In an effort to bring us all closer to the behind-the-scenes sports action, we secured an interview with Dan Wolken of the Commercial Appeal. Dan is a beat writer for the CA and covers the University Memphis Tigers basketball program (click on the link for his story archive; click on his picture for a trip to his Tiger basketball blog). He has graciously offered some of his time to answer our questions and opine about his participation as a voter in the college basketball AP Poll, recruiting, history, general sports journalism, and other topics. We sincerely appreciate Dan taking time to talk with us and for his honesty and candor in his answers. So, that said, I’ll quit blabbering and let you get to the good stuff…
(The questions are in bold.)
Full disclosure, I am an Orange-blooded Vol first and Tiger fan second (I graduated from both, so it’s justified), so when I read through your bio a few days ago on the Commercial Appleal (CA) website and saw you graduated from Vandy, I was required to hate you for a minute. I’m over it now though. Your bio also says that after Vandy, you spent 5 years in Colorado Springs covering NCAA Hockey, Denver pro sports, and Air Force Academy sports. Does that basically cover your post-grad professional life prior to landing at the CA? What drove you to become a sports writer?
That pretty much covers it. I got offered the Colorado Springs job while I still had a few months to go in college, then there was a job freeze, so I went to The Charlotte Observer for a post-grad internship. That lasted about four months until the hire went through. I was lucky to get that job right out of college at a nice mid-size paper, covering a cool beat. I had wanted to do something in sports since I was a kid, but I thought about getting into TV first. Then in high school, I started writing for the paper and continued in college when I really figured out I wanted to do this for sure.
I came across your name as a voter for the men’s college basketball AP Poll. How did you land that gig? How long will you have a vote? When you are filling out your ballot, how do you decide your rankings? Do you employ the generally percieved common practice of poll inertia (i.e. two teams ranked close to each other both won their respective games and even though the lower ranked one looks/plays better than the higher ranked team, you won’t jump the lower ranked team over the higher ranked team since the higher ranked team didn’t lose)? How much basketball do you feel obligated to watch to justify your rankings? How important and/or fair do you view preseason rankings?
There was no magic trick to becoming a poll voter, believe me. Every state has to be represented in the poll, so Teresa Walker, who runs the state’s AP bureau out of Nashville, basically begged me. Just kidding about that, sort of. I almost decided not to do it this year because it’s at least an hour’s worth of extra work on a Sunday and you are bound to tick somebody off no matter what you do.
I would consider myself one of the more educated poll voters because I do watch a lot of games – during the season, it seems like I’m watching at least one or two a night. And the other thing is, I don’t have to cover anything other than college basketball, which is fairly unique. There are only a handful newspapers in the country that I can think of where they split up the college football and college basketball beats.
Anyway, there is a certain amount of poll inertia you have to consider in how to rank the teams, but I am not afraid to move teams around based on how I think they are playing. For instance, I voted Wake Forest No. 1 last week and jumped them over Pitt, even though Pitt hadn’t lost.
Despite a slowdown so far this season, the Memphis Tigers have been on an incredible run with two straight Elite Eight appearances followed up by a runner-up performance in the 2008 NCAA national championship game. How do you view the U of Memphis program compared to other historically solid college basketball programs? Why do you think John Calipari hasn’t parlayed his success at Memphis to jump to a program in a bigger conference?
The idea of history in college basketball is incredibly overrated by fans. Players don’t care about history. If you were to ask the top 100 recruits to list the top five programs ever, I guarantee that far more of them would list Memphis than Kentucky. That’s because Kentucky hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1998. The top high school kids were 6, 7 years old. They don’t remember Kentucky, but they know Memphis because Memphis has won a ton of games, they’ve gotten players into the league and they play in an NBA arena. That’s all the kids care about, really. I always laugh when I read the message boards for the traditional basketball powers and they lose a recruit. It’s always, “How could Player X go to School Y? We play in a better conference and we won a championship in 1970-something and blah blah blah.” Those people are so out of touch with reality, it’s not even funny.
With regards to Memphis, I think it would probably rank as one of the 25 or 30 best programs ever based on the fact that it has been to Final Fours in three decades and a bunch of Elite Eights. At the moment, it’s clearly a top-five program.
The other thing a lot of people get wrong is that Calipari would leave Memphis based on conference affiliation. That has nothing to do with anything. It’s been proven over and over now that the lack of success for Conference USA as a whole has no bearing on anything Memphis is trying to do. It’s had no bearing on recruiting; in fact, Calipari is recruiting at a higher level than ever. It’s had no bearing on NCAA Tournament success, and in fact, the fact that Memphis is able to dominate the conference clearly helps them get a good seed. Last year’s team would have dominated any conference. But two years ago, for instance, Memphis got a No. 2 seed, and its best non-conference win was against a mediocre Kentucky team. Though that Memphis team was good at the end, it was young in the beginning and probably would have lost 4 or 5 games in the SEC, for instance. That would have dropped them from a No. 2 seed probably to a No. 5 or 6 seed. So, in other words, Cal is pretty happy with his situation. Not to mention he’s making nearly $4 million a year all told.
How do you feel about the one-and-dones (such as Derrick Rose and Dujuan Wagner) either at Memphis or just in general? And, does everyone at Memphis assume that Tyreke Evans is gone? Regarding the Tigers’ class next year, they are said to be in the running for both John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and already have Xavier Henry locked up. Do you think Coach Cal can land either Wall or Cousins? Word is that Cousins wants to play football as well. Do you think Coach Cal and Tigers football head coach Tommy West would collaborate to bring him in?
You’ve got to have pros to win a title. And, in this day and age, your big-time pros are going to be one-and-done in college. So the smart thing to do if you want to win it all is go recruit a one-and-done and fill in around him with a few other talented guys who are three- and four-year players.
Tyreke Evans is probably gone, but it’s too early to say. He still has some holes in his game, and not everybody in the NBA loves him. Let’s see where he is at the end of the year. My guess is that if he left, somebody would take him in the first round.
I talked to DeMarcus Cousins last week, and he said that Memphis was on the top of his list, for whatever that’s worth. I have never heard anything about him playing football, and I wouldn’t advise it at 6-11. Wall is a special talent; he’s almost a Derrick Rose clone, and he idolizes Rose. Memphis has worked hard to get Wall, and they probably have a slight edge right now, but it will be a tough battle to the wire with Baylor and Duke.
It’s my understanding that writers will sometimes cover a significant game with two base columns started that will be filled-in during and after the game based on the result. Did you have something started for the case of the Tigers winning the championship game in 2008? If so, do you care to share with us some of what you may have been planning on saying?
Considering that my deadline for the national championship game was like 30 minutes after the end of the game, I didn’t just have something started. I had something finished. And it was damn good, too. Oh well. Once it started to go the other way, I started working on the “Memphis loses” story and had gotten most of it done by the end of overtime. I went to the media room, filled in a couple quotes, and sent that baby in. I think I still have the other game story in my computer somewhere, but I’d have to look for it. It was kind of an over-arching story that captured the significance of Memphis winning the title moreso than the game itself.
The Tigers and Vols play this Saturday (January 24th @ 3:30 pm) in Knoxville. Your thoughts?
Thompson-Boling is a tough place to play, and I remember two years ago that the Tigers got off to a bad start and it just snowballed with the crowd going nuts and Chris Lofton making every shot in the first half. On a neutral court, I think Memphis is the better team right now. In Knoxville, it’s a toss-up. I haven’t been too impressed with Tennessee this season, especially their effort defensively. UT has always been good at scrambling it up and turning people over, but they have been average at best under Pearl guarding teams in the half court, which is why they have under-performed in the NCAAs. From watching Tennessee, they are not a good shooting team but will go after it hard on the boards. If the Tigers match UT’s rebounding intensity and prevent them from getting second shots, they’ll win.
Do you ever find it difficult to write objectively without becoming too invloved in the negativity, or conversely, homerism that we fans generally embrace?
It’s not hard at all to avoid the back-and-forth between fan bases because I don’t experience the game from a fan’s perspective. For instance, I have a great relationship with nearly every coach in Conference USA because I deal with them on a journalist-coach level, not a fan-coach level. Having said that, I am always looking at things from a Memphis perspective because that’s who I cover and who I’m responsible for knowing about.
Have you ever been wrong in news you reported or found out later that you didn’t have all the facts when constructing an opinion on a subject? What do you feel are your rseponsibilities in situations like that? Do you have a biggest regret or mistake that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?
I’d have to really go back and think, but nothing is popping out at the moment, so that must mean I haven’t committed any major mistakes. We all get small things wrong now and then, but a good rule of thumb is not to take any chances in this business. Don’t put something out there unless you are absolutely sure it’s true.
In your time covering sports, have you had any funny, surprising, or even worrisome experiences you wouldn’t care to pass along? Have you ever had any confrontations with players, management/administration, or fans because of something you’ve written?
I have definitely had confrontations – a lot of them. People aren’t always going to like what you write about them, and that’s part of the business. The best way to handle it, in my opinion, is to get it out in the open if there’s a disagreement and try to come to some sort of professional understanding about it. I did a couple stories in Colorado Springs that produced some threats – legal and otherwise – and you just deal with those as they come. I think the most surprising moment of my career was watching former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry and his “Afro-American” meltdown a couple years ago. I’m sitting there listening to what he was saying and I’m like, “Oh my God, this is going to be a national story.” And it was. (Ed note: Here’s the DeBerry quote* in regards to an Air Force loss to TCU - DeBerry said it was clear TCU “had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did. It just seems to me to be that way. Afro-American kids can run very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me that they run extremely well.”)
Do you have any favorite sports or non-sports writers? Do you have a daily must-read newspaper, website, or specific writer?
My favorite sportswriters are Lee Jenkins (Sports Illustrated), Dan Wetzel (Yahoo), Wright Thompson (ESPN Mag), Gary Smith (SI), Charles P. Pierce (Esquire), Jay Mariotti (ESPN), Mark Kiszla (Denver Post), David Climer (Tennessean), Damien Cox (Toronto Star), Tom Sorensen (Charlotte Observer), John Henderson (Denver Post), Bill Plaschke (LA Times), Mike Vaccaro (NY Post), and probably 100 others I am not thinking of off the top of my head. But that’s a good list to start with. As far as people who don’t write about sports, my must-read guys are Chuck Klosterman, Frank Rich, David Maraniss, Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks.
What was your best athletic achievement? When was the last time you played a sport? What was it?
I won a tennis tournament when I was 12 and retired. I played hoops in eighth grade and quit when the coach told me my ass was too big. The only sport I really play is golf, and I’m pretty decent (about a 12 handicap). I play a good bit during the offseason. But I do work out five days a week.
If you could cover any athlete/team/game/season throughout the history of sports, who/what/when?
Covering horse racing back in the 1930s and 40s would have been awesome. To cross-reference your question above, you could have ripped Seabiscuit and felt fairly confident that he wasn’t going to shout you down.
Is there anything you would like to specifically share with us in closing?
The only thing I can say is, please buy newspapers. We need all the help we can get.
*about the DeBerry quote, when searching for the exact quote, I found three different but similar versions. They all had the same meaning but none were the exact same words. I doubt he said it three seperate times and it’s amazing to me that I can’t find consistency so I chose ESPN.com’s version.