Jim Tressel and Ohio State Football Talk With Pat Forde

After the wonderful Wright Thompson got our Q & A feature going last week, I’m happy to present a hell of a two-hole hitter today, senior writer from ESPN.com, Mr. Pat Forde.

When the Jim Tressel resignation news broke on the morning of Memorial Day, Internet scribes scrambled to spit out reactionary pieces. I read a ton of them, and there were some very good ones. But, as with many stories today it seems, there was a common theme among the pieces, and you were bound to read one of three angles: 1) Jim Tressel is evil, 2) Terrelle Pryor is evil, or 3) No, you have it all wrong, the NCAA is the evil one here!

This is an unfortunate byproduct of journalism and sportswriting in an era when “More” and “Faster” are the two defining characteristics of news coverage. When a huge story like Tressel’s resignation breaks, competing news outlets race to get a story up on their site. Editors tell columnists to spend a few minutes thinking of a take on the issue, and then hammer out a column. They want it ASAP. On a story of this magnitude, there isn’t much time for original reporting or writing with much nuance. Give me your gut reaction, and you can ask some questions later.

But then I ran across Pat’s piece on ESPN.com, and I was intrigued by the thought behind it. Pat went to Columbus to write about the mood of the town, to talk to students and bartenders and clerks at apparel shops. What were the feelings around Columbus after the emperor of the Buckeye football program bowed out after being exposed for a liar? That’s what Pat was after, and he did a fine job.

After I read it, I reached out to Pat to see if he would answer a few questions for Western Sideline. He said he was more than happy to. I enjoyed the story, but the reason I really wanted to talk to Pat was because the angle was unique and different. When a major story like this often elicits a common response from writers, Pat went a different route. He chose the angle others didn’t think of or, for myriad reasons, weren’t able to write at the time.

Before we get to the Q&A, please take a minute to read Pat’s story. It’s worthy of the read, but you will also get much more out of his answers if you have read the story first. OK, that’s my cue. Time to clear the stage.

Here’s Mr. Forde.

* * *

Q: I loved the idea to physically go to Columbus and try to capture the pulse of the town after Tressel resigned. Whose idea was this, and how did it come about?

Pat Forde: When the news broke Monday morning, I told my bosses I can get to Columbus quickly if they wanted me there — I live in Louisville, which is only three hours away. There was no press conference Monday or Tuesday, but Bristol decided a scene/mood piece would be useful as a second-day story, so I drove there Monday night and did my interviews Tuesday morning/afternoon. I wrote the piece in a Starbucks near campus and filed it at 3 p.m. ET.

Q: When you arrived in Columbus, what was your game plan for covering this story? Did you have certain places you wanted to go to in particular? What did you hope to find?

Pat Forde: I actually had a dual gameplan: to talk to fans affected by what happened, and to see if I could track down Terrelle Pryor’s mom. I spent some time working on the latter in the morning without results — had an old address and phone number — so I wound up focusing on the former by late morning. I knew about College Traditions, the store with all the Buckeye gear, and went there first. Then I went to Eddie George’s restaurant and a couple other places on High Street. Finally, I went in search of students — just basically walking up to them at random and asking them questions. I was impressed, for the most part, by their thoughtful answers. They had a pretty good grasp on the situation.

Q: How long were you in Columbus, and about how many people did you speak to? Who did you think was the best interview and why?

Pat Forde: I was in Columbus for a total of maybe 18 hours. I probably spoke to 20-25 people. The best interview was probably a tie — the woman who worked at Campus Traditions who I quoted in the story, and the student named Michael Barnes. Smart guy. The person who COULD have been the best interview worked at one of the joints near campus who told me some very interesting stories — and then wouldn’t let me use his name. That eliminated most of the particulars from him.

Q: This sudden disinterest, if not borderline vitriol, among the student body for Terrelle Pryor is fascinating. It seems like OSU students are placing more blame on Pryor for the hot water OSU finds itself in than Tressel. Did you find this to be true during your visit to campus?

Pat Forde: Definitely found that to be true, but not just from students. From nearly everyone. I understand that Pryor has not conducted himself very well for part of his time at Ohio State, but I was still surprised that so many people wanted to give Tressel a pass while ripping Pryor. I think if Pryor had been a better quarterback to date, the response would be different. And I believe there could be a racial element to some of this.

Q: Many people in the media reference the “engineering major” or the “biology major” when attempting to devise a way for student-athletes to receive some sort of compensation for playing — e.g. because football players aren’t able to work, they should be able to earn what the biology major earns as a cashier in the student store. You talked to an engineering student, and others, on your visit to campus. Did the students have any suggestions on ways to allow student-athletes to earn some money?

Pat Forde: I think a lot of them don’t see anything wrong with players being able to sell memorabilia, and some of them believed the players should get paid for school sales of their jerseys, etc. But more students seemed to think student-athletes already have a pretty sweet gig compared to them — full scholarship plus all the perks. Many regular students would love to try and get by on that plan.

Q: You quote multiple students, a bartender and a woman who works at an apparel store around campus, but I noticed you didn’t quote any professors or administrators. Is this just a coincidence, or was it a conscious decision to keep the story mostly based on the reaction of the student body? Why?

Pat Forde: I thought about trying to get some academic reaction, because that side of campus often has a very different view of athletics, and I’d say that was a significant hole in the story. But I was pretty crunched for time, and my experience with interviewing professors and the like is that they have pretty structured routines and interjecting yourself into that routine isn’t easy. They don’t necessarily react well to “on the fly” interview requests, or some reporter knocking on their door and needing something right now. The day before I got there was Memorial Day, so there wasn’t any chance to set up something in advance.

Q: If you could go back and do one thing differently while reporting this story — asking one more question, speaking to one different person, visiting one extra place in town, etc — what would it be and why?

Pat Forde: I probably would have gone to the office of The Lantern (the student paper) first thing. I wasted too much time trying to find Pryor’s mom, when my original plan was to go to the student paper, talk to some reporters there, and get the lay of the land from them. I find the student paper to often be a valuable asset for someone coming in from the outside. Instead I called the paper, talked to a guy and got email addresses for a couple sports editors — and both email addresses bounced. So that led me nowhere. Should’ve just found out where the office was and gone there in person.

Huge thanks to Pat Forde for his time and generosity. You can follow him on Twitter here and find his ESPN archive here.

Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter. You can reach him at tm4000@yahoo.com.

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