CRAWFORD | Goodbye, 2017: My biggest stories, and 8 favorites
Eric Crawford recounts the biggest stories he covered in 2017, and eight of his favorite stories.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The New Year begins as it should, with a blank page. It’s clean and white, unsoiled by shootings or sexual harassment, by scandal, by loss, by sad goodbyes or regrets.
We’ll see how long that lasts. The year 2017 has closed, and for many in these parts, it will stand as a year just as well forgotten.
Last New Year’s Day, who among us would’ve bet that the ball would drop this morning with Rick Pitino no longer coaching the University of Louisville basketball team, or Tom Jurich its athletic director? Who could’ve foreseen the FBI’s involvement in a college basketball probe that ensnared the university even as it was emerging from a previous scandal.
I’ll remember 2017 as the year in which just about every woman I know was able to tell some kind of tale in which she was spoken to or otherwise treated inappropriately in some public setting, work, school, even just walking through an airport. Not just a few of them, but nearly all of them. It is a year in which political debate turned highly personal. I wrote fewer non-sports stories in 2017 than in any year I’ve been at the station, because of the raw nerves in the public. And it was a year that was dominated by big, serious sports stories that crowded out work on smaller, but no less significant ones, at least for me.
As Americans, we have this notion of “facing the future.” We look full on into coming events. The ancient Greeks, I first learned from a writer named Robert Pirsig, had a different way of looking at time. They saw the future as something that approached them from behind, with time receding before their eyes. That, of course, is the proper way to view it.
“What’s going to happen?” is a question that makes me cringe. You play along, because news in 2018 (as in 2017) is expected to have a predictive quality. But the predictions almost always are wrong. I’ve tried, on a couple of occasions, to file my expected sports predictions as the meteorologists do their weather forecasts; that is, make my main prediction, but give a 10 percent chance, or 20 percent chance, for something else to happen. For rain, or snow, or $100,000 being funneled to a recruit.
If I were to list the “biggest” stories I wrote in 2017, it would be a familiar list (click the links to read).
Of course, maybe no local (on-the-field, or in this case, on-the-course) sports story was bigger than Goshen's Justin Thomas winning the PGA Championship. I wasn't there for the event, but I did write a quick reaction.
Every one of those is a journalism story unto itself. The day the NCAA handed down its ruling on U of L’s violations in the Katina Powell sex-for-recruits scandal – June 15 -- Rick Bozich and I poured over the documents. Our TV bosses wanted us on the air, and I was preparing to head to the set, but because of the way the document was structured, we still didn’t completely know what it meant. The decision to instruct U of L to vacate victories was buried in the back, and it took some time to actually determine that the first men’s basketball championship in NCAA history to be wiped off the board had, in fact, been ordered.
The vote to fire Tom Jurich happened while I was on television. The vote to fire Rick Pitino came after hours of sitting around in Grawemeyer Hall. Unlike almost everyone I knew, I was far more conflicted by the Pitino firing than the firing of Jurich, probably because I knew Pitino much better and worked with him much more closely. I knew it had to happen. It was just more difficult for me to process. Still is.
I continue to reject the notion of Pitino as “win at all costs.” Look at his teams. They are not a collection of blue-chip recruits. He went to the Final Four with Ellis Myles and Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia and Larry O’Bannon and Otis George. The championship that was ordered vacated came via Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell. Its two key players were Luke Hancock and Russ Smith. Who was beating down doors to get those guys? Doesn’t add up.
In terms of the long-term prospects for U of L athletics, the loss of Pitino will have the far greater impact. He was the talent, and he was the show. Jurich did amazing things as athletic director. But take away Pitino’s influence and work, and some of those don’t get done. I don’t know what happened in the end. I’m keen to learn. I continue to believe that there are other shoes to drop than none of us can quite yet get our hands on. And I do believe Pitino could have heeded his own advice, “get better, not bitter” in his actions since his firings. These events, I’m eager to watch play out.
If no more evidence is produced against him, he’s a Shakespearian story. And if it is, he may well be, too. I remember thinking how strange it was, as I prepared to go on live TV before Louisville played in the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis in March, to realize I was standing in the middle of a triangle: On one block Bankers Life Field house, the next block up, headquarters of Indianapolis Business Journal, publisher of the “Breaking Cardinal Rules” book, and a half dozen or more blocks over, the NCAA headquarters. This is where Pitino’s final game, as it turned out, was coached, a loss to a Jim Beilein-coached Michigan team, a reversal of his last national championship, which itself may well be reversed.
Crazy stuff. It was that kind of year.
These are the stories that defined the year. But in the end, they were not my favorite stories. And, for my first story of the new year, I want to talk about a few of those, in no set order, before the events of 2017 begin to recede too far in our rear-view mirror (click on the links in the stories to revisit them, or read them for the first time, if you missed them).
1). BYRON CRAWFORD HONORED. You’ll forgive me if I list a personal favorite first. The story I wrote wasn’t so much, but the event was a meaningful one when my father was named the 2017 Distinguished Rural Kentuckian by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives.
As I said, I didn’t write many non-sports pieces in 2017, but this is one I was proud to be able to report. I didn’t so much write it, as let his words, and the words of others tell the story.
Theirs were better than any I could’ve come up with, anyway.
2). DONOVAN MITCHELL EMERGES. On Feb. 21, 2017, I called Mitchell one of the best college basketball players in the nation. In December, with Mitchell playing rookie-of-the-year type basketball for the Utah Jazz, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. But not everyone realized just how good he was when he began to take over the leadership of the Louisville team early in the year. One of its best stretches was when he took over the point guard spot, and had the ball in his hands even more. Mitchell is Pitino’s last success story. I see a lot of writers, who weren’t around and really don’t know much about how anything went down with these two, say that Pitino dissuaded Donovan from going pro. In actuality, he supported it, even if Donovan was nervous to tell him that he wasn’t going to play for him his senior year.
“He 100 percent supported it,” Mitchell told me, at the NBA Draft combine. But beyond that, he helped make it happen. Mitchell came to U of L with a world of talent and athletic ability. He wasn’t a great defender or even a good one. He wasn’t a great rebounder or even a good one. Pitino put him in the mold of Terry Rozier. And Mitchell has blossomed.
3). DENNY CRUM RETURNS HOME AFTER A STROKE. I’m so glad that one of the people we didn’t say goodbye to in 2017 was Denny Crum. The former Louisville coach was in the middle of nowhere on a fishing trip in Alaska when he became disoriented and began to suffer stroke-like symptoms. The quick work of his guide and others got him prompt treatment, and he returned home shortly thereafter none the worse for wear.
For some reason, U of L had decided to part ways with him earlier in the year. It was a bad decision. After the firing of Pitino and Jurich, it needed Crum, Darrell Griffith (whom it also cut loose) and anyone else it could find to help generate goodwill for its beleaguered basketball program and university image.
And, of course, Crum was there. Even without being paid. He supported interim coach David Padgett.
One day after his return, Bozich, WDRB sports reporter Mike Lacett and I went to his home in the eastern part of Jefferson County to hear Crum’s story. He took us out to his deer stand, where he’ll sit and watch the wildlife on his property, and showed us around his home. It was a memorable day, and one I’m glad to have been a part of.
4). BOB WHITE’S NIGHT. I can’t imagine the changes longtime Courier-Journal high school reporter Bob White has seen in his 57 years association with the newspaper (and I’m not just talking about its inexplicable changing of the newspaper’s name and removal of the hyphen between the names of the two papers that joined to create it).
White is living history, and when an identity theft episode left him facing hard times early this year, a lot of his friends got together to try to help him out. That gave us all occasion to pause and look back on his time covering high school sports in this city and state, the lives he has touched, the scrapbooks his work populates and the work he has done.
It wasn’t a happy set of circumstances that brought us all together, but I’m glad we were all together nonetheless. They went to the C-J to ask if it would kick in a lifetime subscription for Bob. The newspaper, of course, declined. It seems like nobody remembers the good people do anymore, at least when it comes to the media, or even social media. It’s good to remember, sometimes, that the world is bigger, and more generous, than those spaces.
“It’s been a wonderful feeling to see how many people realize that they appreciated what you did,” White said. “People from Ashland to Paducah. I went into the state tournament this year and got a $50 handshake from a Hopkinsville man. I guess it wasn’t illegal, but it felt good. When they put up a fundraising site on the internet, I read through the list of people who had given, and it brought back a lot of memories. Every name, and just what they did. Just that they remembered me, and what I did. It really lifted me up, and I was down for quite a while. For all the people who donated and contributed to help me get back on my feet, it just shows you how wonderful people really are. When you need them, they come through for you, and I’ll never forget that.”
5). BRENDAN MCKAY AND LOUISVILLE BASEBALL. Anytime Dan McDonnell is in the spotlight, it’s a good thing for U of L, win or lose. He had one of the nation’s most dominant teams this season, running through the regular season and NCAA Tournament, including a memorable Super Regional victory over rival Kentucky, to return to the College World Series.
Along the way, pitcher/first baseman Brendan McKay finished one of the most decorated careers in college basketball history.
I could pick any number of stories to represent this team and this player. Maybe it was introducing the public to its motto of “run to the roar,” after the super regional victory. Maybe it was his classy response after the frustrating defeat in Omaha. Or maybe it was McKay’s story and demeanor in general.
6). LAMAR JACKSON, AGAIN. As I write this, I’m reading a lot of Twitter flaming of Lamar Jackson for throwing four interceptions in his final game, against Mississippi State. One guy, who lists himself as a professional photographer with a handful of followers, wants to say Jackson isn’t good at what he does.
That’s always the way. One thing I think people should remember is this – Jackson was in the game. He could’ve skipped the game, and left scouts and everyone else with the memory of him dissecting a Kentucky defense. Instead, there was a game, and he’s a football player. He didn’t shy away from it. He didn’t protect the investment in himself.
Rudyard Kipling knew nothing about college football. But in a poem, he said, “If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss . . . Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
I never thought Louisville would have another player like Teddy Bridgewater. Then came Jackson. He became part of the sport’s history. No other player has thrown for 9,000 yards and run for 4,000 while still an underclassmen. There are any number of stats. But if you want to know Jackson, all you have to do is watch his final game – if it is his final U of L game – and realize that he’s on the field, his jersey grass stained, trying to win.
He’s not perfect. He is the greatest college football player many of us have ever seen.
My favorite Jackson story from the year? I guess it’s the one I wrote on the eve of the Heisman Trophy ceremony, from New York City.
7). MALLORY COMERFORD CHASES DOWN KATIE LEDECKY. This came during the NCAA Tournament, and college swimming isn't on everyone's radar, but this was a big enough deal that there was a buzz in the basketball press room across town when Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde came over, after watching a live stream, saying in disbelief, "Louisville's Mallory Comerford just tied Katie Ledecky."
This was a big deal. She swam the second fastest 200-meter freestyle in NCAA history to stun the five-time Olympic gold medalist and world's most dominant female swimmer.
“You’ve got to understand, to keep it in perspective, Katie Ledecky has not been touched, by anybody in the world, in the past six years,” Albiero told me that night. “And the fact that there was a tie tonight, everybody was just stunned. Everybody was working on the supposition that she was going to annihilate the whole field.”
That Comerford came from a different background, not through the usual US Swimming pipeline, and that she's another rock-solid individual, in the mold of Kelsi Worrell, only makes the story better.
8). FIVE YEARS AND COUNTING. In June, Rick Bozich and I celebrated our fifth year at WDRB, and it has been a great five years. There were a few skeptics when we looked at the media landscape in 2012 and decided that a move to television was in our best interests, professionally and otherwise.
A look at what has happened in the newspaper industry makes that decision hard to doubt, in hindsight.
Of course, the web and television landscape in 2017 heading into 2018 isn’t the most stable scene, either. Cable television systems are struggling. This was the first year in which digital ad spending surpassed television ad spending. Changes are coming. I’ve had some chuckles at people who have seen me taking photos at sporting events the past few months, but the goal is to offer something more, to complement my own writing with photos, because that’s an important element of web coverage. A photo gallery from the TaxSlayer Bowl this past weekend is an example.
No one can stand still. We won’t stand still. So, let’s get moving into 2018. Let’s hope it’s a better one.
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