This afternoon I spoke to ESPN College Football Senior Writer Ivan Maisel on the phone on his way to the Georgia Tech-Miami game. He agreed to be interviewed for an assignment of mine for one of my classes. I was honored to speak with him, and was very excited to hear what he had to say about his career as a sports journalist.
Here is the transcript to our conversation.
1. When did you know you wanted to be a sports writer?
Probably once I tried it in college. I had a high school English teacher as a senior who gave me confidence, and when I got to college I worked for the school paper, The Stanford Daily. I really liked it and just kept going.
2. How did working for each media outlet help you become the writer you are today?
Six months out of school, I got a job as a reporter at Sports Illustrated, but most of what I did was fact check. My job was to check other writer’s work, and it taught me the importance of writing accurately. It also taught me some tricks about how to be accurate, most of which have been antiquated because of Google (chuckles). I got to work with some extremely talented mentors.
In 1987, I started covering college football nationally for the Dallas Morning News, which in those days was recognized as having one of the best sports sections in the country. Dallas was and is the college football capital. It was a beat that I loved. I have loved it ever since.
3. What is your favorite stadium to visit?
I hate to pick just one, I can never decide. I can give you a list of six that I would feel a lot more comfortable with, and I just picked Georgia on last week’s ESPN College football podcast because it was first on the list. My stock answer is to just give me a sold-out stadium, 30 seconds before kickoff when everyone is standing up convinced their team is going to win. That electricity is why I do this all year.
4. Growing up, did you have a favorite school you rooted for?
I grew up an Alabama fan, because my parents and brother went there. That was a great introduction to the sport. If Alabama went 9-2 you were just devastated.
5. What has the experience working for ESPN been like?
It has been very good. I talked a little while ago about Dallas. The philosophy at the Dallas Morning News was “Do whatever you have to do to be the best.” And that philosophy no longer exists in newspapers, with the possible exception of the New York Times. With ESPN, it is very much that philosophy. We will do whatever we have to do to cover the sport. We all go crazy but we will cover the sport. I am very rarely told that I can’t cover something because of finances. In this day and age that is unheard of.
6. Why did you decide to go to Stanford?
That was a blind squirrel finding an acorn. Someone suggested that I apply there, and that it was a good school. What popped into my head was “Hey, they are in the Pac 8 conference, I can watch that for four years.” The reason I didn’t go to the Ivy League was I didn’t want to watch Ivy League football for four years. I also never would live in New England… which I do now and have for fifteen years (laughs).
7. Do you write your own podcast scripts?
I take that as a compliment that you think it is scripted, because it is not. We have a rough list of what we want to do, then the producer hits the record button and I call Beano and hold on for dear life. Gene Wojciechowski and I have covered college football together for more than 20 years, and we are good friends, so doing the podcasts with him is just us decompressing in the hotel bar after the game.
8. What are the biggest differences to you between writing columns, writing for podcasts, and broadcasting on television?
Columns are the most work and the most fun. I enjoy that the most. I enjoy the podcast because it is a chance to talk with friends about college football. Once I got over the ego thing about television, I realized it is not what I like to do the most. Once I got past the fact that I wanted the recognition of being on TV, I realized it would take a lot of work for me to be good at it. I already enjoyed writing columns more. If they want me to do TV I will, but it is not what I prefer. You have to enjoy what you do. TV is okay, but its simply not what I love to do.
9. Who are some of the most influential people you have met in your life?
My mother was an English teacher when I was growing up and still corrects my grammar. A person at Sports Illustrated that mentored me, Steve Wulf, who now works for ESPN the Magazine, is a close friend. Dave Smith who hired me at the Dallas Morning News, was influential also. Smith is a legend among sports journalists, because he demanded more from people than they could possibly give. He put out the best product that was out there. Dan Jenkins, who is a legendary sports writer, now writes for Golf Digest now. He just covered his 200th major this summer; his daughter is Sally went to college with me. Dan gave me the best advice I ever got, which was in college about sports writing: “Learn as much as you can about as many different subjects as you can, because you’ll never know what you need. The way to learn to write is to write.” For me was great advice, because I took a lot of different subjects in school
10. Was there a game, or an interview, or just a time in general where you realized you were living a dream?
The first big story I ever did was covering Georgia Tech upset Clemson in 1984 for SI. Bill Curry was the Tech coach at the time. He was so accommodating and so intelligent and such a pleasure to interview. That experience kind of put a bug in my ear. I find that college football coaches, if you find the right one, really strike a chord in you with their ability to lead and motivate. You listen to them talk enough and you are ready to do your best at what you do. Coach Frank Beamer and Bobby Bowden have that. I still relish every chance to talk to Bowden and Joe Paterno. Being around that quality was great. Businessmen across the country pay thousands of dollars to listen to them talk for an hour, while I get paid to do it.
11. If you weren’t writing for college football, what would you be doing?
Working unhappily in my family’s business, making myself and my brother miserable.
12. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring sports journalists, what would it be?
Same advice I was given by Dave Smith. Read as much as you can about as many different things that you can. Find a passion in academics. I love American history and politics, which run together, especially if you are covering something nationally. The best way to learn how to write is to keep writing. The best writers have an inner ear, that when they write something well, there is a rhythm to it that resonates within themselves. It’s hard to describe.
My second advice would be to use adjectives like jalapenos: only occasionally.
Candid advice from a well-respected journalist. I would like to once again thank Mr. Maisel for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with me, and hopefully I will speak with him again in the future.