Friday, July 2, 2010

CLEATS & COUTURE EXCLUSIVE: Interview with ESPN Senior Columnist Pat Forde

As anyone who has been following this blog at all has undoubtedly picked up on, my posts are a pretty even mix of sports and fashion. Summer is slow for sports and hot for fashion so there tends to be a fashion lean as of right now, but I love writing about sports every chance I get. Quite a few people have asked my family members and me personally whether or not I write the sports posts on my blog because they didn't believe a girl would know or care as much about sports as I seemed to. Well, I'm here to tell you that you can care about style as much as the score of the big game.

My close friends and people who know a decent amount about my writing know that my inspiration for sports journalism comes from Pat Forde, Senior Columnist at ESPN. I've been following his columns on ESPN since he started working for them in 2004, and he's been my main source for sports news ever since. His quick wit, way with words, and never-ending stream of knowledge regarding college athletics make him the perfect columnist for me to emulate in my writing. Pat currently writes columns for ESPN's front page, as well as one on college football called Forde Yard Dash with 40 mentions of college football from the previous week. The Forde Yard Dash turns into Forde Minutes during college basketball season.

Writing this blog has actually opened more doors than I ever would have imagined, one in particular being the opportunity to talk with Pat Forde. Pat has been a phenomenal mentor in my writing process and has offered nothing but support to me as I continue to learn more about authoring my own blog. To top it off, I was able to interview him to give all of my readers (and me) a background on the man that inspires my sports posts, and unquestionably my writing in general.

So here it is, the first exclusive interview for Cleats & Couture:

Q&A with Pat Forde, ESPN

Cleats & Couture: Well to start off, did you always want to be a sports writer or was there something else that you had in mind?

Pat Forde: I was fortunate enough to know pretty early that this is what I wanted to do, somewhere early in high school. I had the usual youthful aspirations of being a pro athlete, but figured out that there wasn't a red-hot market for a 6-foot-2 center in basketball or a 165-pound tight end in football. So I focused on where my love of writing and reading would take me, and this is it. I grew up reading the Colorado Springs Sun every morning and the Denver Post every evening, and before long I was more interested in the styles of the sports writers than in the games, athletes and coaches they wrote about. Rick Reilly wrote for the Post then, and he was my first writing idol. Still is, in some ways.

C&C: So how did you get into the world of sports writing?

Pat: Once I figured out that I wanted to be a sports writer, I chose my college accordingly. I went to the University of Missouri, which has the nation's oldest -- and, in my mind, best -- journalism school. After figuring out that I wasn't going to flunk out during my first semester, I went to work for the student paper second semester freshman year. I fell in love with the newsroom environment and the writing process pretty much immediately. I was hooked from that point forward.

C&C: I know you previously were a sportswriter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY. How did you get that position, and how long were you there for before you moved onto ESPN?

Pat: One of the great things about going to Mizzou is that many excellent newspapers come to the school every year to interview seniors. The Courier was one of them, and I really clicked with the managing editor, David Hawpe. At that time, the Courier was looking to add some cheap labor to its sports department, and the paper hired me as the lowest man on the totem pole -- high school beat writer covering Southern Indiana, which is just across the Ohio River from Louisville. I loved the job and put everything I had into it, picking and choosing the best stories from about 90 high schools spread across the region. I did that for two years, then was promoted to covering regional colleges (Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Morehead State, etc.) for a year. After that I was the paper's Kentucky beat writer for two years, then promoted to columnist at age 27. In retrospect, I was too young. But I grew into it and did that job for 12 years. All together, I spent 17 very rewarding years at The C-J.

C&C: Wow, that's pretty impressive. So then how did you get so lucky to join the wonderful world of ESPN column writing?

Pat: By saying yes to everything. About midway through that 12-year columnist run at The C-J, an editor for something called ESPN SportsZone called and asked if I'd like to write an online weekly college basketball column. I'd never heard of it and knew nothing about the Web, but the automatic answer was: yes. It was added work, but it was an opportunity. I took it. A few years later, they asked me to also write a weekly SEC football notebook. Automatic answer: yes. Then more and more opportunities arose, and finally ESPN offered me a job in 2004. Automatic answer: yes.

C&C: How long did it take you to become established as an authority on sports?

Pat: Wow, tough question. I don't feel like an authority on sports, really. If I'm an authority on anything -- and that's debatable -- I'd say it's on writing and reporting. I know how to write stories. I know how to report stories. I'm much more of an "expert" on that than I am on predicting who will win games or who should be ranked No. 1 or things like that.

However, that does come with the job description, especially at a place like ESPN. So in the past few years I've really tried to bulk up my national knowledge of college sports -- not just the schools in my backyard, but coast to coast. It's difficult to keep up with everyone, and there is simply no way I'm going to know as much about the intricate happenings at say, Alabama as the local writers who live that specific beat every day. But it's my job to communicate a general knowledge to a wide audience and that takes a lot of reading and researching and trying to stay on top of developments all over.

C&C: So is that how you get most of your information for your columns, from a ton of research and following up on stories? I'm sure working at ESPN doesn't hurt either...

Pat: You are exactly right: a lot of research, scouring the web for stories elsewhere and then trying to follow up with contacts in those areas. I have gotten to know people at a lot of different schools and will try to tap into their knowledge whenever I can. During the recent conference alignment mania, I was calling, texting, and emailing with people all over the country, all the time. Just trying to stay abreast of developments. And no doubt, when you call and have those four letters -- ESPN -- behind you, people are generally happy to talk to you, at least when the stories are positive.

C&C: Not that I can think of any at the moment, but working for ESPN has to have some downside, right? What's the hardest thing about your job?

Pat: It's a great job, but it's not all seashells and balloons, to quote the late Al McGuire. Travel can get to be a real grind, especially late in the football and basketball seasons. You feel like you miss way too much at home. After the 50th National Rental Car shuttle bus ride of the season, you're pretty burnt. And I cannot tell you how many times I've tried to get into the wrong hotel room because it was the number of the hotel room I was in two days ago.

The other adjustment was getting used to the national microscope of the job. If you make an error -- and if you're trying to write a 3,000-word weekly notes column, you WILL make errors -- you'll hear about it from hundreds of people. If you say something stupid or make a dumb prediction, you'll hear about it from hundreds of people. There is a lot of attention paid to ESPN.com, and that's a good thing. But there is a lot of attention paid to your mistakes too.

C&C: Yeah, I would imagine the microscope effect would make things difficult at times. So it seems like every writer has some sort of trick or routine for when they get a spell of writer's block. Any special rituals of your own?

Pat: Good question. I have to admit, writer's block seems to become tougher to shake now than it was when I first started in this business. Not sure why. Usually, I'll get up from my desk and walk around -- sometimes down the block to Starbucks for a green tea lemonade, sometimes just up and down the hall of my office building where I work. Sitting and staring holes into the computer screen doesn't tend to help me, so I usually have to break up the negative flow and mentally reboot.

C&C: Well from the little experience I have with this, I'd agree with that. Starbucks is my work place of choice at the moment, although there is only one freestanding store in Tuscaloosa so I'm probably going to need to switch it up a bit. Now, I would never ask you to choose between the Forde Yard Dash or Forde Minutes, but do you have a favorite sport to write about?

Pat: Good try! After living in the heart of basketball country for 23 years I feel like I know college hoops better, but the Dash is easier to write. There is such a set pace to football season -- a weekly routine that lends itself perfectly to a weekly notes column. With basketball, the games are constantly ongoing, and it's hard to know when you've hit defining moments in a season before March. With football, every Saturday offers a definitive body of evidence on where we're headed. Hoops is much more speculative, and frankly less important, during the regular season. And the football audience tends to be larger and more fervent, so the feedback on the Dash is more intensified than on the Minutes.

C&C: That makes sense. Any chance you'd ever start writing a column about NCAA Lacrosse? Or are we just leaving that to Quint Kessenich?

Pat: Haha. It's all Quint's.

C&C: Fair enough, I guess you have enough on your plate. So I'm a Michigan grad and a 1L at Alabama Law. Any predictions on the football season fans of these two historied programs can expect? Very different ones I'm sure.

Pat: Yeah, I'd say very different. Alabama is free to have the highest of expectations. A repeat seems very possible, even though I am on record as picking Boise State #1 heading into the season. (Nothing personal; please don't release my email address in Tuscaloosa.) I figure I'll be in Bryant-Denny Stadium at least once this season, and that's always a special place to see a game.

At Michigan, Rich Rodriguez is simply battling for survival. If the Wolverines don't make a bowl game, he's toast. And even that might not be enough, I don't know. I really believe they'll be better than last year, but the way the team collapsed over the last half of the season was stunning. If Michigan starts poorly, it could snowball on Rich Rod and get ugly.

C&C: Believe me, no one knows that feeling better than a 2010 Michigan grad who watched the team slowly disintegrate with the retirement of Lloyd Carr. Who would have thought, right? So then who do you cheer for during football & basketball season besides your alma mater?

Pat: I cheer for me. I cheer for good stories that unfold when I'm in the press box watching them. That's all I really want, on a weekly basis. I want to be where the best action is, or the biggest upset, or the most dramatic ending, or a spectacular comeback, or an unbelievable individual performance. That's all I ask for -- give me the best story every week. Not too much, is it?

C&C: Haha not at all. College sports is the place to be for any surprising theatrics during games. Any words of wisdom for writers like me or anyone trying to break into the world of journalism?

Pat: If you are passionate about it, go for it. Seek out every avenue you can to write. Work your tail off. Set goals for yourself, and plot a realistic course for how to get there. (As I believe my career path will attest, you can't just say, "I want to write for ESPN.com" and expect it to happen without laying a lot of groundwork to prove yourself.) Say yes to every opportunity that presents itself with enthusiasm.

C&C: And you're proof that hard work and passion pay off in this business. So of course, I have to ask. What do you think of Cleats & Couture?

Pat: Love it! A great combination of diverse interests. You're the happy hour double threat -- able to talk heels and handbags with the women and blocking and tackling with the men. I enjoy the sports entries and really learn something from the fashion entries -- not my personal strong suit!

C&C: Speaking of suits, and in keeping with the Cleats & Couture theme, who designs yours?

Pat: Who designs them? Hilarious! Whoever I buy off the rack. Most recently, Calvin Klein I think, and before that, Nautica.

And there you have it, the first Cleats & Couture interview ever, and with one of the most prominent guys in sports writing no less. Great insight into the journalism world for those looking to start their writing career, and some great info about life at ESPN. Thanks Pat!

3 comments:

  1. Great interview!

    Couple small typos in Pat's 5th and 6th turns:

    "Pat: Wow, though question."
    tough

    and

    "Pat: You are exactly write..."
    right

    ReplyDelete

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