Bob Smizik: Ask Bob, Bob answers

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In the second installment of the latest version of ‘Ask Bob, Bob Answers,’ the future of newspapers and high school sports are on the agenda as well as Dan Marino and the great newspaper columnist Jim Murray.

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TJ Boors: What do you think is one of the most difficult challenges facing sports reporters/columnists with the slow decline of the print media? Having said that do you enjoy the electronic media more or less now than you did years ago?

The biggest challenge facing the entire newspaper business is maintaining readership. A generation, at least, has grown up with little interest in getting its news from the printed page. The entire industry faces daunting challenges.

The challenge facing sports reporters/columnists is not much different than what they’ve been since television came on the scene, but today they are even more heightened. Since the advent of the 11 p.m. newscast, most people know what has happened to the team and/or sport that most interests them by the time they pick up their newspaper. The Internet has made the 11 p.m. newscast fairly irrelevant, at least for the informed sports fans, and with its immediacy makes the challenges for newspapers even greater.

People writing for newspapers have to find something different to interest their readers other than the scores or the details of the game. Even quotes, once what set afternoon newspapers apart, are easily available to readers before they pick up their print product.

All that said and understood, I think the only salvation for newspapers is the expertise it can bring to its readers. Beat reporters should be and usually are the most informed people in the region on the team they are covering. They should be the reigning experts. No one in the media or anywhere else spends more time with the teams. Neither television nor the Internet has been able to provide this kind of specific expertise. Beat reporters need to use their knowledge to lure readers to what they write. It’s long been a staple of the newspaper industry that reporters stick to the facts and columnists present opinions. That has shifted over the years and it needs to become even more pronounced. If a beat reporter is the most informed person on his team, it’s a waste of time to have him bother with game detail, etc.

This newspaper reporter/expert idea is compromised by the fact so many of these people are giving away their information, sometimes for free, on radio and television. Let me add, I’ve done that myself, so I’m not condemning the practice. It is a dilemma because on one hand appearing in the electronic media is a sign to fans that the particular reporter is an expert, which should want to make the fans read what he or she has to write in the paper. What I’ve found is I learn more from such people in their radio-TV appearances than I do from their newspaper stories. That needs to stop.

I’ve been removed from the print journalism for five years and for all but a few months of that time I’ve been writing for the Internet. I have found my new niche quite enjoyable.

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William McKnight: When the Steelers passed on Dan Marino in the draft, did you have any idea or inkling that he would turn out to be the QB he did? In other words at the time did you think it was a big mistake?

I covered every game of Marino’s college career and there was no doubt in my mind he would be a great NFL quarterback. I remember saying to a colleague about John Elway, who we had read so much about but rarely saw: ''I’d like to see him play because I can’t believe he’s better than Marino.’’

Marino not only had the skills -- powerful arm, quick release -- he had the intangibles -- extreme cool combined with a large degree of leadership. His performance declined in his senior season and that probably had something to do with him falling in the draft. There were rumors circulating he was involved with recreational drugs. That might have hurt his stock, too. Here’s how the QBs went in the 1983 draft: Elway 1, Todd Blackledge 7, Jim Kelly 14, Tony Eason 15, Ken O’Brien 24, Marino 27.

Had there been an NFL Combine in 1983, I have no doubt Marino would have been taken earlier.

At the time, it was not a mistake for the Steelers to bypass Marino. They were well-stocked at quarterback with Terry Bradshaw, Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone. Bradshaw was nearing the end of his career, but no one suspected 1983 would be his final season. Stoudt was a highly regarded backup and the Steelers had used a No. 1 pick on Malone in 1980. With their other needs, it made little sense to select a quarterback.

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Wayne Leise: Who were the five biggest jerks you ever tried to interview or get a comment from?

Locally, Greg Lloyd stands well above the pack. He not only could be mean and nasty to the media, he was that way to employees around the Steelers offices. From a personal involvement, since he once threatened me, I’d say former Steelers defensive end Donald Evans would be No. 2. Barry Bonds would be No. 3, although not nearly as bad as he’s been characterized. 4. Tom Barrasso could be flat-out brilliant when he was willing to cooperate, but too often he was not. 5. Silent Steve Carlton.

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Johnny Ollins: My all-time favorite sports columnist was the late Jim Murray. I remember as a youth scrambling around to buy a copy of the LA Times. It seems today that columnists the quality of Jim Murray have gone the way of the dinosaur. Do you find there are a dearth of top quality sports columnists today?

Jim Murray was a giant of print journalism. His unique style -- one liners mixed with hyperbole -- will never be duplicated. I once had a book, ''The Best of Jim Murray,’’ which was a treasure. I knew him a bit and I can tell you he was a good guy, a gentleman and, although quotes rarely showed up in his stories, a diligent interviewer.

These are the first four paragraphs of Murray writing about Michael Jordan or, as the LA Times later called it, ''The Greatest on the Greatest.’’

''You go to see Michael Jordan play basketball for the same reason you went to see Astaire dance, Olivier act or the sun set over Canada. It's art. It should be painted, not photographed.

''It's not a game, it's a recital. He's not merely a player, he's a virtuoso. Heifetz with a violin. Horowitz at the piano.

''He doesn't even play the game where everyone else does. He plays it from the air. He comes in for a landing every now and then, usually from above the basket. Then he stays on the runway for a while till the next takeoff. You get the feeling the other players don't know where he has gone till he cups his mouth and shouts down "Up here!" He should probably be wearing a cape and high boots.

''What he's doing is making a shambles of the game of basketball, laying waste to the landscape. He's as unstoppable as tomorrow.’’

Here’s another example of Murray’s greatness:

"I lost an old friend the other day. He was blue-eyed, impish, he cried a lot with me, saw a great many things with me. I don't know why he left me. Boredom, perhaps

''We read a lot of books together, we did a lot of crossword puzzles together, we saw films together. He had a pretty exciting life. He saw Babe Ruth hit a home run when we were both 12 years old. He saw Willie Mays steal second base, he saw Maury Wills steal his 104th base. He saw Rocky Marciano get up. I thought he led a pretty good life.’’

He was writing about losing his sight after five failed attempts to reattach a retina.

After a Los Angeles Lakers playoff game against Seattle in 1979, Muhammad Ali saw Murray and said, "Jim Murray! Jim Murray! The greatest sportswriter of all time!"

There was still many good columnists in the country, but not another Murray. Bill Plaschke, who has Murray’s old job at the Los Angeles Times, is one of the best still in print journalism. On the Internet, Tom Verducci and Peter King at SI.com and Jason Whitlock and Jason Stark at ESPN immediately come to mind.

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John Cook: Do you think that high school athletics will split into a public group and a private group each vying for their own state championships, the way it was when there used to be a Catholic state champ in basketball? And, do you think that would be good for high school athletics? If it did, it seems like the recruiting that the public schools complain about so much would become even worse.

If the public high schools and the people who oversee their athletics -- that would be the WPIAL and PIAA -- are interested in a level playing field, then the kind of changes you suggest should be implemented.

I am strongly in favor of separating public and private school when it comes to determining postseason champions. As Joe DeGregorio, then coaching basketball at Upper St. Clair, once told me when discussing this issues, ''I thought high school sports were supposed to be one community against another.’’ That is a belief I, too, shared. It's no longer true.

I don’t want to say private schools are ruining high school sports because that puts too much emphasis on winning titles. That’s not what high school sports are about. However, titles are important and the private schools have an enormous advantage, particularly in basketball where one or two players can make such a difference.

Public schools usually have geographic boundaries. Private schools do not. My favorite example of this was the great Oakland Catholic girls basketball teams of the turn of this century. I believe one season they had five Division I players on their team. Two of them lived in Westmoreland County.

Lincoln Park has become a basketball power because it can enroll players without regard to geography. I should point out that a small number of public schools manage to twist the rules in their favor with recruiting.

Two high schools coaches for whom I have immense respect are Jim Render, Upper St. Clair football, and Tim McConnell, Chartiers Valley basketball. The regularly produce championship-level teams by using players who live within the boundaries of their school districts. It can be done. That makes the accomplishment so much more meaningful. What’s the big deal about winning a title with an all-star team?


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