With the Men’s College Basketball season getting underway this weekend, I thought it would be a good idea to talk to ESPN’s do-everything college basketball reporter, writer, and television sideline reporter, Jeff Goodman. (Oh, that’s Goodman above with the Farrelly Brothers this week at ESPN).
We talked for over an hour, so in part I, you get his background, his work at ESPN and the path to get there, and some stories on some coaches, from Tom Izzo to John Calipari to Josh Pastner to Tom Crean, with a side story about Sean Miller’s pants. He also goes into that Trey Burke story from a few years ago, where Goodman reported that Burke was going to the NBA after his freshman year. Who was his source?
In Part II tomorrow, we’ll go into all our discussion on the 2014-2015 season: the freshman, the surprise teams, and the potential story lines, along with Jeff’s national title pick.
JL: Before we go into this season, I want to hear about you, and how you end up going from New England where you grew up to attending the University of Arizona. How does that happen?
JG: At that point, in some particular order: girls, weather, sports.
JL: So it was a business decision.
JG: It was a business decision, it was a great decision. I’m not sure I would ever move to Tucson, Arizona, but it was a great, great place to go to school. It’s where my passion for college basketball really grew to another level. Even though when I was there, they lost in the first round three of the four years of the NCAA Tournament. It was fun, the crowds were crazy; great, great basketball, great place to go to school. Without going there, I wouldn’t have the job that I have now.
JL: Let me see if I can figure out if you dated yourself. Were you there for the Santa Clara loss?
JG: I was. I was there ’90 through ’94. The 1994 Final Four team, and the other three were first round losses.
JL: Well, we have personal issues, then, Jeff. I went to the University of Missouri, and I was a sophomore in that 1994 season. And so that game broke my heart, as they lit up Missouri and Missouri went like 1 for 30 from three. [note: officially 7 of 33, but I’m pretty sure some of those makes came late in a blowout]
JG: It was pretty ugly. I remember watching, my wife and I-that one, I just went from school. The one that they won in 1997, my wife and I drove from Boston to Indianapolis to go to the Final Four.
JL: So you had no family in the Tucson area, nothing?
JG: Zero. Didn’t know a soul. It was the best decision I made. It’s one of those, it helps you kinda grow as a person. I was pretty darn quiet coming out of high school. It just helped me be assertive. I always knew what I wanted to do. I interviewed James Worthy, he was the first guy I interviewed when I was 13 years old, when he came into Boston and I interviewed Worthy and Michael Cooper when they were with the Lakers. So I kinda knew what I wanted to do, so I was kind of assertive and aggressive with that, but moving that far from home totally helped me in terms of being more social.
JL: What did it take to break into the college basketball business for you?
JG: I had the coolest path. I don’t consider myself honestly that good. I consider myself lucky for taking the path that I did, and it was kind of by accident. I worked at the Associated Press, covered the Bills and Sabres in Buffalo, then went to New York City. Then went to a startup website called School Sports, where I kinda got into recruiting, I did football and basketball recruiting.
From there, I did other recruiting sites, got hired by Scout. Then Scout was bought by Fox. I begged for the opportunity to do a college basketball column. A guy named Tom Seeley, who’s now with NBC, gave me the opportunity. He paid me $50 a week to cover college basketball in 2006, so in 2006 and 2007, I did recruiting and college basketball. So if Fox hadn’t bought Scout, I would still be a recruiting writer right now.
Being a recruiting writer was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it allowed me to have all the relationships with the coaches that I have now, because they would call me about all the kids that I was talking to, all the recruits. What schools were they looking at, I knew everything. My reporter background came in really handy, because I knew everything about these kids, so they would call me. “Hey, who do these kids like, what makes this kid tick, who’s his guy and who’s going to make the decision about where the kid is going to end up.”
So I did that and eventually got hired after two years, full-time at Fox College Basketball. Was just kind of fortunate, ended up breaking a few stories, working hard. I did Fox I think for six years, had two great years at CBS, and then was just really fortunate. I’ve worked at three unbelievable spots. I couldn’t say a bad word about Fox, I couldn’t say a bad word about CBS, and I love it at ESPN.
Again, I’m more lucky than good, and I feel like when I complain–and I do, listen everybody complains–there are certain things that are frustrating at ESPN, and when I catch myself complaining, I’m like, what am I doing?
JL: You say you are more lucky than good, but people create their own breaks by working hard, and it sounds like you toiled for a long time if you were making 50 bucks a week as recently as a decade ago . . .
JG: Well, I was making $50 a week to do college hoops, plus $35,000 a year to do the recruiting, plus I was doing some freelance stuff for Washington Post, USA Today, whoever, and just piecing it together to earn a living. I’d have like 15 checks a month, and I’d have no idea when they were coming in.
JL: Do you ever keep those thoughts in the back of your head as you work every day?
JG: Yeah, but again, it was the rush. It’s the same kind of rush that you get when you break a story. It’s that rush and that pressure to have to produce, to have to work hard and get something done. Honestly, that’s what makes me tick, that rush to juggle three or four stories at once, to work the phones. That’s why I have so much admiration for Adam Schefter and what he does. At that level, it’s ridiculous what he is able to do with the NFL.
Again, I have fun with this job, I don’t take myself too seriously. Hopefully you know that from Twitter, I like to have fun, I’m sarcastic. Some people hate me. Most fan bases hate me.
JL: I love Ken Pomeroy, and I love that you two rib each other all the time. Some people might call me a stat head, too, but I think we can all co-exist, there’s no perfect answer out there and I think there is a good camaraderie among a lot of people that cover college basketball.
JG: Of course. I agree with you 100%. Ken Pom, to be honest, because he takes it and gives it back so well, and I have a lot of respect for what he does and how he does it–I’m trying to be a guy who becomes more informed through numbers and stats–but I like ribbing him. Ultimately, I like trying to give it to him a little bit.
@kenpomeroy I know it IS your parents basement, but just wanted you try and make you look cool. You ruined it, though.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 2, 2014
JL: This year, what roles will you be playing, how many games will you be going to, columns, studio work, sideline work?
JG: It’s the best part of ESPN for me. The opportunity to improve. Right now, I’m doing an interview seminar with a guy named John Sawatsky, and there are about 15 people in it, and he is renowned for his interview techniques. And it is a three day long seminar where he teaches you the pros and cons of what to do.
And it is so different for a print person and a TV person. Last year, I didn’t know which side to stand on for an interview. My first time, I stood on the wrong side, and had my earpiece showing, I didn’t know better. I was a writer. So ESPN really took a chance on me.
I thought I’d be terrible. I don’t think I was great in year one, but I don’t think I was terrible, and that was good enough. I went in hoping I wouldn’t stink. I didn’t stink.
But the best part of ESPN is that there’s no limitations on what you can do. I might be doing sideline one day, then studio the next, then doing Sportscenter. The next day I might be talking NBA, and that’s a great thing with me, I feel like I have an advantage because I’ve seen Kevin Durant since he was 15, and Blake Griffin. I know these guys, I know their games, I am still able to cover recruiting, which I love, and I’m able to cover college basketball, and the NBA, and do it in all mediums–radio, TV, podcasts.
To be able to put me on TV, listen, I know I have a face for radio. I want to get better every year, and I think I will. I did Midnight Madness a month ago for UConn, and I just felt so much more comfortable than I remember feeling a year ago.
You even go in with a different mindset. I went in not knowing how to prepare for sideline. I went in preparing the same way I did as a writer, that’s rely on what I already know, watch the game, and after the game be able to get information. I learned you can’t do that. You better have something on every player who could figure into that game, so if the 8th man for LSU goes for 20 points, you better have something.
I’m already working on talking to coaches, players, high school coaches of the players, whoever I can to find out stuff on the players and get good information that the analysts don’t have or that people don’t know about that player.
JL: Let me use Kim Anderson of Missouri as an example, coming from Division II, so you wouldn’t have had occasion to cover him. You’ve got the connections to coaches who have been doing this for awhile, but how do you develop those connections with new guys coming in?
JG: You know what it is, it’s going out in July. It’s seeing Kim Anderson at various places, at Peach Jam in Las Vegas. I’ll go back to it and say it again, do I think I’m the best writer or reporter? No. But I do think I work hard. A lot of coaches can relate to that. I stay at the gym until the last game ends. Most of the coaches did the same thing at some point. There aren’t too many silver spoon guys, who didn’t grind it out and work for the minimum at some point.
When I go out in July, I don’t take a notebook, I don’t take notes. I just want to absorb as much as I can. It’s off the record information that will help me down the road. I feel like it allows them to put the guard down. If I have a notebook out, it’s just not the same. Coaches are worried, it’s just human nature. I either won’t bring it with me or keep it in my back pocket.
JL: What coaches, when you go work as part of a game broadcast or story, are the best to work with, knowing you won’t reveal too much, but will give you what you need?
JG: Tom Izzo is insanely good. To whereas there are a lot of times, he’ll say something, I won’t write it. He’ll never say it’s off the record, but I won’t write it, just because I know better, I know that’s something that is really flammable, that I just wouldn’t do. You have to know that, and I didn’t necessarily know that ten years ago. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, I was more in it to make a name for myself. Break the story, write all the things that are going to be flammable, get the attention. Now, I get beat on stories. I don’t love it, but I understand the end-game.
Sometimes it’s more important to hold a story. First of all, you want to make sure you are right. I understand that in this day and age more than anything. There are two stories that people think I am wrong on, that kind of hit me.
One was Billy Gillespie. I reported that he was going to take the Arkansas job years ago. He did, verbally. Took the job. Then they told him, “hey sit tight, because Kentucky’s going to come calling.” So he did, backed out of that when Broyles was the AD, and ended up getting Kentucky.
The other was almost three years ago, Trey Burke texted me that he was leaving after his freshman year. Cleaned out his dorm room or apartment, then went back home, and both Beilein and his dad convinced him to come back for his sophomore year. It was the best decision that he made, because he ended up being a lottery pick and having a player of the year season as a sophomore. But he’s the one that told me he was leaving, and I wrote it “according to sources,” and then he changed his mind, and so Michigan fans were mad, and rightfully so. “Hey, Goodman was wrong, he said Trey Burke was leaving after his freshman year and he didn’t.” I get it.
To get back to what you are saying, Izzo is probably number one, in terms of just being honest, having no filter, and sometimes it can and probably will get him in trouble with certain people. But you have to know what you can write and what you can’t write. He’s one of the best.
Josh Pastner, great story last year, before the game in Louisville. I went up and said, “Hey, Josh, you want to do the halftime interview if you are ahead.” It was at Louisville, I figured there was no way they were going to be ahead. He said, “no, no, I want to do the interview no matter what, if we’re down 30, I don’t care, I want to do the interview.” I said, “Josh, really?” He did though, and they ended up winning the game at Louisville. He was really good.
Sean Miller, post-game interview, good story, his pants split. He asked me, “do I have time to run in and change my pants?” I said, “no, Sean, you’ve got like 20 seconds. You’ve got to do this.” So he had somebody stand behind him as his pants were split.
I also interviewed Shaq in the crowd at the SEC tournament, he got me in a headlock last year. It’s a blast.
Dealing with the coaches can be fun, and there are some that are more difficult than others.
JL: You want to share names on that?
JG: Sure, yeah I don’t care.
JL: Who do you have to walk on eggshells around?
JG: Well, I don’t have a great relationship with Calipari, and haven’t for years. That’s been something that– I wrote some things back when I was at FOX, that he wasn’t fond of, that was truthful, so we don’t have the greatest relationship.
Tom Crean is fine, but he’s very tightly wound. You know, so he’s a little bit more difficult to deal with than some other guys. Before a game, after a game, he’s not as loose. That’s what you want, a guy who’s going to be loose, who’s going to be fun, who’s going to be entertaining when you are interviewing them.
Myself, I’m going to say it the way it is–it’s a little more difficult now than with Fox or CBS, I didn’t have to worry about the TV component. Now I’m doing sideline. I’m interviewing some of these coaches, and they may not be overly excited about something I have said.
There’s a bunch of coaches I know that don’t like me, now some deal with me. Listen, Mark Turgeon has handled it well. I put him on the hot seat this year. He came up to me and said at Big Ten Media Day, “I don’t like it.” But we talked it out, and that’s fine.
Not everyone is going to love me in this business. If everybody loves you, you’re just not doing your job well.