Jeff Pearlman

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Stan Verrett

#335
The longtime SportsCenter anchor spoke eloquently about Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling—without inciting tensions or inflaming hostilities. That's the power of words uttered by one who has mastered them. POSTED November 16, 2017

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A couple of years ago, while working out on the StairMaster at my local 24 Hour Fitness, I found myself watching SportsCenter and simultaneously Tweeting angrily about Neil Everett, one of the anchors. I don’t recall what set me off—a word choice? A tie? Just a shitty day? It’s a blank.

What I do remember is this: Moments later Stan Verrett, Neil’s sidekick, replied with a message  along the lines of a friendly, respectable, “Hey, we all try our best.” It was classy as classy can be.

Anyhow, I kept in loose touch with Stan via social media, and today—at long last—the terrific Los Angeles-based SportsCenter anchor joins the ranks of the Quaz. Stan is a legitimately fascinating guy—New Orleans born and raised; parents who you’ll have to read about to believe; a former fifth-team wide receiver who saw media as his most likely entrance into the world of pro sports.

One can follow Stan on Twitter here, and watch him throughout the week on the late SportsCenter.

Stan Verrett, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Stan, I’m gonna start with a blunt one: Do you ever get tired of it all? What I mean is—sports, sports, sports, TV studio, TV studio, TV studio, highlights, chatter, highlights, chatter? I ask not to be snide, but because it actually doesn’t look like you get tired of it. You seem, from afar at least, to be a guy who digs his work.

STAN VERRETT: I never get tired of it. I mean, I like to travel, so I need time off like everyone else, but the job itself, the time on-air, is still a blast, especially when big things happen in sports. People turn to ESPN when important things happen and if they happen to fall during our time on the air, it’s my job to show them, and talk to those who can provide perspective on them. Doing highlights is the most fun part of the job for me, so I’ve always enjoyed being on shows that are highlight driven. I always wanted to do the late SportsCenter because it was the one I watched. Honestly, sometimes I still can’t believe it. It’s a tremendous honor and responsibility to continue building the brand, because it’s iconic. The other great thing about doing the job in Los Angeles is that it’s such a small operation, everyone knows each other. That’s not possible in Bristol because the campus is so large.

J.P.: On Aug. 29, 2016, you eloquently spoke on air about Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling during the anthem. You wrapped with a perfect sentence—“Let’s pay as much attention to the substance as we do the symbols.” Now here we are, a year later, and substance be damned, symbol be damned—the man doesn’t have a job while far less-accomplished and worthy quarterbacks do. I wonder what you think about that.

S.V.: There’s a lot to unpack with that. As I said that night, I stand for the flag, and the anthem. Always have, because I believe in the promise the flag represents. But I also believe that America has fallen woefully short of delivering on that promise to some of its citizens. There has to be an ongoing reckoning with that if we are going to continue to progress as a society. So Colin Kaepernick made a personal decision to follow his conscience and protest injustice and oppression, with a particular emphasis on the killing of unarmed people of color at the hands of the police. I understand how uncomfortable his protest makes some people. It makes me uncomfortable. I wish we could tackle something as morally simple as stamping out racism and other forms of discrimination without protest. But for whatever reason, we can’t. People are so busy with their own lives that they may not be focused on the concerns of others, even if they’re legitimate. So at some point, someone has to say, “Stop, this isn’t right,” to create a greater awareness of the issues. Kaepernick did that. So then there’s the backlash.

I’m not sure I believe there was a meeting of NFL teams and they all agreed not to sign him. I think that individual teams are afraid of the reaction that they would get if they signed him, so even those who could use his services were not willing to step out of line and sign him. Personally, I think that’s the NFL’s loss. You have a talented player, who had already  taken a team to the Super Bowl, who was still growing as a quarterback. And he has grown even more as a human being, into a socially conscious, selfless spokesperson for a cause bigger than himself. With all the image problems that the NFL has had stemming from anti-social and even criminal behavior from other players, I would think that a forward-thinking league or team official would look to a player such as Kaepernick to help improve its image, especially in a league with the racial makeup of the NFL. The NFL could learn a lot from the NBA on issues like this. I’m sure Kaepernick calculated the risk he was taking before he decided to go public with his protest. And since I truly believe this was about his conscience, I believe he will accept the results, even if it means he never suits up again in the NFL. The national dialogue he started, and the efforts of those who followed his lead have made it clear that his protest was successful. And that’s more important that throwing a football.

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With former Saints star Tracy Porter.

J.P.: During that monologue you evoked, powerfully, your father, saying, “My Dad served in the army, dealt with discrimination in the army, came back from his service after World War II and was not afforded the full rights as a citizen.” This makes me extremely fascinated by your father. Who was he? What was he like? And what was his military experience?

S.V.: My father was my first hero. I grew up in a rough neighborhood in New Orleans, with crime and drugs. When I was very young, I knew I never had to be scared of the stuff around me because my dad was there to protect us. Even the baddest dudes in the neighborhood knew, “Mr. Verrett is crazy, so don’t mess with them.” As I got older, his example of doing the right thing, even when it wasn’t convenient, was the guiding force that kept me in line. He did not have much formal education. He dropped out of high school to go to work because his family was poor and his father wasn’t around. He later joined the Army Air Force, the precedent to the current Air Force. He served in World War II in Europe, driving trucks carrying bombs to fighter planes, because black soldiers were not allowed into combat at that time. After the war, he learned to work with his hands, becoming a plasterer and cement mason, and served as president of his union’s local.  He fought for fair wages and the rights of other workers who were being exploited by contractors and builders. That was just one facet of the virulent racism he faced in still-segregated Louisiana. Still, he was a patriot through and through, a true representative of the greatest generation. He remained engaged politically his entire life, hoping to make the country a better place. You would have had to fight him if you tried to take off his prized WWII veteran’s cap, which he wore every day, right up until he died two years ago. He had a full military funeral, and I keep the service emblem from his casket on my nightstand.

(L-R) Neil Everett, Kenny Mayne, Rob Gronkowski, Gordon Gronkowski and Stan.

(L-R) Neil Everett, Kenny Mayne, Rob Gronkowski, Gordon Gronkowski and Stan.

 J.P.: I was going through some old clips, and I found an announcement in Newport News, Virginia from back in 1992, explaining that Stan Verrett “has joined WOWI morning announcers Chase Thomas and Cheryl Wilkerson.” Which means, I presume, you worked the morning drive-time circuit. And I’ve always been sorta fascinated by this time slot–because it seems like one has to be filled with energy and vigor when he’d rather be in bed. So what was the experience like?

S.V.: Morning radio was a blast. Before I got started in television, it was my focus. I loved working with Chase and Cheryl. I was “Stan the Man.” We had a great show together for five years, usually No. 1 in the Norfolk ratings. It’s been 20 years, but people still reach out frequently about the show. It’s a grind getting up at 4 am but once I was up, the job was fun. 103 Jamz is an urban music station, but the program director, Steve Crumbley, gave us the latitude to talk as much as we needed to in the morning, as events warranted. For example, Allen Iverson is from the area, and when he got arrested in the bowling alley incident, there was a lot of anger. We took calls every day for two weeks to allow people to vent and hash out the issues. Other days we talked about relationships, celebrities or whatever was happening, in between the best hip hop and R&B songs. I learned how to really communicate on the air in that job, and that experience still serves me today.

 J.P.: You’re from New Orleans and I’ve read that your childhood home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve never asked anyone this before, but what was it like, watching from (presumably) afar as Katrina hit? I know that sounds dumb, because the answer would surely be, “Awful.” But I guess what I mean is—is the feeling helplessness? Heartbreak? Terror? Rage? What do you recall?

S.V.: Katrina was an awful experience. My parents were both retired and living in New Orleans at the time. My mom was a college professor, who graduated from Dillard University, and got her Ph.D from Tulane, and taught at Dillard and Xavier University, all in her hometown. They are dyed-in-the-wool New Orleanians, who didn’t want to live anywhere else. Growing up, we usually rode out hurricanes in one of the sturdy buildings at Dillard. There was always flooding where we lived, so like a lot of other families, we just waited for the water to recede, replaced the sheetrock and got on with our lives. But Katrina was different. When they said they were evacuating, I knew it was serious. I was on vacation, starting in Detroit for a friend’s birthday party. Then I was going to Miami, but the storm originally was headed there, and my flight got cancelled. So I rebooked to New Orleans. Then Katrina turned around in the Gulf of Mexico and headed for New Orleans. So I rebooked for Miami. That’s where I was when the levees broke and flooded New Orleans. It was a beautiful day on South Beach, a great contrast to the destruction I was watching on television. My parents drove to my brother’s house in Atlanta. The house in New Orleans took on six feet of water. No one entered until I went there at Thanksgiving, three months later. The worst part was finding my mom’s academic records mildewed in the mess. She took great pride in her achievements, and never got less than an A in any class from kindergarten through graduate school, valedictorian of every class that named one. I lost it when I saw them damaged. Luckily we were able to get them refurbished. we lost pretty much everything, but lives. I tweeted to the folks in Irma’s path to leave if they could. We have replaced everything that was important that was lost in the storm, but many people lost loved ones who didn’t or couldn’t evacuate.

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 J.P.: Soup to nuts, how did this happen for you? Like, when did you know—know, know—you wanted to go into media? Were you the kid with a pretend mic? Were you the sports junkie? Was there a lightbulb moment?

S.V.: I knew from the time I was an adolescent that I wanted a career in media. I have always loved both radio and television. But sports was my first love. So my plan was to play football, wide receiver at LSU, win the Sugar Bowl, get drafted in the first round by the Saints, play 10 years in the NFL, then retire and become a broadcaster. Then I got to St. Augustine High School, which was coming off back-to-back state championships at the highest level in Louisiana. And I saw what real football talent looked like. Our school has produced NFL stars for years. Right now, St. Aug grads Tyrann Mathieu, Leonard Fournette, Trai Turner and Lorenzo Doss are all in the NFL. I was slow and skinny, but I worked my ass off to make the team as a receiver in the spring of my sophomore year. But the next fall, I missed a couple practices because of a family emergency. You did not miss practice at St. Aug, for any reason. I will never forget walking into the locker room and seeing I fell from third string to fifth string at split end. It took everything I had to make third string. I knew I would never play that far down the depth chart, so I quit. It’s still the biggest regret of my life. But I swore I would never quit at anything ever again in my life.

And that’s just the attitude I needed for broadcasting. I knew the football team inside out, so I became sports editor of our school paper. Then in college, I was sports editor for the campus paper, a copy aide at the Washington Post for three years, and a radio DJ as well. I tried to get as much experience as possible. I took a radio job in Charleston, S.C. after graduation. Three years later, I went to Norfolk. In addition to the radio job, I also worked in television there. My first job was at WAVY, the NBC affiliate, and then WVEC, the ABC affiliate. In 1998, I went him to WDSU, the NBC affiliate in New Orleans. I was there for two years, and then left for ESPN. I realized at some point my real talents were speaking and writing, but I would have traded some of that for a faster 40 time back in the day. Still, I’m happy with the way things turned out.

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 J.P.: You attended Howard University, a noted HSBC. And, having written and researched a biography of Walter Payton (who attended Jackson State), I feel like I have a pretty solid working knowledge of HSBCs and their place in American culture and tradition. What I can’t tell is if they’re still viable. What I mean is, it seems fewer and fewer young African-Americans are seeking out HSBCs in the way they did, oh, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. Do you agree? Disagree? And why did you pick Howard? And what did you get from the experience?

S.V.: My mom taught at black colleges, and I grew up on Dillard’s campus, hoping to one day be like the cool college kids. Howard was similar to Dillard, but bigger, internationally known and respected, and in a major market for my media aspirations. St. Augustine is an all-black, all-boys high school and it prepared me well academically. I was a National Merit and National Achievement finalist coming out of high school. I could have gone anywhere. I chose Howard. What I loved about Howard is the nurturing that I got there. College is an important time in a young person’s life, and the support that I got from professors at Howard was critical to my success. Like my mother, they were on a specific mission to educate black students. They chose Howard, too. The campus newspaper? That was there for me, and students like me. The student radio station? For me. The student-produced newscast that I anchored my senior year with Michelle Miller, who’s now a correspondent and anchor for CBS News? For us. The job at the Washington Post? Set up by Dr. Lawrence Kaggwa, former chair of the journalism department, who is probably responsible for more working black journalists than any single professor in America. I got to enjoy college without ever having to think about racism, or having it taint any of my experiences there, which is a tremendous luxury for a young black man, trying to find his place in the world.  Black colleges and universities continue to produce a disproportionate amount of professionals in just about every field. That nurturing and sense of mission is the reason. I have many friends who went to big, predominantly white universities, and they enjoyed them. But Howard was the right place for me.

J.P.: Like my beloved Sports Illustrated, ESPN is struggling a bit to figure out and adjust to the modern media landscape. It’s confusing, it’s fast, it seems to change and shift every seven seconds. So I wonder—can the SportsCenter model that you host survive long-term? Are people still saying, “Ah, it’s [whatever o’clock]. Stan and Neil are on! To the couch!”? And how do you think outlets need to change to maintain audiences?

S.V.: I think SportsCenter can survive as it is, especially shows such as ours, on at night, after games. People are busy, and as much as they would like to watch every game, they  can’t. Life happens. Dinner, movies, your kid’s recital, play or game. So you missed the game. We have the highlights when you get home. Sure, maybe you saw one of Steph Curry’s nine triples on your phone, but that’s not going to give you the depth, or volume you want. When people stop buying 50-inch televisions, we may have an issue, but until then, there’s still a desire for quality content on television. Programs shouldered to live game broadcasts are the safest bets for ratings, I would think, since the audience is already there. But if you create a relationship with your audience, and deliver a unique perspective in a compelling way, you can carve out a consistent audience. That’s been the goal for us from the start. And it’s why I love working with Neil. We come at the material from totally different perspectives, but because of that, we cover a lot of real estate, and we sincerely enjoy each other’s company and invite viewers to join the fun. I think the opinion shows are here to stay as well, mirroring what has happened with news programs.

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 J.P.: When John Saunders passed last year, you were brought in to replace him on ABC’s college football studio show. How did you approach that? How hard was it?

S.V.: It was pretty sudden. John died unexpectedly less than three weeks before the season began. I had to get up to speed really quickly. Mack Brown and Mark May made the transition easier for me. I had to fly across the country from LA to Bristol every Friday. And those were working flights, reading up on games. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it more and more as the season went on. I love Mack Brown. I wish he would run for president in 2020.  Kevin Negandhi is in that chair now, with Mack and Booger McFarland. That’s a great team. I have enjoyed watching them.

 J.P.: You joined ESPN in Sept. 2000. What was the process like? I mean, interviews, auditions? And how did you find out you landed the gig?

S.V.: I went to Bristol for the interview in 2000. The morning part of the interview involves meeting producers and executives, and then lunch. In my case, lunch was with Al Jaffe, who had recruited me. Then after lunch, I had to write and anchor a show that was about 20 minutes long. I did pretty well and rolled right through it. The guy operating the camera said “you got the job, man. They never roll right through it without stopping.” So I left feeling like I’d be back. My agent called me a few days later to confirm. It was an awesome feeling.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STAN VERRETT:

• Your cousin Jason plays for the Chargers. Three memories of him growing up: I didn’t know Jason growing up. I didn’t become aware of him until he got to TCU. Looking forward to seeing him play here in LA.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Butch Beard, parma ham, Ted Turner, mason jars, “The Elephant Man,” Eric Stoltz, Shammond Williams, Zachary Taylor, DJ Yella, “On the Wings of Love,” Oliver Garden: Ted Turner, Butch Beard, DJ Yella, Shammond Williams, Parma ham, Olive Garden, “On the Wings of Love”, mason jars, Eric Stoltz, Zachary Taylor, elephant man.

• In 17 words, make an argument for the University of Akron’s football national championship hopes: I don’t know anything about Akron, so when it comes to their title hopes, I’ll Zip it.

• I want to get off Facebook. I also want to keep selling books, and social media helps sell books. What should I do?: Stay on Facebook, and sell those books. I’m sure there’s a way to avoid those people who are reaching out because they’ve read your books, think you’re rich, and have a Can’t Miss business idea for you.

• Five all-time favorite college football players to watch: Leonard Fournette, Tyrann Mathieu, Mike Vick, Johnny Manziel, Vince Young

• Three memories from your all-time worst date: She didn’t want to dance, and the DJ was great. She caused a scene at the bar. She got in her car and left me in downtown San Francisco after I had flown there from Connecticut to see her.

• The world needs to know: What does Neil Everett’s hair smell like?: I don’t know. But he’s really, really proud of the way it looks.

• I’m terrified of death. You? Why or why not?: I used to be terrified of death. But as I get older, I’m not. It’s inevitable, so I’m just focused on making the most of the time I have alive. My father’s acceptance and strength in his final days reassured me.

• Your five best places to eat in LA?: My five favorites are Mastro’s, Little Sister, Nest at the Ritz-Carlton downtown for drinks and appetizers, Javier’s in Newport Beach, and Sweet Chick, Nas’ restaurant on Fairfax.

  • Cd1515

    Jeff, normally a big fan but this was weak.
    If memory serves, you’re ripped Neil and Stan many many times on twitter (and justifiably so).
    Now he’s “terrific”?

  • jpearlman

    I literally never—not one time—ripped Stan.

  • Paul C

    Jeff, to quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” In this case, not “inconceivable,” but the words “literally” and “ripped.” In March 2015, you whined: “And being subjected to the late-night SportsCenter means being subjected to (dear God) Neil Everett and Stan Verrett.

    A most heinous day of reckoning it is …”

    You allowed that they might be nice people, but kvetched “But, ESPN, they are just brutal. What irks me—and pretty much everyone I know who watches the duo—is the nonstop, eternal, tack-to-the-temple devotion to humor and quips and puns and cheap laughs. I mean, they can’t go five seconds without uttering a non-joke joke; some inside nonsense about a car or a bird or a prom date. It’s as if one took Chris Berman at his worst, mixed in a little Keith Olbermann at his worst, turned the speed up from 33 to 72 and tossed in a shitload of sugar and Cherry Coke. It’s nonstop, it’s grating, it’s fucking awful television.

    Again, I don’t want anyone to lose a job. I just want them to stop. Please, please, please make them stop.”

    If that ain’t ripping Stan Verrett, the word has lost all meaning. Apparently playing fast and loose with facts we can easily dig up isn’t just confined to Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions and Roy Moore.

    • Cd1515

      GREAT post Paul, I knew I had read that (or something similar) but couldn’t find it.
      My original point stands.
      Weak.
      Jeff?

      • Paul C

        This is a trivial thing. But at a time when we are worried about “fake news” and the reckless reinvention of history, accuracy should count for something, no? I could hardly care less that JP previously ripped Stan Verrett, who, I agree, seems like a great guy, and who is a competent SportsCenter host. I do care when a journalist who holds himself up as a teller of truth and an exposer of “gaslighting,” decides to gaslight all of us!

        • Cd1515

          Totally agree.
          I also agree with Jeff’s original assessment of the 2 anchors, it is awful television and they’re unbearable on air.
          Which is why this was a blown opportunity——if you’re going to have the guy on, present your critiques to him and get his response.
          That would’ve been interesting.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life