As we brace for another argument-filled December, when everyone will inevitably argue about which two teams deserve to play in the National Championship, we felt like there was no better person to talk college football with than Chris Dufresne of the LA Times. He’s a newspaper veteran, and we hope you enjoy his brief experiences with big-time (and wealthy!) ESPN writers, his laborious road to the LA Times, and why the powers that be don’t want a college football playoff, so quit asking for one.
Q: You’re pretty much considered one of the top national newspaper College Football writers in the country. How’d you get here?
Well, it’s been quite a trip. I am literally (almost) an ink-stained wretch, the son of an L.A. Times truck driver. My dad worked at the LAT for 37 years, until 1992, in the glory days of the Chandler family. He used to have a drop-off near our house in La Habra (about 35 miles East of L.A) and it was cool when he would park the Times truck outside our house and come in for lunch. Seemed like a company I might want to be associated with.
We used to do our crayon coloring on rolls of print paper my dad would bring home from work.
Got my first paper route (remember those?) at age 10, from Jim Wright, who lived a few blocks away and I’ve pretty much been in the business for the last 40 years.
Worked on the high school paper, graduated from Cal State Fullerton, paid my way through by working on the loading docks at the Times (I knew one of the truck drivers). It was a fantastic job, hard work, bundles falling on your head, but the pay was great and you got OT.
I started work at the Times two weeks after graduating high school in 1976 and, except for a five month period in 1981, have been there ever since.
So that makes five years in transportation, 27 years in editorial, and here I still am. When I worked the docks I used to sneak up on the third floor (editorial) hoping to catch a glimpse of Jim Murray not knowing he wasn’t in the office much. Thirty years later, neither am I!
Never dreamed at the time I would one day sit next to Murray at Super Bowls and Rose Bowls, and if you don’t think that was a thrill, then you’re not breathing. He actually knew my name!
So I graduated Titan Tech in ’81, and hooked on with the Daily News Tribune of Fullerton, where I worked for Bob Lenard, a great guy who taught me a lot and loved to bet the ponies.
I kept one day a week loading papers at the Times because I was making $10 per hour.
I quit when the Trib hired me full time gig for $4.75 an hour. My friends on the docks got a kick out of the value of my college education, but within 15 years, there were no loading docks and very few loaders. Everything became automated. They eventually contracted out Transportation Dept. to Ryder, so there were no more LAT truck drivers, my dad just beating that purge out the door.
In December of ’81, completely independent of my loading days life, I got hired as a gopher copy kid in Orange County edition of LA Times. The sports editor there was Marshall Klein, who taught a class at Fullerton, so that’s how I got in.
I worked my way up through preps and, in an early career highlight, was the guy who was told one day to pick up at the airport a writer we just hired out of Denver named Rick Reilly.
Whatever happened to him?
Anyway, long story even longer, covered the Rams in OC, moved to L.A. in 1990 to cover the Raiders and then in 1995, out of the blue, my friend Gene Wojciechowski, then our national college football and basketball scribbler, bolted for the Chicago Tribune for what I believe was about $2 million per year.
And so I got two beats dumped on my lap at once, in October. Thanks Geno. No, really.
I’ve been covering the colleges ever since, more football than basketball.
Q: What’s the situation like inside the sports department at the Times? The paper seems to be hemmoraging readers, and the job cuts have been incessant in the last two years. Is it a fearful atmosphere? Have you given thought to your next step, like perhaps starting a blog or contemplating a move to an internet sports destination?
Not a fun time at all. Very painful to see talented colleagues and friends losing their jobs. Fear? You bet. I’ve got three kids to put through college. I’ve been a worrier all my life and this time I think I’ve nailed it.
But you are wrong when you say the paper is hemmoraging readers. We have more readers than EVER. That’s the biggest misconception about newspapers these days, that they are somehow irrelevant because of the Internet. I get a kick when people say about our circulation decline, “that’s what you get for being such a liberal paper” or such and such when it has nothing really to do with what’s going on.
I repeat: more people are reading us than EVER, by a long shot. It’s just that the business model is all screwed up and all the ad money is still in print when more and more of the traffic is headed to the www.
Too bad we can’t put a Tip Jar on our site.
I haven’t thought about next steps. All I ever think about is my next story as the assignments come in waves. I’ll love the L.A. Times for as long as it loves me, I guess. We started a new sports blog called Fabulous Forum and I get to contribute to that and love the creative freedom it allows.
Need a web-only story? That’s me, pal. Need me to stand on my head and type 250 words on the onsides kick? I’m your man.
How about five questions on anything? And editors really like it when you put numbers on your stories. 1-2-3-4-5, but don’t go to 10 because that’s pushing it in terms of length.
I remember once, when space was king, our LAT star Alan Greenberg (sadly deceased a few years ago) did a story on Olympic discus thrower Al Oerter. Story goes Greenberg printed the story out and it stretched all the way across the office.
That works out today in inches to roughly 258 blogs.
Q: Ten years ago, few could have envisioned how dramatic the impact of the internet would have had on the newspaper industry. Ten years from now, do you think some small or medium-sized papers will scrap the print product and go entirely on the internet? Regarding physical newspapers – how often do you pick one up besides your own? Or do you just scour the websites for stories you may be interested in?
Never would have thought this could happen in a million years. Never, ever, ever conceived of a day when the L.A. Times would be losing people left and right and that we’d be going through this kind of misery. We just want it to get better. We just want it to stop.
I can see some papers eventually going to Internet only, although it’s going to require a leap of faith, but it may come down to there being no other choice but to jump.
I take three newpapers: LAT, USA Today and our local LANG affiliate, the Inland Valley Bulletin.
My boys read the paper because it’s on the kitchen table every morning. Maybe they don’t know they’re not supposed to be reading it. None of their friends so far have kicked them out of any Internet-only club that I know if.
I actually stopped taking the LAT a while back (I was ticked off about something) and took the NYT times for a while. One day my son looked up to me and said, “Dad, I don’t want to read about the Knicks!” so it was back to LAT.
I also scour the Internet every day. I like to do both: read a paper AND scour the internet. Please don’t let that get out. Does that make me odd? Old fashioned? Old Media?
What are they saying behind my back at the gym?
Q: USC, over the last five years, seems to have become the No. 1 destination for the high school players in the country. Do you feel that recruits want to play for Carroll? Or are they going to USC for the school’s name, which has put scores of players into the NFL recently? Or is it a little bit of both? As for the Carroll the coach, do you think he’s the best coach in the country? Or is he something of a letdown because with all the talent he’s had in the last five years, yet only has one title to show for it?
I’m sure No. 1 Texas or No. 2 Alabama would argue about USC being the top destination spot, but it’s certainly in the top five.
Kids come to USC to play for Carroll. It’s more than just the school name otherwise Paul Hackett wouldn’t have been forced out. It’s a combination. Finding the right coach at USC is like touching a match to gasoline. The thing explodes, alums come back, Will Ferrell wants a piece and even Snopp Dogg will show up on the sideline until you lose to Stanford.
Carroll was the right guy at the right time. It was a harmonic convergence. Kids come there because they know they will be showcased and that Carroll will play the best players.
I asked Joe McKnight when he was in high school why he didn’t go to UCLA, where he could have started right away, instead picking a school that had NINE tailbacks on the roster, all of them high school All Americans. McKnight looked at me like I was from Pluto.
The great ones think they’re better than everyone and they don’t mind the competition. Until they get here and find out they weren’t as great as they thought.
Carroll’s run has been remarkable. It’s only a letdown because the Trojans are five brain cramps from having won five straight national titles and being No.1 right now looking for title No. 6.
You can start with not having Reggie Bush in the game on fourth-and-two against Texas and work your way up from there.
Q: You have five minutes with BCS coordinator John Swofford to plead your case for a college football playoff. Go.
I’ve had my five mintues with Swofford. In fact, I’ve spent 10 years talking to commissioners and answering this question and the answer is always the same: There isn’t going to be a playoff. It’s great for people to talk about but it’s not going to happen for reasons that are complex and convoluted.
Basically, the BCS wigs don’t want to mess with a spectacular regular season and a bowl system that has existed for 100 years. They don’t want college football to become college basketball, a back-ended sport where nothing matters but the tournament.
Don’t believe the student/athlete, second-semester football argument. That’s a crock. But there is no great desire to change the status quo. In fact, BCS commissioners voted not to change it until at least through 2013.
As a fan, I understand the frustration.
As a writer, I wouldn’t change a thing because I would rather write about chaos than a four-team seeded playoff in which team A faces team B on a neutral site because that’s the fairest way to setttle things?
I don’t need fair.
What I need is Jim Tressel refusing to vote in the coaches’ poll in 2006 because it would require him to reveal whether he voted for Michigan or Florida.
What I need is 34 coaches in the USA Today poll being forced to switch their No.1 votes from USC to LSU in 2003 because they were required by contract to crown the winner of the BCS title game. Unfortunately, the coaches’ No. 1 team didn’t make the BCS game, as USC finished No. 3 in the BCS standings behind Oklahoma and LSU.
You don’t get this kind of stuff with a playoff.
What a farce is to the public is actually oxygen to me.
Q: Margin of victory. Should it be considered in college football or not? For a team like USC, which is beating up on weak Pac-10 this year, it would be extremely helpful. The Trojans are the team – at least according to Sagarin’s ratings – that would benefit greatly if it were a factor.
MOV used to be included in the BCS formula but was removed in part because of what happened to Oregon in 2001. The Ducks finished No.2 in both human polls but No. 4 in the BCS because they were not rewarded for winning a lot of close games that year.
Commissioners thought taking MOV out of the BCS computer formula would help, but to me it only put more pressure on the eye ball voters to factor MOV into their rankings.
So coaches still need to run it up. That’s why, in the first BCS standings, USC was No. 4 in the coaches’ poll but No. 10 in the BCS computers. The coaches saw the score of USC-Virginia and USC-Oregon.
But the computers didn’t.
Q: Our readers thought we were insane putting Tim Tebow in a 2nd place tie with Graham Harrell on our Heisman ballot this week. Where does Tebow rank on yours? It seems like the formula is to be the best player on a Top 10 team. Agree? Disagree?
I don’t get to vote anymore. A few years back, the company decided that its sportswriters shouldn’t vote for awards or in polls, so I don’t.
I had a Heisman vote, which I’m not sure I needed to give up, but I never voted in the AP poll because I felt there was a conflict of interest there and boy was I glad I wasn’t a voter in 2004 when Texas and California were involved in that ugly poll battle for a Rose Bowl spot.
I don’t have a problem putting either Tebow or Harrell No.2 so long as Colt McCoy is No.1 right now.
Both Tebow and Harrell are fantastic. Texas Tech QBs seem to be automatically dismissed because they play in a pass-oriented offense. Ok, so why not deny Marcus Allen a Heisman because he played for run-master John Robinson at USC?
I’m not sure I get that, although TT QBs don’t turn out to be great pros.
Really, though, Harrell will get his due if Texas Tech beats Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and they are No. 1 in the country in late November. Then you have got to take him seriously.
Q: Who do you think will make a pro QB, Colt McCoy or Georgia’s Matthew Stafford?
Stafford for sure will be the better pro, I think. His arm strength is incredible. I’ve seen some knocks on McCoy for his pro potential, but what do those geniuses know?
These are the same experts who let Joe Montana slide to the third round and Tom Brady to the sixth but made Ryan Leaf a multi-millinaire.
I’ll tell you what though, McCoy is a different player than the one I saw last year: bigger, stronger, faster.
Are you voting? If so, for whom? Don’t vote, but I’m a McCoy guy until Texas loses once, maybe twice.
If you can listen to any sports talk radio show in the country. Your choice? I switch back and forth in the morning between Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd. I don’t spend a lot of time with sports talk unless I’m in the car, which isn’t that often.
Worst athletic department in the Pac-10 to deal with? Come on, now, I’ve got to work with these guys.! I will say that access around the country is getting worse and worse. And the Pac-10 is actually Ok. Would you believe USC and UCLA locker rooms are open after football games? Other than Rutgers, I can’t think of another D-1 program that does that.
Actress whose movies you will see, regardless of plot. Is Jenna Jameson the wrong answer? (Just kidding, honey.) My 50-year-old guy answer is Meg Ryan.
Your national championship game prediction as of this moment. I’m hoping for Utah-Boise State but I’ll say Florida-Penn State knowing that’s probably going to be wrong.
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