Inside TSL: Interviewing the Big Names
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #5

In the last few months, due to the launch of the TSL Extra, I have worked much harder at getting quality interviews than I ever did. Prior to the TSL Extra, my most notable interviews were with Bill Roth (1997), Jim Druckenmiller (1999), and Andre Ray (2000).

But since the launch of the TSLX, I've done more interviews. I've had the opportunity to talk to a few recruits (Justin Hamilton and Will Hunt), their high school coaches, and their pleasant and chatty moms. Plus, I have interviewed former Hokie Huddler editor and "Turn up the Wick!" author Chris Colston. I have also done an interview with former backup QB Dave Meyer that has been transcribed and is waiting to be turned into an article (or a series of articles -- that one will probably wind up out on the free area of the web site, and not in the TSLX).

In the past, I was reluctant to pursue interviews aggressively. Number one, they're very time-consuming. First you have to type up questions, then do the interview, then transcribe the interview. My hour-long interview with Dave Meyer, for example, was eleven pages when I typed it up (Dave is from New Jersey, and man, can he talk fast).

Number two, as most of you are aware, Virginia Tech does not allow TechSideline.com (i.e., me) access to Virginia Tech players and coaches for interviews. This greatly reduces the pool of people I can talk to.

Sure, if I wanted to interview Lee Suggs, I could do an end-run around the VT Sports Information Department (SID), look up Lee Suggs's number in the phone book, and just call him up. I would get my interview, but (1) it would anger the SID, and one day, when I do get press credentials, I'll have to work with him, so for now, I'll respect them and not do a shortcut around them; and (2) Lee Suggs himself could get chewed out by the SID for talking to someone that was not cleared by the athletic department to interview him.

The third reason I haven't done many interviews is because of the negative connotations associated with Internet journalists and the resistance to treating them as legitimate media. For example, if I was to call up the Baltimore Ravens, introduce myself as "Will Stewart of TechSideline.com" and try to set up an interview with Cornell Brown, I would probably get told to take a hike.

If, on the other hand, I was to call them up as "Will Stewart from the Roanoke Times" I would probably get treated a lot better.

I suppose that being treated as a pariah by the very athletic department whose sports programs I'm trying to cover has caused me to be a little shy about trying to set up interviews with people. That's the wrong attitude for me to take, but after years of being stonewalled and shut out by VT, I've no doubt absorbed a little bit of their "I'm not worthy" outlook with regards to TechSideline.com.

The athletic department's anti-TSL stance is a big concern for me. Whenever I'm preparing to talk to someone new, I have no idea who has been told what about me and my web site in advance, so I never know if I'm going to come up against an interview subject who has been brainwashed by the Tech athletic administration into believing that I've got horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. Laugh if you want, but there is a ton of misinformation that is spread by the athletic administration about TechSideline.com and Will Stewart. One day we'll get past all that, but for now, it's there, believe me.

But the advent of the TSL Extra has started to change my outlook. The TSLX is a subscription service for which people are laying down their hard-earned money, so I feel a responsibility to pony up good material -- and that includes interviews and perspectives from the people associated with Virginia Tech athletics.

That has led to me being a little more aggressive with pursuing interviews. I've had the opportunity to talk to some great people since then, most notably recruits and their families.

But this issue took it to another level for me. I talked to one of the giants of Virginia Tech football, Corey Moore, and as far as recruiting interviews go, there's none bigger than this month's whopper with Kevin Jones and his dad (mostly his dad -- more about that in a minute).

The Interview With Corey

I went about getting the interviews in similar fashion. Namely, I simply emailed them and asked. In Corey's case, I blundered upon an old email exchange I had with a woman who had done some work with him recently, getting him to sign some jerseys that were then distributed to VT Alumni Association chapters for fund-raising. She had exchanged emails with Corey, so I asked her for his email address and sent him the following email:

Corey: this is Will Stewart, the GM and Managing Editor of TechSideline.com (we used to be called HokieCentral.com, which I think you had heard of -- you may not have caught the switch to TechSideline.com that we made last November). I'm interested in interviewing you, to catch up with you and see how your career is going. Are you available and interested? Let me know, and we can set up a phone interview. Thanks --- Will

Corey's answer came within a couple of days:

Will, I am in Blacksburg as we speak so if you want to give me a call at 540 xxx-xxxx or 961-xxxx and I will be glad to set up a time to speak with you.

I called him, we set up the interview, and the next day, I made up my list of questions and buzzed him back on his cell phone. In my basement office, I've got a hand-held voice recorder that I patch into the office phone, and all I have to do is hit the Record button to record my phone conversations. That way, I can talk to people without having to take notes or type things up.

Later on, I slip the tape into a dictation machine with one of those foot pedals that you use to control the playback function. That's how I transcribe my interviews.

Corey was very accommodating, as you can imagine. The Corey Moore that you have seen in the media the last few years is the genuine article. He's talkative, expresses himself well, and answers the questions asked of him. During the preparation for the 2000 Sugar Bowl, he became a bit of a raving lunatic, but other than that, he's a down-to-earth guy who is easy to talk to.

Speaking of that Sugar Bowl, I didn't ask him about that. The focus of my interview was his burgeoning career in Buffalo, not his Hokie past. And it's probably best that I didn't ask him about the national championship game, because I found out later that the memory is a sore spot for Corey, and it's best left alone.

If you remember, he was a total non-factor in that game. FSU double-teamed him and shut him down, and I believe he had a grand total of one tackle and no sacks. For a guy who ran his mouth a lot in the weeks leading up to the game, it was an embarrassing performance, and something that he would rather forget.

I was told that Corey's Sugar Bowl jersey now hangs in Greg Roberts' Sports Club in Roanoke. The person who told me that said that Corey told Greg words to the effect of, "Here, take it -- I don't want the (bleep)ing thing."

That's too bad, and like I said, it's probably best that I didn't ask him about the topic of the Sugar Bowl.

I did ask him what he thought about the 2000 edition of the Hokies, and as you can tell from the article, Corey thinks a lot about the Hokies. The way I presented it in the story is exactly the way it happened. I asked him, "What's your take on the success that the Virginia Tech team had this past year, in the 2000 season? Did they do a little better than you expected? Did you get a chance to follow them?" And his response was seven paragraphs long and included almost every active player on the Virginia Tech roster.

Man, that guy loves the Hokies.

Kevin Jones er, Thomas Jones

Procuring an interview with Kevin Jones and his dad wasn't as easy. My first contact info for the Joneses came from Jeff Ouellet, an attorney/sports agent and avowed TSL fan who lives and works in Pennsylvania. Jeff contacted me via email, we got to talking, and the next thing I knew, he was offering to write an article for the TSLX, and to give me Kevin Jones's phone number. I said yes to both.

My first attempt to call the Joneses at home was strange, to say the least. I dialed the number, someone picked it up and said nothing. I waited, thinking maybe I had gotten a poorly-recorded message on an answering machine. When 5-10 seconds went by with no greeting, I said, "Hello? Hello?" and promptly got hung up on.

Hmm, strange. I called back immediately, and this time, the phone rang eight times, and I got a voice mail message. So I left my name, number, and email address, and then hung up.

And I waited. And for days, there was no answer. I was thinking about that first phone call, and I wondered if the ultra-busy Joneses had some sort of system set up whereby they picked up the phone, and you were supposed to give some secret password or say something like, "The dried up old Lion can no longer get top recruits," or something like that. If they didn't hear that, they would hang up.

I called the number again and once again, I got the answering machine/voice mail.

So I contacted Gorden Blain, a high school sports reporter for PA Sports Fever, which is found on the web at pennpreps.rivals.com (PA Sports Fever's photographer, George Zurick, provided me with this month's great cover photo). Gorden was the first journalist to break the story of the strength and conditioning programs at VT and PSU being a major issue for the Joneses. He is very good at what he does and has talked to the Joneses a number of times.

Gorden told me that the Joneses had no such system and were in fact very media friendly. "Call them up again," he said, "they'll talk to you."

But, as I told you before, I'm still a little shy, especially when it comes to the big guns like the Joneses, so I didn't call back right away.

Fortunately, right about that time, a new poster called "Football Coach 2" showed up on the TSL Recruiting message board. Thomas Jones had spent a lot of time posting on the BWI (Penn State) board while Kevin was being recruited, under the name "Football Coach," so when "Football Coach 2" showed up on the TSL message board, I immediately looked up his profile in our database.

"Thomas Jones" was the poster's registered name. I dropped him an email, asked him if I could interview him and Kevin, and things happened very quickly after that.

Gorden Blain was right, the Joneses are very accommodating, despite the intense pressure that months of recruiting must have put on them. I found Thomas Jones in particular to be very talkative, as you can tell from the interview, and very open about things.

Kevin was much more reticent. Interviewing 17 and 18 year old kids, I have found out, is a hit-or-miss proposition. Some of them are relatively expressive, like Justin Hamilton and Will Hunt, but others, like Pulaski County's Jeff King (whom I interviewed last fall) and Kevin Jones give short, one-or-two-line answers. They're just kids, and perhaps they don't want to "say anything stupid," or maybe they're just shy.

By the way, I never did find out what happened during that first phone call when no one spoke and they hung up on me. Thomas Jones said it was probably just one of the kids (they have four, I think) playing around.

Learning As I Go Along

In any event, I'm still a very mediocre interviewer. I'm not a trained journalist (I'm an electrical engineer by training and a software engineer by work experience), so I've never been schooled in how to approach an interview subject.

I don't know how others do it, but the way I do it -- having a prepared list of questions, setting up the recorder, and then having a conversation directed by the questions -- is what works for me so far. I do well with people like Corey Moore and Thomas Jones, who like to talk, but I'm still very bad at bringing people like Jeff King and Kevin Jones out of their shell.

I'm finally starting to get over the nervousness, though. I used to be just a fan, sitting in Section 15, Row WW of Lane Stadium, so calling up people who are associated with Tech athletics and talking to them still carries with it a bit of a "Should I be doing this?" feeling.

But that feeling is going away. I run a web site read by thousands of Hokie fans, and I have a paying subscriber base who deserves good coverage and good articles, so it's my job, and I've got to do it.

Oddly enough, the "thrill" of talking to a Corey Moore or a Kevin Jones is overshadowed by concerns that plague me as I do the interview. Namely, will I ask the right questions? Will I get the information that the fans and readers want to know? Does the person I'm interviewing think I'm asking dumb questions? If I ask a somewhat controversial question, will they go off on me?

(After all, Thomas Jones started our interview off by saying "I don't want to talk about Penn State," which was the subject of roughly one quarter of my questions. So when he said that, I was wondering what was going to happen later in the interview. It turned out just fine. He did talk about Penn State when I asked.)

So overall, I'm no longer the "giddy fan" thrilled about being able to talk to these guys. I've got a job to do, and I want to make sure that when I interview someone, the end result is something that you, the readers, will think is worth your time and more importantly, your money.

I'm already thinking about who I'm going to talk to next month. Corey Moore and Kevin and Thomas Jones were great subjects for this issue, and I'm proud of the way both articles turned out, but mid-April, and issue #6 of the TSL Extra, will be here before you know it. Time to get crackin'.

See you next month.

 

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