>Purple Mafia Profiles – Adam Rittenberg
>Another Friday, another fantastic guest on Purple Mafia Profiles. Today we bring you the king of Big Ten blogging – ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg. One of the best things I can say to a Northwestern fan/journalist is the fact many don’t even know he graduated from NU considering how objective he is to his alma mater – the sign of a great journalist. I punted on introducing the 2003 Northwestern graduate and instead turned it over to him for the honors:
AR: I’ve covered Northwestern football in some form or another since 2000, when I weaseled my way into the football beat at The Daily. I covered the team as a beat writer in 2000 and a columnist from 2001-02 before graduating in ’03 and moving on to the Daily Herald, where I worked from 2003-08. My primary beat at the Herald was college sports (Northwestern, DePaul, Notre Dame, a little Illinois) as well as backup Cubs and Sox during the summer. I started at ESPN.com in February of 2008 after freelancing for them since 2001. I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., rooting for Cal and didn’t know much about NU football aside from Fitz, Barnett and the Rose Bowl run in ’95. I currently live on Chicago’s North Side with my wife.
LTP: OK, time to put your Big Ten objectivity glasses down and grab the old purple filter for a few minutes. Take us back to your days at Northwestern. What was your favorite moment you experienced as a fan? Who is your alltime favorite player and why?
AR: Since I’ve covered the team so long, my fan experiences are pretty limited. I was in the stands for Zak Kustok’s fourth-down touchdown run that won the game against Iowa in 1999. We jumped around like idiots and attempted to rush the field for what turned out to be one of few highlights that fall. I didn’t cover the team much in 2002, and I remember making a 20-hour roundtrip drive to Penn State with three friends to watch Tony Stauss and the ‘Cats get crushed 49-0. It was a largely painful yet unforgettable trip, highlighted by standing up to cheer a penalty that gave Northwestern a first down sometime in the second half. The Penn State fans laughed (both with us and at us).
Favorite Northwestern football player is Zak Kustok, hands down (ed note: favorite LTP Purple Mafia Profile is Zak Kustok, hands down). He was gutsy, extremely clutch and did more with less, which is always the sign of a great college quarterback. Favorite Northwestern basketball player is Jitim Young, one of the most talented and nicest college athletes I’ve ever covered.
LTP: You mention “Zak Kustok” and my mind thinks “2000 season”. Considering you were The Daily Northwestern’s beat reporter for the ‘Cats during that incredible season I must dig deeper here.
You had an “inside” look at two of the most notable games in NU football history – “Victory Right” against Minnesota and of course, the 54-51 Michigan game which, in retrospect, is now considered THE tipping point for the proliferation of the spread offense. Can you offer any behind-the-scenes anecdotes that would lend a deeper appreciation to those of us who were simply fans going nuts at those games?
AR: You’re forgetting my favorite game from that season, the overtime win at Wisconsin. Where’s the love for my guy Derrick Thompson? All he does is catch touchdowns. OK, back to your question … The Michigan game was pretty much a blur for me as well, but Minnesota stands out in my mind. It was interesting to hear how Kunle Patrick’s volleyball background really paid off on the tip play that won the game. They always practiced Victory Right at the end of practice Thursday (the day closed to the media), with Patrick always being the tip man. I think they said they had a pretty high completion rate in practice, and obviously it worked to perfection in the game.
The Hail Mary and Brendan Smith’s INT return last year were two of the greatest plays I’ve ever witnessed live, and both happened in the same building. What most people forget is the play of the Minnesota game in 2000 was Napoleon Harris catching Tellis Redmon (I think) from behind to prevent another touchdown. Just amazing athleticism there from Napo.
The Minnesota win also nearly prompted the greatest Daily Sports headline ever. We wanted to go with “Hail Mary? Hail Yeah,” but it got vetoed at the last minute. Editors.
LTP: Hah! I’m going to “borrow” that headline for our next Hail Mary. OK, segue. You’re voluminous daily posts on ESPN.com have become a “must” starting point for EVERY Big Ten blogger and most of our readers. It is in the LTP rotation along with Rivals.com, NUSports.com, my Google alerts, email tips and a few select national blogs like NY Times Quad Blog, DanShanoff.com and EDSBS.
I’d love to get your daily diet of Big Ten CFB consumption. Take us through your day and how you manage to synthesize and post all of the information.
AR: There’s so much Big Ten content out there that you can’t get to everything on a daily basis, but I do my best. I’ll always begin by checking the newspapers that regularly cover Big Ten teams as well as our site and other national sites and blogs like The Quad. I also check my favorite Big Ten blogs every day — usually multiple times a day — a list that includes LTP, mgoblog, maize ‘n brew, Eleven Warriors, Black Heart Gold Pants (ed: ahem), Black Shoe Diaries, The Daily Gopher, etc.
I’ll use these searches for my lunchtime links, but also for separate posts on a team or to give me ideas for future posts. Selecting the best stories for the links isn’t easy, but I always try to give users a general idea of the league’s most important news, commentary, etc. Users often will send me links or tip me off to news on their favorite teams. I can’t tell you how important user interaction is in my job.
LTP: I’m blushing. You’re not sucking up to me now are you? Seriously though, how accessible have the Big Ten coaches become for you? Which ones do you have direct dial relationships with?
AR: It’s a mixed bag, but the coaches have become more accessible over time, perhaps because they see the reach and the success of what we’re doing with the blogs. Some programs are much more accessible than others, and some programs need the national coverage more than others. There aren’t a ton of reporters left who cover the entire conference any more, so I think all the coaches know who I am at this point. I spent some time with Joe Paterno during Big Ten spring meetings, and as we said goodbye, he thanked me for my interest in their program. It was a funny and cool moment.
As far as direct-dial relationships, I probably call Fitz and Minnesota’s Tim Brewster more than anyone else, but I strive to have good relationships around the league.
LTP: Which fan base(s) most bombard your email inbox and what is the consistent DNA of their door-knocking?
AR: Penn State and Iowa fans are easily the most active, both on the blog and in e-mailing me.. There are a lot of you’re-an-idiot e-mails, but it’s all part of what we’re doing. Blogs are in large part opinion, and you need to have thick skin in order to do this job. For every negative e-mail, there are at least five positive ones, so that has been nice to see. I hear from a lot of Michigan and Michigan State fans as well, and Ohio State fans pipe up from time to time. There’s a ton of interest in Big Ten football, which makes my job a lot easier.
LTP: I’m surprised Ohio State isn’t in the same league as Penn State and Iowa re: activity. Interesting. Anyway, writing LTP I’ve got a heightened awareness of anything related to NU. In particular, it appears that Fitz’s cache in CFB has ratcheted up several notches in terms of national respect. Are you getting the same perception and if so, where do you place his “Q” factor among CFB coaches at this point?
AR: Totally agree with you on Fitz’s rising stock. He was one of the more popular head coaches at Big Ten media days. He is the star of the NU program, especially coming off of the Hall of Fame enshrinement. I know a lot of NU fans get frustrated when national media members mention Fitz as a candidate for other jobs, but it’s a sign of respect for what he has done in such a short period of time. He’s definitely “now,” as we would say at ESPN.
LTP: The reason I started LTP, in part, was to help change perception about NU and call out all the “they had one good year” factor and all of the incessant references to the Dark Ages. Where do you think NU is now (and not because of me!) in the ascent to national respect where we no longer get the “average” fan to associate us with NU’s Dark Ages?
AR: I admire your mission, but as I’ve found out doing my blog, it’s very, very difficult to change this perception about NU. Most casual Big Ten fans and even some die-hard fans don’t regard Northwestern as even a mid-tier Big Ten team. They’re gaining more and more respect for Pat Fitzgerald, but they also assume he’s out the door as soon as Notre Dame or someone like that comes calling.
Northwestern has slowly improved its national standing, and more people are beginning to look at this program as one that was reborn in 1995. But the Wildcats need to get over the hump in bowl games and stop losing to inferior teams every year (Indiana, Duke). It also would help to show up once in a while against Ohio State, the Big Ten’s premiere program.
A bowl victory against a BCS foe would go a long way toward helping change the perception of the program. It really would have helped to beat Missouri in the Alamo Bowl, especially since NU controlled the game for three and a half quarters.
LTP: You are one of the poster children for the transformation in weight from “traditional” media to “new” media. Which Big Ten blogs do you feel are the leaders in opinion shaping? How are the schools when it comes to respecting what you’re doing? Offer up the top 3 proudest days you’ve had on the job so far.
AR: Like I said earlier, there are plenty of terrific blogs around the Big Ten. Brian Cook’s mgoblog sets the standard for Big Ten blogging, and other leading blogs include Black Shoe Diaries, Eleven Warriors, LTP, Black Heart Gold Pants, Maize ‘N Brew and The Daily Gopher. I know I’m forgetting some as well, but I check at least five Big Ten blogs a day and usually much more.
The schools have been more and more supportive of the blog, which is very encouraging. Several of my blog features have been re-posted on their sites, and my Big Ten top 30 player rankings in the spring got a lot of play on several of the Big Ten official sites. The schools love the frequency and volume of coverage, and so they have been helpful for the most part.
As far as three proudest days, that’s a tough question. Big Ten media days the last two years have brought some pride, not only from the high volume of hits on the blog but for the recognition around the league from coaches, players, administrators and other media members of what we’re trying to do. A few games also stand out, namely Ohio State-Wisconsin, Penn State-Iowa and Penn State-Ohio State.
LTP: At the risk of putting you out there, how much do you still root for NU and has it been diminished by the nature of your all-inclusive approach to Big Ten football?
AR: My primary goal with this blog is to be as fair as possible to all 11 teams. There are times when certain schools take precedence, but the constant mission is to give fans something to read about every Big Ten program. Users always challenge me on this and it does get frustrating at times, but I think the blog backs up what I intend to do.
I definitely follow Northwestern a little more than most programs because of my history there and my relationships with the staff, but I’ve always asked users to challenge me if they feel my coverage is biased. It’s nice to see good people succeed, and there are a lot of them at NU, as there are at all the Big Ten programs.
LTP: Time to put you on the spot. Fill in the blanks – “You’ll be disappointed if NU doesn’t go at least…” and “It would not shock me this season if Northwestern….”
AR: I’ll be disappointed if the Wildcats don’t win at least seven games. The schedule sets up extremely well, and the questionable skill positions entering the season shouldn’t be major holes by mid October, when things start to get tougher. If Northwestern wants to be taken seriously, it must make the postseason every year or almost every year and finally win a bowl game. I can’t stress how important it is to finish with a victory.
It wouldn’t shock me if the Wildcats won nine games again.. Ohio State is off the schedule, which will be huge for a team that simply can’t compete with the Buckeyes. And NU gets Penn State at home. After those two teams, the league is wide open, and a team with a veteran-laden defense and a more experienced offensive line could win nine games.
LTP: Best NU behind the scenes anecdote you’ve enjoyed to date…
AR: I loved watching video tape with Tyrell Sutton and Brendan Smith last year. It was a story I had wanted to do years earlier for the Daily Herald, but for some reason or another it never came through. You hear about the film room all the time, but it’s amazing to watch two intelligent players prepare for an opponent and then critique their mistakes after a loss (Michigan State). There are so many details to the game that none of us sees unless you break down a play over and over with these guys.
LTP: I’m jealous. Time to start cashing in my LTP-ness for some AR-like experiences! Thanks for playing and we look forward to connecting with you throughout the season…Keep up the great work!
To all – it’s the weekend, so fire up the camera phone and get me some more pix of “N” flags flying. Nebraska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Hawai’i, Alaska, Montana, Arkansas…where are you? Let’s get it cranking!