Bill Simmons apparently knows what he's doing. As the Executive Producer of 30 for 30, Simmons did the smartest thing he could possibly do - find a tremendous amount of talent and get out of the way.
This is the greatest collection of filmmakers ever assembled under the same umbrella. There has never been anything on television like "30 For 30" before-a network handing over thirty stories to gifted talents and trusting they will deliver. Which they will.
The result was a critically acclaimed documentary series that produced remarkably compelling television. With one major project under his belt, Simmons set out on another - Grantland.com.
The site, named for sportswriting icon Grantland Rice, features long-form pieces on sports, pop culture, and the ways in which the two intersect. Once again, Simmons and his team recruited a murderer's row of talent. One of those writers is Michael Weinreb.
Weinreb is one of the finest voices in modern media. He has previously contributed to ESPN.com, SI.com, GQ, and the New York Times. In 2007, he won the Quill Award for The Kings of New York and his latest book, Bigger Than the Game, just recently came out in paperback. On Grantland, in addition to his feature writing, Michael writes the weekly Grantland Top Five.
Most importantly, Weinreb is a Penn State alum and a State College native who peppers his writings with Nittany Lion anecdotes. He was excited for the opportunity to speak to his fellow alums about all things Penn State sports-related, and we're excited to bring our conversation to you.
We have to start off with the basics. Favorite Penn State sport? Team? Athlete?
When I was a kid, I lived in Rec Hall. My entire social life was centered around that place. I would go there for basketball games and wrestling meets, and I would go there to play pick-up basketball and pick-up volleyball in the South gym. I wish there was a basketball team consistently worthy of that building, but there never really was. And I can't honestly answer this question by saying anything other than football--specifically, the '87 Fiesta Bowl team, and John Shaffer, who really was the epitome of everything Penn State has purported to stand for in the Paterno era.
You've said that Beaver Stadium is your favorite sports venue. Do you have a most memorable moment you saw live in the stadium? How has the atmosphere changed since you were a State College kid and later a Penn State student?
My parents have had faculty season tickets in the fifth row of the 25-yard line (Section WG)--behind the visitors bench--since 1978. They're finally getting moved this year due to the new seating plan, though they may actually wind up with slightly better seats. Even so, that will always be my prevailing view, as a kid, of Beaver Stadium: Anything that took place in the South end zone might as well have not happened at all. Hordes of very tall adults were in my way, and the opposing kicker was in my way, and the ABC camera truck was in my way. And yet the greatest thing I never saw was that touchdown pass from Blackledge to Kirk Bowman (South end zone) in 1982. I think that's the most ecstatic I've ever seen my dad.
In a lot of ways, I think that stadium is the same wonderful erector set that it's always been. There are more seats, and there are permanent lights, and the ramps are a little wider, but it's still got the same feel, all those people crammed onto those rock-hard bleachers perched on cushions commemorating the '83 Aloha Bowl, all those old men listening to the same headsets they bought in 1986. I understand the financial realities, but I really hope they don't price the long-time ticket holders out with this new plan, because part of the beauty of that stadium is in being around people who know it as well as I do.
When you wrote the story of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl for ESPN.com, you titled it The Night College Football Went to Hell. Safe to say you're not a BCS guy? Is there any other system you would prefer?
I should say that I didn't write the headline. That came from my editor, Jay Lovinger, who's a genius with that stuff. But, honestly, is anyone a BCS guy (other than the actual BCS guys)? It looks like we're really on the verge of something changing here. What that is, and when it may happen, I have no idea, but I'd like to think we've finally crossed that point of no return. I mean, I'm absurdly nostalgic and traditionalistic--it's going to take me until 2018 to say Pac 12 instead of Pac 10--but there are no logical arguments against a playoff anymore. Even a plus-one would be a step forward.
The 1986 National Championship team certainly wasn't as flashy and outspoken as Alonzo Highsmith, Michael Irvin, or Jerome Brown, but even guys like John Bruno had plenty of "swagger." In retrospect, was the media fair in portraying the game as a struggle between good and evil?
Not really, but it made for a good storyline. One of my favorite interviews for that story was with Trey Bauer, who was probably the closest thing to a "bad boy" Penn State had on that team. And Bauer told me that the guys on that Penn State team weren't exactly sleeping in the library. Also, some of those Miami players were extremely intelligent; they knew exactly what they were doing. It was just two very different cultures coming into conflict, and Penn State played the role of traditionalists, and I think the Miami players were trying to establish a new kind of identity, to assert their individualism. They probably got a little carried away. Twenty-five years later, they still get carried away down there.
Given the recent news, is Miami today any different than those mid-80s teams? How do you think yesterday's 'Canes are reacting to this new scandal?
I think the seeds for this were planted back in that era I wrote about in the book. And ever since then at Miami, it seems like there's been a push-and-pull between those people who want to alter the program's reputation and those who feel that the swagger that defined those mid-80s teams is an essential element of Miami's identity as a football program. By all accounts, Nevin Shapiro was one of the latter. And I don't know if they'll ever be able to change things now, but it is pretty ironic that a Paterno guy is supposed to be the one to do it.
The premise behind Bigger Than the Game is that 1986 was the beginning of the marketable, "media savvy" athlete. Chuck Klosterman called it "the jarring recognition of a new reality we can't escape." Even so, Penn State's still managed to remain insulated from that attitude, at least compared to other major programs across the country. How did we manage that?
Well, there's State College, which is conveniently located four hours from every major city on the East Coast. And Joe's been there for so long; the very idea of the Grand Experiment has been in place for FORTY YEARS. So Penn State has come to represent some last bastion of traditionalism. I think there's a sense that once you get there, you're ensconced in this inaccessible little town in the middle of nowhere and you're wearing black shoes and there's no name on your jersey and this little dude with thick glasses is going to spend the next four years screaming at you and beating down your ego. If you watch the Penn State Football Story, that's how they sell the program now. If you wanted to embrace something other than a classical ideal, you probably wouldn't go to Penn State in the first place. That may hold the program back in some ways, but it's the bargain Joe's made. As a journalist, I'm a natural skeptic, and so I don't completely buy into the myth, but I believe there's a good deal of reality to it.
Can Joe Paterno win another national championship? How do you want to see the future of the program play out?
Honestly, I don't know if he can. And honestly, I'm not sure if I care that much. I went through that phase in the early-to-mid 2000s when he seemingly lost control of the program and that disturbed me a lot more than the losing. Whoever steps in for him has to maintain that ideal, because if he doesn't, Penn State becomes just another program. The way things are these days, 9-3 and one of the best graduation rates in the country doesn't seem like such a terrible bargain to make.
Are Joe's whale pants still the best metaphor for his life and career?
They're a pretty damn good one. I feel like he's probably still got a pair somewhere in that closet.
There's nothing like college football, but Happy Valley finally saw some success on the hardwood this year. Are you a college hoops fan? What do you think about the Patrick Chambers hire?
I've written a ridiculous amount about Penn State basketball in the past couple of years (i.e., On the Long and Illustrious History of Penn State Basketball). I have a pretty well connected friend who's convinced that Penn State can never succeed in basketball, but even if they can make a tournament run twice every decade, I'll be happy. Ed struck me as a truly good guy, but he wasn't a salesman, so maybe they need a salesman like Chambers, because they've never really had one before. Or maybe it's just a big black hole. I still wish they could find a way to play three or four games a year at Rec Hall. I'd come back for every single one.
Thanks to Michael for a fantastic conversation. His work is a credit to our university. Make sure you read him on Grantland (@grantland33), check out Bigger Than the Game, and follow him on Twitter (@michaelweinreb).