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From Casino Dealer in Detroit to Yahoo Sports Columnist: An Interview With Dan Wetzel

The man at the picture to your left who looks like he really doesn’t enjoy wearing a tie is Dan Wetzel, an author and Yahoo Sports columnist. And he will shock you. Did you know that everyone cheats in college basketball? Bet you didn’t. Did you know that he briefly attended something called Greektown Casino College? It’s just like it sounds. And what would an interview of ours be without a grilling about big, bad, ESPN?

Q: Basketball appears to be your forte. Having been at UMass, and extensively covered AAU and College ball in your opinion, what are the three dirtiest college basketball hoops programs right now?

Come on, I expect more out of The Big Lead. You are falling for the NCAA’s most engrained PR campaign; that it is made up of black hats and white hats. They are all grey hats. They about all cheat. Yes, there is a sliding scale based on natural resources, but they all are as dirty as they need to be and would be dirtier if they had to. I wrote a book with Jerry Tarkanian and one of his best lines was “Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.” So congratulations Vanderbilt and Northwestern.

I spent a lot of years covering AAU ball, I have some great friends in that side of the game. Spend a night drinking beer, completely off the record, with a table full of AAU guys, or Juco coaches, or prep school coaches and ask them how many major programs are clean and they’ll just laugh. It’s just a joke. And football is no better.

But no one wants to know. It’s like steroids in the NFL, people just don’t want to know. They want to believe the fairy tale. It’s just entertainment. I get that. I love the games too.

And it’s not like cheating makes a coach an evil person. What are we talking about? Either a poor kid getting some money or a kid from a terrible school system gets his transcript or SAT fixed so he gets a shot at a college degree. In other walks of life, they build statues for people like that.

To flip your question around, there is only one guy I’m confident vouching for and that’s Bob Knight. He’s the only one I’ll risk my rep to say is clean and I’ve asked enough people off the record who’d love to rat on him to feel confident saying that. He’s probably not the only one, but its close.

Q: You recently wrote a critical piece about ESPN in the wake of Bobby Knight’s Chingate. As a journalist, how do you feel about ESPN setting the
sporting agenda? Do think ESPN is catching excessive heat lately because if it happens in house, ESPN doesn’t report it? What do you think can be done? And do you think anyone will challenge ESPN as the leader in sports?

ESPN is the World Wide Leader. For the most part, it does a great job. I watch ESPN all the time, read ESPN.com every day. I have a lot of friends at ESPN. Most of what gets produced is top-notch.

ESPN’s power is that if it says something is a story, then it is a story. If it ignores a story, then it fades away. There isn’t anything anyone can do about it. I just wish they’d have more perspective, do more investigations.

The Knight thing was ESPN at its worst. For two days they kept teasing, “Bob Knight is in hot water again.” But the kid had no problem with what happened. Neither did his parents, the other players, the AD, the school president, the Board of Trustees or the Big 12.

So who exactly was he in hot water with, Mike Greenberg?

Q: If you could, we’d like a brief history on how the heck you ended up a Yahoo columnist, starting with college.

You seriously want to know this? Naturally, I got into journalism hoping to work at a place with an exclamation point in its name. OK, I was a city side reporter in Indy and Chicago, then decided to get into sports by working at Basketball Times, which was a small monthly but had a great editor, Larry Donald, I knew I could learn a lot from.

Almost immediately I started freelancing on the Internet, which was really new, I think it was just me and Al Gore. Through the years I wrote for just about every major site, including a bunch of now defunct places including the immortal hip hop hoops site, HoopsTV.com. That was a good idea but was way ahead of its time. On dial-up there was no way to appreciate the genius of Hot Sauce.

Basketball Times was the best, but it had no money. Our travel budget was awful. I stayed at hotels so bad they stole my towel. By about 1999, 2000 I was basically out of a full-time job there and I couldn’t get anything in newspapers or magazines because BT had no cache and there was no hope in telling an editor you wrote for the Internet. I knew about every college basketball coach and couldn’t get even the worst beat job.

I wrote Sole Influence with Don Yaeger and thought that would spring me but it didn’t. All I had was free lance work. To pay bills I actually worked as a casino dealer in Detroit – even attended Greektown Casino College which was located in a parking garage in downtown Detroit. Really gave Pepperdine a run for prettiest campus. So Sole Influence was a big hit but I was standing on soft 17s and writing for HoopsTV. What a career. I couldn’t tell anyone I was dealing cards, of course, because I knew if that got out I’d never work again. Editors aren’t big on stuff like that.

Eventually Sportsline offered me its national college hoops job because the guys there, Steve Miller and Mike Kahn, only cared about the work. I did that for three years and Yahoo approached me about being their general national columnist. They had never hired a sportswriter and had very little presence, but the people were very smart, so despite almost everyone’s advice, I took it. Three and half years later, we are either ranked first or second as the most read sports site.

Q: We asked this of Sportsline’s Gregg Doyel – Is it tough as an internet columnist to not get caught up in the navel gazing? What’s a weekly schedule like for you? Is there much travel? Practices? Games? One-on-one interviews? Mostly done over the phone?

Probably 60-70 percent of my columns have a dateline, I travel extensively. I’m not going to mail it in. If you just sit on your couch, you’ll eventually start spouting off illogical, ill-informed opinions or writing about your wife and believing it is interesting.

On a daily basis I talk on the phone a great deal, maybe 3 to 5 hours a day to a wide variety of people. I’m always on the phone. Coaches, athletes, agents, writers, front office guys, whomever. I just try to talk through issues, stories, gossip and get something other than the conventional wisdom.

Q: Yahoo vs. Sportsline. Maybe it’s just us, but everytime one person makes a hire, it seems the other does the same. As a newspaper writer, it’s easy to find out who your competition is – what about as an internet columnist?

I like to read other columnists – Internet and newspapers – to maybe learn something about column writing since I’m still trying to figure this out. But it’s not competition because outside of investigative stuff I can’t play defense.

When I was at Sportsline my competition was Andy Katz at ESPN. He’s just relentless on breaking news. So if I had something, it wasn’t enough to just get someone to talk to me first. I also had to convince them to not call Andy back – he would call them about 30 seconds after we posted our story – for like two hours or four hours or two days. Whatever you could get them to go for. I could play defense. But you can’t stop people from having an opinion on, say, the BCS. You just try to do your best.

The “competition” I focus on is maximizing the potential of Yahoo Sports. It isn’t about whether I turned a better phrase in paragraph 15 than the other guy. You want to do that, but that isn’t why a site succeeds or fails.

We aren’t a mature media brand. Everything is about building. I have always worked at places like that. So you are trying to establish the voice of a site, its readership, its credibility, its earnings. The best thing is the people are really, really smart; from David Katz, to Dave Morgan, to every engineer, designer, marketer, editor. It’s really an unbelievable team, unbelievable energy. We never talk about what we can’t do but what we can.

When I started here we did 5.4 million readers a month. Now we have 5.5 million a week. The challenge is how quickly can we get to 5.5 million a day? Or 15 million a week, or hit the financial goals, which are always through the roof. It’s not just through journalism, but by implementing that journalism in the most effective way. They would probably never teach stuff like that in journalism school, but they should.

Q: Any thoughts on the new rules that prevent high schoolers from making the jump to the NBA? Do you think anyone will attempt to circumvent it by playing for a year overseas or something?

I think the rule is unfair and hurts kids. No one made the Olsen Twins appear in some humble junior high play because it was a good “experience.” If you can earn millions, legally, then why should you be denied that because of some outdated notion of amateur sports? Why do we do this in football and basketball but not tennis or acting or baseball or singing or science or music or whatever?

Everyone mentions that some kid might try to go pro and not make it. So what? That’s America, we are allowed to make bad decisions, we open doomed businesses, buy over priced houses, marry K-Fed.

Most of the problems that kids run into are because they have to conform with the NCAAs’ ridiculous rules. Look at Amare Stoudemire. When he was in high school I wrote a ton of corruption stories around him. He was good business for me. Everyone from his family, to his coaches, to his minister tried to swindle him. One year he went to seven different high schools. His mom broke the law to earn money and got sent to prison. It was all negative. Once he went pro, no more negatives. Amare was a good kid stuck in a bad system where the sharks could get him. He wasn’t the problem, the rules were the problem. He should have been allowed to go pro at 16.

Q: We’ve always maintained that the greatest basketball book we’ve read is Sole Influence, your tome on how the sneaker companies were impacting college basketball. With Nike and Adidas closing their camps, do you feel sneaker companies wield the same power? Can AAU coaches whose teams are outfitted by Nike or Adidas still steer kids to colleges that wear Nike or Adidas?

Well, first off, thanks for saying that. I’m amazed that seven years later people still talk about Sole Influence. But to your point, Adidas closed its camp because it sucked. Nike didn’t close anything. They just renamed the “talent camp” a “skills camp” or something. Same thing. The old camp was never about determining the most talented player. They already knew that. It was about getting the best young players under their umbrella. Nothing changed.

The shoe companies – and really the world Sonny Vaccaro created – are more powerful than ever because the kids go pro so quickly now. When Sonny signed Michael Jordan in 1984, he waited until after his junior year at UNC to speak to him. Davontay Grace is an eighth grader in Brooklyn and I guarantee everyone has spoken to him – shoe companies, sports agents, whatever. If you haven’t by now, its probably too late.

LeBron changed everything. The money can be so great now. Sonny has an interesting plan to solve a lot of the problems. It will be an interesting year.

Q: Sometimes, writers like to lock up their name as a URL. Yours is taken. Would you buy the site from this guy?

See, that’s what I’m talking about. Back in the day you obviously couldn’t download the HoopsTV video where I used to stick it to Sik Wit It.

Q: Yahoo mentions in your bio that you’re a screenwriter. We couldn’t find you on IMDB. Is this a hobby we don’t know about? We love movies. Did you secretly write ‘White Men Can’t Jump?’

I had to start messing around with screenwriting when my insistence on an iron clad non-nudity clause killed my acting career.

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