Back in the mid-1990s, I found myself positioned in the Sports Illustrated “bullpen,” a place where young fact-checkers try and find their way into the magazine. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was surrounded by a bushel of future stars—Grant Wahl, L. Jon Wertheim, John Walters, Stephen Cannella, Paul Gutierrez … the list goes on. Yet, some 15 years later, the one who has gone on to the greatest fame is, without question, Seth Davis.
Along with being known as one of the nation’s top college basketball writers, Seth has emerged as a March Madness fixture for CBS Sports. His analysis is, without fail, insightful and well-said. Which, knowing Seth, is no surprise. From our first days working together, it was clear this was no dummy (despite his Duke diploma).
Here, Seth defends college basketball’s honor, slams Mitt Romney, talks TV egos and why he won’t be sitting alongside Stuart Scott in the SportsCenter studios.
Seth, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Seth, to get right into it: I hate Division I basketball. Hate it. Not the on-court action, which can be quite riveting. What I hate is all the bullshit that surrounds it: The scumbag boosters. The recruiters slinking their way into inner-city housing projects and promising the world. I hate that Ohio State travels to away games on a chartered jet, with a cheese tray featuring chunks of cheddar carved into the shape of the Buckeye O. I hate the impact of money and the way coaches bounce from job to job without worrying about the impact it has on the kids. My questions for you, Seth: A. How do you put up with this stuff? And am I wrong?
SETH DAVIS: You’re wrong and you’re not wrong. Certainly there is a high level of – as you call it – bullshit in college basketball. But let’s be honest, if we let ourselves be turned off by bullshit, then we wouldn’t have any sports left. (At least not any that people would want to watch.) Is the bullshit in college basketball any worse than the steroid, money and agents culture of baseball? Or the violence and hoity toity attitudes of pro football? How about the NBA right now with all its labor issues? How’d you like the refereeing in the World Cup?
Most reporters who have spent time around pro and college athletes will tell you it’s vastly preferable to hang with the college kids. Even the best college players in the country are still pretty psyched to talk to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. And like you said, the games are riveting to watch. There is no more popular sporting event in America than the NCAA tournament. And did you see that Indiana-Kentucky game? In the end, that is all that really matters. The rest of it is, well, bullshit.
Let me add one more thing. That seedy grass-roots culture that you describe, it’s very real and it’s very problematic and it’s very corrupting. You know what else it is? Very intriguing. I am fascinated by the recruiting underbelly of college hoops. I enjoy figuring out where the tentacles reach and touch, where they come from, how various coaches are working the levers of the system to gain a competitive advantage. I don’t do a ton of reporting on recruiting, but it’s also fun for me to see the best high school players in the country, before they become famous household names. So I plead guilty to it all. I plead guilty to loving it.
J.P.: How’d you get here? As in, what was your path to being one of the big names in college basketball coverage? I know you’re from Connecticut and attended Duke. But we all have precise life paths. What’s yours?
S.D.: I’m guessing you and I are both odd and lucky in that we knew what we wanted to do from a young age. When I was growing up, my dad’s favorite movie was All the President’s Men. We can both recite every line of that movie. The Woodward and Bernsteins of the world were heroes in my house. It was easy for me to want to be like them.
The other guy I wanted to be like was Glenn Brenner, who was the sports director at the local CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. I even got to do a couple of internships for Glenn, who sadly died from a brain tumor at the age of 44 (just three years older than I am now). I looked at him and said to myself, “He’s got a fun job, he’s famous, and he makes a lot of dough. That’s gonna be me someday.”
So I always had this twin notion of being a writer and being on television. I never really separated the two. People are surprised when I tell them that Duke did not have communications or journalism as a major. The upside to that was, I was the only kid on campus who wanted to do this. So I had my run of the student newspaper, the student TV station and the student radio station. Between those responsibilities, going to parties and squeezing in a few rounds of golf, I also went to a class or two.
I was also fortunate in that shortly after I got to Sports Illustrated, the magazine started an all-sports cable channel called CNN/SI. There weren’t a lot of writers at the mag willing and/or able to go on the air, so I jumped all over that. I got my big break at the 2003 Final Four when CBS asked me to do a segment on prospective coaching changes. They brought on as a fulltime studio analyst the following season.
J.P.: You started your career at the New Haven Register, around the same time I started at The Tennessean. We’re both newspaper guys who, I’m guessing in your case, dreamed of writing sports for a daily paper. What was the experience like, girding it at a daily? And do you think, for up-and-coming journalists, that specific dream is dead?
S.D.: If that dream is dead, it’s a shame, but yeah. I mean, if you were coming out of college today, would you look at a career in newspapers as a great future?
Like you, working at the Register was a great way to learn the craft under the radar. I like to say that wisdom can only be accrued through experience – and “experience” really means “fucking up.” I made a lot of mistakes during those two-and-a-half years, but fortunately I was at a place where it didn’t cost me my job. I’ll admit there were days in New Haven where I worried that no one would find me, but I wouldn’t trade my apprenticeship there for anything. I think of it as my grad school education.
J.P.: Your dad is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. You’re also Joe Liberman’s God son—hell, you even gave me Liberman’s book (don’t think I ever returned it). What sort of role did politics play in your youth? Were you destined to be politically active/minded?
S.D.: Politics played a very big part of my youth. I take it for most people, politicians are portrayed as inept, corrupt, shallow and the like. In my house they were heroes. I mean, you couldn’t be a more romantic hero than FDR or JFK. My dad’s dad was a good old-fashioned Jewish World War II liberal. He hated Ronald Reagan with a visceral passion – and he could not countenance being friends with someone who felt otherwise. I remember one time when I asked what he would do if he found out Mom voted for Reagan. He looked at me seriously and said, “I honestly think I would have a hard time staying married to her.”
When I was 6-years old, my dad introduced Jimmy Carter at a rally. Carter came to the stage and picked me up in his arms. I think I still have a picture of that signed by him. When I was ten, my dad held a fundraiser for Ted Kennedy at our house. I still remember being upset when the Secret Service wouldn’t let me into certain parts of the house because Kennedy was speaking out back.
So to answer your question yes, I was destined to be politically minded. I am a total junkie and follow everything, but to be honest I tune a lot of it out. I’m looking to be informed, not provoked, and there is too much shouting going on from both sides. I don’t watch Hannity and O’Reilly, and I also don’t watch Olbermann and Maddow.
J.P.: Along those lines, a question I’ve always wanted to ask someone … I’ll ask you: I’m always amazed how—conservative guess here—70 percent of male college and professional head coaches are not just Republican, but very conservative. It strikes me as odd, because these are men who know the hood; who see the value and impact of social programs on the poor; who grasp what it is to struggle and come from single-parent homes and need government assistance to survive. So why do you think these guys lean so far right? And have you ever had that discussion with anyone?
S.D.: It’s funny that you have that impression, because I don’t think that is true. I actually do talk politics with a lot of coaches – I talk politics with everyone – and my sense is that you have the same breakdown amongst that group of people that you do any other. There are plenty of liberals among coaches ranks, but there are also plenty of Republicans and conservatives. Most of them actually don’t follow it that closely or consider themsleves in any camp – which is how I gather most of the country is, and probably should be. I think people’s politics depends mostly on how they were raised and by whom. So I wouldn’t say coaches on the whole are any more conservative than the rest of the population.
J.P.: You and I came up together at Sports Illustrated, so I’ve always considered you to be, first and foremost, a writer. With your TV success, is this no longer true? And did you always imagine yourself going into television and away from print?
S.D.: Very astute of you to ask, so I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I still consider myself, first and foremost, a writer. In fact, with my quote-unquote TV success, I consider it to be even more true. My writing chops is what differentiates me from others who are on TV. After all, I obviously didn’t play the game (not at any kind of high level, anyway), so I don’t have the street cred of someone like Clark Kellogg or Greg Anthony. I’m also lucky in that CBS has put in an analyst’s role that is unusual for a person with my pedigree. They don’t ask me to stick to being the “information guy.” I pick games, I break down games, I analyze games, players, teams, coaches, etc. This isn’t rocket science, after all, and I’m glad they understand that.
Most of all, my experience as a writer is invalubale to my ability to communicate on the air. I generally have a small window, perhaps 10 to 15 seconds, to get my thoughts across. Just like writing any story, you have to make decisions about what small snippet you want to emphasize, what specific point you want to make, and then articulate that point as well as possible. Those instincts are churning as I’m pouring through all my information and then deciding what goes on the air.
You may not know this, but I actually did a little stand-up comedy when I was living in New York City. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but as I like to say, for someone who sucked I wasn’t bad. I had a comedy teacher who used to tell us that if we had five minutes of stage time, go up there with four minutes of material. That way you’re not rushing to get everything in. I use that same line of thinking when I’m on the air. It’s the same thing we do as writers. We edit ourselves. (Or at least, we’re supposed to.)
J.P.: My daughter Casey is 8, and next summer she’ll be competing her Biblical requirement of following all other Jewish children to sleep-away camp. Your first book, Equinunk, Tell Your Story, is about your beloved camp, where you eventually worked as a counselor. When I try explaining summer camp to people who never went, they look at me blankly. What did summers away do for you? And why did you decide to write a book like that—as far away from sports as possible?
S.D.: My experience as a camper and counselor at Camp Equinunk was by far the most signifant, formative experience of my life. It made me who I am. Best of all, it gave me a huge community of friends who to this day are the closets and most important people in my life. Just last weekend, seven of us went away for the weekend and rented a nice log cabin right near our camp, so we could visit camp and just be together. It reminded me again how lucky I am to have such incredible friends. They’re my brothers, really.
I decided to write the book because, first and foremost, it gave me an excuse to spend another summer in camp at the ripe old age of 29. (Hey, it worked!) I had always believed that a camp summer would make for a great book. It has an obvious beginning (the buses roll in), you meet characters who succeed and fail in all sorts of intense situations, the summer has a climax (color war), and then the story comes full circle at the end (buses leave). I had actually fooled myself that I could convince a publisher to pay me, but I’m glad I didn’t know that wouldn’t happen or I never would have gone. I wrote a beautiful book and self-published it. People are still buying it, too. Every six months I get a check for 80 bucks from my publisher and I take my wife out to dinner.
And I understand about trying to explain it to other people (read: gentiles). They have to live it to know it. Of course, if they’re looking to learn a little more about the summer camp world, feel free to tell them to read (or at least buy) my book!
J.P.: You wrote a fantastic book about Magic and Bird meeting in college, and you’re now working on another sports biography (I won’t reveal the topic unless you want me to, Seth. Lemme know). I find the whole process torturous. How about you? Where do you write? How do your organize your thoughts? How do you compare writing books to writing magazine pieces?
S.D.: First of all, I have no problem revealing that I am working on a biography of John Wooden. It won’t be out for another couple of years – assuming I finish the fucking thing!!!
Writing a book is indeed torturous – but it is an exquisite torture, or we wouldn’t do it. I don’t know about you, but I find the biggest challenge is just the sheer magnitude of the task. The researching, the interviewing, the outlining, the writing, the re-writing, the re-re-writing….there is a lot of joy in that. The hard part is, just when you’ve finally polished off another 7,000-word chapter – is there anything more gratifying than hitting that print button? – it’s time to start on another. I think right now I’ve written 14 chapters in my first draft – and I’m only in 1961. That doesn’t seem like I’m that far along, but considering I started in 1910, it isn’t bad. But I have a long way to go.
I tend to do my best writing in the mornings. Which is funny, because when I first got to SI, it seemed like everybody was pulling all-nighters to meet their deadlines. I thought that’s how you’re supposed to work. But I find it very hard to write (or at least write well) when I’m tired. Although with three young boys and several fulltime jobs, it seems like I’m always tired. Organizing my material is probably the hardest part, as I’m sure you can relate. I’ve become the master at using interns – college students and other eager beavers who think I’m doing them a huge favor by assigning them lots of tedious work and not paying them for it.
I think when people think about the difficulties of writing a book, they imagine the writer huddled over his laptop in agony, wondering what word to type next. When you do something that is so research-intensive, writing is the payoff, the real joy. Yes, writing is hard, but when you’re rolling, and you see all that hard work come to life on the printed page, it is a thrilling high.
J.P.: I get the feeling that a lot of print reporters go to TV for ego. Being recognized in an airport; having people say, “Hey, aren’t you …” I’m not saying this is the case with you, but how much of an ego buzz comes from television recognition? And do you think it’s a driving force for the careers of some?
S.D.: Yes, it’s cool to be recognized in airports, restaurants, arenas, etc. Not gonna deny that. But frankly, it wouldn’t last long as a driving force to go into a chosen career. And in my case, it certainly doesn’t happen enough even if that were the case.
At the end of the day, you have to enjoy the work, or you can’t do it (or at least, can’t be good at it). What makes TV fun is the excitement of doing it, of being at a big event like the Final Four, going on live TV knowing a lot of people are watching, and having a chance to have a genuine impact with the very little airtime that I am given. As you might imagine, a lot of people ask me which I like better, writing or being on TV. My answer is always the same: TV is more fun, but writing is more gratifying.
J.P.: One reason I left Sports Illustrated when I did was because I simply got worn down by the day-to-day repetition of sports. Someone wins, someone loses, someone surprises, someone disappoints. You’ve now covered, in one way or another, 20 or so NCAA Tournaments and seasons. Are you ever just like, “I don’t give a shit anymore”? Do you ever tire of the games?
S.D.: I never, ever, ever tire of the games. If I weren’t covering them, I’d still be watching. But your point is well-taken. There is a certain sameness to covering season after season – Midnight Madness to the preseason runup to the nonconference season to the conference season to Selection Sunday to the tournament. If anything gets to me sometimes, it’s not the sameness, it’s the smallness. I turn on the radio sometimes and hear people breaking down in minute detail things that obviously do not deserve so much attention. Then again, as I mentioned before I’m a political junkie as well, and there is a lot of smallness in political reporting, too. It’s an interesting paradox, no? Politics is something that is genuinely important, yet people who cover it make it small and talk about it as if it’s a sport. And sports is genuinely unimportant, yet we talk about it like it’s life or death.
• Rank in order: Paul Tsongas, Spencer Dunkley, Mitt Romney, Mouse McFadden, Michael Dukakis, Jason Bateman, your mailbox, Celine Dion: Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis, Spencer Dunkely, Jason Bateman, Mouse McFadden, my mailbox, Celine Dion, Mitt Romney. You could pretty much come up with any list (pestilence, lice, killing of the first born) and Romney would probably end up last.
• Five best non-Duke college basketball players you’ve ever seen: Len Bias, Tyler Hansbrough, Juan Dixon, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette.
• Five best Duke players you’ve ever seen: Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Shane Battier, Jason Williams.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: I have never had that experience (and hope I never will). But last week I got a tweet from Deadspin saying they wanted me to email them so they could ask me something in private. The seven minutes between when I sent my email and they replied were the longest of my life. It occurred to me that that’s what it must feel like if you think your plane is about to crash. Turned out that it was much ado about nothing, but it was scary.
• Ever considered running for office? A possibility in the future?: I actually have considered it, but never to the point where I would actually do it. The truth is, I really don’t know enough to hold public office. Of course that hasn’t stopped many people from running – but the point is it should.
• ESPN offers you $900,000 to team up with Stuart Scott for 350 SportsCenters a year: Despite his North Carolina pedigree, I actually like and respect Stuart Scott. (I met him once but I don’t know him.) But if I’m doing SportsCenter 350 days a year, that means I have 15 days off all year. So you’re gonna have to add another zero.
• Fill in the last line: Knock knock. Who’s there? Moses Scurry. Moses Scurry who?: Moses Scurry who was more famous for being in a hot tub with a known sports fixer than on a basketball court. My kinda guy!
• Do you think Pat Summitt would have made a capable DI men’s basketball coach?: Absolutely not. I think Pat Summitt would have been a GREAT men’s coach. I have been saying for years that an AD should hire a woman to coach his mens team. If I were an AD at a D-3 school, I would do that if for no other reason than the publicity. People who say that a woman can’t motivate male players are wrong. If you control someone’s scholarship and playing time, you can motivate them.
• Could an openly gay player survive on most DI basketball rosters?: I’m assuming many already have. Kids are a lot smarter than grownups (especially grownups who vote Republican).
• Are you holding out any hope for the Kid ‘n’ Play reunion?: Openly rooting against it.