Interview with Steve Kirschner, Head of UNC Basketball PR

On Saturday at last year’s ACC tournament, my ride got a last-minute dinner invite, and I found myself up the creek. There was no bus from Greensboro back to Chapel Hill, and everyone I knew had already left. After the press conferences, out of sheer desperation, I approached Steve Kirschner. He’s the associate athletic director of communications at UNC, and he’s the chief PR rep for the men’s basketball team. He didn’t know me from Adam, but when I asked him if he knew where I could get a ride back to Chapel Hill, he offered without hesitation. We had a nice ride, and a nice chat, and he even refused to let me pay for a Cook-Out milkshake he bought on the way.

I emailed to thank him the next day, and he told me that he hadn’t known I was a Duke blogger, and that if I ever wanted to come in for an on-the-record interview, I could. I took him up on it last August, and now that basketball season is in full swing, I felt this would be a good time to run it. It was a fascinating hour-long chat, and we covered everything from the relationship between media and athletes to the the similarities between Psycho T and Harrison Barnes to the odyssey of keeping the major players around this year to Roy Williams’ method of dealing with the media to the changing nature of fan behavior. It’s long, but interesting enough, at least to me, to run in its entirety. I’ve split it into four loose segments if you want to skip around- the media, the players, the fans, and Psycho T. Enjoy.

One-on-One: Steve Kirschner

The Media

First, can you tell me a bit about your career?

I was an undergraduate at UConn, back before UConn basketball got on the national scene, quite frankly. I was in school from ‘84 to ’88, so in those years we were mostly hoping to get in the Big East Tournament out of the play-in game. So it’s been interesting to see UConn rise through the years.

Coach Calhoun got there my junior year, so I started there, and as a result of working at UConn it was one of those who-you-know things. My boss was on the same Final Four media committee as Rick Brewer down here at UNC, so I got an internship, came here for a year, went to UF for a year for a full time job and came back here in July of 1990. I’ve been here ever since. Since 2000, I oversee the department, so I’m responsible technically for all 28 of our sports. But the sport I work on as a director, on a day-day basis, is still men’s basketball. But I’m involved in the football situation going on right now, and any other sports that go beyond just what the person handling the day-to-day responsibilities gets involved with. But for basketball, I deal with Coach Williams, his interviews, the players.

What qualities, aside from the general ones of ambition and hard work, make a good PR director?

From a PR standpoint, I think you have to be able to absorb what is being written and said about your program, and filter out what is important for your coaches and student athletes and administrators to respond to. Have a thick skin. Know that you can’t respond to everything. Nor should you respond to everything.

But being in a position where you get your message out, you’re sort of the storytelling department in the division of an athletics department. There are so many more places and opportunities for people to talk about your program, and you want to be able to have a voice in how people are shaping their opinions about your program. And that has changed so much just in the twenty-plus years that I’ve been in this industry, in terms of the way that people were delivering their information to the media.

The advent of fax machines was sort of the first step of less human contact between publicity people and the media. Prior to fax machines, if you had a story idea or if you wanted to get your point across, you either picked up the phone and you called someone, or you had a face-to-face meeting with that person. And then the fax machine came into vogue in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and all the sudden, by this telephone and copy machine in a box, you could transmit pages and pages of documents to the media and not have that personal contact with them. And in some ways that was good, because you could get more information out, and in some ways it was bad because you lost that personal touch. And then fax machines sort of led to e-mail and e-mail has now led to other forms of social media, which are great ways to get out fast messages. But every time you use some means of digital communication, there’s less and less face contact between people and you lose context and you lose tone.

As an example, if I send an e-mail message or a text message or a tweet, they don’t see your face. You could have a look in your face that says, ‘hey, I’m just kidding, I’m asking this question but I’m kind of kidding,’ and they look at you like, ‘oh my God, how could they ask me that question, how could they say that?’ You don’t know the tone. So those things have changed and I think my jobs as a communication directors is to keep up with what new changes are out there, tailor them to each individual/school/team/program and figure out what’s the best way to communicate. Because we’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to tell stories about our schools or our teams or whatever it may be. Whether it’s the SID/PR person or whether it’s a blogger or whether it’s a tv anchor, we’re all trying to tell stories.

How has all this easy access changed the product you see? And I guess when I say product, I mean newspapers, blogs. and etc. over 20 years?

I think there’s less time. People have to respond so quickly on either end of the spectrum. If you don’t respond as a PI office quickly, you get left out of that first news cycle. And so many impressions are made—and aren’t change—off of what people see in that first article, the first news cycle.

The reaction becomes almost irrelevant.

It does. You have to be part of that first story. And on the other side, there’s so much competition for voices to be heard. There’s always been a rush to be first in the news world, but I think there’s even more now because there are just so many more outlets. And in the past people made their decisions based on what they saw in a certain few newspapers or a certain network television. If it was outside of that, it was considered fringe media or not mainstream media, and therefore not as impactful in terms of making decisions.

Well, today blogs can be very impactful. People send tweets that get picked up by other people and get passed on and spread virally so quickly that the number of people who become decision influencers has just grown exponentially. And as a PR officer, or anybody responding to things like that, you can’t just say, ‘oh well, that’s not an important media, we don’t have to worry about what they say.’ Yes, you do. You have to worry about it, because those things grow so quickly, and people are now becoming more accustomed to learning and accepting their news from a much greater sphere of influence than they ever had before.

Is it fair to say when you started newspapers were the biggest game in town?

They certainly were. When I started, I was a freshman at UConn in ‘84, I would say from ‘84 up through the mid ‘90s, newspapers were still the number one source. And then I think after that, when the ESPNs and the CNNSIs became a national player, that elevated tv in general. National tv elevated all tv.

I think that the websites and web journals, and not just independent websites, but the ones of the mainstream media, are more influential. An SI story may break on Wednesday, but they may not print until Monday. But if they have something great, it goes on, and bang, it’s right there. And that creates sort of a rush to respond. So if you’re in a position of having to state the position of any organization—in my case it happens to be a college athletics department—there’s no news cycle anymore. It’s a 24/7/365 news cycle. It doesn’t matter when something happens. You can’t just say, ‘oh well, it’s the weekend’ or ‘it’s after the 6pm news,’ or ‘it’s later in the evening so we’ll just wait ‘til tomorrow to respond.’ Those things have gone by the boards.

For you, does that make your job more exciting, more of a pain, both?

All of the above, probably. I think you just have to understand that your job isn’t from 8-5. It isn’t Monday through Friday. It’s when things happen, and things happen when they happen. And that’s not new. That’s been the case for probably since the mid-90s with the advent of the internet. I’ll give you an example. One time we had a student athlete get in trouble over Thanksgiving, and I got a call on Thanksgiving. Well, the world didn’t stop. It didn’t matter that it happened to be Thanksgiving. It was just Thursday. It happened. So you just have to be able to respond to it, and I think there’s more and more of that. I don think that the rush to be first has grown even more on the media’s side, and I think that those are question that people in the media are asking themselves. How do we deal with rush to be first and making sure that there’s accuracy and fairness and completeness of coverage? And I don’t see that going away. That’s never going to get stuffed back into the bottle. It is what it is, and I think people just have to deal with it.

In newspapers, you see the occasional crusty old guy that doesn’t want to use the internet or twitter or whatever. Just out of curiosity, is there a PR equivalent?

I don’t think so. I don’t think you can be. I think maybe it happened 10-15 years ago, but I don’t think that’s really the case anymore. I don’t know of anybody in our profession like that. I think there are degrees of acceptance, and there are degrees of how much you embrace the new technology. But I think if you don’t embrace the new technology in the communications world, it’s hard to be in the communications world. Some people may gravitate to twitter, some people may gravitate to facebook, some people may like to do more video podcasting or whatever it may be. Some people may be open to all of it.

I think a good office taps into people’s strengths, and we have a large enough office here where some of our people are facebook experts and some are twitter experts and some are really good at video, and I think the idea of an office is to kind of find what people have what strengths, and let them go with that. And then you cover most of what you can. I don’t think you can cover everything, because very day someone’s inventing a new means of communication, and you have a limited budget as to what you can access. I think you have to find what your strengths are and go with them, and ride that until there’s a better way of communication that knocks them out.

Where are newspapers in the pecking order now?

I still think newspapers are first. But again, I think that the newspapers are trying to define themselves, and I’m not smart enough to define what newspapers should be or what their roles should be. I think they’re all trying to figure that out amongst themselves. But I still think newspapers are the dominant medium. I think that maybe the gap has closed from other mediums.

I think with newspapers it’s looking at their actual hard copy print edition with their online edition. And now you’ve got newspaper writers expanding what they do. They’re going on tv, they’re doing podcasts, videocasts on their own paper’s websites. So I think they’re not just sitting behind a keyboard filing a story that’s going to get churned out at 2 am and dropped off at someone’s door at 6am.

There’s so much cross-platform marketing just among newspaper people that you may have a newspaper person that covers a football game, and instead of writing one story, they may have to write three. Then they have to do a video podcast, and then they have to go on the local radio shows during the week to talk about what they’ve written and preview what they’re going to write for the next game. So they’re involved in so much more activity on their own that it’s changing what they do. It’s no longer them writing about, ‘here’s what we saw.’ Well, there are so many other ways for people to see ‘here’s what happened,’ so now they’re getting more into the investigative journalism activities. I think they’ve seen that this is their niche, and this is what they can provide. And that’s just the way of the world. And I think everybody, whether it’s in sports or politics or business or whatever else, just has to adapt to that.

There are a lot of newspaper guys I like, Dan Wiederer for one, but a lot of young people find the content lacking. One thing I saw at the ACC tournament in the question and answer atmosphere, it seemed like a lot of the questions lacked depth. They were pretty shallow. And maybe that’s great for you, because it doesn’t rock any boats, but is that something you notice? Is that something that’s changed? I ask as someone who truly doesn’t know. Does it depend on the source?

I think it depends on the source. I don’t think you can blanket statement say that the  media’s questions aren’t as good as they were blank number of years ago. I think it depends on the situation you’re talking about. The press conference format, while great for time, and while great for sort of a mass audience (and certainly a better situation for us, because we can go in and speak to a room full of people and it can be televised and broadcast worldwide), I find that very few media want to ask their best question at that press conference. They want to be at the press conference, because they don’t want to miss something that they need to include in their own story. But they want to ask their best question off to the side, one on one, or at least in a much smaller group of people.

The press conference ends and then they bring the star players and sometimes the coach also into a smaller holding room, and they do it then. And you find a lot better questions, and you find more probing questions off to the side. And they say, ‘hey, I really need to ask so and so this question, but I don’t want to do it in front of anyone else, so can I pull them off to the side?’ Or they’ll even wait until the small press conference is over and then as they’re walking back to the locker room, they’ll say ‘hey, can I grab so and so for one more quick question?’ So I think that it depends on what part of the quote gathering process you’re talking about. But I do find that over the years most people don’t want to ask their good questions in a press conference setting. But to us that’s the most efficient way for our players and coaches to get through a mass interview process.

And you can control it too, more than having a guy off on his own where you don’t really know what he’s going to say.

You can to an extent.

I’m sure you want your players’ personalities to come off, and you want the stories to be known. But the most interesting part of every human being, while great for a writer, may not be the best thing for PR purposes. But sometimes those make the best stories. How do you counterbalance that? How do you say, okay, we want everyone to know Harrison Barnes, but maybe there’s a strange side of him that we don’t want out. But we also don’t want bland, shallow stories. What’s the balancing act there?

I think it’s a balancing act that every PR person, regardless of what industry you’re in, fights with every day. You want your person to be funny and come across relaxed and show personality and have depth to them.  But at the same time, when they say something that people find to be objectionable, just because they were being personable, now you’re in a catch-22.

Here’s the biggest concern. When we put out a statement as a PR office—and it could be my office or the chancellor’s office or some PR office for a burger company—those statements are so carefully looked at. We write them, and we re-write them, and we look at them, and ask, well, how will this word be interpreted, how will that phrase be interpreted, will it satisfy these four groups but leave one group over here feeling a little bit offended and taking it the wrong way? I mean, we wordsmith these things for hours.

Well, then you’ve got a 19-year-old college student who’s just played a game and they’re emotional and they’re fatigued and they’re still thinking about what happened, or about seeing their family. They don’t have the luxury of saying it, writing it, interpreting it, wordsmithing it, parsing it. With the media, they just have to say it. So they don’t have the benefit of the time that we do. And they’re not PR people, that’s not what they do. They’re kids. And in our case, the ones we deal with happen to be talented student-athletes, so sometimes they’re going to say things that as a PR person you’re going to say, ‘I wish they hadn’t said that.’

And that’s the catch-22 of yes, you want your kids to be personable, you want them to show a sense of humor and let people sort of get beyond the guard, but they’re held to an extremely high standard. They’re representing your university and your team, so there’s a balance there between wanting to show that personality yet being held accountable for every single word they say. And it’s not always going to come out the right way.

But even as a PR person, you do want them to show that personality? Or would you be happy with a boring story?

I just want them to be honest, and I want them to be direct. But I want them to make news for what they do in their performance. Regardless of the sport it may be, we tell them to make your news based on how you played that game, not for what you say after the fact in the press conference. Because again, they’re not trained to do that, they’re not professional PR people, they don’t have the luxury of time to see how it’s going to affect every single constituent they’re talking to. We want them to make news for what they do on the court. Period.

It’s funny because someone like me has such a craving for the details, someone like me won’t be upset at what a player says, even if it’s crazy-

But there’s a large audience of people that will. Some people want to see the “real” them. They want to see if a guy is a loose cannon and says whatever comes to his mind. There’s a group of people that love that.

But there’s another very large group of people that says, ‘well, we’d rather they didn’t express that. Keep that opinion to yourselves.’

With the mass audience they’re speaking to, you can’t say one thing that fits everybody. So from our perspective, just talk about the game. You can share details of what went into a certain situation. But again, you’re hoping that they’re careful enough that they don’t offend any group in anything they say. Some people don’t mind if someone curses. Well, there’s a large group of people who take great offense if someone curses. You’re talking about such a diverse audience, and yet you’re trying say something that will not offend any of these diverse groups, yet also show personality and show behind-the-scene details.

And then you wonder why it sometimes goes wrong. It’s not just college kids who say things they shouldn’t say. Adults do too. Everyone says things you shouldn’t say, and I think it’s almost unfair how we put a kid out in front of the media so soon after a game. It’s the way it is, and I don’t know of a better way to do it, because we also like the coverage. We like the publicity; it helps promote our game, it helps promote our school. So you want the coverage. But part of that coverage is, we can’t just say ‘here’s what we think this player might say after he hit the game winning shot.’ He’s got to say it in his own words. He’s got to put it in his own words. I always compare it to corporations. If Time Magazine is doing a story on company A, one of the top ten fortune 500 company, well it’s very rare that that company would allow Time Magazine to come in and just talk to a rank and file person in the organization and just say ‘hey, how do you feel, what do you feel about this decision, or how’d that turn out?’ So usually you’ve got high-level corporate PR people, high level executives, and lawyers are vetting what they say

But in our case, we have an 18-year-old kid who may have made a glaring mistake that cost his team a national championship, maybe in front of millions and millions of people, and within five minutes you’re being told you have to open your locker room and allow people to ask them questions. It is an unusual situation. It is not the way an organization would choose to “control its message.” It flies in the face of that.

Did you see the piece by Daniel Sircar, where he gave a camera to one of the walk-ons when they went up to New Jersey for the regional last year, and they edited it down to a 10-minute piece? For me, that was one of the most fun things I saw all year. I don’t think anything bad came from it. It was just a refreshing look at who these kids were, because so often you don’t see that.

And to follow up, even though the players are known to some extent when they enter the program, they’re more or less green when it comes to national media. Do you find players with outgoing personalities will get burned early, and does that teach them to be a bit more reserved?

I’ve seen it happen.

But I think that dating back to about 2002 or 2003, the internet had been up and running since mid ‘90s in terms of when it sort of became a big deal in terms of college message boards and stuff like that. We were starting to get into the wave of high school kids who were being recruited so much more on a national basis. You had these recruiting websites. And while schools have limits about how much you can call a prospect, reporters and recruiting sites have no limits.

I remember the McCants/Felton/Sean May incoming class. I asked them about dealing with the media, and they kind of gave me a strong look. Like, ‘we’ve been dealing with the media a ton.’ And it was around that group and maybe even the year before with Manuel and Williams and those kids when you started to get the idea that these kids had been exposed to so much more in terms of answering questions and being covered as high school athletes than we had ever seen before.

And I think some of them had already felt like they’d been burned in the recruiting process, so I saw more of guys coming in guarded. Not so much that they got burned when they got here, but they had already seen too much coverage of themselves, or seen their friends get coverage that they thought wasn’t fair, or something like that. So it’s a little bit different nuance for me, but that’s how I saw it. The kids coming in before, they hadn’t really been seen a lot on national media, so they didn’t know one way or another. But starting in the early 2000s, they were coming in with sort of a guarded perspective of the media. Now some of them, I think that shifted along the 2000s because guys feel, well, they can be their own media. Through social media, they can get their own message out the way they want to. And that’s a completely different issue.

You used the word guarded, and one thing I’ve noticed a little bit, and it’s obviously not true across the board, but in general do you sense a cynicism from these players toward the media?

I think there’s always been cynicism. When I say ‘always,’ I’ve been doing college athletics since I was a freshman in 1984. I worked in minor league baseball as a kid from 1977 on. I’ve always thought that athletes and coaches felt a certain cynicism towards the media because it’s an opportunity to be criticized. And that’s going to create a certain level of distrust or a barrier. So I don’t know of a time where media and the people and they covered, whether they were athletes or not, didn’t have some barrier between them. Just because human nature in general is that people don’t like to be criticized.

And I do find now, especially at the professional athlete level, because there’s less control about social media then the college level (and I think that the college level is only going to increase its level of control over social media, not decrease, especially when we have a football situation with the NCAA, and part of the issue was a lack of monitoring. But I can’t really speak to that at this point). I think pro athletes see it as hey, we’re going to be our own media.

To me, one of the biggest sea changes in media and sports is Tiger Woods. And my take on that is in I believe it was ’08 when he won the Open, out in San Diego, and he wins this Open and it’s this incredibly courageous remarkable golf tournament that you later find out he basically played on a broken knee or broken leg. So within a couple of days, Tiger announces through his website that he’s out for the year. He’s the #1 athlete in the world, he has just won the #1 tournament in his sport, and he did it in a heroic fashion. But he didn’t have a press conference, he didn’t call in to 60 Minutes to do a one-on-one, he didn’t have a Sportscenter Sunday interview. He announced himself that he was out for the year.

And to me, that changed everything. Because if he can do it, other people say ‘why can’t we do that?’ We don’t need the media to tell our story anymore. We can be our own storytellers. And that’s where I think pro athletes, through twitter and their own facebook pages and websites, don’t feel like they need the media to get their story out. I don’t know if colleges haven’t gone that far yet, but that was a big change for me.

The one thing I was thinking before you brought it up, Charlie Pierce, the Boston writer, he wrote a piece on Tiger Woods when he was very young, it was like ’97.

He made the off-color jokes.

Yeah, Tiger made jokes, and it was sort of a disaster for Tiger Woods. Well, not much of a disaster, obviously he was fine in his career, but it showed that strangely enough, he was unguarded at a certain point in his life, and he paid the price to an extent. And I thought it was a great article. But it was very interesting. Sometimes in a story there’s a detail about an athlete that obviously the athlete will focus on because it’s something negative and he’s reading about himself. Whereas me as a reader, I’m reading it and being like ‘oh, this is an interesting person,’ and you don’t think the athlete is a bad person because he did this. But some people do.

But it’s been fourteen years since that article. And as soon as you said Charlie Pierce and Tiger Woods, fourteen years later, the first thing I thought of was Tiger telling off-color jokes. And the second thing I thought of was, that changed the way that Tiger allowed himself to be covered by the media forever. Because he became less open and more guarded and everyone who wanted to write an article about Tiger Woods probably rued the day that that article came out.

And that’s kind of my point. It seems like now if you’re a journalist, if you want to write an interesting story, you have to sort of strike while people are unguarded before they become cynical or whatever. And I hate to say it that way, because it’s not like you want to write a negative story, but to write an interesting story and to have someone have a real conversation with you, it feels like it becomes impossible when people get big enough.

And I wouldn’t limit it to just athletes. That’s the world I work in. Athletes, on the one hand, people want them to be unguarded and be open about themselves and reveal their complete and full identity, yet when they do they are often criticized because nobody is going to be happy with a hundred percent of what a person is. And we’re such a polarizing world that people are going to find fault with someone, and when that reaction comes back, the athlete will say, ‘well, why did I do that? What was the benefit to me of being unguarded and being open about myself? Where was that benefit?’

And I think that’s unfortunate because you certainly don’t get a fuller picture of someone. But I don’t know how that changes. I just don’t see how that changes because there’s that conflict of yes, you want to be open, but as soon as you’re open you’re going to get criticized by someone. And before, maybe that group that was criticizing was a small voice, it was a lone voice, and it didn’t have the legs to grow. That one criticism was just a lone criticism. Whereas now, there are so many ways for that lone criticism to spread virally and become so much more. Maybe before someone would say, ‘yeah, okay, I’ll be open and I may be criticized on something I said, but I can deal with that.’ But now that one piece of criticism will grow so much that it’s not worth it.

Why would I want to open myself up to that? Then they say, well, I’ll control my own message, and I’m going to give out my story, and then the media feels left out, so then the media feels okay, we have to go find something else to make this person interesting, and now the person says, I’m an athlete, cover me for being an athlete, now you’re going beyond the scope. I’m not a world politician- cover me for being an athlete. Well, that’s enough anymore for some people.

It’s true. You wonder about your role in the media. Say a player writes a blog or something and tells everything. You go, ‘alright, you cut out the middle man.’ But what’s funny about the Charlie Pierce thing, you talk about how you remember now the off color jokes, but I would say a large product of that is how the media covers the media, and that thing you talk about of things siralling. Someone might write a great story where this is one small part of it that registers controversy, but people, largely the media, latch on to this one thing, and almost now more than ever play a role in inflating it to degrees that seem insane.

You. You write really detailed analysis of Duke basketball games. But someone is saying ‘hey, the guy that writes SCSD, well he’s the guy that wrote that F the rest of you guys after Duke won.’ Or ‘he’s the one that got into some sideline spat at the ACC tournament.’ They’re going to pick on the most sort of salacious detail that has maybe one fraction of all the other stuff that you cover, and they sort of pick and choose the things they want to remember and aren’t the most substantive part of what you write.

And that’ something that I’m sure athletes deal with. Where do you think it comes from? I guess that’s an awfully broad question, but how do you explain the sensationalism?

Human nature. I don’t know. I think it’s just human nature. I mean, why do people watch the Casey Anthony trial? Why do people watch sensationalistic things like that? It didn’t happen to their family. It’s just goes to human nature of people wanting to know what makes people tick, and why do people do things or say things that are not the middle of the road. I think people want to know what makes someone behave this way or behave that way. Because if it’s just a middle of the road thing, where everybody’s like that, I can read about that anywhere.

Do you think now it’s in a sort of pressure cooker because of the media? Do you see it as a steady problem, getting better, getting worse?

I’m not the first to say this, but if people covered Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth like they cover people now, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, they probably never would have set the records they did because they wouldn’t have been allowed to. It would have changed them.

A lot of people point at Watergate, that the media changed then. I actually think sports media changed, and again I’m not the first person to say this, with the internet. It changed the news cycles. There were no more news cycles. It was instantaneous from both ends, the journalism end and the public relations standpoint of having to respond to stories without a news cycle.

I think Olberman and Patrick started it. As a fan of journalism, I think their way of delivering the news begat Bill Simmons who begat the bloggers. It showed there was more than just one way of delivering a score. It was their style. I always remember the Chicago guys on “Sportswriters on TV,’ Gleason and Jauss, which begat the sports reporters on ESPN, and I think that made newspaper and magazine writers into television personalities. And when you’re a tv personality, you’re different. It’s a different way of communicating to an audience.

And that brought Kornehiser and Wilbon, who do such a great job on their show, but now everybody wants to be Kornheiser and Wilbon. Everybody wants to be on the Sports Reporters, and now you have television anchors who aren’t just reporting the news like in the past. They’re commenting on the news. But it’s not just that they’re commenting; they’re doing it in that Olbermann/Bill Simmons, edgy, sarcastic, comedic way, which changes the way they deliver the news. It’s different. And you can’t put that back in the bottle.

If I’m reading you right, in a way you’re saying that these people who revolutionized things in a really good way, whether it’s Olbermann and Patrick or Simmons or whoever, kind of spawned people who did it in a bad way, which in turn influenced the discourse into a more sensationalistic pattern.

I think so. Not everybody does that, but I think there’s more of that.

I don’t think I’m saying anything new. I think the ESPN ombudsman has written that, about the way Patrick and Olbermann did it. They were so good at what they did, but then a lot of other anchors came up trying to replicate what they had done, and some were good at it, and some were bad at it. Some don’t have the instincts.

But that changes as different communication tools have come about. And now that sort of alpha dog is Simmons, where people want to be able to write edgier, more culture-based, smarter. I mean, he’s brilliant. And I don’t just say that because he’s a Red Sox fan. But he is, he’s brilliant. And that has created a whole new way of writing, a whole new way of covering things. But when you have that, it does trickle down to the others. And now with twitter, the things people will put out on twitter so quick, you can’t get it back. You put it out there, 140 characters, and if you want people to follow you, you better be funny, you better be edgy, you better have something to say. And I think that people will say things quicker than they want to on some of these forms of media.

They have to, in a way.

And you want to be followed, you want to be edgy, you want to be smart, but you better be right. And I don’t think anything’s wrong with that. It’s just different. You have to adjust to it as you go along. So yeah, I’m very pro-technology, I’m a consumer of sports information. I’m not just in the business. I love to consume sports information. But I’ve definitely noticed that there’s a change in the level of sports information you get now than you did 20 years ago.

You talked about how ‘you better be right,’ and I think for newspapers and stuff that’s 100% true, but then you look at a site like Deadspin or that ilk, that can sometimes be wrong or too quick on the draw, it doesn’t seem to matter for them. In their context of covering sports, they’ll print a retraction or they won’t, and nobody cares. People still go to Deadspin for what Deadspin is. You could almost argue that for sites like that, accountability is, at the very least, much diminished.

I don’t frequent it on a regular basis, so I would be the wrong person to ask about Deadspin. But just in general, I can make this broad-based, general statement, and I don’t think it’s about sports reporting as much as it is about media in general: I think there is more acceptance of being wrong now than there was 20 years ago.

Because there’s so much more that people are offering as information. And if you’re wrong, well, you had to be first, you had to rush. There’s so much more competition, and I don’t think people are wrong because they want to be wrong, I just think people make mistakes, no matter what you’re doing. And again, maybe 20 years ago a paper made a mistake. Well, the readers of a paper knew that it was a mistake, and maybe the tv station picked up on the paper’s mistake or maybe the radio station picked up on the mistake. Well now, maybe the paper makes a similar mistake, okay? And they didn’t do it maliciously, it just happened. But now that mistake is picked up by 14 different national websites, and it’s tweeted to hundreds of thousands of people’s followers. The spotlight even on the papers is that much more. So I don’t know if there are more mistakes being made, I just think there are more mistakes being made on a larger basis.

But you do think the acceptance is higher.

I do. I do think that.

And that can’t help but have an effect.

I think once the acceptance is higher it’s easy to make a mistake again.

Obviously that has to erode the integrity of the whole pool?

Not for me to say. I think it’s just such a larger audience that any mistake is magnified so much more. On any level. If an athlete does something that 20 years ago, 40 years ago would have been a local interest story, it’s now portrayed on somebody’s worst plays of the day, or worst people of the world. It doesn’t have to be just a football or basketball players. Two years ago, a woman’s soccer player committed some fouls in a west coast game. She pulled a ponytail or something, and that went crazy. Could that story have gone where it did 10 years ago, 20 years ago? No. So that’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t have to be just the media. I don’t know if there are more mistakes being made, but there’s certainly more distribution for people to see those mistakes, and then as mistakes happen and they’re saying, yes, we just have to move on.

The Players

With your UNC players, you know these guys better than most, have you had players who have suffered a little bit of mental anguish of the incredible spotlight that’s on them?

I wouldn’t say they suffer mental anguish. I think some kids learn like I said, from when they come in from high school. Maybe they didn’t like the way they were being portrayed by another school’s fans. Or a paper. They come in, I think, with a little more wariness.

And that’s at the football and men’s basketball level. I don’t think our wrestlers come in with that level of wariness. But I do think that football and men’s basketball players do come in with a certain worldliness about them. Some of them love it, some of them embrace it. They had a great time, they never got criticized, and they think it’s wonderful. Others have had a little bit more criticism, so they’re a little bit more guarded when they get here.

It depends on the size of the school you go to. When you go to UNC, certainly when you’re being recruited you come to a game, so you see the media at a game, you see the number of people that are interviewing them in the post game, but it’s a little bit different until you do it the first time. You know, someone like Tyler Hansbrough, Tyler was not comfortable dealing with the media until his third year, and even then he was always in a position of, ‘I’m not ready five or ten minutes after the game just to stop my game mode.’

To interview Tyler, the best time was on a non-game day, a one on one situation. When he first started, he really wasn’t even comfortable doing that. He came from a small high school in rural Missouri that didn’t get a lot of coverage, and all the sudden he comes to a top media program and he’s dealing with press. But by the time he got to his junior year, if you could get Tyler in a one on one interview in a non-game day, it was better. had a guy from ESPN come up to me afterwards one time and said, ‘you know, I talked to some locals, and they said oh, you’re not going to like this at all, but I thought he was fantastic. He was engaging, he was funny, he told us some great stories.’

I told him, it was because it wasn’t a game day. He’s not ready 10 minutes after the game to switch off the Tyler Hansbrough game mode. So there’s a maturation. I think the NBA has found through the age limit that it is helpful for kids to go to college, and one of the ways it’s helpful is they learn how to deal with the media. That you can’t come straight out of a high school situation to play for the Knicks and succeed in front of the New York media. There is an advantage to kids who come through programs that have coverage. And even if you’re a smaller program, if you’re THE GUY, if you’re going to be good enough to go to the NBA, you’re going to get some coverage. Even that small amount of just being able to express yourself right after the game, when the emotions are still running high, is beneficial.

Kind of off topic, but with Hansbrough, did he have a focus for you that was different form other players? Because he certainly looked like he did, with his expressions and everything.

He’s similar to Harrison Barnes. In the 21 years I’ve been here, those are the two players who I think, more than any others, every movement they make is geared towards a professional basketball career. Just like a kid who comes to school as a freshman who knows he’s going to be a heart surgeon, pretty much everything they do is designed to make them a better doctor at some point. Well, with Harrison and Tyler, everything they do, whether its the weights they lift, the food they put into their bodies, the way they compete, is geared towards what they’re going to do in their professional life. And Tyler had such a physical routine in terms of the way he lifted, the way he stretched, the ice baths. And his focus was unique. He wouldn’t sign autographs on game day because he felt it took away from his focus. All his preparation was about how to make himself a better player, how to win more games and how to become a professional basketball player. And that level of focus was something I’d never seen before

That’s got to be a dream for a coach.

Yeah, but you also have to help him temper it, because his senior year when he had the shin splints, it’s hard to tell a kid who doesn’t know how to take a day off that, ‘son, the best way you can do all those we talked about is to back off your training.’ It was not easy for Coach Williams and the strength coach and the trainer to help him understand that sometimes not doing something will help you become a better player. That was hard. And it’s okay that you can make mistakes and you’re going to miss shots. You don’t have to go shoot a thousand shots if you miss a free throw. It’s best to take that day off. In the end, Tyler understood pretty well, he did okay

You mentioned Harrison has similar qualities, and a lot of people said, and even Roy was quoted on the record, that at the beginning of last year the pressure he put on himself was incredible, and he couldn’t thrive until he found a way to deal with it.

Well I used to tell this story: at the beginning of the year, he didn’t play well in the pick-up game the night of Late Night with Roy. That was just the inner squad goof-around game during, where they do the skits and the dances. It’s midnight madness, but now we do it at like 8 pm. And he didn’t play well in the 20 minute running clock goof-off game, so he went into the practice gym afterwards and shot around for like an hour on his own. I walked up to Roy and said, ‘you’re not going to believe this, but Harrison’s shooting around right now.’ And Roy said, ‘yeah, I don’t think he felt he played well.’

And then we played an exhibition game, and he had like 6 turnovers. I usually cut through the practice gym after a game to come up to my office, and Harrison was in there again working on his ball handling. And then we played the first regular season game, and it was Gardner-Webb, and he didn’t shoot the ball well, so he went into the big gym afterwards while people were cleaning out the stands. So I’m thinking, ‘wow, this kid, what great commitment to improving!

But as the year went on, I started thinking he was putting too much pressure on himself. I think it’s great that he recognizes that he could be better in certain situations, but I think he also had to understand there are other good players, and they’re going to force you to make some mistakes sometimes. You’re not going to make every shot, and it’s okay to realize that. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself, just go play basketball. I’ve said this before, but, Harrison’s the first player that I’ve ever met at UNC who wasn’t just trying to find a place in the league for himself—he was trying to find a place in the Hall of Fame.

His standards are so high for his own level of play, and I think that can be suffocating at a certain point. It took him to mid-January to realize, ‘you know what? It’s okay if I don’t make every shot, as long as I make enough of them and I make them at the right time.’ And once he started to realize that it was okay to make a mistake, he made less of them.

What was so funny to me was the thing that sustained him throughout the beginning of the year, despite the fact that he’s putting all this pressure on himself and it’s limiting his play a little bit, was when the pressure was highest, that’s when he was great.

I think that was instinct.

It was like the extra pressure sort of nullified everything and he could just be himself

And I think the same way that every miss and every turnover in November made it harder the next time, every make in January helped him progress. He makes a big shot against Virginia Tech, then he makes a couple against Clemson, then he makes the big shot against Miami to win the game. And by the time Florida State rolled around down there, he wanted the ball, we were behind, and there was no question he wanted to take the last shot. He made it, we won the game, they go to the ACC tournament, and suddenly we’re behind against Clemson. But he’s okay, that’s all right. So I think in the same way that the mistakes early on fed on themselves, I think his clutch performances made it even better for himself too.

Did it surprise you that he came back? I’m sure you knew before everyone else, but this guy with all these ambitions….

No, I wasn’t surprised. But I wouldn’t have been surprised either way, just because these kids’ dreams are to go to the NBA. And I think early on when he was struggling, he felt like okay, not this year, no one thinks I’m going to be ready this year. But then as he started playing so exceptionally well, I think it certainly got him back in the conversation. It didn’t seem like a strong draft year, so he was top five in everyone’s minds, and then the way he played towards the end of the year, some had him even better than top five.

But I think he’s smart enough to recognize it is not “if I get in the league.” It’s “how long am I going to be there, and what am I ready to do when I get there?” And Kyle Singler was that way. Kyle knew he was going to play in the NBA, but he loved being in college, loved being at Duke, had a chance to play for a national championship, had a chance to play for a great coach he loved. And it was a win-win. For Harrison, it was a win-win. We have a chance to be really good, he likes being in college, and he hasn’t done all he wanted to do. The idea of maybe getting his name up on a banner certainly didn’t hurt.

But Hansbrough stayed for different reasons. Hansbrough wanted to win a national championship period. He could have gone four times. He could have gone after high school—he was in the last group that could have gone their high school year—and then he could have gone after any of his first three years. He turned it down four times, and in the end got what he wanted, which was a national championship as a senior.

So guys go for different reasons, and they stay for different reasons. I wouldn’t have been surprised either way with Harrison. I had thought all year he was going to come back, but then he played so well in March, and then guys started dropping out of the draft, so it was pretty clear that he would have been a high pick, and that’s when I started to wonder. At some point you get enough people in your ear saying, ‘well, you gotta go you gotta go you gotta go’ and all that, and sometimes kids go. I don’t know. He has a plan.

Some of these kids don’t have plans. Harrison has a plan. Tyler Hansbrough had a plan. Sean May had a plan. Guys like that. There are some guys where their moms have a plan or their dads have a plan. But some kids don’t have a plan, and unfortunately those are the ones that sometimes make decisions that don’t work for them.

Zeller and Henson. Surprised that either one returned?

No. Because Henson’s dad had told Robbie Pickerel way back in early March the same quote that I use. They know their son’s going to play in the NBA some day. But they want to make sure that John stays in the NBA for a long time. And yeah, he could go in now, he could block some shots, he could grab some rebounds, and he’s not going to shrink from last year to this year. But they wanted him to be prepared to play a long time.

I think Zeller was the same way. He hadn’t played enough. Maybe if he hadn’t got hurt his first two years and had more experience, then maybe after his junior year he would have gone. But he just started to play his best basketball at the end of the season. The last month of the season, really. And I think he’s another guy who knows the league’s there, he knows he’s going to play in the league, but it’s a matter of how long can I play, how ready will I be?

And that’s the benefit of playing at a Duke or a North Carolina or schools like that, where know they’re going to be well-coached, they’re going to enjoy their season. So it’s not like they’re running from something. They have a good situation. Can they be in a better situation a year from now, or is this the best situation they can be in? In Kyle’s case, he wanted to win a national championship back to back. He had a chance to be a national player of the year, and just the chance to play at Duke University is pretty good. Zeller’s thinking the same way. ‘I’ve got a ring, but I was a back-up. Now I’ve got a chance to be a starter on a team that could compete at least for a ring.’

But they certainly looked at it. And they probably looked at it more than people understand. I think that some people think they were always just going to stay. No, they both really looked at it. But in the end I think they both felt they had a lot to improve on by coming back.

Did you feel like there was a moment with either where they were on the cusp of making a different decision?

Not with those two. With Harrison, the longer it went on, you just weren’t sure.

But I learned from Lawson and Ellington and Hansbrough in the summer of ’08. Everybody had them all out the door. They were all gone. Everyone was saying, ‘oh, I know, it’s a done deal, they’re gone.’ But you’re dealing with kids and dreams. They know what they want to do. And I don’t know if anyone else knows what they want to do. We’ve had players whose parents told them to go and they came back. We’ve had players whose parents told them to stay and they left. They know what they want to do.

And the hardest part, the worst month at a high level college basketball program, is April. You don’t know who’s on your team, you don’t know who’s coming back. People are taking shots at your own guys, saying they shouldn’t be going, they shouldn’t be thinking about it. They’re knocking down their own guys

If you don’t win a national championship, you had a bad year. Duke had a fantastic year last year. People got down on Duke because they didn’t make it to the Final Four. In ’08, we won 36 games. We went 36-3. But we lost to Kansas, we got crushed in the Final Four by Kansas, and the month of April was brutal. But we went 36-3. We had a great year, we had a national player of the year, we won our league, we won our league’s tournament, we went to the Final four, and still April was awful.

And that year May was awful too because the kids didn’t decide until late June that they weren’t coming back. But again, it’s the nature of the game. It’s the way that college basketball is set up. And that’s why to me, pushing the NBA decision date up earlier is better. I know it cuts down the amount of time kids can go work out with teams. But it’s hard to hold the school in a position where you don’t know who’s going to be in your program for two months. That was difficult. We ended up fine because they decided to come back and we ended up winning a national championship, but if kids don’t, and you don’t know until June 25th who’s on your team, how do you build a program?

And it’s easy for people to say who aren’t in a college basketball program to say you should let them have as much time as they want. There needs to be a balance somewhere. They need to be able to have time to make those decisions, but you also need to have time. I say fine, make college signing day July 1. Do like the NFL’s about do. They’re going to somehow put together teams in three days. If kids can wait until way after your season to determine if they’re going to come back, then don’t have signing day until after that. Have signing day a month after that. And let schools say, ‘okay, we’ve got two openings now, I need a power forward and a guard.” If signing day isn’t until later then schools have the opportunity to do that. It’s all a matter of timing.

Speaking of players coming back, my personal PR campaign as a Duke fan this year is if UNC doesn’t win a national title, it’s not a successful year.

Roy would throw you out of the office right now. (laughter)

And I say that as a joke, but it leads to a serious question. Are you gearing up for this year different than other years? Does it feel different? Because really, you guys are going to be national title favorites right from the early going.

No. I think we should be one of the favorites. One of. (laughter)

Duke hasn’t disbanded its program, Kentucky’s loaded. Kansas, Pitssburgh, Texas, there are a lot of good programs out there. Who would have said prior to last year that UConn was a national title contender? Who would have said prior to the last two years that Butler would be in the national title championship twice?

It’s one game and done. And if you can tell me that we’ll have our entire team healthy and all playing great come the first day of the NCAA tournament. I’d say, ‘we’ll have a chance to play.’ But the ’09 season, that team was a great team, but how many guys did we lose? At the beginning of the year we didn’t know if we’d have Hansbrough. Then we lost our best defensive player, Marcus Ginyard, for most of the year and eventually the tournament. Our point guard who I think was truly the best player in the country over the last eight weeks of the season, we didn’t know if we were going to have him in the postseason.

I think we can be one of those teams. And maybe it’s because I wrote the story where Roy talked about expectations. If we’re in a 7-game series, I’d feel better. But I don’t think it’s fair to put that level of expectation on a team that says if you don’t win it, you’ve had a bad season. Because again, I look at us in ’08, I look at Duke last year, look at teams like Kentucky and Kansas last year. Did they have bad seasons? They had a bad day. Kansas had a bad day against VCU. But they had a great season. And I don’t think it’s fair to just reduce Kansas’ season to one game.

Is Kendall Marshall he as intelligent as he plays? Is he somebody special in terms of brain power? Because he fascinates me on a basketball court. I love watching him.

He has a feel for the game which seems to be beyond his years.

Or even beyond his athletic ability.

I think Roy has said enough that he needs to get quicker. I think his savvy, his understanding of the game, his unselfishness, his willingness and his interest in raising his teammates’ level of play all make him a great point guard. And that’s what Roy said when he recruited him and when we announced his signing two years ago. Roy said he’s a thinking man’s point guard. He is truly a quarterback at that position.

Now, he also needs to shoot the ball better. And he also needs to be more athletic in terms of guarding the ball and getting into the lane and finishing on his own. But some guys just have a unique ability for making the game slow down. And I think that’s what I admire about Kendall, is that the game most of the time seems to slow down for him.

Now against Duke in the championship game of the ACCT, for whatever reason, things seemed to speed up for him. The first five minutes of that game, Nolan in particular really, really got physical with Kendall, and he turned the ball over and that led to easy baskets. He just didn’t seem to have that same ability to slow the game down. But that’s why he’s a freshman. I remember Ed Cota’s freshman year, he went over to Duke, and I’m pretty sure he had 8 turnovers, and I think 5 of them came in the first two minutes of the game. And the game just sped up for him too much. By the time the end of that season came along, we were in the Final Four partly because Ed had figured out how to slow the game down for himself.

But Kendall’s a smart player and his teammates love that when Kendall throws the ball to somebody and they score, Kendall thinks he scored. And you can’t ask for anything more form a point guard.

Can you tell me the transfer story, when Doherty was coaching and you found out from a manager that a few of your guys were on the way out, and you kind of nipped it in the bud?

Well, what happened was that there was a lot of talk about Jawad and Melvin and Jackie, the three freshmen, that they were going to transfer. And I think the coaches felt like they’d talked to them, and the kids said they weren’t going to transfer, we’re good.

Then I mentioned to a manager, thank God, the coaches just said everyone’s coming back. And he looked at me and said, ‘well, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s right.’

He told me they were just kind of lying low, because if they announced it then, in early April, that they were going to transfer, they’d have to be there the next six weeks and it would be a big pain in the butt. So myself and another person went to the coaches and said, ‘I think you might want to ask these guys again. I think you want to make sure that that’s actually the case.’ And they grabbed them back down and the kids said, ‘well, yeah, we’re still thinking about it. We just didn’t want to say anything so soon.’

Another thing you told me about in terms of Roy dealing with the media is that it didn’t work for him to do halftime interviews.

Well, I think in his case, he is such a perfectionist that he wants the game to be played the right way. And he learned that from Coach Smith. Sometimes there’s more than just winning the game. So we might not be up 20 points at halftime, but we may have screwed up the last play of the game, and maybe it was something that we’ve gone over in practice repeatedly. And we may be up 43-20, but he comes off the court, and boom, there’s a microphone right there. He’s still thinking, ‘man, we went over that play in practice, how could they mess it up?’

And I think people were wondering why he was so upset. This was in the ‘09 season, the championship season, and it happened four or five times before Christmas that we had big leads and we screwed up the last play of the half. And at halftime the sideline reporter would be getting Roy coming off the court when we just screwed up.

And I said, well let’s not do that. Let halftime go, let him talk to his team, let him take a breath and then come back out. He’s great talking to the sideline reporter off camera about what we need to do better, what he didn’t like. They get better information, and he doesn’t come across every time as being upset even when we’re up 20 points. So I just said, ‘coach, my job is to make you look good, and I think this is something that would help because I think that it puts you in a bad position. People are trying to figure out why you’re upset when you’re up 23 points.’

And perception is reality, and so to me it was just a better way of delivering accurate information to the sideline reporter. Let Roy go inside, let him talk to his team, and then he’ll get them on the way out. We’ve never told a sideline reporter that coach won’t talk coming back to the court. That’s regardless of the network. Now the NCAA has put in a new rule during the tournament that you have to talk to the sideline reporter during halftime. So he did. During the tournament.

Some quick hitters. Do you have a favorite story that an outside reporter has written about UNC basketball?

Alex Wolff of Sports Illustrated wrote some great stories about Carolina basketball when Coach Smith retired in ‘97, when he was the sportsman of the year. Also the commemorative issue when we won the championship in ‘93. Adam Lucas writes some really good stuff on Tar Heel Monthly and Tar Heel Blue about the program and about Coach Williams coaching more to build a program than he does to build a team. He’s written some good stuff about that. I’m sure there are more examples.

Has there been a situation related to UNC basketball that’s been the most challenging to you as a PR person?

Coach Doherty leaving the program was the worst. Because you get caught in the middle as a PR person. You get so close to the coaches. And not just the head coach, but the assistant coaches. You get close to their families and you know what a change means for their lives, regardless of whether you think a change is good for the program at that time or not. That’s the most difficult time. There’s no question.

We’ve had instances of things that were challenging to deal with, regardless of the sport. We’ve had things in soccer, we’ve had things in baseball, we’ve certainly had things in football. But we’ve had things in basketball. The Makhtar N’diaye situation in the ‘98 Final Four. Makhtar’s a great guy and one of my dear friends through Carolina basketball. He made an accusation that a Utah player had used the n-word out on the court. Well, he hadn’t. It was one of those situations, again, a post-game interview, people were pressing Makhtar, and he just made a mistake. He said something about a guy that hadn’t happened, and it was in the heat of the moment, and he regretted saying it later. And we certainly regretted him saying it.

How do you deal with something like that?


That’s the only way?

You apologize as quickly and as completely as you can possible apologize. But the Doherty situation, you just had so many families involved, you know? And Matt’s a good guy, and a good coach. And he made mistakes as a head coach, but also our players made mistakes under him. But it didn’t make him a bad guy. And when he lost his job, our program went in a different direction with Coach Williams. Which has worked out pretty well.

But that doesn’t minimize the impact it has on Bob MacKinnon and his family, one of the assistants, and all the other assistant coaches. And Matt and his family and his two little kids, and his dad and mom. That’s the hardest, and it’s the same thing when it comes to John Bunning or Carl Torbush, two football coaches that I got to know well. When those guys lose their jobs and all their assistant coaches lose their jobs, people forget.

The Fans

College athletics has these great rivalries, but you look at what’s going on in college athletics right now, and there’s such revelry when one school is going through difficulties by its opposite fanbases. It’s just disturbing. And that’s why when certain schools went through their own difficulties, not just NCAA related, but through losing seasons or a coaching change or a student athlete getting in trouble, people say, ‘oh, isn’t it fun to see this?’

No, it’s not. We’re all part of the same world, we’re part of the same business, and no, I don’t like it when another school gets in trouble or a coach gets fired. Because it comes down to people, and they have families and it’s just college athletics, and God, we’re playing a freaking game!

Good luck telling them that.

We’re playing a game. And we’re playing a game with kids who are getting an incredible opportunity to come to colleges and learn something. And maybe if it were not for their athletic prowess, they wouldn’t have the ability to get into all these different schools, right? But the ability to compete in athletics allows them an opportunity to come to great schools, and I think that’s a good thing. To give them an opportunity to be exposed to academics at this level. I think we’re a better society because kids—hundreds of thousands of kids across the country—can get into these colleges in large measure because of athletic prowess.

I understand that. Not everybody agrees with that idea, but I think we’re better as a big society. I think we’re better. And maybe that makes me sound like Pollyanna, but I just think we’re better. But when people enjoy when a coach gets fired or when people enjoy that student athlete gets kicked off the team or something, I’ve got an issue with that.

If I can do a quick follow-up on that, I do think there is a total lack of empathy among extreme partisan fans. Is that something that’s changed for you? I asked you if the media’s changed. Have the fans gotten worse?

I don’t know if they’ve gotten worse, but they have so many more ways to vent their level of being a fan that it sounds worse. I don’t know if it is any worse, I really don’t.

I don’t think fans of UCLA liked USC back in the 50s before the internet, and I don’t think Michigan fans liked Ohio State before. But maybe if you lived in Ohio, you didn’t know everything that a Michigan fan said that now you can know. And I’m steering clear of the local analogies (laughter).

But I always say that the best thing about being in this area was the competition between the three schools. You’d have one 11 miles away, you have one 28 miles away, and they’re so close, and the fans were all mixed together and they worked together and they played together and they read the same media together. And that was a great thing. But the worst thing about being in this area is the same thing.

But I guess if I don’t like it, I can always move to a state that has one school.


Yeah. Where everyone pulls for the same school. So it’s just something you deal with if you work at one of these three schools. But I just don’t know if we’re better off in the big picture when people have that level of hatred, and when they revel in other people’s shortcomings that much.

And maybe that’s because I think it’s good for college athletics when you hear Coach K say what he says about Dean Smith. I think it’s good for college athletics when you hear Roy Williams say what he says about Mike K. Itoesn’t mean the two of them necessarily even like one another. I don’t even know if they do or not. But they respect each other, and they respect what the other ones have done. And hearing Coach Williams about Coach K when Coach K was getting near the record for passing Coach Smith, and then the 900 wins, and hearing Coach K say the things he did about Coach Smith at the banquet a couple weeks ago… that’s what it’s supposed to be about. That’s the competition that it’s supposed to be about.

And when you have those people that are at the tops of their professions like those three guys are, and if they can talk about each other like that, that’s the good part.

Psycho T

You’re talking to a guy who, the first week I started my first blog in 2009, my fourth post was about how much I liked Tyler Hansbrough, and that was the first time my blog got any exposure. UNC fans were obviously very complimentary, but a lot of Duke fans were saying, ‘oh you’re not a real fan’ if you say that…

Who’s the most unique player you’ve ever dealt with?

Tyler Hansbrough.

And was it just because of that ambition and that planning, or was it other aspects of his personality too?

Hansbrough is the most unique person I’ve ever met in athletics. And I’ve worked in the business for 35 years, since I was 10 years old. Hansbrough and Roger Clemens.

I knew Clemens for about six weeks. And I didn’t know him long enough to have the opinion, but Hansbrough first because he could have left after any of four seasons, like I said. And he chose not to because he enjoyed it here. He could have gone out and been the 14th pick in the draft his high school year. He could have gone out and maybe been the 10th pick of the draft after his junior year. He just liked it here. He wanted to win. And more than anything he else he wanted to win a national championship.

He’d already been the player of the year. And he came back for his senior year and he didn’t say, ‘hey coach, I came back, you owe me 25 shots a game, I’m shooting the ball, because I have to win player of the year again or people are going to think it was a fluke.’ He didn’t. He recognized that Ellington and Lawson and Green were pretty good. And that his best chance to do what he wanted to do, and that was win a championship, was to let everybody get involved.

And he was funny and he was quirky and he was odd to an extent. One of my favorite stories of Hansbrough which people have heard before is how I walked into the locker room one day and he was strutting in from the lounge. And I was like, ‘what happened big fella?’ And he said, ‘I just beat that kid from Princeton at ping pong.’ It was a tennis player form Princeton who happened to be down here an knew one of our managers. The manager took him on a tour of the building and he got into a ping pong game with Tyler. I guess Tyler was like losing 20-13 and won the last 8 points.

That made his day, the fact that he won that ping pong game. And that just shows his personality. He hated to lose. But there are so many reasons. He was a good guy, he was friendly.

What I loved about him was that nice touch of weirdness, which might sound like an odd thing to say, but….

No, it’s true. There were layers to his personality. There was the jumping into the pool off the balcony after his junior year. Or the fact that he thought it was so cool that he got to meet Obama when he came and played pick-up. Or the fact that he said the most nervous he’d ever been was when he was finishing the lay-up line at our 100-year anniversary celebration. We had everybody who had a jersey in the rafters pass the ball up the court, kind of like the Celtics did at the end of the Garden and the Canadiens did at the end of the Forum. And I think Lennie Rosenbluth passed the ball to Tyler and Tyler laid it in.

I loved that he understood that it was a big deal. And that he said, ‘that was the most nervous I’ve ever been,’ and he truly meant it. It wasn’t just a throwaway line. He actually meant it. Or he fact that he loved his family so much. I’d never seen Tyler smile on a basketball court for the first year plus eight games up until we played St. Louis in December of his sophomore year. But during warm-ups, the minute he saw his younger brother over in the stands, Tyler lit up and went over.

And the way Tyler gave his senior speech and talked about his family. I mean, you can’t fake it. He’s not that good an actor. There are just dozens of reasons to like him, and as an SID he gave me an incredible opportunity to promote a kid like that. To look up these different records and follows these different records pursuits and things like that. That was cool. And the fact that he got it. The fact that he got that it was cool.

The fact that he was the regional MVP against Louisville his junior year and we won in Charlotte on a Saturday night, and we didn’t get back until like 3:30 in the morning, and I asked him to do a live interview with CBS to go at halftime of one of the next day’s regional championship games. He was like sure, no problem, and he got down here and I thanked him for showing up, and he said, ‘well I was coming in to shoot around anyway.’ And I went, ‘what?’ And he said, ‘yeah I just wanted to get some shots up.’

And I’m like. ‘Tyler, you had 28 points against Lousville, you’re the regional MVP, you’re the national player of the year, we don’t practice today.’

Didn’t matter. He missed a couple last night. It’s for reasons like that. And we’ve been so lucky. Guys like Jamison, Hubert Davis, Eric Montross, Raymond Felton, and Sean May, and I cant even think of all the guys who have been good to us. Vince Carter, Shammond Williams. Schools like Duke and North Carolina get good kids. Not perfect kids, but they get good kids. And they enjoy their time here, and we’re very fortunate to be part of that.

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2 Responses to Interview with Steve Kirschner, Head of UNC Basketball PR

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  1. henry says:

    Tyler, Tyler , Tyler, enough said ! I don’t think their will ever will be another one like him…

  2. sanfransoxfan says:

    Thanks, Shane. A good guy from a rival worthy of respect. And his respect for his “rival” came through as well (I bet he has a lot more in common with Duke’s PR Head than he does the typical UNC fan). I really enjoyed the read, and the stuff on Psycho-T was great. One of the guys Duke would have been lucky to have landed!

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