What I remember most about my first meeting with Dan Mullen as a Mississippi State beat reporter was him grinning as he said, “Well, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, right?”
We were in his office. We sat across from each other at his desk, and his hands were often clasped behind his head. We traded stories of our Northeast roots — I shared my upbringing in Queens, he shared how he made sure to show kids the view from the bridge while recruiting for Columbia — as we sat in Starkville, Miss. He did most of the questioning that day and offered that line in response to one of my answers about my career.
Mullen, of course, didn’t invent that phrase, and he’s far from the only coach to use it. But out of all of Mullen’s often-used lines, that one has always stuck with me — yes, it gives “strain” a run for its money — and every time I heard him say it again, I always remembered that day.
Now, it’s a phrase that fits neatly in explaining why I am again covering Mullen and his football program, this time in Gainesville as The Athletic’s Florida Gators beat reporter. But to fully explain why I am here, I have to rewind a lot further.
My grandfather called me weekly when I was growing up. We talked sports, always. Usually, toward the end of each phone conversation, he would share which sports books or articles he had recently been reading and what he had learned from them about his favorite players and coaches.
I knew that was my cue to look for a UPS package in the coming days.
I started to receive books in the mail from him after I moved from Orlando (where he lived) to Queens when I was 7. The books arrived on Christmases. They were delivered on birthdays. And they showed up randomly whenever he finished reading one that he thought I should read, too. At first, they went untouched and formed large piles in my bedroom. I can’t remember the moment that changed, but it was likely out of curiosity about a particular sports figure when I decided to actually read one … then a second … and a third …
Mike Royko. Richard Ben Cramer. Jimmy Cannon.
I became more interested in their words, their deliveries and their voices than their subjects’ worlds. Who they happened to capture became immaterial. Regardless of the subject, I realized I was able to relate to a well-known figure I had never met because of quality writing and journalism.
That’s how I knew I was hooked.
In a fourth-grade autobiography dated Feb. 8, 2000, I wrote that I wanted to “become a sports writer and receive awards.”
Big goals, I know.
But I never seriously second-guessed wanting to do this. You can’t afford to when you pack up your belongings in a Yaris and drive 14-plus hours from New York City to Auburn, Ala., for a job that pays $28,000 as you approach your mid-20s. I was all-in on this career.
That is, until Dec. 31, 2017.
That was the day after I covered Mississippi State’s win against Louisville in the TaxSlayer Bowl to cap a wild year on the Mississippi State beat for The Clarion-Ledger.
Colleagues told me I had done well, and some affirmation later came in the form of a top-10 APSE award for beat writing. But that didn’t provide much gratification. I hadn’t done enough stories of high impact and high quality, I thought, because I was handcuffed by a mix of archaic newspaper content rules and deadlines that result in lesser quality of work. When success is almost exclusively measured in page views that you know how to generate, you can quickly become too comfortable.
Maybe that was part of the reason I was unsatisfied and not having fun in this space. For the first time, I seriously questioned whether this path featuring mediocre pay and long hours was worth being 1,000 miles away from the most important people in my life. The backdrop of massive layoffs in the industry contributed to my gloomy outlook. I was exhausted, burned out and disinterested.
I retreated to New York — where most of my family and closest friends still live — for a two-week vacation. I made a decision as I sat on that plane somewhere in the sky headed toward Queens: I was going to return to Mississippi with the conviction of knowing one way or the other if I wanted to continue to do this or not.
So I read. A lot. Those books from my grandfather that I left in New York with my mother? I perused a few. Then I finally did something I had been delaying: I subscribed to The Athletic.
In-depth profile pieces. Rich film breakdowns. Analytical-based pieces. Creative storytelling. It was all there without the presence of any ads.
I was hooked again.
After consuming content on The Athletic for more hours than my relatives likely preferred, I was rejuvenated and inspired (yes, really; as a cynic, I don’t use those words loosely). I boarded the plane to Mississippi with a new goal: I was going to work for The Athletic. I had to, because this is the place to be for quality journalism presented with sophistication about your favorite sports, teams and figures.
And so here I am, Florida Gators beat writer for The Athletic, and, yes, I’m again covering several of the same coaches and faces I covered at Mississippi State.
I know these guys, and most of them know me well, too.
I know their strengths, weaknesses. I know how they recruit, what they look for. I know their offenses, their defenses, their patterns. I was the only reporter in the room asking Mullen about potentially leaving Mississippi State after the Bulldogs lost to rival Ole Miss in the final game of the regular season, and I explained why it would and wouldn’t make sense for him to do so. I chatted with Ron English about how a profanity-laced rant not only cost him a job but also forced him to change. I learned why Todd Grantham has a knack for fixing defenses through long conversations with him and those from his past like Frank Beamer.
The twist is that this is Florida. The stakes are higher for everyone. That excites me.
Understanding the whys and hows behind things by piecing together the small details that matter will continue to drive my reporting and writing. I won’t waste your time here with 300-word stories on a backup lineman’s sprained ankle that 12 reporters have tweeted about or a rushed story about a game you already watched and I had to mostly miss because of a deadline.
Instead, I’ll examine recruiting, injuries, wins/losses and coaching changes through a critical lens and put it all in the context of the season and explain what it means. I’ll offer human-interest stories, long features, in-depth profiles, analytical stories and film breakdowns. For this to work, it has to be an insightful and entertaining experience for you, and my job is to help create that.
Put simply, if it’s not interesting, fun or important, chances are you won’t see it here. The idea is to continue to get better and provide you with the kind of stories my grandfather would have read, because I think you’ll find them worthwhile, too.
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