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A Q&A with "Mr. College Football" Tony Barnhart

tony barnhartTony Barnhart is one of the foremost voices in college football. He’s been covering the sport in some fashion (writing, TV, and now, blogging) for three decades, and the kind folks at the CBS College Sports Network – where he has a show debuting Sept. 8 – were kind enough to pry him away from his preseason duties for a few minutes to answer our questions. Though he passed on talking about sideline reporters, he does have a strong opinion about the potential Tim Tebow backlash this fall, the greatest line written in SEC history, and he wishes he had an answer for newspapers. 

Q: Was your decision to cover college sports, and make a career of it, one that you made, or one that you just kind of backed into based on your situation at various job stops?

When I entered college I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life: I was going to be a high school football coach. I played football in high school. I was small but I compensated for that by being exceedingly slow. When I found out how little money high school teachers made in the state of Georgia in 1971, I decided to do something else. I always loved sports and my mother had taught me a love for reading and writing. So I thought I would try writing about sports. I went to work for the student newspaper at Georgia Southern (where I started college) and then at Georgia (where I received my degree in Journalism). Once I saw my first byline on my first game story, I was hooked. After that, I never wanted to do anything else for a living.

Q: Can you even begin to fathom how advanced journalism has become in the last 25 years? Think back to your days 25 years ago as a young journalist …. and now skip ahead to 25 years from now. Where might we be? Is this something you’ve lost sleep over as a career journalist, or has working in TV helped ease the pain?

When I started in the business (in 1976) I had a portable J.C. Penny typewriter. We sent stories back to the newspaper on a machine called a telecopier, which was the stone age version of the fax machine. It took four minutes to send one page. Now we can send stories and photos on a Blackberry. So the advances in technology have been just incredible and a great, great thing for the news business.

I’m not one of these people are moaning and groaning about the demise of American journalism. First of all, it’s not true. Journalism is as strong as it’s ever been. But the internet and other advances of technology have allowed anybody and everybody to get involved in the news gathering and distribution business. Like anything else, some of it has been good and some of it has not been good. I have always believed that the news consumer is very smart and will sort it all out.

After devoting 32 years of my life to the newspaper business, I am very sad to see what has happened to it. I love newspapers and I wish I could say there will always be a demand for the printed product. But here is the reality. My generation, and those of my parents and grandparents, began each day with a cup of coffee and the morning paper. My daughter doesn’t do that. She loves news. She just chooses a laptop or an I-phone for a delivery system. After my generation is gone, I wonder what will happen to the printed newspaper.

Going to television and radio was something I knew I would eventually do and I’m thrilled with the opportunities that have come my way. But I’m smart enough to know that the work I did in the newspaper business put me in this position. I wish I had the answer for newspapers. But I don’t.

Q: In our opinion, some of the biggest homers in journalism are at medium-sized papers covering SEC football in towns where passion doesn’t describe the locals’ lust for the team. Assuming you’ve cross-paths with many of these writers over the years, is there any defense for their rampant homerism? To an extent, are the writers at some of those non-metros facing a situation where you’re either viewed as for the team or against it, there’s no in-between? Not to compare some SEC small towns to the movie Roadhouse but … do some of these coaches have the power to squash a pesky local reporter?

That’s simply not my experience with the reporters at these medium sized newspapers. While it is true that some coaches take the “you are either for us or against us” approach, I see a lot of good reporting coming out of these medium sized markets. I work with these guys (and ladies) a lot because they are on campus every day and they know a lot more than I do. It is very common that I’ll pick up the phone and ask for help, especially when it comes to background stuff. It’s much tougher on these reporters than it is for somebody like me because I come in, write what I’m going to write, and then I’m gone. If these ladies and gentlemen write something critical, they have to walk back onto that campus the very next day and face the players and coaches. They have to get it right.

No coach in his right mind would try to stifle a local reporter because every coach, sooner or later, is going to need the benefit of the doubt.

Q: While we’re on journalists, we love asking this question: The best media member vs. media member skirmish you’ve seen. Or player vs. media member.

I once heard a newspaper guy in a crowded locker room tell an overaggressive camera man that he was about to get his equipment relocated to where the sun don’t shine. I thought it was very entertaining.

Q: As good as Tim Tebow has been for three years, do you feel that perhaps there might be a media backlash during his senior season? The announcers in the SEC championship game and National title game seemed to go overboard gushing about Tebow … to the point that it became off-putting. Between asking about his virginity, the dozens of preseason accolades … at what point do fans turn against him the way they turned against Tyler Hansbrough- for no reason other than he was dominant – during his senior season?

First of all, the virginity question to Tim Tebow was so inappropriate and over the top that on that day I was embarrassed for my profession. Hopefully the young reporter learned that there are certain questions that are not asked in certain forums. Given Tim’s background and his strong public profession of faith, that was a question that could be asked in a one-on-one interview with the right set up. But that was not the proper setting for that kind of question.

I disagree with the entire concept of a Tebow backlash. If you’re a media person or a fan and you have a negative reaction to Tim Tebow, you either haven’t done your homework or you are a pretty shallow. Now I understand it if he’s playing against your team. You don’t like the guy. That’s fine. That’s football. But at the end of the day, as an adult, you have to set that aside and look at his obvious ability on the football field. Then you have to look at the way he backs up his words with actions in the real world. He is one of the best players in the history of the game and has a chance to do what nobody has ever done. But he knows that football is just a vehicle that allows him to serve a higher purpose.

It’s like having a backlash against Tiger because he’s so much better than everybody else. It makes no sense.

Q: Having seen plenty of Georgia QBs flop in the NFL – Zeier, Shockley, Greene – can you size up why Matthew Stafford might or might not end up like those before him?

All three of those quarterbacks were really good college players. Zeier was one of the best pure passers I’ve ever seen. Shockley got one year as a starter and won the SEC championship. Greene won more games than any quarterback in Division I-A history. But Stafford is the most physically talented quarterback to ever play at Georgia. He’s smart. He can make all the throws. He will be a good pro if the Lions surround him with some playmakers.

QUICK HITTERS:

Q: Your favorite band of all-time. Eagles

Q: Your vehicle of choice for a cross-country road trip. ’68 Mustang convertible.

Q: Favorite non-sports writer to read? Mary Kay Andrews, my classmate at Georgia; Rick Bragg, who wrote the single best line ever about SEC Football: “In the SEC, every conference game is like a knife fight in a ditch.”

Q: Best tradition in the SEC, sports or otherwise. It’s like asking somebody to choose their favorite child. But when it comes to tradition, there is nothing like tailgating in The Grove at Ole Miss.

 

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