Over the past decade, Jeff Goodman has established himself as one of the most respected expert voices in college basketball. Goodman’s rise from covering recruiting for a start-up website, SchoolSports.com, has been impressive and has included stops at Scout.com, FoxSports.com and CBSSports.com. He is now one of ESPN’s college basketball national insiders delivering insight and analysis both on print and on the air.
Recently, Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune caught up with Goodman to discuss the keys to source building and breaking news. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
So, obviously you’ve developed a big part of your reputation on your ability to break news in the college basketball world. And before Rashad McCants recently became a whistleblower on alleged academic improprieties at the University of North Carolina, he was a Class of 2002 recruit whose commitment to UNC you said was the first true story you broke. And that was while you were working for a start-up site. How did that all unfold way back when?
Goodman: I had no idea how to break news. None. And that one I kind of just fell into, to be honest. I remember the night it happened, I was working for School Sports, which was based in Boston. I left the Associated Press in New York for that opportunity which offered me some good money and a chance to work close to home. So I took that. And at that time, I started getting into both football and basketball recruiting. I just said, ‘Listen, I’m going to start calling some of the bigger basketball and football recruits and write stories on them.’ So I was calling the top players in the class. And McCants was a 2002 guy, part of a pretty loaded class. I was calling a lot of these kids, the top players and trying to find out some information. I’d talk to them and try to develop a relationship and figure out what schools they were actually considering. The night I called Rashad, it was either the first or second time I ever talked to him and I just asked him, ‘Hey, what’s the latest with your recruitment?’ And he said straight up, ‘I just got off the phone with Matt Doherty and I committed to Carolina.’ It was like, wow. What? And at that point, it wasn’t like it is now. There was no Twitter. And nobody knew what School Sports was. But I wrote it right away, got it up on the site and somehow it exploded. Beyond belief.
I had no idea that was going to happen. I had no idea of the magnitude or how big the Carolina fan base was with its appetite for recruiting at that point. But that was a revelation. So I broke that and saw what happened and I’m like, ‘OK. This is kind of cool. I think I want to do this. I think this is something I can do.’ And maybe I didn’t quite realize how lucky I was in that instance to break that story. I’m sure I thought I did something right. But with that one, it was more luck. And from there I started to try to break other stories and work relationships and go to a lot of the events. Meet people. Meet college coaches. Talk to the kids. Know the AAU coaches.
You mention the luck part of that story for you. But looking back, what do you think you learned or gained from that experience about going after news?
Goodman: More than anything, it gave me a thirst for it. It gave me that rush of breaking a story and fueling the competitive nature of me. That’s what I felt. From there, I started breaking commitments. I went over to Scout, worked with Dave Telep there and kind of came up that way. It was huge. So beneficial for me to come up that way for what I do now. Because it enabled me to create all these relationships at the ground floor that other people don’t get the opportunity to create. Look, I know a lot of the AAU coaches everywhere. And I can walk into a locker room in the NBA now and know half the players. And those guys have known me since they were in high school. Kevin Durant has known me since he was 15. So that’s cool. That part of my job has been a blast, to watch some of these kids where the first time you saw them, they were anonymous high school players. And then they turn into guys who are big time.
Back in 2007, Billy Donovan left Florida to become the coach of the Orlando Magic and then left the Magic to go back to Florida. You broke that one, too. Twice. A weird little sequence of events to be sure. How did you position yourself to be in a spot for that story twice?
Goodman: That one was insane. I was at Fox at the time and you started to hear the rumblings that Donovan was going to the NBA. And you’re working every possible angle you can and every source you can for a story like that. And with those, the last person you usually get those things from is from the person himself. Billy Donovan is rarely going to tell anybody in the media that he’s going to the Orlando Magic until it’s completely done and it’s been signed, sealed and delivered. And by that point, somebody else has already broken it. So you’ve got to work the edges, you’ve got to get somebody else. I was working all angles. I remember sending a bunch of texts to Anthony Grant, who was a former assistant for Donovan at Florida but at that time was at VCU to see what he knew. And I remember getting a text back from him that said something like, ‘Hey Jeff. I don’t want to call you back because I don’t want to lie to you.’ So I’m thinking, ‘OK. At least he was honest about it.’ And I’m really trying to get this nailed down, trying to get it from anybody I know at Florida. My NBA sources were pretty limited at that point. And I ended up getting that one from somebody on Florida’s staff. Had it. But then the harder one was getting it figured out when Donovan was suddenly going back to Florida. All of a sudden, this turns into a complete mess. And you hear it again, that he might be going back. And for me, I always get two people to confirm. If you’re not getting the news from the actual person involved themselves, then you need to get two people to confirm it. So I heard a rumbling that Donovan was not going through with the deal with the Magic and then the second person to confirm that one, believe it or not, was Billy’s father. And he wasn’t even pushing to confirm it. I had called Donovan’s father and let him know all I heard and knew and felt around on whether Billy was going back to Florida and he was pretty honest with me. I never quoted him in the story. But he didn’t lie to me. He confirmed it. And that is about as good of a second source as you’re going to get. I had it pretty solid already. But when Billy Donovan’s dad confirms it for you, you’re in good shape. And look, with these big, big stories, you better make really sure that you have it nailed. You can’t leave anything to chance. And that’s been one of the things I really pride myself on, my track record on not being wrong. You want to be close to 100 percent success with this.
When for you did you discover the process and the mastery of casting the net wide for sources? AAU coaches, assistant coaches, players, agents. There are so many people with information and intel that might be useful.
Goodman: The key here: the more information you have, the better off you’re going to be to be able to make it a two-way street. Think about it, I came up through the recruiting world. So I saw all these players play a lot. I talked to most of these players when college coaches didn’t have the same access to them. So that meant that I had information back then that college coaches really wanted. So they were calling me all the time to touch base. So in return, when I get a job as a college basketball guy – and honestly, when Fox bought Scout, I just begged the editor to let me write a once-a-week college basketball column – I knew at that point I had relationships that I could take advantage of. Because I had been helping these college coaches and giving them some valuable information for their purposes as far as what schools some of these kids were looking at or their backgrounds or their character or whatever. And now I felt like, hey listen, I can really take advantage of this. Same with the AAU coaches. I did a bunch of profiles on these AAU teams when nobody else was. And a lot of it was grunt work and leg work that other people didn’t want to do or weren’t doing. And it really helped. It showed me how much that mattered. And even when I got to a point where I had climbed some, even now, I know the value of being in a gym and talking to an assistant coach from the MAC or the SWAC or an AAU coach. Because, first of all, I remember where I came up from. You just never know who can help you. So you don’t want to rule anybody out of the equation.
When you look at the concept of source building, obviously time is an irreplaceable element. You’re going to have more luck with a guy you’ve known for five years over somebody you’re talking to for the first or second time. But with that also, what’s your philosophy on when to go the well and checking in periodically and not only reaching out when you really need something?
Goodman: There’s a lot to it. And you can’t go to the well too much either. Listen, there are a lot of reporters out there who just wear people out. And I’ve found over the years that that just isn’t the way to go about it. You can work hard, you can be aggressive without overdoing it and without being overbearing. If somebody is coming at you over and over and over and over and working you, eventually you’re going to say, ‘Enough. I don’t want to deal with you anymore.’ So as a reporter, you have to figure out that balance. And I think a lot of a writer’s success and a news breaker’s success is tied to their social understanding of how much is enough and how much is too much and how do you deal with people. How do you establish trust? How do you understand that not every story is equally important? So, yeah, some you’ll get beat on. Legitimately, there are a lot of stories I have to say to myself, ‘It’s not worth breaking that story.’ Because it’s not big enough. And it’s not worth straining a relationship by pushing for it and pushing for it. Because there could be something much bigger down the line. So you have to try to figure out what to do. And again, I think a lot of it is just the social understanding of, ‘OK, this is how I feel out Person X.’ Can you call them a couple times for information? Can you text them once or twice? And if they don’t get back to me, I’m not going to hound them.
Along with that, though, there has to be a constant reminder to cultivate and build the pre-existing relationships you have with sources, right? How do you manage that aspect, zeroing in on the relationship building variable?
Goodman: I have a board at home that at the beginning of the season I will put every school in the country up and make sure that I just rotate through and at the very least just check in with somebody from each coaching staff. Every couple of weeks. So, for me, you need to be organized. I have a file on every single team in college basketball. In the offseason, I put together a one-page deal with the coaching staff, their cell phone numbers, et cetera. So I have a cell phone number for at least one coach on every staff of the 345 college basketball staffs in America. So if anything happens, I feel like I’m in position that if something crazy happens at any program, I have a contact I can go to. Or I can push for an AAU coach to get me a number of somebody, a player on the team or what not. I think the biggest benefit that I have is that I have a very wide net that I can cast. AAU coaches, prep school coaches, college coaches, players. So any time something happens, I feel like I can get on top of it pretty quickly. Even if I don’t break the story necessarily, I can confirm it right away.
So that’s one thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s a school of thought out there that in 2014 it’s become almost as important to be able to confirm news quickly as it is to actually break it. What’s your thought on that?
Goodman: It’s a personal pride thing when you break a story. And these days, that’s where it is. A lot of times, other than your bosses and you, nobody else really knows or cares who breaks the story. Let’s be honest. But for me, again it gets back to that competitive side. Like, I want to win this one. Now, I also want to be right and win. Those are the keys. Be right first. Then break it. Get it out there first. That’s part of what ESPN brought me on board to do.
So how do you mobilize when somebody else beats you on breaking a story? Goal one is to confirm it quickly. Goal two is to be able to add something to it – context, insight, a new detail, whatever. Take us through your process.
Goodman: If the story is a coach being hired or something, you want to push for the details of how long the contract is and how much money it’s worth. If it’s somebody being fired, you want to have the details of when the news conference is. Advance it. Even if it’s a small detail, find something to move the story forward so you’re not just literally confirming somebody else’s story with nothing else added. And you push for more context and detail to flush it out a little more. Get that information that the person who broke the story maybe didn’t have time to publish. Nowadays, one of the issues we face in breaking stories is the rush. You feel like everything is so time sensitive and you want to get the news out so fast, that often you don’t have time to do more than just the three paragraph summary for the first thing you write. So then if you’re going to confirm a report and you have a little extra time, push to give some deeper insight into what just happened and why. For me, that’s a lot of times what I’m after. Beyond what just happened, I ask why did it happen and what next. That’s a good push for insight, and it’s something I try to do. I try to be honest and not just be vanilla.
In your case, you have an expertise built up over time and you know the ins and outs of a lot of these programs. And there’s tremendous value to that. So how do you bring that out?
Goodman: People in general might not always know the information I get sent my way. And I have to figure out how to disseminate that in the correct manner. There are some things I can’t write. Just because I can’t fully confirm it. There are stories you hear about why a guy got fired that you can’t write immediately when they get fired. Because you need time and you have an obligation to look into it further and make sure it’s accurate before you throw it out there. When Tubby Smith got fired from Minnesota (in 2013) you want to try and give the proper context for why he got fired. Well, here it is. There was a new A.D., a new administration in there and they had a completely different approach and they were different in their personalities and the way they view things from the way Tubby Smith was. And the program, while they went to the NCAA that year, it was one of those things where the administration felt that the program was on the downturn and they didn’t want to get to a point where it was a complete rebuilding job. That’s important to share and those are all things you want to put in a story like that. Rather than just “Tubby Smith is fired and nobody knows the context for why.”
OK, so March and April every year you’re going to get hit with a flood of coaching searches and a flood of players choosing to stay in school or go to the NBA. How do you go about figuring that puzzle out with an entire country to cover? There’s a lot to prioritize in which ones you’re going to dig in on.
Goodman: The bigger ones are the ones you’re going to concentrate more of your attention on. But for me, usually around February, maybe even January, I go through every league and kind of make my map. Look at each individual coach and figure out job security. Where are they at? Could they lose their job? So I have a database ready of what’s their record been, what’s the contract situation if I know it and then just be organized. That’s a big part of this and a big part of life. Be as organized as you can. And I try to do so much of that in the offseason. But before it gets crazy in March and I’m traveling for all these tournament games, I want to have all my info aligned. In the Big South, who do I have to worry about? Who are the coaches that could get fired? And if they do, I want to be on top of it. A lot of time, I’ll already have their record in front of me so that if something happens, I can write it, it’s all set to go and maybe all I have to do is update the current season record. You have to do your due diligence. You have to talk to as many people as you can. And one of the things that’s fortunate for me now is that a lot of stories now just sort of come my way. I’m lucky there. It’s true.
On a percentage front, how many of the stories you break now just comes your way versus something you have to go hunting for?
Goodman: I’d say probably a third of the stories that I break are handed to me in some way. Which is really nice. I’m not going to lie. Now I worked hard to build up to this point and I now get to reap the benefits of it. That might make me sound lazy. But on the other hand, it’s nice that there is that reward for years of work and relationships that I’ve developed. And there’s also something to the organization I now work for. Let’s face it, I’ve had it pretty nice over the last eight years working for Fox, CBS and ESPN. There’s some added pull there. You’re not calling people up with them not knowing who it is exactly you work for. That helps. Significantly. To break stories, it helps to have that sort of power behind me. But you remember being a younger reporter when nobody called you back. Now it’s easier.
But back to that March-April time, that’s crazy to keep your arms around things. I’m traveling to NCAA tournament sites, I’m trying to worry about the coaching moves, I’m trying to worry about the games and then you get through a lot of the coaching stuff and you’re tired of it. You get tired of that by the end of the Final Four. You want all those coaching moves to end already. The beginning stage has an adrenaline rush. I’m ready to go. Let’s prove my worth. And by the end of it, you’re worn out. And then you have the wave of kids declaring for the NBA. And there are just so many these days and you have to stay on top of that.
Of the 33 percent of the news that now falls into your lap, how does it get there? Via text? Running into a coach on the road?
Goodman: It comes in all ways. All ways. I’ve got a good one. I ran into a guy at a game. I was late to the game. I ran in and found a guy I knew who just dangled me a scoop that I was able to use. In July, you always run into guys at AAU events. It’s a big deal. That’s where you get a ton of good information. It’s why I still go out on the road all of July. I’ll go out the entire recruiting period in July, because it gives me an opportunity to get back to my roots of covering recruiting. But also I see the AAU coaches. I see these players when they’re younger and that gives me better context to talk about them when they get into college. And then all the college coaches are there. And it’s a fountain of info. I remember a story I broke years ago that the number two guy at Fed Ex was calling a recruit named Abdul Gaddy. (Gaddy) ended up at Washington. But Memphis was recruiting him. And the number two guy at Fed Ex, David Bronczek, was involved. The mother of the kid had worked at Fed Ex for 12 years and she was basically being told that the kid should go to Memphis. I ended up breaking that story. And how did it come to me? I was sitting in the bleachers with an assistant coach who gave me all the detail on that and I started looking into it. And that’s where you get a lot of stuff. Those AAU events. Talking. The more you talk to people, the more you’re going to just stumble on things.
OK. Back to another specific breaking news example. In 2013, at the Pac-12 tournament, Arizona coach Sean Miller gets hit with a controversial technical in a close loss to UCLA by a ref who isn’t normally trigger happy like that. You later broke the news that Ed Rush, the Pac-12 head of officials essentially had instructed his refs to hit Miller with a technical and even offered rewards for doing so. Ultimately that story had some fascinating undercurrent. But for you, what was the challenge of filtering through the initial information you had gotten for legitimacy?
Goodman: I was at that Pac-12 tournament and I happened to be there when the whole incident went down with Sean Miller getting the T. And then about a week later, I got a call about it from somebody tipping me off that there was something going on there and that Ed Rush had made it clear that he wanted something done about Sean Miller. So my next step with that was trying to get a hold of some refs who would talk. And again, it’s an area where who knows refs that well? And are they going to be completely honest with their jobs on the line? I talked to a few who didn’t want to talk. But finally I got a couple who had admitted what really happened. But again, these are the stories that you can’t be wrong about. You have to make complete sure that they are accurate with no holes. Because people are going to come at you. Somebody’s going to come at you for this one. Whether that was going to be the Pac-12 or Ed Rush or whatnot. So I took my time with it. Had to.
It took a couple weeks of really talking to enough people and making sure it was accurate. And when it came out, I’m not sure I realized how big it was going to be. But it exploded. And that story, I think, helped me land at ESPN ultimately. But it was one of those things where you’re trying to talk to as many people as you can. Because you need to get people who were in the room when Ed Rush made the comments that he did. About Sean Miller. And taking care of him.
The officiating response was that whatever Ed Rush said the comments had been made in jest. And obviously you need to be pretty sure that they weren’t. How do you get comfortable with that?
Goodman: Again, I had two people who heard them firsthand that told me those comments were not in jest, that Ed Rush had kind of had it with Sean Miller by that point and he was emphatic about what he said and that this was not a joke. That this was legitimate, that he wanted something done. Again, it’s fun to break news. It’s fun. But sometimes it gets dicey. The adrenaline pumps but there’s immense pressure. Shoot, when I broke that Rashad McCants commitment, there was zero pressure. Now? There’s pressure to do it and, again, be right every time.
One last question for you: If 20-year-old Jeff Goodman came to present-day Jeff Goodman and wanted the best advice for accelerating his climb and/or surviving and thriving in this business, what do you tell him?
Goodman: Here it is. You better have a great work ethic in this business. And be prepared to sacrifice. The hardest thing for me, by far, is learning how to balance work and family. So there’s that. So marry a very, very, very understanding wife. That might be my number one advice for a young sports journalist. And then beyond that, meet as many people as you can and be social and straight with people. That’s really helped me. People know for better or worse I’m going to be straight with them. And if you have information, as much as you can possibly have helps. Because it makes you more credible. If you’re throwing stuff out there just to get attention, people see through that rather than doing it armed with more information to back it up.
Here’s an example. I did a hot seat list recently and put (Maryland coach) Marc Turgeon at No. 1. And he called me up and he was disappointed. And I told him, ‘Listen, I don’t want to put you on there. I had no desire to put you on there. But the bottom line is that I couldn’t not. You’re going into Year 4, haven’t been to the NCAA tournament, you just lost five kids to transfer.’ I think people respect what you have to say. If you work hard and have the information to back up whatever you’re saying, you’ll always be able to justify what you’re going to write if you’re going to go after somebody. It’s the people who just throw stuff against the wall all the time that become a bit of a laughingstock and no longer credible. So just be thorough and informed in all you write.