How to Cover a Bad Team

If covering a bad college basketball program were easy, anybody could do it.

It takes practice, and few sportswriters in America got more practice at it over the final years of my career.

I readily admit I was spoiled. When I took over the Wake beat in 1992, Dave Odom already had the program up and running to 11-straight post-season appearances. Skip Prosser grabbed the baton in 2001-02 and extended the streak to 16-straight..

Sure I remember the grumbling over how the Deacons, even with the great Tim Duncan, never made it to the Final Four. And when Wake, under Odom, was relegated to three-straight seasons in the NIT, the howls from certain corners were deafening.

Hindsight being 20/20, we can all see now that those were Golden Years for Wake basketball.

All of which made my final seven years on the Wake basketball beat quite a challenge, both personally and professionally. From the time Jeff Bzdelik replaced Dino Gaudio as head coach before the 2010-11 season through today’s 78-70 loss at Syracuse, the Deacons have played 248 games of basketball – of which they have won 103.

The dark ages get even darker when assessing performance against peers. In ACC play, Wake, over that time, is 35-100.

Now covering a good team is not always a gravy train. You may cover Duke, where Mike Krzyzewski only deigns to grant interviews to those on the Blue Devil beat on the 12th.

As in the 12th of Never.

And you also find yourself running with a herd, and having nowhere near the access and cooperation I got under Odom, Prosser, Gaudio and Bzdelik — before Danny Manning, upon taking over before the 2014-15 season, boxed the beat guys off the boards.

But the real drag of covering a bad team was all the negativity and antagonism and downright rancor that bubbles over with each soul-crushing loss. Most of my days as a sportswriter were good ones, but the experience of covering Bzdelik during the days of billboards and an open fanbase revolt will take years to cleanse out of my system.

My best bet is it will take more years than I have remaining. I say that even knowing that most of my mother’s people live into their 90s.

But I did survive the experience, and helping me do so was a line I finally came up with about two or three years into the Bzdelik doldrums. The beauty of the line was it’s not only preemptive, but it also puts the responsibility for what happens on those truly responsible.

Knowing that no one likes to read one negative article after another about them, I began repeatedly making the same request of Bzdelik and his players. Give me something good to write, I told them over and over, and I’m poised, pen and pad and computer at hand. I’m tired of writing the same stuff over and over. Give me something good to write – if nothing else for the sake of variety.

One of my few favorite memories of the doldrums was passing Bzdelik in the hall after the Deacons upended fourth-ranked Duke 82-72 in Joel Coliseum in his fourth-to-last game as head coach.

“You’re always telling me to give you something good to write,’’ Bzdelik crowed. “Well we did tonight.’’

“You sure did,’’ I replied, grinning. “And I’m getting ready to go write it.’’

Sadly, when you’re covering a program as bad as Wake has become, even the good moments have little to do with anybody other than the dwindling few still emotionally invested in the Black and Gold.

So even if I had still been on the beat, and covering today’s game in snowy Syracuse, I could have written about the six-straight 3-pointers Mitchell Wilbekin, Bryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods nailed to pare a 14-point deficit to 2 with plenty of time remaining. And I could have written how the comeback showed that the Deacons, despite their 12 losses in their past 14 games, have yet to give up on themselves and the season.

And I would have also written how the Deacons lost by giving up points on 22 of Syracuse’s 35-second half possessions, and by not getting Doral Moore – he of the 16 points and 16 rebounds – more than four paint-touches after halftime.

But what would anything I wrote – other than the Deacons’ records of 9-16 overall and 2-11 – really matter? Why would it be relevant to anyone other than, again, the ever-dwindling few still emotionally invested in Wake basketball?

Back in the glory days, I got to know Dick Vitale. When he’d hit town, he’d seek me out, not because of who I was, but because of what I was. I was the Wake beat guy, and Vitale wanted to pick my brain on what was going on with Randolph Childress and Tim Duncan.

Vitale, a beautiful guy who cares about what he does as much as anyone I’ve ever known, rarely made it to Joel Coliseum over the final years of my beat. There was no need.

The hardest part of covering a bad team is that you become as irrelevant as the program you’re covering.

Maybe the day will come when all that changes, when Wake again plays games that really matter. I doubt it will be under Manning, from what I’ve seen in his first 121 games at the helm. But maybe I’ll be wrong, and honestly, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if I were.

Maybe the day will come when Wake gives me something good to write – even if it be from the comfort of my hacienda.

I remain poised, pen, pad and computer in hand.

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