He lives in Detroit, works alongside Mitch Albom, and spent three years researching and writing War As They Knew It, a book on Woody and Bo. Oh, we almost forgot the best part: He’s had the pleasure of covering Matt Millen’s tenure in Detroit. Naturally, we had a lot of questions for Mr. Rosenberg.
Q: First, we must ask about Detroit. We’ve only been there twice – once for the baseball All-Star game and once for the Super Bowl – and it didn’t seems that bad. But it always seems to make those ‘worst cities to live’ lists and generally is labeled a dump. Matt Millen’s tenure hasn’t helped, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Care to defend your home turf?
Thanks for the slogan! “Detroit: It Doesn’t Seem That Bad!” I’ll run that by the Chamber of Commerce and get back to you.
Whenever Detroit hosts a major sporting event, somebody writes a column calling the city a dump. And I think, “OK, there are too many abandoned buildings and a lot of people struggling to pay their rent … this is funny to you? Really? Have you heard any hilarious Darfur jokes lately? ”
Detroit is one of the most racially divided areas of the country. The city has a limited tax base. Most of the problems that plagued major U.S. industrial cities in the 1980s are still a major problem in Detroit today, and Michigan has one of the weakest economies of any state in the country. Plus, swirl this factually accurate paragraph around your head for a moment:
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who defeated the guy who played Eddie Murphy’s boss in “Beverly Hills Cop” to become mayor several years ago, just resigned from office after being caught lying under oath about an affair with his chief of staff and covering it up at a cost of millions of dollars to the city. His chief defender was a woman who once accused him of rigging her City Council chair to electrocute her. She is now running to replace him.
So yeah, that stuff is all part of the Detroit story. Yet many of the people who live in southeast Michigan absolutely love the area. There is a ton of stuff to do, especially in the summer, and the cost of living is reasonable. There are two things you need to understand about Detroit. One is that it’s not a great place to visit, but it’s a great place to live. Once you know the landscape – once you know which bars to hit, where to catch a concert, where to sit outside and have a good meal – you’ll have a great time. The other thing you need to understand is that it is not cool to live here, so anybody who is preoccupied with being cool stays the hell away, leaving a vibrant, exciting part of the country for the rest of us. There are very few phonies in Detroit.
Plus, you will not find a better sports town anywhere. The Pistons just led the NBA in attendance, the Tigers sold 98.6 percent of their tickets, the Red Wings owned the city for a solid decade and are still immensely popular, Michigan football has drawn at least 100,000 fans to every game for three decades, Michigan State basketball is a phenomenon, and the Lions generate more interest than any other team in the state, even if it’s mostly rubbernecking interest these days. Plus, Detroit is basically the bowling capital of the world and a big auto-racing town, for obvious reasons. There is also an abundance of golf courses from the overbuilding boom of the late ’90s, which means you can play 18 at a nice course in less than four hours for a reasonable price.
Q: It appears as if the US economy is going to take quite some time to purge – it could take as long as 5-10 years before it fully recovers. The Detroit Lions are going through their own purge – the Matt Millen morass. Is there a core that Detroit can build from, or do the Lions need a complete overall, and nobody is safe? When is it reasonable to expect the Lions to emerge as a legit contender in the NFC, something it hasn’t been since the days of Barry Sanders? Is there even a timetable, what with a young stud like Adrian Peterson stuck in Detroit’s division?
Well, they had a timetable, but they abruptly fired Millen just eight years into his 37-year rebuilding plan. I hate when franchises act so impulsively.
The Lions drafted Calvin Johnson ahead of Adrian Peterson, which I supported, and let me tell you something, pal: once they teach Calvin to throw 80-yard passes to himself, Peterson will wish he never picked up a football. Johnson is a stud, but the Lions have no quarterback of the future (in my opinion); aging and ineffective lines; a horrible secondary, a slew of guys they “lured away” from Tampa Bay while Jon Gruden put his hand over his mouth and cackled, and no cheerleaders.
Owner William Clay Ford Sr. has two options. One is to hire somebody with vision to totally revamp every aspect of the organization. The other is to hire somebody who happens to be sitting next to him. This team has won a single playoff game since Ford took over in 1964. My money is on the guy sitting next to him.
Q: Having extensively researched Woody and Bo’s rich history, if you’re starting a football program, which guy would you rather have running the show, and why? And at the same time, is it even feasible that either of these guys could be successful today, in an era when old school coaches seem to have largely given way to a set of younger hot shots?
Woody was the more successful coach for his time – he won several national championships, and Bo did not win any. Nobody ever ran a tighter, more disciplined unit that Woody Hayes, and he was one of the best motivators in the history of sports. You’re talking about a guy who literally hit himself in the head when something went wrong in practice. Years after his players left Columbus, they feared they would disappoint him.
But if you had a chance to hire Woody or Bo today, there is no doubt Bo would be your guy. Everybody who knew Woody well told me that. Bo never loved the pass, but he did adapt in the 1980s, and he was winning conference championships right up until the end. He acknowledged to me that the game is more fun to watch now than it was in the ’70s, and he never lost his passion for it. I think Bo could succeed today, I really do. He was much more pragmatic than Woody.
Woody never really understood the passing game, and in his last three years, his program was slipping out of his hands. I can’t even picture him in today’s big-money college sports world – he would be the ultimate anachronism. Woody turned down pay raises when he was making $40,000 a year. He didn’t even want carpet in his office – they had to wait until he left one night, and install it before he returned the next day. In the ’80s, when Woody saw the plans for what became the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, he said, “Do we need all this goddamn stuff?” He would see these guys making $3 million a year, the Thursday night games and the disregard for both NCAA rules and academic standards, and he’d scream. He would not adjust. He would not want to adjust.
Here is a short book excerpt that should show you how even the littlest changes in society rankled Woody. It takes place in 1977, the night before Ohio State played Illinois in Champaign:
The night before the game, the team went to see the movie “Slap Shot.” Assistant coach Mickey Jackson was in charge of picking the movies, and he and trainer Billy Hill decided “Slap Shot” seemed like a safe bet. It was a sports movie starring Paul Newman. What could go wrong?
A few minutes into the movie, Jackson realized he had made a mistake. “Slap Shot” was littered with profanity and sexual references. Then, a half hour into the movie, Newman’s character, Reggie Dunlop, finds himself in bed with a woman named Suzanne, who had recently split with her husband. Suzanne sits topless in bed and …
Suzanne: “You’re the first man I’ve slept with since I left Hanrahan.”
Reggie: “Aw, Suzanne – beautiful woman like you?”
Suzanne: “I’ve been sleeping with women. … Are you shocked?”
Woody Hayes was sure as hell shocked. He stood up in the middle of the theater and shouted, “This is TRASH! This is TRASH!” Mickey Jackson slunk as low into his seat as he could so Hayes would not see him. The Buckeyes did not have the theater to themselves – there were other paying customers there – but the Old Man was too pissed off to care. He walked out to the candy counter and asked for the manager, and when the manager came out, Hayes barked, “You’re fired!” Hayes then went outside and left a note on the team bus to let everybody know he was walking back to the team hotel, the Lincoln Lodge. And he did.
Q: We had to look this up, because it seems so astonishing: In 21 years at Michigan, Bo never won a national title. But Lloyd Carr, who only coached there for 13 years, has a title. Yet Bo is always going to be held in a higher regard. How does that happen?
If you build it, they will come. If you maintain it after another guy builds it, they will never appreciate you.
Someday, Carr will get his due from Michigan fans, but that day hasn’t come yet. The memory of those last few losses to Ohio State is too raw; people forget that Carr’s overall record against the Buckeyes was 6-7, which is not bad. Bo was 11-9-1. That is not a huge difference. People took too much about Carr for granted: that he didn’t demand a new contract every year, that he never looked for another job, that he cared about his school and that his teams were never truly bad. Even last year, when the Wolverines lost to Appalachian State and Oregon, they finished 9-4 and beat Florida in a bowl game. You could do worse. Someday, somebody will, and then people will appreciate Carr.
Carr genuinely cared about his players and is one of the most honest and real people I’ve ever covered. But in press conferences, he came off as a grumpy, surly guy. Those of us who covered him regularly had a lot of respect for him, but the national image was not good. Bo, on the other hand, learned how to charm the media in the second half of his career. His charisma was overwhelming. I think that’s part of the answer for why he was more beloved than Carr, too.
And let’s be realistic: if Bo coached today, he would get an inordinate amount of criticism for his conservative offense and for not winning a national title. The sports media environment was much more benign in his day.
Q: We poked plenty of fun at your colleague, Mitch Albom, for his “work” in Beijing, which included a foot massage. What was your experience like carrying the paper’s torch at the Olympics? Was the time difference a significant challenge in keeping stories fresh and original?
There are basically three kinds of stories at the Olympics. One is the story everybody is talking about. I think I wrote columns about Michael Phelps for eight straight days; to the best of my recollection, they were:
1. Michael Phelps swims fast.
2. Check that: REALLY fast.
3. Seriously, does the guy breathe through his skin or what?
4. I think I just saw group of marlins sitting in the stands at the Water Cube, taking notes.
5. I wonder if, during a long workout, Michael Phelps ever pees in the pool.
6. Before his next race, Michael Phelps should tear the other swimmers apart, limb by limb, like a barracuda, to spare them the agony of losing to him.
7. Holy crap, Michael Phelps almost lost! But he didn’t.
8. Michael Phelps plans to go to London 2012, part the waters in the Olympic pool and run to the other end. Is this legal?
Yes, it was hard keeping those stories fresh. But it didn’t seem to matter. People could not get enough Michael Phelps.
So that’s one kind of story. The second kind is where you search for an athlete from a tiny poverty-stricken country who has overcome at least three life-threatening illnesses and got to the Olympics by hitchhiking on a pirate ship. The great thing about the Olympics is that there are hundreds of incredible stories. If you find a great story, you don’t worry about the time difference. You just write.
Q: Do you feel newspapers are hurt by the “star” system? For instance, when newspapers let their “big names” go out and do TV, radio, or internet work, is it helping the paper, or actually hurting it? Both you and Mitch Albom have side gigs … how difficult is it to juggle those, and prevent your column from becoming stale? Did your newspaper have any apprehensions about letting you both expand your own brand?
It’s a fine line. I can only speak for myself. I always try to ask myself: Is the work I’m doing for the newspaper my best stuff? And is it unique, or am I spouting the same opinions and doing the same reporting for another media outlet? If it’s not my best, and it’s not unique, then I’m doing the newspaper a disservice. It is very easy for a columnist to pick up some freelance money here, and a little there, and go do some TV for the ego, and before you know it most of your newspaper columns are written off the top of your head. I see how that can happen, and I never want that to happen to me. Being a writer is too much a part of my identity – I don’t want to feel like I’m a crappy writer. And I sleep much better when I thoroughly report a column, so I don’t like writing off the top of my head.
My side gigs consist of a weekly column for Foxsports.com and my book work. In both cases, the hours are flexible. That is big to me. I definitely spent more time working on the book than some people spend on a daily radio show, but the difference is that I didn’t have to be in a radio studio for four hours every day when I should have been in the Tigers’ clubhouse or at Pistons practice.
The Foxsports column is a lot of fun, but my bosses there understand the Free Press comes first, and it really hasn’t hampered my newspaper work in any way. Whether it has diluted my “brand” or enhanced it, I don’t know. It’s a good question. My bosses at both places feel like the relationship is worthwhile.
Writing “War As They Knew It” was like having a second full-time job for almost three years. I did it mostly for the challenge – I wanted to write something more meaningful and substantial than anything I’d done before. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done by a mile, so I’m glad I did it. The one way it really affected my newspaper work is that I did not write as many longer pieces for the newspaper while I was working on the book. I read 50 books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles for my book and and interviewed almost 200 people. My brain just couldn’t handle a huge newspaper project while I was doing it.
How deep into next season can Leyland go before getting fired? The whole way, if Verlander and Bonderman have good years.
Better Pistons run: the Bad Boys or the current group that has been to the Eastern Conference Finals six times in a row? The current group would trade all those Conference Finals trips for another ring. As well they should. So I’ll go with the Bad Boys.
Dwight Schrute or Kramer? Kramer. But don’t tell Joe Posnanski I said that.
Who impressed you more in Beijing, Bolt or Phelps? Bolt was more fun to watch, but Phelps was more impressive.
The three best outfielders in the history of the Detroit Tigers are … … not coming through that door. Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and Harry Heilmann.
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