What better way to take you into the NCAA tournament than an interview with one of the top national college basketball writers? Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, quite busy at this time of the year, as you can imagine, took some time to talk to us about the Hansbrough-Beasley debate (he’s like us, a Beasley guy), the epic Tim Parmeter story, how everyone with a keyboard can be a bracketologist, and just how many schools are bending the rules in college basketball.
Q: You spent some time in Memphis covering the Tigers for The Commercial Appeal. Why the move to CBSSports.com, and how is covering college hoops different online vs. for a newspaper?
The move was a no-brainer on every level. Being a beat guy at a newspaper with a shrinking news hole, disappearing travel budget and diminished sports staff isn’t comparable to being a columnist for a national outlet. I remember calling Pat Forde, who has long been a friend, and asking him one question about the move. Remember, he had just gone from the Louisville Courier-Journal to ESPN.com. So I called, told him my situation and said, “Look, I know all the positives about writing online. Give me the negative. Can you tell me what you miss the most about writing for a newspaper?” His answer was that he hadn’t found a negative and that I wouldn’t regret the jump or ever look back. He could not have been more correct.
The difference in jobs? There’s a huge difference, but mostly because at The CA I was a beat writer and at CBS I’m a columnist. That’s the main difference. And I have more freedom here. My bosses have embraced my quirky, offbeat way of approaching things, an approach that is better-suited for this job than the job I had at The CA. Honestly, the man who hired me at The CA always thought I was crazy and too unconventional. He was never my biggest fan. But a lot of the things that made my newspaper editors roll their eyes — my style of writing, my way of thinking, my hair, my flip flops, etc. — are the exact things that have made my transition to CBS work. I’ve tried to be a personality who writes about basketball more than just a basketball writer. But make no mistake, I’m still learning as I go, still adjusting everyday.
Q: Do you feel that schools are more or less receptive to online writers vs. newspapers writers? Do you see that changing as the online staffs expand and newspapers trim staffs?
I’ve found schools to be totally receptive, with few exceptions. It really is amazing how much people treat me differently now that I’m Gary Parrish from CBSSports.com as opposed to Gary Parrish from The Commercial Appeal. And it’s not me. It’s CBS. When my title changed the perception of me changed, and I have had incredible access to pretty much anybody and anything. It’s one of the perks of the job, though sometimes I actually feel bad about it. For instance, I was at a game this year and after the press conference the head coach comes over, says hello and tells me to come to his office. So there I go, walking to the office with the coach while all the beat writers watch, and I just know that the second I left the room they were clowning me. I mean, I was one of them two years ago, and I hated it when I would spend every day with a coach and then some national guy would come in and get better access. So I know the frustration from the other end, and I felt like an asshole that night. But what can you do? I’m not gonna turn down one-on-one time, cell phone numbers, invitations to closed practices, etc. But to answer your question, the access is fabulous.
Q: At what age did you decide you wanted to focus your efforts on college hoops? Is this something that started in college, or prior?
It just sorta happened, and it’s mostly based on where I worked. The Commercial Appeal hired me straight out of college, and the best beat at the paper was covering University of Memphis basketball. So that was my goal, to land that beat. But not because I loved basketball. It was just the best beat and I wanted the best job. About two years after I was hired, I got the beat. And that’s how I became a basketball writer, though I imagine if I was hired straight out of college in a football town I might be a football writer today because I just aspired to get the best beat I could get at the paper for which I was working. Being a college basketball writer wasn’t some childhood dream, if that’s what you mean. I wanted to play second base for the Mets. Or be Cindy Crawford’s husband. But I was a college basketball fan growing up, someone who always enjoyed the sport.
Q: Mark Cuban recently flew off the handle by enacting a new “no bloggers in the locker room” policy to his Mavericks. You’ve got a blog, as do many mainstream writers. Is Cuban overreacting? Have any universities you’ve spoken with felt the same way, or are most welcoming of coverage?
It depends on the blogger. Some guys do good work. Others, not so much. So I think it’s up to the SID to distinguish the good from the bad, the guys trying to do serious work from the guys who just like standing close to somebody they saw on TV yesterday. It’s a delicate situation. Where is the line drawn? But I can’t say I really blame Cuban for taking a stance, because credentialing anybody with a blog doesn’t seem practical.
Q: The Tim Parmeter story was gutwrenching. Can you talk to us about how you found and reported the story, and your thoughts about the aftermath?
When I first got the job at CBS I wrote a column about junior college basketball, how prep schools had damaged the JUCO ranks. It got linked and forwarded and I ended up on some email list of JUCO coaches and I would get emails all the time, most of which were of no concern to me. But one day this email came about how a coach from Eastern Arizona had lost his estranged wife and child. That’s all it said, that they had died. At first, I figured it must’ve been a car wreck or something because that’s how wife and kids die, in car wrecks. But then I started wondering why if it was a car wreck the email didn’t just say it was a car wreck? The cause of death was noticeably vague. So the thought stuck with me, and then about a week later I did a Google search on the coach’s name to see if anything popped up. I found a blurb in the local paper, just a crime report that said “deaths ruled murder-suicide” or something like that. Yikes, right? Anyway, I was obviously intrigued, but unsure how to approach it. I mean, how do you call somebody you don’t know and ask how they’re doing now that they’re estranged wife just killed her son and herself? Rather than go that route, I worked through some Division I assistants who knew Tim, asked if they thought I could call him. They said to give it time but to try eventually. And then January turned to February, which turned to March. And I was so busy with actual basketball that I let the story slip by. I was always mad at myself about it. So when the one-year anniversary of the deaths was approaching — and still nobody had done this story — I sent an email to Tim, completely out of the blue. He returned it within hours. We talked the next day. And I opted to go down on the one-year anniversary of the murder-suicide. He welcomed me. I went to the house, saw the garage where it happened, spent some time in the kid’s room, read the suicide notes, watched home videos, listened to old voicemails, everything. It was a pretty draining experience, particularly because I have a young son myself. The response from readers and colleagues was overwhelming. People were nice. I was proud.
And then came the aftermath.
Just a nightmare, really.
As you know, it turns out Tim was allegedly having an affair with a 16-year-old girl. She read my story and turned him into the police. He was fired a week after the story, and so my sympathetic figure was no longer sympathetic. I’ve struggled with a lot, whether I should’ve known or could’ve known. But my official reaction is this: I did not set out to write a story about a divorce, or anything that might’ve contributed to a divorce. People get divorced all the time and for lots of different reasons. Sometimes those reasons revolve around affairs. But rarely does it end with a woman killing her child and herself in the family garage. To me, that was the story — how a basketball coach was dealing with a murder-suicide he discovered, not whether he was a good husband or father. And if you notice, I never once in the story described Tim as a good husband or father. Likewise, I didn’t let anybody call his estranged wife, Paula, anything derogatory. I just let the act speak for itself, let Tim’s emotions tell the story because, again, I wasn’t interested in writing about a divorce gone bad, regardless of what led to the divorce. I wanted to write about how this coach was dealing with this unthinkable tragedy, and it is an unthinkable tragedy even though it apparently happened to a man who might not have been Husband of the Year. Naturally, the next question is whether the affair led to the divorce, which led to the tragedy? And if so, doesn’t that matter? I get that opinion. Honestly, I do. But all I can tell you is that I read all six suicide notes, and there isn’t a word in any of them about an affair or about a 16 year-old girl. And by all accounts, Paula wanted to stay married to Tim. So it wasn’t like she caught him cheating, asked for a divorce and fell apart. He’s the one that actually asked for the divorce. But either way, it’s messy. And I wish I had uncovered the entire story on the front end. And it still makes me sick to think about it, if you want to know the truth.
Q: You were all over the Kelvin Sampson story. What is your sense on what happens next with the guy? We’re a forgiving nation, and it only seems logical that he’ll be coaching D1 ball again. How soon, and where?
Sooner rather than later, and at a school that needs a shot in the arm, so to speak. It’ll be like when Texas Tech hired Bob Knight or Southern Miss hired Larry Eustachy. Those are both good coaches, just flawed in some way. And if they got another chance then Kelvin will get another chance, too. My guess is he’ll go the NBA assistant route for a year or two, then somebody will take a shot and when it happens we’ll be reminded that he “only” made a couple of phone calls. Then he’ll start recruiting, start winning and everything will be terrific. Good men who can’t win have trouble in this business. But great recruiters who can win will always have opportunities, even if they can’t follow the rules. Kelvin is a great recruiter who can win. He’ll be fine.
Q: Your colleague, Mike Freeman, had an interesting take on Michael Beasley vs. Tyler Hansbrough. The POY is a silly honor, because it’s like the Heisman – nobody has defined the criteria. Is it the season they had? The stats? The talent? The potential? Where the team would be without them? What do you think the primary criteria would be?
All of that should be included. But really, I think it’s best to just use your eyes. I’m a Beasley guy. Why? Because he’s clearly the best player in the country and he’s taken his program to a place it doesn’t normally go. North Carolina as a No. 1 seed? Happens all the time. With Hansbrough. Without Hansbrough. North Carolina wins regardless. But Beasley had the best statistics of anybody while leading his school to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996. He broke the program’s string of losses against Kansas. He took KSU to a third-place finish in the Big 12, which is all Kevin Durant did last season, by the way, and Durant had a much better supporting cast. So I guess my criteria is this:
Who is the best player?
Does his team win?
Where would his team be without him?
Put that way, Beasley is the easy choice.
But I realize it’s a debate, and that I’m in the minority here.
Q: True or false: Bracketology is the ultimate exercise in futility and regardless who is doing it, nobody has an advantage because everyone is armed with the same information and there are no right or wrong answers until Sunday night.
True (or at least mostly true).
The reality is that pretty much everybody will get at least 63 of the 65 teams correct. Most people get 64. Then it just comes down to seeding, and the bodies of work of potential five seeds and nine seeds are so close that that part is up to interpretation. But honestly, I’m no more of a bracketologist than any guy with a brain who puts in the time to look at the numbers, and the bracketologist you see on TV all the time doesn’t know any more than anybody else. Last year, the guy on TV had one of the worst brackets on the web (mine graded as one of the best in terms of accuracy, I don’t mind telling you). This year, his was much better. He got all 65 teams correct while I got 64. But I had more teams seeded correctly than he did (33 compared to 29) and more teams seeded within one spot of their actual seed than he did (55 compared to 54), and yes I did have to mention that. What does it all mean? It means we’re all pretty good and equal at this stuff, and that anybody could be if they cared enough to sit down and examine the numbers. Sometimes, it all feels like a big waste of energy, to be sure. But readers enjoy it, and I’m a slave to my readers.
Who is the most overrated team heading into the tournament?
Vanderbilt. Four Top 50 wins = a No. 4 seed. I don’t get it.
Who is your biggest March sleeper?
Southern California. That team has pros and pros win games.
Your ultimate two-man announcing team for the National Championship game.
The note from above says I must go with Jim Nantz and Billy Packer. So I’ll go with … Jim Nantz and Billy Packer.
If you had to take a stab at the % of high major teams in college hoops teams that might be bending the rules, but haven’t been caught, you’d go …
Bending or exploiting the rules? 95 percent.
Breaking the rules in some regard (even if it’s just phone calls)? 70 percent.
Doing straight cash deals for players? 15 percent.
Turning their heads while agents, runners, boosters or somebody else does straight cash deals for players? 25 percent.
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