Everyone’s familiar with ESPN Sportscenter anchor Scott Van Pelt, so let’s do away with the formality of introducing him. In our interview with him, the Maryland grad – who also covers golf for ESPN – talked about nightlife in Bristol, how he deals with screaming sports analysts, his relationship with Tiger Woods, and the bulletproof Charles Barkley. And of course, bloggers are mentioned, as well as Dewey Beach.
Q: When you got to the University of Maryland, did you know this is what you wanted to do? Or were you on the path of a different major and then something steered you toward sports broadcasting? Does a TV background run in the family?
I always knew I’d love to do what I now do, but I lacked…..focus?….which is a less honest way of saying I was lazy. It’s ironic to me that Maryland’s new J school building has a banner on the fence around the construction with my face on it, considering I couldn’t even GET IN to the journalism school. I was in RTVF, short for Radio-TV-Film, which was essentially journalism lite. A course of study long ago abandoned in College Park. My career is one of the all-time stories of good luck, but as Lefty Driesell told me, “If it was luck, it would have run out by now.” I always appreciated that line.
Q: The ESPN Sportscenter night shift … what’s it like? Talk us through the moment the 11 pm show begins. When do you leave the compound? Is anything in Bristol open afterward? Are you a diner at 1 am guy, followed by video games (wii bowling?) until 3 am?
I enjoy the 11 the most of all the shifts, and I have done them all. The 11 is on after games many times and it’s on as games are ending which means that the show rundown is much more a suggestion than the direction you’ll follow. For example on Tuesday we were leading with either Kobe or Lebron – whoever had the better game. Jodie Meeks goes out and scores 54 for Kentucky in the game we were following and the rundown is confetti. Those nights are fun. Post show is usually a parade of groupies and strippers waiting for us outside the gates. Are you kidding? It’s 12:30 in Bristol, CT, I don’t stop at red lights or respect the speed limit. It’s like London in 28 Days Later….no humans….anywhere. The hardest thing to do is go to sleep. Ours is the only job I know of where you build all day to spike your energy the LAST hour you work. What other job is like that? So at 12:01 you are all amped up like a 5-year-old on cotton candy and you can’t land the plane from 30,000 feet in five minutes, so-to-speak. The process of unwinding normally involves scouring the internet for radio topics and/or watching Cartoon Network until the wee hours….and Whiskey…..all you want. High brow stuff right there.
Q: More than just a few blogs have started to write about the sporting media. ESPN, for a variety of reasons, always seems to be on the receiving end. What are your thoughts on how blogs have “covered” ESPN? Does Chris Berman laugh at his unedited footage being leaked? Does Emmitt Smith care what blogs are saying? Do you feel as if any of the constructive criticism about the network has actually been useful? Or is this all just a rebellious phase by blogs that everyone will soon tire of?
Ahhhhh, the blogs. I have tried to open up a dialogue with a number of them. You, AJ over at Deadspin – my dear pal Will before him, Brooks at Sportsbybrooks, Brian at Awful Announcing among others. The purpose of this is not to try to earn points so that if I take a picture of my junk on my phone or use it to leave another horrifying voicemail you won’t run it. You WILL run it and be giddy to do so. I have come to terms with that. The purpose is to try to remove the illusion of us and them that existed. There is no us and them – there’s just us and YOU all have become part of it as the face of media morphs. I have gone to great lengths to make it clear I respect what you all have to say and there is often valid criticism from blogs AND commenters, many of whom are sharp. I think everyone pays attention [to blogs] and anyone who says he doesn’t is either lying or in denial. That said, I have more respect for my peers. I am certain it’s far more difficult to get a job at ESPN, or anywhere for that matter, than it is to hook up a computer to the internets and be an asshole. Where Buzz missed the point was going bonkers on Will for the words of commenters. What I can’t stand is the contest to see who can care the least while being the most glib. The one note song that says, “Everyone and everything sucks.” I’d love to be equally smug and say, “Have fun filling out your TPS reports at the job you hate as you stare at the clock on the wall wondering how it is that the sum total of your life’s efforts have amounted to this.” But I’d never dream of doing such a thing.
Q: As one of ESPN’s top golf guys, how do you feel about the fact that Tiger Woods has chosen to do most of his speaking through his own website, as opposed to traditional media? You have conducted a few sit-downs with perhaps the greatest player in golf history – do you feel as if his reticence to talk to the media hurts or helps the sport? Do you feel as if this could be a trend for athletes as the power of the internet widens? Or is Tiger a unique case because of his popularity, wealth and talent? Barry Bonds – to an extent – did the same thing, and it wouldn’t surprise us if LeBron were next.
What Tiger says or doesn’t say doesn’t impact his reach. He could be a mute and what he did at Torrey last year in the US Open would still be one of the transcendent moments of the year in sports. What he’s become great at is managing his message. He is a brand unto himself in the same way the Jordan was, so I understand the ferocity in protecting it. He has become very good at articulately and politely giving the media a sound bite that, upon further inspection, reveals very little. Having known him for well over a decade, I know I have earned his trust so when I sit with him I feel like I can get him to drop the guard and reveal more than he might otherwise – but we understand each other. The fact we have what I believe you could describe accurately as a friendship will not give me all access all the time – nor should it. It also will not prevent me from covering him objectively if he were to screw up – nor should it.
Q: What’s the most difficult aspect of having your own radio show? What do you like best about it?
Radio’s no joke, man. I have learned very quickly to respect the medium and those who have mastered it. I just assumed I would have plenty to talk about and if I could do TV, how hard could it be, right? I found out in a hurry that doing it well is a full-time gig and I had one of those already. The challenge is to try to come up with topics daily that you feel are compelling on a national level. The tradeoff is it gives me a forum for opinion. As sports fans, we ALL have an opinion and the chance to share mine is something I really wanted to explore.
I suppose it’s kind of like being in a band. You can’t avoid being influenced by the groups that preceded you. The key is to not be a cover band. You have to find your own voice. While there have been many Sportscenter anchors who were fantastic, my guy was the late Glenn Brenner who was a Washington, DC sportscaster. Glenn had fun, often at his own expense. It’s difficult to describe if you didn’t see it, but his style was almost devoid of ego. He just enjoyed the hell out of talking about sports and knew he was lucky enough to have the best gig going. If I am indebted to anyone as far as a role model in TV, it’s him.
Q: It seems as if sports “analysts” are in an era where there’s a constant need to push the envelope on TV and say something outlandish or controversial that will produce chatter-worthy mentions in the mainstream media or in blogs. Almost to the point of, ‘if nobody’s talkin about you, you’re not doing a good job.’ Do you agree with this assessment? Do you have an opinion on whether or not this is a good or bad thing?
It does seem to be the trend du jour. I always laugh when I think back to the print vs. electronic debate which raged not that long ago. Writers were the “real” journalists, TV guys were just a head of hair (or not) who read prompter. Then Mike and Tony got on TV and just killed it and the light bulb went off in writers’ heads that TV was where it was at, suddenly there was a stampede to get their mug on the tube. Now that their industry has largely died and many of them have gotten their mugs on the tube, it’s like a daily battle to yell the loudest or take the most indefensible position as a way of differentiating themselves from one another. I would say I can’t take it anymore, but outside of Mike and Tony, who I know and like a great deal both personally and professionally, I just don’t watch.
Q: To the best of your knowledge, who is the greatest athlete among Sportscenter anchors? Kilborn? Patrick? You? Kilborn and Patrick both played low level hoops, and I passed on a chance to play D3. So I guess that means they were better than me. We’re all old now. It’s a f-ing debacle.
Q: Favorite watering hole in Dewey Beach. Dewey, Dewey, Dewey….my boy Monty runs the Starboard so if I say the Cork, he will kill me. I love ‘em both. Many good times in that tiny beach town. I did far, far worse than the voice mail back when I had hair….but I was a young man then.
Q: Your ultimate golf four-some, consisting of any human being, living or dead. I hate to be corny but my ultimate golf foursome would be the names on the dog tag I wear. Sam, Gene and Lorenzo: my dad, my step-father and my grandfather, all of whom have all passed away. None of them could play which means the golf would be shitty but we’d have a long day together which would be pretty amazing.
Q: Coolest name in your cell phone. All the “cool” people’s cell numbers I have end up changing all the time. Plus you have to use codes for famous people anyway so if you lose your phone on a flight, like my boy Herbie did after a Gameday, your “famous” friends don’t get crank calls from the entire South Carolina campus. I STILL get calls from the 864, bless their hearts.
Q: Why can Charles Barkley say anything and get away with it? Great question on Charles. I love him – period. Everyone does, and maybe that’s the problem. This T-mobile thing, on top of the TNT leave of absence, might be an eye opener for him. He seems to get away with saying and doing anything with very little consequence. If he does have issues to deal with, he can take inventory and try to address whatever they might be. I doubt he’ll ever do much in the way of editing himself. I appreciate his perspective, I just know if I were always that honest, I wouldn’t have two jobs – I’d have zero.
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