I have been to the Big Dance and back. But I’m not sure how to feel about it. Or rather, I’m not sure how others in the sports journalism biz expect me to feel about it.

So I’m just going to put my cards on the table.

My primary beat in the sports department at Argus Leader Media (we’re no longer just a newspaper) is covering South Dakota State, a gig I’ve held since 2006. This year, for the first time and not long removed from dire straits (the first SDSU game I covered was a 55-point loss, the start of a 6-24 season), the Jackrabbits qualified for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. And, yes, the full name is necessary in that South Dakota was the last state in the U.S. and A. to get Division I sports. For the longest time, “national tournament” meant something very different around here.

Bob Ryan has become a celebrity for his work.

To be clear, sports writers – at least the credible/properly trained ones – don’t cheer for the teams they cover. It’s unprofessional, at best. However, there’s no denying that our careers – and to some extent our lives – go as the teams we cover. If SDSU wins a bunch of games, as it did this year, starting with a blowout win at the University of Washington just before Christmas, my stories get more reads and the people quoted in them are generally easier to deal with.

The primary reason I gave up a comfortable job in Fargo, N.D., was to move into a D-I beat. To that end, covering a team playing in the Big Dance was a part of the plan, even though that was out of my control. In theory, it would be good experience and good exposure. See, I haven’t completely given up on the idea of moving up on the writing world even if I’m not actively seeking new employment and/or not entirely convinced I’m capable of such a promotion. Maybe I’d make new contacts at the tournament. Maybe I’d end up recapping the season for a national outlet via telephone. Maybe somebody would run across my clips and offer me a new opportunity. Not for sure – just maybe. It’s happened before. At least, it probably has. (Right?)

However, it didn’t go like that in my two days in Albuquerque, N.M. Turns out scribes weren’t there scouting talent; they were grinding, just like me. Everyone kept their heads down, their mouths shut (other than to inhale free food) and did their work. Well, almost everyone.

The first person I saw when pulling up to the media hotel on press-conference day: Bob Ryan of Boston Globe and PTI fame. Later, there were encounters with Spero Dedes of CBS and Andy Katz of ESPN. Pulitzer Price winner George Dohrmann was there, too, doing a book signing. Needless to say, no one asked for my autograph. Nor should they have. But it’s weird having such a clear and wide divide between the ink-stained wretches and the media celebrities even though both groups are essentially there doing the same job.

(On a related note, it’s weird having big names suddenly paying attention to your beat. It’s so rare in this part of the world that it’s initially worthy of coverage – yes, coverage of coverage – because it theoretically has an impact on the program. Plus, fans/readers see it as interesting. But at some point it gets old and you stop making news of the news. After that, there are fleeting moments of “You know, I’ve been covering this team all along and have experiences and insights that go beyond what can be worked into a 30-second overview.” Or am I alone in feeling territorial about a beat? But I digress … )

It was awkward talking to Ryan and Katz, for example. They were completely cordial and professional, far more comfortable with the situation than I was. It wasn’t an intimidation thing – I’ve been doing this long enough to have gotten over that. It was more the idea that they’re more visible, more accomplished and more compensated than everybody else in the room. Some people try to ignore those facts and others are drawn to the differences, going out of their way to make nice – to almost act like fans rather than colleagues.

Anyway, there were press conferences and practices and deadlines and just one game – the Jacks had a 3-point shot to get within one of Baylor clank off the rim in the final minute. Their stay in the tournament and therefore my stay in the tournament: One game (although I did stick around after deadline to catch the end of the UNLV-Colorado game, and was surprised to see that Runnin’ Rebs fans still do the shark chomp even though namesake Jerry Tarkanian hasn’t coached there for years).

Two hours after filing my last story, I was on a cab to the airport, bound for West Lafayette, Ind., and the opening round of the Division I women’s tournament. A couple days later, I was back home and shortly after that I was on furlough.

My dalliance with the Dance was a rewarding experience, indeed, even if not the career breakthrough – the “One Shining Moment” – that I fantasized it might be. Hopefully, I’ll be back, perhaps even get to see the second round (the “real” second round, by the way, not the so-called third round). If not, well, I’ll write about that, too, because there are far more mid-major writers than Cinderella stories.

  1. Rich Jensen says:

    The way I look at it is if you act normal around a guy like Bob Ryan, you’re doing him a favor.

    How many new people does he meet that treat him like a guy doing a job? Has to be a break for people like him to not feel like they have to be ‘on’ every time they meet a new face.

  2. Jeff says:

    Nice company you work for that says, ‘Wow, you busted your butt through football and basketball seasons. You wrote hundreds of stories. And we’re going to reward you with a week off, an unpaid week off.’

    What a joke.

    • To be honest, we’ve had so many in the last few years (5+) that I think I’ve become desensitized to it. Doesn’t even faze me anymore.
      But I appreciate the sentiment. I know you can relate.

  3. shawnfury says:

    Agreed Rich. Of course, there are also guys from little weeklies in S.D. who probably get sweaty and shaky when meeting Terry “Sioux Falls” Vandrovec too. He takes it in stride, although I think it’s a bit much that he says you can’t look him in the eye unless your circulation is 25K-plus.

  4. Mark says:

    Well done, TV. Selfishly I hope you don’t move on to bigger and better things, because I appreciate your coverage of SDSU.

    Bob Ryan has always struck as a down to Earth kind of guy. Unlike others in the sports media biz (Peter King). I’m sure he enjoyed talking with a colleague.

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