So you’ve just been handed the keys to the castle. You’re a Big Blue fan, your favorite coach at your disposal, and you have a chance to ask one – just one – question. What would it be? You might have to think about that for a week or two, just to get the wording right, to be certain you make yourself understood.
Now take a breath, dial down the excitement and imagine a similar scenario; only, you’re not a fan. You’re a professional, being paid to do this. You have the coach in front of you with time for one, maybe two questions. You’ve formulated them in your mind for the past several minutes, during a game that might be changing with each possession.
You know millions – literally – are paying attention. Your job is to help keep them informed. Said coach, who knew you were going to stop him on his way to the locker room, has agreed to the brief interview. The tally light on the camera flashes. Your producer barks your cue through your earpiece. Seconds matter.
That’s the life of a sidelines reporter, such as Jeannine Edwards of ESPN. She is, again, a favorite topic on message boards and blogs across the country, thanks to her latest dust-up with Billy Gillispie.
I’m one of the few people who can say, I know how she feels.
In all my years spent on the UK basketball network, both TV and radio, I’ve never been asked to grab a coach coming off the floor. But every Saturday the Wildcats play football, you’ll find me running alongside the Kentucky coach as he makes his way off the field at halftime.
Some days, as Jeannine knows, are better than others.
Gillispie’s Response Puzzling
Let’s get disclosures out of the way: I don’t know Ms. Edwards, except to say hello to her once, but I am a fan. I think she does a good job at basketball, a tremendous job at horseracing. That’s only natural, as she used to be a thoroughbred trainer.
Obviously, I know Gillispie from covering the beat. We get along pretty well. I’ve seen him dismiss questions from other reporters during news conference settings but I can’t recall asking him anything that has provoked an overwhelmingly negative response. That’s why I’m puzzled by his repeated attempts to embarrass Edwards who, for her part, has refused to carry a grudge.
Last year was her first full season covering basketball for ESPN. I found the questions she asked Gillispie, during both the Mississippi and Florida games, to be proper and cogent. I would have asked the same things, and I hope I would have asked them as succinctly as she did.
Gillispie has chosen to spend those few seconds on camera, as the chief representative of UK basketball, by being sarcastic and minimally cooperative. For a guy who makes his bones as a recruiter, it’s incredibly puzzling. But I’ve seen it before – up close.
On football Saturdays, I spend the last three to five minutes of the second quarter of each game thinking about what I’m going to ask and, more importantly, how I’m going to ask it. You want to be concise, but make certain the coach understands what sort of information you require. And you don’t want to answer the question for him. You need to think about how the game has unfolded, turning points, decisions the coach might or might not have made.
You can always fall back on, “What was the difference in the first half?” and, depending on the coach, get an all-encompassing answer. But oftentimes, there are more direct questions that need to be asked. Most coaches can handle them. I’ve only dealt with one at UK who couldn’t. Or, more precisely, wouldn’t.
It’s not that Hal Mumme didn’t like being interviewed at halftime; he just didn’t like being interviewed by ME, for some reason. When the Wildcats were playing on CBS, Mumme turned on the charm for Jill Arrington (and who wouldn’t?) He rolled out some of his best stuff for Michelle Tafoya of ESPN. But the reporter from his own network? Not so much.
The other coaches, before and after his tenure, didn’t seem to have a problem with the UK sidelines guy.
Other Coaches Didn’t Mind
Bill Curry, a former sportscaster himself, was very professional and courteous. But in his zeal to avoid calling out any of his players, he rarely divulged any useful information. In fact, each interview had become a carbon copy of the one before: “We know what we have to do; we have to play better in the second half, etc.” As memory serves, I eventually gave up on the exercise.
Mumme’s successor, Guy Morriss, was the anti-Hal. Not only was he cooperative, he actually put his arm around my shoulder as we walked off the field. And as befitting of a man who had watched miles of film and videotape during his NFL career, he’d already envisioned the adjustments his team would have to make – and he shared a lot of them with me.
Rich Brooks, like Curry and Morriss, also spent several seasons in the NFL, which may be why the word “professional” comes to mind when I picture myself jogging out to meet him at midfield. He’s always direct, and usually passionate in his analysis.
He knows it’s part of the job
. Mumme apparently missed that memo.
Many times, he ignored me, ran away from me, gave me a smart-aleck remark or, as he did one Saturday in Oxford, Mississippi, snarled, “Get away from me!”
It comes with the job. That day at Ole Miss, I walked off the field, headed for the concession stand and bought a soft pretzel. With mustard. Best part of the day.
As I once explained to him, and what Gillispie apparently doesn’t understand, is that no matter how hard he tries to make me look bad, he’s making himself look worse.
I told Mumme there were three million UK fans waiting to hear what he had to say. ESPN’s audience, obviously, is much bigger. And the TV network likely includes not only UK fans but prospective future Wildcats. You wonder if they felt as uncomfortable as the Wildcat fans clogging the airwaves and cyberspace.
My conversation with Mumme followed the 1999 Music City Bowl, another game that featured a five-second, flippant response at intermission. I told him I’d take a pie in the face, if that’s what the job called for, that all I was trying to do was ask questions on behalf of the listeners – most of whom hung on his every word.
It didn’t take. Our halftime dance the following season, which would be his last in Lexington, remained the same.
Like Jeannine Edwards, I didn’t take it personally (even though, in Hal’s mind, there might have been an issue. He didn’t say.) I just cashed my paycheck and moved on to the next assignment.
I’m sure she will do the same. And one of her next gigs likely will be the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game in Nashville on Tuesday, Feb. 17.
Here’s hoping she gets the Guy Morriss treatment. She’s earned it.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)