Oh, the joys of the off-season. This is the time of year where there is very little news about football and what little news does come across the wire is blown completely out of proportion. Such was the case last week when a video clip of Nick Saban becoming agitated with a reporter when questioned about the math involved in athletes currently on scholarship, incoming recruits promised scholarships and the NCAA limit of 85 total scholarships. The video ran on ESPN and a flurry of talk radio and blog pundits sprang into action to cover every possible angle of the event; what it means to the Alabama Program, college football at large, the sagging national economy, and the recent rise in gas prices.
At the center of the Saban “Press Conference Rant” storm last week was Birmingham News, Alabama Beat Reporter Ian Rapoport. He was the reporter that asked the question that made the news and I could think of no one better to ask about the event (and Saban refused to take my calls). Ian was gracious enough to spend about thirty minutes on the phone with me and answer a few questions about himself, Nick Saban and the actual event. His answers, specifically about Saban, were well thought out, thought provoking, and in some instances surprising.
Ian told me that he was from Westchester County, New York, “about thirty minutes from New York City.” Ian went to Columbia and has worked as a beat reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, covering Mississippi State. He is in his second year covering Alabama and seems to have embraced the South by adopting our passion for college football as his own. He claimed to love baseball but also stated that growing up, he never really pulled for a college football team because nobody else around him did. He also indicated that he would never have realized how great our favorite sport is unless he had come to the region and assured me football was now his favorite sport to cover, “without question.” He has grown to love it so much that on Fall Saturdays when his work is completed one of his favorite things to do is sit and watch college football on television.
I wanted to know how his experience as a reporter differed from my experience as a fan. Ian told me that he attends every game, practice, and any other opportunity for any nugget of news about Alabama. Say what you want to about him, but he gets paid to do what a large portion of fans would love to do but he certainly has a different perspective on things related to Alabama than I do, but that’s for another day.
When I asked Ian about the perception of Alabama fans as conspiracy theorist he replied, “all sports fans are conspiracy theorists.”
Now that we had talked a little bit I thought that it might be time to get to some of the real meat and I wanted to grill him about the obvious media agenda and bias. I tried to stage my question, “As someone who covers Alabama exclusively, you have been called everything from “homer” to an idiot. Do you have an agenda?”
His quick reply shocked me.
I have him now, I thought, this is where we find out how bad he wants to paint Saban as a maniacal tyrant.
“My agenda is to supply readers, accurately and fairly – regardless of loyalty – with the facts, content, and stories about Alabama athletics. Basically let the readers know everything there is to know.”
Well, that wasn’t what I expected but if he wasn’t putting an angle on it, surely someone was.
“What about other reporters?” I asked him.
“I try to focus on what I do,” he replied.
“So there is a bias out there.” Now I’ve got him.
“I don’t think so. Let me clarify. I focus on what I do and don’t try to worry with what others do but I don’t think there is anyone who is doing this with a bias.”
When we discussed the mass media outlets, he made the, what he called “the obvious statement”, that the big outlets focused on the bigger names and more successful teams. He did say that he thought Alabama was receiving much more attention now that Saban was here.
The focus of our conversation then shifted to Nick Saban. When I asked Ian if he thought Saban was rude to reporters or him specifically, he had this to say.
“I don’t really focus on his personality. Sometimes he sounds loud because he is being loud but I’m not focusing in on that. I’m thinking about the follow up question, not the tone he is talking in. I will say this; it’s a shame that people judge him based only what they see of him on television, because there is more to him than that and no one should be judged based solely on what the say in front of the camera. That’s not really who he is.”
I told Ian that in my opinion he had become kind of a lightning rod – that a lot of Saban’s zingers seemed to be directed at him. Ian agreed with that and when I pressed him about whether or not he cultivates that image he told me that he was just trying to ask good questions, “ I’m trying to get the most information I can because that’s my job.”
In my opinion, Ian had to know that Saban did not want to answer “the question” and it had to be tough just ask it knowing what kind of response he was going to get. Ian disagreed.
“I never try to think what the answer is going to be. That’s why I ask the question. With Saban you never know how he will respond but he always does respond. He gives very intelligent answers. He is really a good interview – so was Sylvester Croom. Their answers are very intelligent.”
When I asked him, if in his opinion, Saban cared about success or the players, he told me that “everything he does is to win but he is also all about building relationships, with the players now, with future players, and with past players.” Ian said that from his experience the past players really feel more welcome now and that is a credit to Saban. He also told me that Saban spends time in the press room talking with the reporters, building relationships with them. He was very clear in his belief that Nick Saban cares a great deal about his players and as an example told of the genuine remorse he showed when talking about Tremayne Cooger’s decision to leave the program and in the manner that he did it – before the end of the school term.
Ian told me that he really believed that Saban likes Tuscaloosa and appreciates the town. As does his wife and that helps the situation. He was certain that he is content with the job because he could have gone literally anywhere – citing Nebraska if he had wanted to wait a year.
When we discussed “the question”, Ian told me that, there again, the taped segment didn’t show the whole story. Ian insists that Saban had a crack of a grin as he was going through his answer and also that he was joking after he left the podium. He also indicated that because of his belief that Saban really does care about his players that the answer to “the question” must be very complex. He said otherwise he would have just given a quick answer but out of caring about the outcome he seems to be troubled by it and that is what Ian took away from the encounter.
To end on a good note, I asked Ian a few “no brainers” and even then he surprised me.
“Who has the better looking girls, Auburn or Alabama?”
“That’s easy,” he replied. “Mississippi State” He then explained that his girlfriend attended school there.
He refused to comment on Clay Travis’ “Hope Scholarship” theory and while admitting that he was going to Athens next weekend, which would give him a great opportunity to answer with authority, stated that he would still have no comment. I’m pretty sure that goes back to the girlfriend.
Ian had been really professional all through the process – refusing to comment on the supposition that Saban asked Gentry Estes to remove a recent blog entry, only stating that he would take Genrty’s comments at face value – so I was surprised when he took my offer to confirm or deny my claim that Ray Melick is an “ill-informed, verbal-diarrhea-spewing, douche bag.”
“Deny,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for Ray’s integrity and skill as a columnist.”
I got him to answer one final question: “Does Nick Saban indeed hold the key to the Fourth Circle of Hell?”
“It’s been a long time since I read Dante’s Inferno.”
[Editor’s Note: I do not intend this blog to be a typical journalistic outlet. By that I mean, I don’t anticipate interviews being a staple of what goes on here. However, I have been amazed at the coverage and opinions this incident has generated. I tried to be as truthful as I could with Ian’s anwsers and comments. I greatly appreciate his time and trust in me, a virtually unknown blogger. I did not want to cloud his comments with my opinions, and therefor part 2 will be my appraisal on what Ian had to say. Look for it Tuesday or Wednesday. PMR]