For the college basketball fans, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS needs no introduction. He’s written a book about college hoops, and he now hosts his own show on CBS Sports College Sports. We spoke to him yesterday about a variety of topics ranging from politics to the media to his rise from small paper to SI. He went to Duke but passed on the opportunity to relish in the struggles of UNC.
Q: You’ve covered some golf at SI. Regarding Tiger Woods, what do you make of statements like ‘how could the golf writers not see this coming?’ and the parallels between Tiger and his many affairs to the baseball players and steroids, with writers of both sports kind of burying their heads in the sand?
A: I’ve covered golf probably for about eight years at SI. I do the Masters ever year, the US Open, and a lot of not-so-exciting tournaments in between.
Tiger? How could you tell? Tiger, being as private as he is … I think very people knew about it, period. The media isn’t going to know. The guy’s a billionaire athlete and extremely private and doesn’t let anyone in his personal life – he’s not like John Daly, where all you gotta do is show up at his trailer and you can drink a couple beers with him, which is something I’ve done. You’d never get that kind of access with Tiger. To think any golf writer was going to snuff this out … when his wife didn’t even know about it, is far-fetched, I think.
Q: Your Dad famously worked for Bill Clinton. I may have read in USA Today that you’re a Republican …
A: I’m what? You did not read that anywhere, I promise. I’m not a Republican.
Q: But obviously you’re into politics, right? How much did you pay attention to the Health Care debates Thursday?
A: I’m a junkie. I’m my father’s son. I had it on all day in the background. I’m definitely a political junkie.
Q: What is your news TV station of choice?
Q: How very impartial of you.
A: It’s not even about … I don’t like opinion journalism, especially as it relates to politics. I find it very insulting and very demeaning and very pointless and very canned and everyone’s playing a part. CSPAN is the only place that I find that I’m just getting the information. We need more of that, not less of it. Unfortunately, the trends in the media, both in sports and in politics is more towards … there’s so much clutter, you have to shout to be heard. I don’t like to be shouted at when I’m watching television.
Q: How are you consuming your news these days? Vastly differently than you used to?
A: Nobody’s consuming news like they did 15 years ago … not even like they did two years ago. When I dipped my toe into twitter right around when basketball practice started up, I asked Stewart Mandel for some advice, and he said it was amazing: ‘twitter was something I didn’t even know existed six months ago, and now it’s my primary source of information.’ Twitter is the first thing that I go on in the morning when I come down and drink my coffee. It’s like designing your own website. You can have your news, your sports, your hoops and I can learn what happened the night before just by quickly scanning twitter. In a lot of ways, the change is for the better. For the consumer, there are a lot more places to go. But in a lot of ways it is changing for the worse – it’s becoming de-professionalized. The people who are really trying to do it well and advance in it are not seeing a return on their investment. Just this week ABC News was laying off a huge part of their workforce. That frightens everybody who wants to know what is going on in the world. Information is the grease that lubricates a democracy and it’s getting harder and harder to find good information.
Q: I read a piece somewhere last year that talked about how media consumers are now only getting their news from select sources – such as the people you follow on twitter – and less of a broad overview. Basically, people are reading about what they already know or what confirms their beliefs. This hurts in the long run, right?
A: Probably, but probably not. It’s a great point – I hated doing it, because I have friends who work for the New York Times, but I canceled my subscription. It’s just as easy to get on my computer in the morning and read the website than to have to go to the end of the driveway and pick up the paper and then bundle up the paper to throw it away. The upside of the paper is that you’re flipping through the pages and things are going to catch your attention that you may not have been looking for. You raise a terrific point because that’s what is being lost. Even though I am a voracious consumer of news, I tend to go to websites that reflect my viewpoint. And that’s not helping.
Q: Talk about your leap from the New Haven Register to Sports Illustrated.
A: I was hired at SI as a fact checker. It’s not that uncommon of a leap – most of the people who worked as fact-checkers get that job straight out of college. The job worked like this: a writer’s story lands on your desk and it is your job to deconstruct it word-by-word, line-by-line, and make sure everything is correct. Most of the time it started off by calling the writer and asking, ‘where did you get this, where did you get that’ and if you think about it, could there be a better way to learn how to do the job than to be a fact checker? It seemed very tedious at the time – you’re impatient , you want to write, you want to climb up the ladder, that’s your dream. You don’t realize how much you’re learning until maybe you make some progress and have some success and you think about where you learned it all. It was really the best day of professional life when the woman who was chief of reporters called me to go to SI.
It was really a dream come true for me. Growing up, all I wanted to do was write for the magazine.
Q: How did you go from fact checker to reporter?
A: Backstabbed and slept my way to the top. And I made myself useful. My advice is always follow opportunity. It was pretty natural for me to gravitate toward college basketball because I went to Duke and had a passion for the sport, and I had covered high school basketball at the New Haven paper. There wasn’t a big beat guy on college basketball when I got to SI. If there had been a Peter King on college basketball, I probably would have gone a different direction. They had some pretty good college basketball writers – Alex Wolff being the most obvious example – and some people who contributed from time-to-time, but nobody who was a junkie beat-guy. I kind of threw myself into that. After a couple of years of really working that beat, I got to the point that I knew more about the sport than the editors. And I became useful to them when they needed somebody who could report the beat.
Q: How did the CBS gig come about?
A: It’s like the old saying – it took me 20 years to become an overnight sensation. When I was in high school, I grew up watching the local guy, George Michael, doing sports. And I decided that was what I wanted to do. It looked like a fun job reading the highlights. I felt like I could do it. But I always had a passion for writing and reporting. When I got to Duke, it didn’t have journalism or communications as a major. And that worked to my advantage, because everybody wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer – they wanted to work for a living. I kind of had the run of the place to myself. When I was a sophomore, I was at the student TV station I said, ‘ya’ll got a show on the basketball team?’ And they said, ‘nope.’ And I said, ‘do you mind if I produce one and host one?’ And they said sure. So I started a show. And Coach K was my first guest.
The big break was when I was at SI, after a few years … don’t know if you remember the TV station CNN/SI, but it was the precursor to ESPNews. Part of the plan for the channel was to put SI writers on the air. But a lot of writers didn’t want to do TV, or weren’t that good at it. I had just got to the magazine and was hardly writing for it, but with my TV background I was going on CNN/SI and even the big CNN talking about college basketball.
I did quite a bit of TV before I was writing. I got a break with CBS when they invited me during the 2003 Final Four to talk about the coaching carousel. And then they just asked me the next season to join on. One thing I know for sure is that at some point you have to get lucky. And I’ve been really, really lucky twice. I got hired at SI and then I got a chance at CBS.
Q: What’s the story behind your broken nose during a pickup game?
A: It was at Chelsea Piers. John Walters used to write for SI, and he recently wrote for NBC Sports.com, and I blame him for the broken nose. He was playing on the SI basketball team, but he was on vacation one week. They asked me to fill in for him, and we played a team of guys who took it way too seriously and were overly intense. Some guy was driving by me and he swung his arm – obviously he swung his arm; otherwise, he couldn’t get by me because my foot speed is so good – and it hit me flush on the nose and it was one of those things where it hurt so much that I knew instantly it was broken. And if the feeling didn’t convince me, then the blood gushing out of my nose did. I went to the emergency room and I remember sitting there for like 3-4 hours and then a doctor came out, looked at me and said, ‘your nose is broken.’ My wife likes to bust my chops by saying, ‘you got a nose job.’ But I had to get surgery for a busted nose. And thus ended my basketball career. Well, I still play, but mostly half court 3-on-3.
Q: True or False: When we spoke to Josh Elliott, he claimed that the only reason he got a job at SI was because you took a summer off to write a book about camp.
A: Yes! Absolutely correct. I get all of the credit and all of the blame for foisting Josh Elliot onto the world. I think his plan was to be a screenwriter in California.
I went to this traditional Jewish summer camp in the Poconos. And I always had a dream to write a book about it. I asked the bosses at SI if I could have some time off to write a book about camp, and they told me sure. Josh was my temporary replacement. But he’s so talented and aggressive that he sunk his teeth into it, and within a year he was writing cover stories on the NFL. And he’s a natural talent on TV. I’m glad he gave me credit, but I don’t need to take credit, he’s a talented guy.
Q: How much of a loss was Billy Packer at CBS?
A: I think it was a big loss. Billy made you watch. Billy moved the needle … I thought Billy did a great job … he’s a great, great source for basketball. There’s nobody better to talk to about the history of the game than Billy Packer.
Q: Surprised he hasn’t landed anywhere?
A: No, because that’s his choice. He never considered himself a ‘sportsguy.’ He’s a businessman who played the game and knows the game and likes the game. But he never saw himself as being identified by that.
Q: How come Roy Williams isn’t catching more heat for the terrible job he’s done this season? Between bitching at the fans for not showing up, throwing that fan out, and his team has quit on him … I know it’s just one year and they’ll be back next year …
A: You’d never know the guy has been to what, six Final Fours, won two National Championships! He sounds like a horrible coach to me! Let me disagree. I was down in North Carolina and he’s catching plenty of heat. Why should he catch more? Jim Calhoun’s team didn’t make the tournament a couple years ago. Why isn’t Ben Howland catching more heat? If anything, Roy ought to give himself a break. It’s one bad year.
Q: Did you feel obligated to say that as a Duke grad?
A: Ha! The number one question I get – is it hard for you to be impartial when talking about Duke? No. Because it’s my job to analyze, and it’s not hard to analyze. Roy knows I went to Duke – he reminds of that now and again – listen, I’m not going to lie to you, I root for Duke, and the Duke fan in my likes it when North Carolina loses. But the journalist/reporter in me has genuine affection – not just respect – for North Carolina. Fantastic school, program – I don’t know if there’s a finer man I’ve ever come across than Dean Smith.
Q: Big East Player of the Year?
A: Scottie Reynolds … I would put Harangody and then Wesley Johnson in there.
Q: ACC Player of the Year?
A: Jon Scheyer, that’s not even close …
A: Exactly what makes you not a Jon Scheyer guy? Is it all the points he scores? The assists he gives out? The steals that he gets? The way he runs a team that is ranked 6th in the country? Which of those things are you not a fan of?
Q: He’s a nice player. He’s got a lot of talent around him, for sure.
A: And he’s a MOT, so we have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Member of the Tribe.
Q: What are the chances Coach K leaves for the NBA after this season?
A: Never happen. He can satisfy his NBA jones with USA Basketball. What team can he coach in the NBA that is going to be better than the one in USA basketball? He has the best of both worlds. He can win with Team USA, which he wouldn’t do with the New Jersey Nets or who else hires him. I feel pretty confident saying he’ll never coach in the NBA.
Q: Your thoughts on Dick Vitale as an announcer.
A: Great question. I really, really, really like him. But I can understand why some people might not like him. He does dominate a telecast. I think he has dialed it back a little bit. He works his tail off. He really does his homework. The substantive part kind of gets lost in his schtick.
Q: And Bob Knight as an announcer?
A: He’s gotten better, and quite quickly. I think he needs to prepare better. I don’t know that he is really baring down and doing his homework. I like Fran Fraschilla. I don’t know that anybody works harder than Fran Fraschilla. I think Knight’s insights are terrific, he says what he thinks … whether you like him or don’t, and I’ve probaly been more critical of him than most people in the media, as a college basketball fan, I think you want to hear what he has to say.
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