When I was a rookie reporter at The Washington Post back in the days when people still used typewriters — yup, I’m THAT old — I was interviewing Jerry Claiborne, then the Maryland football coach on the phone one afternoon.
When the conversation ended, I said, “Thanks, coach,” before we hung up.
A moment later, Len Shapiro, then the deputy sports editor, was standing at my desk.
“You don’t call them coach,” he said.
I was baffled and my face apparently showed it. Shapiro explained.
“You don’t work for Jerry Claiborne,” he continued. “He’s not an authority figure in your life. You show him respect, but you don’t act as if you work for him or you’re beholden to him in any way.”
I was 21. Claiborne was 50. I had accomplished exactly nothing professionally. He had turned around a downtrodden Maryland program and was an accomplished coach. My parents had always taught me that you call an adult ““Mr.” or “Mrs” — or, in this case, “Coach” —unless they tell you to call them by their first name. Claiborne hadn’t told me to call him Jerry.
I pointed all this out to Shapiro. “First of all, I hate to break it to you, but you’re an adult. You aren’t working for the student newspaper at Duke anymore. You’re working for The Washington Post and that means you are due respect — if only for that. Second, you have to make it clear you’re on equal footing when you’re conducting an interview because the day’s going to come when you have to ask tough questions and they have to know you aren’t intimidated.”
Shapiro wasn’t just one of my bosses at that point; he was (and is) a hero of mine. I’d read The Post throughout college and looked at his reporting on Washington’s NFL team – then coached by George Allen, who became the role model for super-secretive football coaches – as a role model for the kind of beat writer I hoped to become someday.
So, I started calling Claiborne, “Jerry.” He never objected, and, two years later when I did have to ask tough questions for a three-part series I was doing on the state of the program, he answered me honestly (I believe) though, at times, un-happily. But he treated the questions — and, thus, the story – with respect.
There were only two coaches I could never bring myself to call by first name: John Wooden, who I interviewed often and Bear Bryant, who I interviewed once. I still remember sitting with Bryant in his office in November of 1979 and saying, “Coach, what do you think you’ll do when you stop coaching football?”
He looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll probably go straight to the cemetery.”
I still remember the chill that ran through me when Coach Bryant died less than three weeks after coaching his last game.
Two others I would have called coach if they had not instructed me otherwise: Red Auerbach and Dean Smith. The first time I met him, in a TV green room, Red, smoking a cigar in a non-smoking building, said to me when I called him “Coach” – “I haven’t coached since 1966. It’s Red.”
I’d known Dean in college before Shapiro’s speech to me and, of course, called him “Coach.” The first time I talked to him after getting to The Post he said to me: “You’re not in college anymore, John. Call me Dean from now on.”
Which brings me – at last — to my point. A week ago, I wrote here about the ongoing investigation at North Carolina. It ended up becoming a national story. I got calls from around the country from radio stations, and the comments page here and on my Twitter feed were filled with people expressing their opinions on the column and on what is ongoing in Chapel Hill.
I had held back from diving into the Carolina situation, which has been ongoing for close to seven years, for several reasons. First is my friendship with Roy Williams, which dates to his days as Dean Smith’s No. 3 assistant. As I wrote in the column, I like, respect, and admire Roy, and he has gone WAY out of his way to help me on more occasions than I can count. I KNOW he’s a good man.
The second reason I held back is because of where I went to college. The people I know who work at UNC or went to UNC (or both) understand how I felt about Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and how I feel about Roy. They know I respect the school and have many friends — not a few, many — who matriculated there, taught there, and worked there.
One of the more important people in my life right now is Jeff Rothstein, the head of the Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. Tom Watson and I run a charity named for Tom’s longtime friend and caddie Bruce Edwards, who was also a close friend of mine.
All the money our foundation raises goes to the Packard Center because Tom believes Dr. Rothstein is the scientist who is going to finally find a cure for ALS. He’s a graduate of North Carolina. Whenever I’m contacted by someone who has a friend or family member stricken by ALS, I call Jeff. He ALWAYS offers to help in any way possible.
I say this only because I get very damn tired anytime I write something the least bit critical of North Carolina — as in this circumstance — of having to deal with some people saying “You’re a Duke guy,” or the morons who, in this case, wrote things like, “How many easy sociology classes did you take at Duke?” The answer’s none, probably because I didn’t know they were easy. I did, however, take Geology 1 — also known as “Rocks for Jocks.” It DID meet three times a week, plus a lab, unlike the courses in question at UNC.
There are, of course, crip courses everywhere — including Harvard and, I guess, MIT— crip, at least to those smart enough to get into MIT. Which wasn’t what NORTH CAROLINA’S own investigation found.
So why then did I write the column? Simple. I read what Bubba Cunningham said to CBS’s Dennis Dodd and thought much of it was outrageous, especially when he invoked the dreaded “student-athlete” phrase. There is NOTHING more hypocritical in sports than coaches and administrators invoking the “student-athlete” phrase when we all know that many, if not most, big-time athletes care only about becoming pros and take as many easy classes as they can. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Cunningham’s admission that academic fraud DID take place, but the NCAA didn’t have the authority to punish for this sort of fraud, made me a little bit nuts.
So, I wrote. Some people — many fans of opposing schools that have been investigated for other crimes or are being investigated currently — jumped up and cheered. I took no joy or solace in that. The UNC apologists — and yes, all schools have them — disagreed and, in many cases, invoked either the “Trump” defense — everybody does it, so we’re innocent — or the “You went to Duke” defense.
I’m sure Roy Williams is unhappy with me right now. I accept that and understand it. One of the other things Shapiro and others taught me at The Post is that you try to stay at arms-length from those you cover because the day may come when you have to be critical of them.
Through the years, I’ve found that doing that is virtually impossible. It’s only human to like some people more than others, and if you’ve known someone for almost 40 years — as with Roy — it’s impossible not to become friends on some level. I’m a reporter, but I’m also human.
The investigation at Carolina dates to 1993, when Dean Smith was still coaching. The thought that he might have been involved in any way at all, makes me almost physically ill. So, I choose not to believe it.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention the dates because they are FACTS. Being an adult isn’t always easy. Neither is being a reporter — especially when you know some people will always find a way to scream that you’re biased. The best I can do is let my record speak for itself.
And, for the record, there are plenty more people at Duke who have been critical of my work through the years, than at Carolina. With good reason.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club,–Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano,” spent eight months on the New York Times bestseller lists in both hardcover and paperback. His upcoming book, “The First Major,–Inside the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published in October. His 11th kids mystery, “Backfield Boys,–A Football Story in Black and White,” will be published later this month. Both can be ordered now online.