Miscellany

Carolina on Our Mind: An Interview with Rob Daniels of the Greensboro News & Record

We have repeatedly expressed our lust for college basketball and this week’s interview has all the answers: He’s award-winning writer Rob Daniels of the Greensboro News & Record. He’s well-versed in all things UNC, Duke, NC State and Wake. Also, he seems to be a big Springsteen fan (who can blame him?) In between all the Jim Grobe madness at Wake Forest, Rob took the time to tell us about access in the ACC, the Dick Vitale dichotomy on Tobacco Road and a classic Larry Brown story.

Q: Readers enjoy the ‘how they got there’ stories, so indulge everyone: how’d you end up covering college hoops in Carolina?

I was covering UVa at the paper in Charlottesville. In my first season on the men’s basketball beat, I covered 12 wins and 14 court appearances. As in appearances in front of a judge. That gave me enough stories to tell that I could convince people I knew more than stats. One day in late 1996, a college friend of mine, one of my first mentor figures in journalism, called me. He was working here at the time and urged me to apply for the recently vacated N.C. State beat. I will be perpetually indebted to Scott Michaux, who essentially begged the sports editor to hire me. His persistence made it happen. I started in January 1997. In the next two months, I covered a game in which State, starting a walk-on from Beverly Hills whose home ZIP code really was 90210, beat Tim Duncan and Wake; the Southern Conference tournament; the Wolfpack’s run to the ACC Tournament finals after a regular season that began 0-8 in league play; Dean Smith’s record-breaking (and since surpassed) win No. 877; the victories that became Smith’s last on the job; and a bunch of other stuff. The variety was intoxicating.

Q: You’ve got a job that will make any college hoops fan envious: covering college basketball on Tobacco Road. Is it hoops 24-7-365? Do you disappear from family and friends beginning in November and ending in March?

Ending in early April, actually. Some creatures in the wild go into hibernation. I do my own disappearing act from normal civilization. A friend called me last night and left a message – I was covering UNC Greensboro at Virginia Tech -that sought confirmation that I was indeed alive and well. She had presumably gone to bed by the time I called back. Story of my life. There are obviously times when I crave a more normal schedule and a standard social life. But in all candor, it’s still a good gig. Times are tough in this business. As a result, I’m (sort of) covering Wake Forest, UNC Greensboro and North Carolina A&T all at once. I’ll help out on Duke and Carolina when necessary. It can be difficult to keep up with different storylines, but it keeps you from getting stale. I often wonder how reporters cover the same beat year after year. That would drive me nuts. You learn to appreciate the things that make each place different.

When I was 8, my dad took me to a University of Maryland basketball game. I already knew by that point that I had absolutely no skill and would not be involved in college hoops as a participant. I figured I’d have to do something else to be around it. I settled on this. So far, it hasn’t evicted me.

Q: How would you rank the big four in terms of how they treat the media down there?

Wake is by far the best. Practice is open. Skip Prosser was a totally genuine person, as is his successor, Dino Gaudio. I’ve given Dino space in his first season because I can’t imagine the difficulty of his task. But I could walk down the hallway and poke my head in Skip’s office and he’d invariably say, “Oriole Baseball,” in reference to my totally counterproductive rooting passion and his one year in that town as coach of Loyola College.

Duke’s players are generally really good to deal with and I respect Krzyzewski. I do marvel at older reporters’ stories of how he used to hold court with us media types. That sort of access is gone, but he has made an attempt to be more available since a remarkable piling-on fest from ESPN.com starting with the lacrosse thing. You really only get to him after games. Seldom does he address reporters under other circumstances. The truth of the matter is that with nearly all of their games on national TV and their own institutional Web site at their command, they don’t really need us. Duke’s local difficulty is that Carolina is so dominant in the marketplace here. Sometimes, reporters here get the vibe that Duke has given up on in-state media coverage and is fine with cultivating national types. That’s disappointing but understandable in light of cutbacks in newspapers and remarkable growth in national outlets.

I covered Carolina for five years. A lot of fun and a lot of stress. I begged off it eventually. Carolina Basketball is an absolute monolith, and an intimidating one at that. The local competition is intense and some national outlet is almost always on campus. Roy Williams doesn’t like us any more than Mike Krzyzewski does; it’s just that Roy speaks with an Asheville accent that the fawning TV, radio and self-appointed pseudo journalists who hang around the place decide they must find endearing. (Case in point: K endorses AmEx and he’s evil for it; Roy endorses Coke and it’s perceived as cute.) The media contingent is so vast and the program so regimented that there really isn’t time to get to know anybody. At least that’s the way I felt. I seldom felt comfortable in requesting long-form interviews with anybody. In this age, we’ve got to deal with it and understand that the SID’s job has swung more toward serving the institution than serving the media. I have great respect for SIDs. I have some understanding of the line they walk, but I suspect they know more about my job than I know about theirs. I believe that in most cases, it’s pointless to whine about access, beat your chest and make a show of standing up for your rights.

I don’t know Sidney Lowe, but what he achieved in his first year on the job – in wins and in bringing a fractured fan base back together – was really impressive. My only Sidney Lowe story is somewhat tangential to him. His son was my next-door neighbor here in Greensboro. For those who wish to use the power of an Internet search engine, go for it. It’s an interesting tale that is apparently still pending.

Maybe we just haven’t looked hard enough … but for such a hotbed of hoops, there seems to be a dearth of quality Tobacco Road blogs. Are you more of a message board guy, or a blog guy?

Seems to me you’re right. I’m more of a blog guy. Message boards can be, as a friend and fellow reporter called them, “the electronic bathroom wall.€ For an intelligent discussion, I’ll go to http://www.dukebasketballreport.com, a well written site that is as objective as any fan-run site I’ve encountered. Generally, I think you’re right. Much of the fan traffic about teams here is off the Rivals and Scout recruiting sites.

The message board phenomenon is something to behold. We ran an item on Kirk Herbsteit and Les Miles pegged to an LSU message board, and we heard from people saying, ‘the guy who posted that is always right. He’s an insider.’ Not surprisingly, it seems like that person was wrong. In your experience, are these ‘insiders’ guys who work in the athletic department? Friends of friends? Actual employees of the school have an agenda?

I’m hesitant to trust message boards. I think somebody can be an “insider” on one topic but unreliable on another. And that goes for those who are employees of athletics departments. I suspect most alleged insiders are students whose friends are athletes. A lot of the stuff compels you to check it out, but threads regarding coaching searches in particular are notoriously populated by rival fans seeking to stir up trouble. I even know of a reporter who posed as an insider in one such thread for the purpose of spreading disinformation in hopes of throwing the masses – and even the TV stations – off the real trail.

We imagine plenty of punks come through the hallowed doors of the Big Four. Any memorable encounters with entitled jocks?

Post national semifinals, 1998. A locker room in the Alamodome in San Antonio. UNC hoopster Makhtar Ndiaye goes into a tirade accusing a Utah player of calling him The N Word. (The charges are false.) Well, anyway, after that, Makhtar starts cussing out my colleague. In French. I won the French prize in high school and caught a phrase here and there. I believe there were references to the practicing of “the oldest profession.€

Two weeks later: Vince Carter’s walking out to his car after telling his teammates that he’s going pro. He looks me right in the eye and says, “No decision yet.€ Nonsense.

They say Christian Laettner was a very unpleasant fellow while at Duke. That’s before my time.

Poster Child Tim Duncan was often rather surly with me.

Generally, I have found the players to be decent to above-average humans with whom to interact in brief professional snippets of time.

What do the Carolinians think of Dick Vitale? Is he taken seriously? Thought of as kitschy fun? Annoyed with his constant slurping of Coach K and all things Duke?

It’s like anywhere else with an intense rivalry. Ask the Carolina fans and they’ll call him Dookie V. Ask the Duke folks and they may view him as the face of a network/colossus that has repeatedly taken shots at them. But if he walks into any crowd, people love him. There’s clearly a public persona there, but I think Dick Vitale genuinely likes people. I call him the Iggy Pop of College Basketball: They both have a Lust For Life. And, come to think of it, they were both in the Detroit area at the same time. Weird.

Q: So what’s bigger in Greensboro and North Carolina in general: Nascar or College Basketball? And why?

I think it’s college basketball, but then again, I’ve never watched a NASCAR race. According to Nielsen ratings, NASCAR does better in this market than any other – including Charlotte – for the Daytona 500 and many other races. But Raleigh, which has been gentrified in the past two decades as your next question discusses, clearly prefers hoops. In general, I’d say basketball because virtually watches because they have a favorite team. I get the sense that some NASCAR fans are really in it for the speed and sound. And the chance to spew venom upon that evil Yankee Jeff Gordon.

Q: One of the stories we keep hearing (and reading about) are how all these New York/New Jersey/Connecticut folks – non-retirees, mind you – moving down to NC because a) Florida is too hot and B) the NYC is ridiculously expensive. Are you seeing this? Are you noticing an influx of Northerners?

Sure. I am one. Sort of. (I’ve always considered Baltimore more Northern.) There’s no way there would be an NHL team in Raleigh, N.C., without a considerable transplant population. Although smaller and private than the public schools in this state, Duke and Wake Forest draw heavily from New Jersey, etc., and when those kids graduate, many of them have a unique sense of comparison on cost of living. Given a choice between taking a banking job in Charlotte and one in NYC, a surprising percentage elect Charlotte for financial reasons.

Q: Once, in North Carolina, we ran into a former Tar Heel hoopster at a bar. Even though he had graduated 5-6 years earlier, he was still kickin’ the ‘I’m with the team’ vibe. Is this type of thing commonplace in and around the city?

Once a Tar Heel player, always a Tar Heel player. And honestly now: Is there a better way to get chicks?

Fans’ reverence for ex-players even extends to those who seemingly committed acts of treason. Larry Brown, a former UNC player, took the Kansas job in the 1980s and needed an assistant coach. He hired his old buddy and former Carolina Cougars teammate and player Ed Manning, who at about that time was allegedly driving trucks to make ends meet. Ed, you see, had a son named Danny who had just led Greensboro’s Page High School to a 32-0 record and a state championship in his junior year. (Teammates included future N.C. State and NFL WR Haywood Jeffires.) Danny, the story went, would play pick-up ball with that Jordan guy and a few other Heels in Chapel Hill whenever time permitted. “We were sure he was coming,” Buzz Peterson once told me. Larry Brown hires Ed Manning. Ed Manning and family move to Lawrence, Kan., and the rest is Jayhawk history. But Larry Brown is still revered. It’s the tradition. Everybody is forgiven and everybody’s a Tar Heel. It’s part of the reason the attrition rate is so low. Players know that even if they could leave and play more elsewhere, staying will set them up for life and give them connections.

QUICK HITTERS

Joe Forte. Great talent with a head that wasn’t screwed on entirely straight.

Crossworld puzzle or Sudoku. Crossword. I’m more of a word guy than a numbers guy.

Favorite city in Europe. London. “Home of the brash, outrageous and free,” as Morrissey said.

Julius Peppers. Could have played in the NBA if he had devoted all his energy to hoops. One of the five greatest athletes I’ve covered.

What you want for Christmas. I have no right to ask for anything after today’s news that I will apparently be spared a coaching search after all. (Jim Grobe’s staying at Wake.) But if I can be a spoiled jerk and ask anyway, I’ll choose Springsteen tickets. They go on sale Friday, Dec. 7 at 10 a.m. There are about 15,000 people in this town who claim they were in The Rhinoceros Club, a small but quaint establishment, in 1985 when The Boss joined The Del Fuegos on stage. The place holds no more than 300.

In 2020, newspapers will be … almost exclusively online and out of print.

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