Exciting time to be covering sports in Florida: Tim Tebow’s angling for the 2024 Presidential Campaign, George O’Leary snubbing newspapers and 22-year-old Dwight Howard is emerging as perhaps the NBA’s Next Great post player. We swapped emails with Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi on these topics and a few others (Danny Wuerffel!).
Q: You went to the University of Florida, and have spent, as far as we can tell, your entire journalistic career in Florida. Is that by design or happenstance? It didn’t seem like you were shipped out to a paper in podunk to endure a few years of what a friend called, ‘indentured journalistic servitude.’ How’d you avoid it? And how’d you decide journalism was what you wanted to do?
I’ve never wanted to leave Florida. Why would I? People retire to come here and have fun, so why not live here your whole life and have fun? And, plus, Florida has always been a really good newspaper state. When I was a young journalism tyke, papers like the St. Pete Times and Miami Herald were doing investigative journalism that rivaled any paper in the country. I don’t really know how I decided journalism is what I wanted to do. Maybe it started in high school when our high school newspaper ran a big story on a bunch of anonymous students (I was actually one of them) who painted graffiti on the big, blue sign in the outfield of our baseball stadium. We took photos and everything and I wrote a humorous story about the great graffiti caper. The principal became irate and threatened to shut down the paper because we were glorifying rule-breaking and vandalism. I think that’s when I first figured out newspapers could make people in authority very uncomfortable, and I kinda liked that.
Actually, my ultimate goal was to be a baseball player, but when I got cut from the junior-college team I figured if I couldn’t play sports for a living, I might as well cover them.
Q: How difficult was it to be objective when you were working for the Gainesville Sun, considering you had attended the University of Florida? We’ve heard some absolute horror stories about dealing with the school’s athletic department, but does it help dealing with the school because you’re a former Gator?
I don’t think it’s that difficult for the individual writer to be objective, but I think you get thrust into a position where institutional objectivity is lacking. When I worked at the Gainesville Sun, the publisher was a big Gator fan and the paper flew a Gator flag on our flagpole on the weekend of home football games. I think it’s that way in a lot of college towns. The people in charge want you to be a bit of a homer because it’s good for business. I will say that if you want to keep your superiors happy you have to tread a bit more lightly when working at the hometown newspaper where the university wields a lot of clout. Personally, I always took pride in the fact that I wasn’t as much of a homer as the newspaper wanted me to be.
When I went to UF’s journalism school in the 1980s, the journalism students I hung out with weren’t fans at all. In fact, many of us who were trying to become sportswriters actually were fledgling investigative journalists in those days. We were stringing for papers and working in an atmosphere where all the state newspapers were investigating football coach Charley Pell’s unique interpretation of the NCAA rulebook. I remember in one of the sportswriting classes in college, Pell was scheduled to be the guest speaker. He walked into the class and saw Peter Kerasotis, the sports editor of the student newspaper (the Independent Florida Alligator) and now the columnist at Florida Today, sitting in the back of the room. Pell refused to speak and walked out because Pete was in the class. The funny thing about it? All these years later, Pete still gets under the skin of UF’s administration more than anybody else.
Q: Shaq has abandoned the Magic, and Penny did too. Ditto for T-Mac. Is there a trend here, or are all of them isolated incidents? Do you see this trend continuing with Dwight Howard, or will the Magic be able to retain him at some point? Or is Dwight doomed to play in an era with Kobe and LeBron, which would make him Charles Barkley?
I think the players who have left are independent of each other. Shaq left because he grew up a Laker fan and wanted to go to L.A. and make bad movies and record bad rap albums. T-Mac left because the Magic were horrible and management was in disarray. Penny left because the Magic wanted him to leave. As for Dwight Howard, who knows? If the Magic are serious contenders – and I think they will be – he’ll stay. If they aren’t, he’ll leave. I think it’s that simple. By the way, last I checked, LeBron has never won a title and Kobe has never won a title without Shaq. In 10 years maybe we’ll look back and say those guys were doomed to play in the Dwight Howard era.
Q: You wrote a book with Danny Wuerffel, who is simultaneously one of the greatest passers in the last 25 years of college football … but also something of a bust because he won a Heisman and never accomplished anything in the NFL. Are you surprised he didn’t amount to more in the NFL? Or did you think maybe he would just be an average QB? Having spent time with him, did you feel he cared that he never became an NFL star?
I’m not shocked at all that Wuerffel didn’t become an NFL star. He wasn’t big, he wasn’t mobile and his arm strength was questionable. But he was perfect for Steve Spurrier’s system in college because he was brilliant. He knew exactly where to throw the ball and when to throw it and he was a master of changing plays at the line. And Spurrier’s offense was so far ahead of defenses back then that Florida’s receivers were always wide open.
Danny Wuerffel is the most decent and giving human being I’ve ever met. He could have actually played in the NFL for a few more years if he’d so desired. After he got cut by the Redskins, Spurrier, then coaching the ‘Skins, actually called him later in the season and wanted to re-sign him. Wuerffel said thanks but no thanks. He had already started making a difference with the Desire Street Ministry in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and had higher aspirations than being a backup quarterback for the Deadskins.
Q: Can you recall a college football player who has been as scrutinized and dissected as Tim Tebow has after just two years in college? Why do you think folks are obsessed with him? In 10 years, is he more likely to be holding political office somewhere, or playing QB in the NFL?
I think Tebow gets so much attention because he’s so unique and fun to watch. Sports, more than anything else, is entertainment and Tebow is the ultimate entertainer – right down to his alliterative name. I mean, seriously, what other left-handed linebacker do you know who can actually throw the ball and play quarterback? What other quarterback do you know who initiates contact? What other quarterback do you know who travels to Asia during the offseason and helps doctors circumcise underprivileged kids in the Philippines? I think Tebow will be a phenomenal NFL quarterback, but when he’s done playing I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Wuerffel-Tebow ticket in the 2024 presidential election.
Q: So what’s the deal with George O’Leary? In your years as a journalist, surely you’ve come across coaches that have decided they don’t want to cooperate with the local media. Have you dealt with this sort of thing before? How, as a journalist, do you handle it? How long do you think he keeps this act up before the athletic department steps in and tells him that’s enough?
I totally understand O’Leary being upset with the Sentinel’s aggressive investigative coverage in the death of UCF football player Ereck Plancher. No coach or athletic official likes to have his methods questioned. What I don’t understand is O’Leary boycotting the only media outlet that covers his team home and away. It’s like Richard Scott, a sports writer in Alabama, told me recently, “That’s like saying no to the only girl who wants to date you.” O’Leary’s stance is hurting everybody — the Sentinel, the team, the fans and the coach’s reputation. I think O’Leary and the Sentinel will come to a working arrangement in the next few days as fall practice gets under way.
Q: Because we’re morally obligated to ask it: Your favorite writer-on-writer feud, or writer-on-player/coach feud. Which do you find more interesting and why?
I don’t find writer-on-writer feuds very interesting at all because they don’t really matter. Who, besides a few other writers, care if Jay Mariotti is feuding with Rick Telander? I think writer-coach feuds are much more intriguing, simply because the fans actually care. When former Sentinel columnist Larry Guest and former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier were feuding – and Spurrier refused to answer Guest’s questions in televised press conferences – the fans got involved and took sides. Guest would write nasty columns about Spurrier, and Spurrier would respond by calling Guest a “sad little fat man.” I loved the fact that Guest, even though he knew Spurrier wouldn’t answer his questions, would raise his hand during a press conference and ask a question anyway just so he could watch Spurrier bristle. I’m telling you when Guest walked into a Spurrier news conference, a hush literally fell over the room. It was terrific.
Q: Interesting quote on your Sentinel bio: “The job of the sports columnist is to watch the battle from the mountaintop and then ride down and bayonet the wounded.” In this new media age, is the mountaintop overcrowded? And of riding down, do you feel the need to race down and beat everyone else? Must you find new ways to utilize the bayonet?
I saw that quote somewhere, maybe Rick Reilly used it, I don’t know. I don’t necessarily believe the quote, I just thought it was funny. I do believe, though, that the mountaintop is so crowded these days, they should build a Wal-Mart on top of it. It saddens me that it used to be sports columnists who had the market cornered on being able to fire coaches in print, but by the time we get around to it, there have already been four FireTheCoach.com web sites started and three Internet petitions circulated. I think the only thing newspapers and newspaper columnists have going for us is our ability and our credibility. Hopefully, that will be enough to separate us from the other bayonet-wielding schlubs on top of Mount Misery.
Favorite ride at Universal Studios: I’m a wuss who gets queasy on the scary rides and roller coasters. I prefer to hang out at the Woody Woodpecker Kid’s Zone.
The UF journalism alum who consistently impresses you: Carl Hiassen.
It’s mission impossible, but please name a non-chain restaurant in Orlando that you’d recommend: Winter Garden Pizza Company. It’s right down by my house and they just started selling beer.
On a four-star scale, with four being the best, how do you grade of The Dark Knight: I haven’t seen it, but one of our headline writers just dubbed George O’Leary “The Silent Knight” because of his boycott of the The Sentinel. I give that a four.
Your favorite UF athlete of all-time (to watch and to cover): That’s easy. Joakim Noah. The perfect combination – charismatic, quotable and controversial.
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