Welcome to the second installment of a periodic feature, titled "The PostGame Rap," in which Yahoo! golf editor Michael Arkush conducts an entire interview in a series of emails with an influential voice in the world of sports. Today's exchange is with author/sportswriter John Feinstein. For a quarter century, since the widely-acclaimed "Season on the Brink," (his year with Bobby Knight and the Indiana basketball team) Feinstein has been granted access to chronicle many of the biggest names in sports, delivering one best-seller after another. His latest book, "One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats of the Game," was released this week. On the eve of the Army v. Navy game he loves so much, here's Feinstein on the hottest sports topics of the day.
TPG: Let's start with Bob Knight. Did it upset you he wouldn't talk to you for this book?
Absolutely not. I would have been stunned if he had talked to me, though of course I would have been happy had he said yes. I told people before I went to see him that I was 99.9999 percent sure he would say no because that's who he is: The minute he sensed I was going to ask for something, without even knowing what it was, he wanted to say no to prove he was in control. That's who he is. I was required as a journalist to go through the exercise of trying to get him to talk to me but I never for one second expected him to do it. It was a no lose: if he does it, great. If he doesn't, I've met my obligation and proven to myself that my instincts about him are correct.
TPG: Was he good or bad for the game? Or both?
Very much both. He was good in that he is absolute proof that you don't have to cheat to win. If there's one coach I would stake my life on as a non-cheater it is Knight. He made man-to-man defense THE defense which forces players to learn how to actually guard and learn to work with others on defense. He DID help a lot of kids through the years although he often did it for the sake of his own ego; the bottom line is he helped them. The not good is pretty simple: Because he had success and was a bully and often emotionally abusive to his players and those around him, a LOT of coaches tried to copy him. The message was that the end justifies the means. If I regret one line in 'Season on the Brink,' it was at the very end when I said I agreed with Knight when he said the end justifies the means. Looking back, I don't think it did -- or ever does.
TPG: When did you change your mind? Was there a specific incident?
I think it was more cumulative than any one incident but a lot of it had to do with the way he treated some people I knew well, notably Krzyzewski and Alford. Those two guys stood for everything that was right about Knight and he turned on them in an instant. I think the Damon Bailey quote in the book about Knight not being able to control he and Alford because they didn't NEED him is completely accurate. Thus, he spoke to neither for years. And Krzyzewski having the nerve to beat him in The Final Four -- how dare he do that? I didn't actually see what happened in the hallway in Minneapolis but heard about it minutes later. I did see the incident in the Garden in '96 and I would say I couldn't believe it except I absolutely believed it. Maybe the last straw for me was in Buffalo, his last weekend as Indiana's coach as it turned out, when he trotted all those kids out to swear Neil Reed was a liar and then when someone asked him about a kid (I can't remember his name) who had backed Reed's story, Knight said the kid was an alcoholic. That really rocked me. I guess Krzyzewski summed it up last year when he said to me, "I know who Knight is and I love him anyway." I said, "that's fine. I know who he is too and I don't love him." He understood.
TPG: Let's switch from one big coaching name to another. Your thoughts on Paterno -- and his legacy now?
In a word: Destroyed. Think about it -- when you think of Woody Hayes what's the first thing that comes to mind? Charlie Bauman. When you think of Knight, the chair is at least in the first paragraph along with some of his other meltdowns. This is so far beyond any of that you can't even see the rest of it. I think it is the saddest story ever in college sports because of all the elements involved: the abused children; the great coach's legacy destroyed; the entire university community and everyone associated with the school feeling heartbroken because the place will never feel the same again. I'm a big Paterno fan -- have been since I was a kid. Wanted to do a book on him. Always believed he and Dean Smith were the two most important figures in college athletics in the last 50 years. The fact that he touched hundreds of lives in a positive way won't go away and there will always be those who will insist he is still on the Mount Rushmore of coaches but the stain will never go away. And that's sad but it isn't as sad as what Sandusky did to those kids and the way it was mishandled if everything we think is true is true.
TPG: If you were to become head of the NCAA and could change anything in college football or basketball, what would you do?
First thing I'd do is fire myself. Then I'd divide the current NCAA into three separate divisions: One for football; one for basketball; one for non-revenue sports. I would have three commissioners and three rule books because the issues that face each are entirely different. I would throw out the current rule book and have maybe 10 rules: You can't pay players under the table; you can't fix grades; you can't have someone take the SAT for you; you can't pay off AAU coaches; you can't have agents involved in your program -- things like that. I'd have an enforcement staff that was big enough and well-funded enough to catch cheaters and when someone did get caught the investigation would be swift and there would two penalties: First offense, one year off TV and out of postseason with recruiting numbers cut in half. Second offense, shut the program down completely for two years.
I would also pay players -- but not with stipends. I would create a trust fund for ANY team that makes money for a school. That way Title IX won't kick in with people saying, 'Well if you play men in basketball you have to pay women.' If UConn women's hoops makes money, then the players get paid. If not, they don't. Basically, you'll be paying players from big-time football and men's basketball programs with a few exceptions. But NO ONE gets a dollar until they graduate. Obviously the first round picks won't care -- you might be talking 20-30K over a four or five year career if you give the players, say, 25 percent of net revenues. But for most kids, who won't be millionaire pros, that kind of money might be an incentive to graduate...
TPG: Now here's a new job: PGA Tour commissioner. What would you do if you took over there?
I would take steps to keep my players from going overseas so often to play for huge appearance fees. I would not as the players are (of course) suggesting throw in the towel and pay appearance fees the way they do on other tours. Appearance fees are a pox that played a big role in the death of tennis in this country for many different reasons. I would say to my players: THIS tour needs better fields, especially in the current economy. Sponsors are not going to continue to pony up $8 million a year to get three of the top 20 in their field. I would make two rules: 1. Anytime you are given an exception to play overseas you must add another event to your schedule that year and 2. If you take an exception you must play in the event you're skipping at least once during the next two years. If you fail to do either, you will not be allowed any exceptions for a year. The players will balk but it is absolutely necessary.
I would also move The Players Championship back to its old March date. Stop this fantasy that playing it in May between The Masters and U.S. Open will somehow make it a 'major.' It won't. It never will. In March you get cooler weather -- yes, it might rain but it rained in May this year too--and better crowds because the snow birds are still in Florida. Yes, you have to compete with the NCAA hoops tournament but with the new bball schedule you're probably going up against one game on Sunday and NO games on Saturday since they play so late on regional weekend now. And stop implying in any way it is a major because it just gives people (like me) the chance to make fun of you.
I would also drop the notion of getting rid of Q-school or making it just an avenue to The Nationwide Tour. It is still the most dramatic event in golf ...
TPG: Staying with golf, what's your take on Tiger these days? Will he break Jack's record?
There are two different issues with Tiger. One I wrote about for GolfChannel.com today: who is he? My sense is he is the exact same person he was before the accident, sorry only that he got caught and that this has affected his golf and his sponsorships. He hasn't changed his MO at all: Gives non-answers to any question that isn't about a yardage or how a putt broke; signs about three autographs a week while Glenn Greenspan makes sure someone is there with a camera; still curses and tosses clubs all the time; flat out makes stuff up: "I'm going to Abu Dhabi because I like to travel to different places." He's going to Abu Dhabi because he doesn't want to go to Dubai for $3 million because Dubai is sponsored by Omega and he just signed on with Rolex and Abu Dhabi will pay him the same $3 million! ...
As for his golf, it is all between the ears -- which has always been the case. He was the most mentally tough guy out there by miles; he always thought he'd get up and down and he made every clutch putt. His dominance had nothing to do with his golf swing or his ball-striking. They were good but not blow away good. His short game, his putting and his mental approach were what put him so far ahead of everyone. They were all scared to death of him and he knew it. Now, he doesn't have that anymore. All you ever hear him say is, "My swing's getting a lot better, I can't make any putts." The 10-handicapper's lament. Will it come back? I have no idea. A year ago I would have said absolutely and I still would have taken yes on the question about breaking Nicklaus's record. Now, I'm not as sure because, clearly, he's not as sure. I'll put it this way: If he gets to 15, he'll get to 19 because the confidence will come back and he's still young enough at 36 to get there. But I'm not certain he'll get to 15.
TPG: Let’s get to your book. Why this book? Why now?
Well, as I mentioned in the introduction, this was not the original plan. I always thought I'd go back to the 'Season on the Brink,' guys at some point because I liked just about all of them and because two questions I get asked all the time are: "How do you get along with Bob Knight these days," and "Whatever became of Damon Bailey?"
The more I thought about it though I wondered if there was an entire book to be done on the group. I'd had the experience of tracking guys down when I did, 'Forever's Team' in 1989 and what I'd found was that most of the guys from the '78 Duke team had gone on to live normal, successful lives. There were some exceptions but not too many. Since I'd kept in pretty good touch with a lot of the Indiana guys, I knew the same was true: Steve Alford's a successful basketball coach; Brian Sloan is a doctor; Dan Dakich and Joe Hillman are in broadcasting; Daryl Thomas played overseas for years.
I knew there would be some good stories and it would be fun to talk to those guys again but an entire book? I wasn't sure. Then I had dinner one night with Mary Carillo, who, you can tell from the book is one of my favorite people on earth. We were re-telling old stories from my tennis writing days and I realized I had a lot of fond memories there. I knew a lot of the Army and Navy kids had compelling stories (though, obviously at the time I had no clue about the tragedy that would occur in Derek Klein's life) and I knew there was a lot about Jim Valvano -- and some others--I'd never gotten the chance to write.
So, I thought, rather than write a 25th anniversary of 'Season on the Brink,' book I'd write a book on the 25th anniversary of my first book -- which happens to be the same thing. I thought it'd be fun to find Bailey; to spend some time with Chris Spitler and guys like Torre and Cox and I really wanted to finally talk to Mikael Pivonka even though the story that involved him wasn't connected to a book. I remember when he told me his mom had died I felt really, really sad as if a friend had died even though I spent a couple of hours with her once 25 years ago. The other sad moment was when I tried to find Sam Westgate, the embassy official who helped me get out of Prague. I found out that he had died too -- tragic irony, both Mrs. Pivonka and Westgate died in 2008 of cancer, very young.
Beyond that, I can't remember the last time I had so much fun doing a book. Re-connecting with Steve Kerr and David Duval was great; the adventure of finding Bailey and Ron Felling (not that easy in Felling's case since most of the Indiana people had lost touch with him) and going back and reading old notebooks and listening to old tapes which brought back a lot of memories and a lot of stories was a joy. I wish I could have talked to Valvano again. Same with Dean, who is still alive but not really in any condition to talk at any length.
It was even fun trying to get Knight to talk to me that night at The Garden. I almost laughed when he acted the way he did. Earlier that afternoon I'd talked to my editor and he said, 'don't you think all these years later Knight will talk to you?"
"Absolutely not," I said.
"What do you think he'll say to you?"
"I think he'll tell me to go f--- myself."
I pretty much got that one right.
What was the biggest surprise in working on the book?
There were several surprises. One was how many stories I'd forgotten--I have a pretty good memory--but when I began working through old notes and tapes there was so much that had escaped my memory: a lot of the stories Valvano told late at night; Nicklaus telling me, 'Have I ever denied you anything," -- you'd think I'd remember that -- the Pravda story calling me fat, which I found with notes I'd written in the margin when Gary Lee translated it for me.
The other was, and this may sound strange, how much I really liked a lot of the people I'd dealt with through the years. What I mean by that is I knew I liked Steve Kerr but I'd forgotten because I hadn't spent any real time with him for long how smart and how funny he is. We sat in Smith and Wollensky in the middle of a snowstorm in New York in January for about five hours and I don't think either one of us noticed how late it was. Same with David Duval, who I was reminded says things other athletes just don't say. (Not to mention he may be the only golfer in history to ever give money to a Democratic candidate for President). I'd never really talked to Damon Bailey for more than 15 minutes. I enjoyed the hell out of spending three hours with him. I had talked at length with Torre and Cox, but not for a long time. It was fun.
The other thing was how emotional I got about a lot of the memories. When I was writing about Brian Sloan standing up to the security guard on my behalf in that hallway in Syracuse during my final minutes with the Indiana team I actually got emotional thinking about it and then remembering how drained and spent I felt when the team left and I walked into the media room. I remember just collapsing in a chair and kind of thinking, 'okay, what do I do now?'--even though I had to write live for The Post that night. When I thought about the locker room scene after Army-Navy the year I did the book, same thing, it all kind of flooded back. Talk about drained! Reliving a lot of those moments, even just through writing about them really got to me.
And, of course, writing the epilogue, even though I wanted to do it and believed it was the right way to end the book, was crushing. I kept hearing Derek's voice on the phone and every time I tried to type the words, "I lay me down for to bleed a while but I will rise to fight with you again," my hands started to shake. It was, to say the least, intense.
TPG: What's your next project?
I just finished my sixth kids mystery, which is set at the 2012 Olympics. (One of the kid protagonists makes the Olympic team as a swimmer). I'm starting research on a book on Triple-A baseball. Going to spend next season hanging around The International League. To me this is the baseball equivalent of Q-school or The Nationwide Tour, lots of stories about kids on the way up -- but can they get to the promised land and stay there? -- and older guys sliding down trying to hang on for dear life.
-- Additional photo credits: Damon Bailey (Getty Images), John Feinstein (Getty Images).