Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Interview with Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel

Do I have a treat for you all today, or what? Stewart Mandel is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and college basketball. He has covered nine BCS national championship games and five Final Fours. He is also the author of my favorite sports-related book, "Bowls, Polls & Tattered Souls: Tackling the Chaos and Controversy That Reign Over College Football." Simply put, the man knows what he's talking about. He has been on sabbatical since February and returns to SI.com with a new College Football Mailbag tomorrow. He was kind enough to take the time and grant me an interview. Enjoy.

4th&Fail: You went to Northwestern's famed school of journalism. I'm currently a journalism student at the University of Florida, and in my reporting class, we heard a lot about the "Medill F." Do you have any horror stories from your days at Northwestern?

Mandel: I do, in fact. One time, I suffered the roller-coaster experience of having my newswriting teacher read one of my assignments to the class, presumably as a model of what he was looking for, only to have him notice a misspelling he'd failed to detect the first time and thus change the grade right there in front of everyone.

4th&Fail: I enjoyed your book, "Bowls, Polls & Tattered Souls," and it's my favorite book on sports. Can you tell me some about the entire process you went through with the book, and what the most difficult part of writing the book was?

Mandel: It was a very long process due in large part to the fact that the football/basketball schedules meant I had to work on it almost entirely during the spring/summer downtime. So the spring/summer of 2005 was spent on the proposal that gets pitched to publishers; the spring/summer of '06 is when I wrote 8 of the 10 chapters, then finished it up after the '06 season. Writing it wasn't as difficult as I feared, probably because the subject matter was so familiar, it was just a matter of time management and staying on course to meet deadlines.

4th&Fail: You've been in the business for over a decade now. Do you ever say to yourself, "Wow, I'm actually getting paid to write about sports?"

Mandel: I wish I told myself that more often. For most of my 20s, I definitely felt like I was on a constant high, as I was getting to do exactly what I'd aspired to as a kid. I don't mean to burst your bubble, because I certainly remember what it's like to be young and starting out in the business, but as you get older it does start to feel more like an actual job. Don't get me wrong, I still love getting to go to big games, writing the Mailbag, uncovering a great story, etc., but there are hassles and pressures just like any other job.

4th&Fail: What has been your favorite moment in your 10+ years in journalism?

Mandel: It's hard to pinpoint just one. Many of my best memories are actually from college, getting to cover Big Ten football and basketball at 19 years old. I was like a kid at a candy store. At SI, I would say two: By sheer luck, I was assigned to the NCAA tournament region where George Mason upset UConn to to go the Final Four. That was a real joy to cover history in the making. And in football, standing right next to the end zone when Vince Young crossed the goal line to beat USC.

4th&Fail: In February, SI.com announced you would be going on sabbatical "to work on other projects." At least part of that is your Web site, stewartmandel.com. What made you decide to compile non-sports related essays?

Mandel: After 10-plus years in the college sports bubble, I just wanted a chance to step away for a little while and try my hand at something else. I've always enjoyed humor writing, and many of the topics I wound up writing about had been tossing around in my head for as long as two years. But the sabbatical was more for my own personal growth than the actual writing part. In the Mailbag I have coming out tomorrow, I talk about what a cathartic experience it was to watch this year's NCAA tourney purely as a fan. When your career is sports, you tend to lose touch with your inner-fan, and it was great to be able to reconnect with those feelings.

4th&Fail: Can we hope to see another book from you anytime in the future?
If so, what would you want to write about this time around?

Mandel: When I come up with one, I'll let you know.

4th&Fail: Any clues or insider information on who this season's Mailbag Crush might be?

Mandel: Ditto.

4th&Fail: As a columnist, obviously everyone isn't going to agree with your opinion on everything, but do you ever get tired of some of those Mailbag readers calling you an idiot? Or do you just get a kick out of posting their insults in the Mailbag and answering with a witty one-liner?

Mandel: I have pretty thick skin, but I'd be lying if I said it doesn't get old after a while. Most of the supposed "hate mail" is really just fans expressing their passion for their favorite team. I understand that, and I do genuinely get a kick out of the ones you see me publish sometimes where a person's zeal for their team causes them to go way over the top about something. I'm fine with that. I understand it, and it's amusing.

But the annual, December BCS angst is another story. During the whole Texas/Oklahoma controversy last year, it got to the point where I just had to stop reading my mail. I understand people are frustrated with the system. As a journalist, I do my best to provide an informed and objective explanation for why things are the way they are, but the reality is, most people don't want to hear it. They just want to complain.

4th&Fail: Do you think we'll see a playoff system implemented in college football in, let's say, the next decade or two?

Mandel: A playoff won't come about until a new generation of college presidents comes into power. Once those currently in their 60s and 70s eventually give way to people who are only now in their 30s and 40s, then you'll likely see the rigid adherence to old-school policies start to break down.

4th&Fail: Your take on Sam Keller's lawsuit against EA Sports?

Mandel: Interesting, but unlikely to get anywhere.

4th&Fail: Lastly, any advice for young journalists, or aspiring journalists out there (such as myself)?

Mandel: I should probably be asking you for advice. The media landscape is changing so quickly and so dramatically that all the traditional rules and customs I adhered to coming out of college have pretty much been obliterated. You've taken an important first step by starting a blog.

One advantage aspiring journalists have today that they didn't 10 years ago is the ability to build an audience before they ever step foot in a traditional newsroom. But I do believe the traditional standards for reporting and writing will continue to be what distinguishes those who ultimately succeed in making this their livelihood. Get as much experience as possible covering stories first-hand, be it for a college newspaper, a Rivals.com site or through internships. And keep working hard.

I want to thank Stewart again for taking time to do this interview, and remember, he returns tomorrow at SI.com with a new edition of the Mailbag. For more from Stewart, you can check out his archives at SI.com, or follow him on Twitter. Is you want to check out his essays, you can find them at stewartmandel.com and you can find his book on Amazon.


  1. Nice interview. How did you manage to get the opportunity to interview Mr. Mandel?

  2. I really like your stuff, thanks for sharing!!!!!!!
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