, he took a cheap shot at me publicly; gave his word on something and then, ‘changed his mind,’ because he knew the station would back him. I’ve been told by several people at the station that his word has all the value of confederate money.

It’s fine. I doubt it will affect book sales very much if at all. I’d actually rather have Tony talk about the book than me. He’ll be funnier. But don’t tell me it isn’t personal.

My newest book is now available at your local bookstore, or you can order on-line here: One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Washington Post column: BCS gives us a nighmare schedule instead of a dream tournament

Here's my newest column for The Washington Post, on the miserable bowl lineup ----

Sunday night, I had a dream:

Now that was a thrilling Selection Sunday.
Oh sure, everyone knew that LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Stanford were going to be the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament but no one had any idea how the last four spots would play out and there were plenty of surprises when the field was unveiled.
Boise State was seeded fifth, setting up a quarterfinal against Stanford that might come down to who has the ball last with Andrew Luck and Kellen Moore, the two most decorated college quarterbacks of recent years, going head-to-head. Wisconsin got the sixth seed after beating Michigan State to win the Big Ten title and will open against Oklahoma State. But the last two spots were real surprises: Baylor jumped from not even being on the bubble into the seventh slot after crushing Texas — who says the tournament takes away the meaning of the regular season? — and TCU, which looked like it was headed for the Las Vegas Bowl just a few weeks ago, got the coveted final spot and will open the tournament against LSU.
When the LSU-TCU matchup went on the board, one could hear the screams of pain and anger coming from Ann Arbor, Mich.; Manhattan, Kan.; and Fayetteville, Ark. There were barely whimpers from anyone in the ACC or the Big East. Those two leagues probably had their fate sealed when the committee voted against automatic bids for the tournament, meaning their three-loss champions will be headed for second tier bowls — which is where they clearly belong.
“When we set up the new system we said we wanted the eight best teams and, preferably, the teams playing the best football at the end of the season,” said committee chairman Gene Corrigan, the former ACC Commissioner who once helped invent the late, unlamented Bowl Championship Series. “This isn’t about what league you play in or how many tickets you might sell. This is about getting the best eight teams to play for a championship. Someone has to be disappointed, just like in the basketball tournament.” 
Click here for the rest of the column:  BCS gives us a nighmare schedule instead of a dream tournament

My newest book is now available at your local bookstore, or you can order on-line here: One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book details: Interview with NPR's Fresh Air

Earlier today I made an appearance on NPR's Fresh Air from WHYY to discuss the sports media and my newest book, One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game.  Click the permalink, and the link below, for the segment.

Link to the NPR interview -- Author interview: Going 'One On One' With Sports' Greatest Stars

The book is now available at your local bookstore, or can be ordered here: One on One-- Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game