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RCS Interviews Dan Wetzel

RealClearSports recently interviewed Dan Wetzel, national columnist for Yahoo! Sports, the most read American sports website. Last week, he broke the story uncovering recruiting violations at the University of Connecticut.

RCS: You’re a national columnist for Yahoo! Sports, the biggest sports website. You broke the biggest story of last week about UConn’s recruiting transgressions. And Salon.com named you the country’s best sportswriter in 2006. But only a few years before that, you were dealing cards in a Michigan casino just to pay the bills.

What does a budding sports writer learn from splitting aces and raking antes?

Wetzel: I don’t think you learn anything in training to deal cards or craps. I think you appreciate how great this job is.

You’re never going to hear me complain about my job, how hard it is and stuff like that. There’s no heavy lifting. I worked construction to get through college. That was hard work. I literally dug ditches. I appreciate the opportunity that I’ve been given to do this job, and I want to do it for as long as I can.

RCS: Let’s make some of those former casino clients -- eager for your prognostication -- happy. From the Final Four, who will take the Championship?

Wetzel: You know – I don’t know. But I think North Carolina is playing like the team we thought they were going be at the beginning of the year, which is one of the great college teams. The fact that they just blew through the tournament without really having what I would call a nervous late game possession is pretty incredible. It’s really rare to make it to the final four without ever being in a close game.

Connecticut’s got just as much talent though.

RCS: Last year, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four. This season, 14 of the top 16 seeds made it to the Sweet 16. These recent "chalky" tournaments have sports fans and columnists alike crying about a lack of upsets and Cinderella’s. In his column on Sunday, Michael Wilbon said that he was "bored to tears," and wondered if this was good for the NCAA Tournament, writing, "The wild popularity of this tournament, after all, was built on upsets…[it] grew from nice little niche sporting event to a cultural festival because people were drawn to upsets…"

So, s a lack of upsets that bad for the tournament?

Wetzel: I think overall, yeah, it’s bad for the tournament. It’s probably good for TV ratings, because the bigger the program the more fans it has. But, in terms of the fun of the event, yeah, it’s not as good.

The one and done rule is why the upsets aren’t there. The upsets went crazy when the best players were going straight to the NBA, and big time programs missed out on guys. If you have the best players, you’re going to win a basketball game almost all the time.

The best players, the one and done types, were losses for the major programs. Those kinds of players go to Kentucky, not Western Kentucky. The smaller programs were unchanged though. They still had four or five good seniors. But they didn’t have to compete with the LeBron James’ of the world. LeBron James wouldn’t have been upset in the NCAA tournament. Without him, the playing field leveled. Now it’s uneven again. You bring the one-and-done in, and I don’t care how good your guys are, they’re not beating Greg Oden. They’re not going to beat that great talent on a regular basis. So there goes your upsets. There’s still a couple, but not in the numbers we saw before.

RCS: Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the tournament was Duke. In a column describing Duke’s struggles, you wrote "It boils down to recruiting. Duke still is involved with the very best players in the country. Right now it’s either targeting the wrong guys or doing a poor job in head-to-head battles with other elite programs."

Is it possible you're being a little hard on a team that won the ACC title and earned a #1 seed?

Wetzel: I pointed out in the column that you can’t say they’re not a good team, and you can’t call it a bad season. They won 30 games and the ACC Tournament. You can compare them to the stretch when Duke was making the Final Four every year – they won three titles, and were never getting blown out in the NCAA tournament. This year they were one of the 16 best teams in the country. They remain a good team, but what you saw in that game against Villanova was just a clear differential in talent.

And Krzyzewski was saying it. He was saying we were playing five-on-three basketball. Villanova had a great player at every position. Duke didn’t. They don’t have a great point guard, and they don’t have a great post player. That’s the difference between being a Sweet 16 team and being a National Champion. I think as soon as they get that, they’ll be back. I don’t have any doubts that Duke will be back. They just hit a lull there.

RCS: Last week, you (and Adrian Wojnarowski) broke the story uncovering UConn’s recruitment violations. What will be the follow-up and fallout from this story?

Wetzel: Well we’re doing a series of stories of the changing roles of agents in college basketball. There’s endless subject matter on that. I don’t know if that would necessarily involve UConn or not. UConn is just one school, the problem is everywhere. But if you don’t provide specific examples then these projects have no impact.

There’s an NCAA investigation already underway concerning multiple, major violations. The story is on the record. This wasn’t about anonymous sources. There’s no doubt that there was a relationship between Josh Nochimson and Nate Miles that was against NCAA rules. There’s no doubt that UConn assistant Tom Moore pointed Miles out to Nochimson and knew that the relationship was going on. And there’s no doubt that UConn exchanged 1,500 plus phone and text messages with Josh Nochimson while it was going on.

That’s why this is a different kind of story. I know people’s eyes glaze over with agents and phone calls and all of that. But this is a program initiating, knowing about and possibly directing a relationship between an alum, who also happens to be an agent, and a top prospect. I’ve heard people compare it to the Indiana case, because there were also some excessive phone calls. Excessive phone calls are the least severe of the charges. This is far more significant than Indiana. It’s not even close.

I’m sure UConn will figure out some kind of a defense, but the NCAA is taking it seriously. What comes of it is up to them. It’s their rules and their system.

RCS: What about the longer term fallout? How will the culture of NCAA regulation and college recruiting change from even just a single story?

Wetzel: Personally I don’t think it’s going to change very much because there’s so much money at stake. But hopefully with the series of stories, it makes people aware of how things have changed.

I think the general consensus out there, even inside college athletics, is the problem with agents is still some kind of shady runner waiting out the parking lot trying to meet a kid. What we’re trying to show with this story, and a previous story on an agency in New York, Ceruzzi Sports, is just how organized it is, how high tech it is, how much money is at stake.

The last story was about how agents donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the non-profit organizations that fund AAU coaches in an effort to get access to players. This one is how college coaches can use agents to recruit high school players.

We’re not doing the same old, blame the “street agent” stories. He isn’t the problem. The problem is at the top with a lot of wealthy, powerful people orchestrating this thing. This isn’t about who is selling a player, it’s who is buying the player.

If college basketball wants to change, they have to at least be embarrassed that they’re own coaches are the problem. Whether or not they change, that’s their issue, not mine. They do need to know that using the same blame game model from 25 years ago isn’t going to do anything. It’s way bigger. It’s way more inside, way more brazen and it’s way more sophisticated than most people realize.

RCS: One of the interesting things about the UConn story is that you’ve written extensively on the subject, including in your book Sole Influence, and that your perspective on cheating in college basketball is particularly nuanced. You told The Big Lead a few years ago, it’s not "made up of black hats and white hats. They are all grey hats. They about all cheat."

If all programs cheat, with regards to cheating in recruitment, what balance – what shade of gray – should college basketball enforce?

Wetzel: Well there are a couple of things on that. College basketball makes these rules. If they want to change their rules, go ahead. I don’t necessarily agree with their rules. But this is what they have as their standard. This is what they sell to the American public. They claim that their tournament is pure. They get a great deal of the media to believe in their white-hat, black-hat scenario, which is absurd. “This guy’s shady, this guy’s a saint” – it doesn’t work that way. But that’s how it’s consumed.

The NCAA enjoys tax-exempt status and other benefits from the government based on this idea that they’re operating an amateur athletic organization and that this stuff doesn’t happen. That’s a promise they made to Teddy Roosevelt. If you take the UConn case, you say, “Well, if the UConn coaching staff points out an alum and agent to a top recruit, and that alum, with their knowledge, takes care of the kid and gets him surgery, lodging, transportation and all these things, and then the kid goes to UConn, how amateur is that?” And it isn’t just UConn.

What the NCAA sells to the people, what CBS sells to the people, and what they sell to the government so they don’t have to pay billions in taxes, is a farce. That’s probably more my problem with them. If they want change the rule, if they want to pay taxes, I don’t care. That’s their rules. But if they’re going to have rules, I think someone should call them out.

RCS: Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun recently wrote a column about the lack of NCAA regulation, in which he quoted you, arguing, "[The NCAA is] almost completely reliant on self-reporting or media accounts. Schools rarely self-report a major violation. There's been just one major infractions case involving a major basketball program in the last 2 1/2 years (Indiana, which self-reported). As media has cut back/changed, the number of investigations has also dropped."

Realistically, with schools rarely self-reporting and investigative reporting fading away, is cheating in college basketball going to get worse?

Wetzel: Yeah, I’ve written a column calling this “the Golden Age Cheating” in college football and basketball. No one gets punished anymore. I think the NCAA is trying harder right now then they did a few years ago. I do think there are people at the NCAA, certainly on the enforcement staff that want to control this. But when you have 20 investigators on the entire thing, you’re just completely overmatched. I’m not so convinced that the infractions committee, which doles out the punishments, is as committed to the rules. Their penalties have been notoriously weak of late. As a result the level of corruption in college sports right now is just off the charts. If you knew all the stories, you’d watch these games a lot differently.

RCS: In that same interview, you said Bobby Knight was the only coach you’d vouch for being clean. What is it about Bobby Knight that makes him so seemingly reckless with his public behavior and so moral with his private decisions?

Wetzel: I know a lot of people in grassroots basketball, and just on levels where you can hang out and talk and stuff like that and there’s never been a whisper about Bob Knight. I’ve asked around and challenged anyone to find something on Knight and none of the guys ever have anything that Bob Knight did. He didn’t operate in that world. He’s not the only guy, but at the top level it’s a small number, single digits probably. I asked Sonny Vaccaro once and he said there were four coaches, which I found so precise an answer it was hysterical. I always found it amazing that Knight won the most and cheated the least.

Now, his personality or how he deals with people is different thing. One doesn’t have to do with the other. I think one of the things that happens with the white-hat, black-hat scenario is the idea that this guy is a nice guy and he must follow the rules. He’s this great guy and a leader of men, and these coaches just get idolized. I’m sure I’m part of that process too, in covering sports. So I’m guilty too on some of that. But it just doesn’t mean it’s true. They’re not the same. Just because you follow the rules doesn’t make you the greatest person on earth, and just because you’re a really nice guy doesn’t mean you follow the rules and just because you cheat, you aren’t some scumbag.

RCS: In the last few weeks, the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle PI have ended their print publications. In Washington, Senator Ben Cardin has proposed legislation to bailout newspapers. You, on the other hand, have been an online columnist for almost a decade. Do you think sports reporting will suffer without print media?

Wetzel: Absolutely. You want as many people covering stuff, different perspectives and different ideas on things. As a consumer, why would I not want that? I live in Detroit, and the mayor of Detroit was thrown in prison and taken out of office not because of an FBI investigation, but because of the Detroit Free Press. So you want those guys there, whether or not you like everything they do or not.

The more newspapers and the more media covering things, the better. Obviously it’s different, political corruption than sports corruption. Some coach breaking NCAA rules really doesn’t matter.

I think one of the beauties of the Internet has been more perspective. More sites like yours. More sites for people to offer opinion or statistical analysis or whatever is really needed. It’s a great thing. Same as having more newspapers.

RCS: A few weeks ago, we interviewed Kevin Blackistone and asked him, as someone who writes exclusively online, if he was a columnist, a blogger or some combination of the two. He responded that he was a "sports opinionist."

According to your Yahoo! bio, your title is "national columnist." What would you say is the difference between a sports columnist and a sports blogger?

Wetzel: It could be anything. I’m not into the labels. In my case I try to originally report almost all my columns. I try to talk to people, even if just on background. That way I’m providing something from the access that I’m granted to the reader. I think that would probably be the biggest difference. My opinion on a sports subject is as strong as my reporting. I think anyone can sit back and watch a game and have an opinion, if it’s just based on instant reaction. Why is my observation worth more than somebody else’s? It’s easy to do, but what’s the point?

My thing is using the access that I have reporting, doing investigative reporting, talking to people in person, and trying to find something that strengthens my opinion. Sports bloggers can do that, and some of them do. I find those ones the best. If I’m writing just an opinion, just on how the New York Jets offense looks, well there are a lot of people who are New York Jets fans that have a better idea of that than I do. They watched every game. I didn’t. The idea that automatically my opinion carries weight on that would be ridiculous. Now I might be able to talk to the offensive coordinator, I may be able to talk to the players. I may be able to offer something that they can’t. So I need to do that.

RCS: Coach Calhoun’s initial brush off of the story was that it was written by a couple of bloggers. Is there going to be a stigma associated with online journalism for a while that allows coaches and other officials to make those kinds of arguments?

Wetzel: Sure, we’ve been fighting it from day one. I started on the Internet in the late 90’s, and you couldn’t get press passes. When I started here, I was the first sports writer, and it was a battle to get credibility, and that battle doesn’t end. It takes time. But I don’t take it as an insult. You can call me a blogger. I’m good with that.

You didn’t hear him refuting the story, did you? Call me anything you want.

RCS: You also said that your opinions are as strong as your reporting and your access. There are lots of columnists out there who don’t go after stories, or stay out of locker rooms, for example. Do you value their opinions less, even though some of them are very well known columnists?

Wetzel: I’m kind of a manage-your-own-career-kind of person. I know what I can do. I’m not one of these guys who can sit there and say the Jets offense needs to do this. I don’t know anything about that. The way I feel comfortable doing this job, it would be ridiculous for me to offer up an opinion like that. Other people see it their way. I just know what I have to do to make the column credible. That’s just the game plan I have. If I’m not doing that then I don’t feel like I’m giving the reader the best I can do, and that’s really all I care about. The readers may not agree with everything I write, but I hope they know I work hard at the column.

RCS: Have you ever had a terrible bracket?

Wetzel: When I worked at Sportsline, I covered college hoops and I was dialed into the sport. I knew everybody. I knew someone on practically every staff in the country, something about 300 programs. But I still couldn’t pick the bracket – it’s still impossible to predict this stuff.

They made me fill one out though and they posted it online. This guy in Iowa sent me an email and said he took my bracket and entered in like the Cedar Rapids Gazette contest and there was like 2000 entries. I came in like, 1700. So I couldn’t even beat 1700 people in Cedar Rapids. At that time I thought about college basketball 365 days a year, talked college basketball 365 days a year. I had scouting reports, I watched these kids when they were playing in high school, and I still couldn’t do it. I lost to 1700 people. So all my brackets are bad.

RCS: When that happened, how did you respond to the annoying people who said, “And you’re supposed to be a college basketball expert?”

Wetzel: Yea, that’s kind of what I’ve been saying. I don’t know if anyone who reads my columns regularly thinks I know how to predict a game. I once wrote a column asking why anyone asks me to predict anything. Where did I learn handicapping? I don’t know anything about it. It’s ridiculous. As a sportswriter, you must be able to predict games – Why? I didn’t get trained on that. I didn’t play professional football. I don’t know who’s going to win. Not that the guys who played professional football know either. I almost never criticize the on-field performance of a player or a coach either. All I do is tell you what the stories are. I can go find out what was going on with Nate Miles while he was a high school prospect. I can give you that. That’s my job. Not to predict games. If I knew how to predict games I’d be living in the Real World suite at the Palms right now.

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