A couple of weeks ago, an old friend contacted me. He asked me if I could hook up with a friend of his who wrote for an Oregon newspaper. They were doing a feature on Dana Altman, the former Creighton men’s coach that took a job at the University of Oregon. Dana is from my high school district, so I directed him to the mayor or whoever knew Dana well. The old friend was Dave Sittler, the best sports reporter I’ve ever known.
Coaches often make villains of the media. However, most of the people in the media are great guys just trying to do their jobs. I got to know Dave when he was playing on the same slow-pitch softball team in Lincoln. It wasn’t a very good softball team. Dave played third base and I played first. I had never really met anyone from the media and Dave was a great guy to find out what made newspaper writers tick. Before the beginning of recruiting services like Rivals, Dave was breaking new ground. He started prying around the Nebraska football recruiting classes. His research was pretty good. Dave called a football recruit in the state of Washington. Little did he know that Tom Osborn, the famous Nebraska coach, was sitting in the kid’s living room. That prompted a call from Osborn to Dave’s editor. Coach Osborn carried a lot of weight, but Dave kept digging.
After that softball season, Dave and I continued our friendship. In 1979, when the Cornhusker football team beat Oklahoma on a Billy Sims fumble on the 3-yard line, I sent Dave a piece of the goal post. I think I can report that now, since the statue of limitations has run out on any theft charges for those goal posts. Dave called me immediately after my first career win as the head girls’ coach at Wilber-Clatonia High School. He was in the stands four years later when we won a state championship. It was great to reconnect with Dave.
In all my years of coaching, I can only think of one really embarrassing article written. I’m generally of the opinion that there is no such thing as bad publicity for women’s basketball. We need all the attention we can get. However, after one very disappointing loss at Northwest, I was talking to the school sports reporter. He had put his tape recorder and note pad away. I’ve never been known to keep my mouth shut. In conversation not meant for the general public, I said, “All good Christians should stay away from Monday’s practice.” Now, that’s not exactly what I meant. I was mentally planning a very difficult practice with very loud instruction. Christians certainly were allowed to visit this practice. However, the next edition of the Northwest newspaper had a sports headline that read, “Good Christians Stay Away.” I had a few phone calls from good Christians.
My first year at Northwest, it’s very painful to report we had a 4-22 record. The sports reporter for the Maryville Daily Forum was Jason Tarwater. Somehow, Jason found every positive he could painstakingly drag out of that miserable season. Jason stayed in Maryville a few years more before he headed for the Kansas City sports market. He’s now a talk show host on an internet sports web site. This year, Jason and I hooked up to call five NAIA National Tournament games. Jason was doing the play-by-play and I had the color. I would like to tell you I had lots of offers after my performance, but I’m pretty sure Jason carried me through those five games.
In 2004, my Northwest team won its first MIAA Tournament in 20 years. About the first of February, my family faced a terrible tragedy with a violent death to someone in my wife’s family. The St. Joseph News-Press sports writer was Brent Briggelman. Brent was ordered to do a story about our family’s tragedy. Michele, my wife, didn’t want anything to do with it, but I talked to Brent. He did a great job writing the facts and keeping pain away from my wife and her family. The media is not always known for their sensitivity, but Brent wrote the story and was very respectful of our feelings. I remembered when Brent first learned of the death at a game at Pitt State. That same night, I met his girlfriend. She had won an island vacation as a prize from her appearance on Wheel of Fortune. Brent was the lucky friend she could take along as part of the trip. The last I heard from Brent, he was on Maui with his girlfriend, writing for a local newspaper. Keeping that girlfriend should be his first priority.
My favorite media duo from the MIAA is Bruce Steinbrock and Mark Elliot from WIBW radio. They are the broadcasters for Washburn basketball. WIBW has the strongest signal of any radio station in the MIAA. They also carry Royals baseball. Whenever I see them at a Washburn game, the first subject we always discuss is trades the Royals made in the offseason. Their signal is so strong, I listened to the pair broadcast the national championship game near Sioux City when the Lady Blues won it all a few years ago.
I can’t have a blog about the media without talking about the past sports director at KQ2 television, Ryan Menley. Ryan recently took a job at Missouri Western. I’m not sure how he pulled that off. Ryan could be tough on the local college team. Heck, he could be tough on me and we were good friends. We were such good friends that if Ryan ever got a scoop about Northwest athletics, I usually got accused of giving it to him. Remember, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
A local media star has to be the last in this blog. During my one year of being the athletic director at Doane College, the Fairbury, Neb., radio station signed on to broadcast Doane football games. The play-by-play man at the Fairbury station was Matt Gaarder. That’s the same Matt Gaarder that is one-half of the KNIM morning radio show in Maryville. A couple of years ago, my administrators thought it would be a good idea for the women’s basketball team to have their own “Voice of the Bearcats.” John Coffey stayed the play-by-play man for football and men’s basketball, but we had Matt. It hasn’t always been easy to be our play-by-play man. Matt has a way of making every game sound important. His call of Meghan Brue’s half court shot in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2008 will be replayed for years to come. Matt claims it might have been even better if my assistant coach, Lori Hopkins, hadn’t jumped up and blocked his view.
I’ve enjoyed a great relationship with all the media people in my years in sports. They are always very helpful. Randy York, a sports writer for the Lincoln Journal-Star showed me how helpful. Randy was interviewing me about a player on my high school team that had lost a leg to cancer. I was trying to point out how unique this player was. I told Randy that she was one of maybe 20 players who would maintain a positive attitude. You could see Randy didn’t like the one in 20, so I tried one in 50. Randy still wasn’t happy so I said, “One in 100?” That’s the quote that showed up the next day. That story was written in 2003. The player died from her cancer, but no one will ever forget her. Randy’s story was framed in the trophy case beside her high school picture. If he were to ask me today, I’d call her one in a million.