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Q&A with Mike Rutherford

Demetri Ravanos

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Mike Rutherford is a busy dude. He runs SB Nation’s Louisville blog Card Chronicle. He is also the college basketball editor for all of SB Nation. He’s one of my favorite college basketball guests and a guy that I send a lot of texts and interview requests to every February through April.

Since 2015 Mike has also been one half of Ramsey and Rutherford, an afternoon drive show in Louisville. Until earlier this year the show aired on Union Broadcasting’s 93.9 the Ville. In April, the pair temporarily said farewell before resurfacing last month on iHeartRadio’s 790 KRD.

Mike has had a front row seat to one of the strangest periods any college basketball program has ever experienced. Who would ever have guessed that the Katina Powell prostitution scandal would become “the other one” in Louisville basketball lore? On Halloween morning, I called him to talk about changing stations, how he balances all of his roles, and what it has been like to cover sports in Louisville over the past three years.

DR: In doing research for this interview I came across the open letter you penned for Card Chronicle when your show left 93.9 the Ville. Take me through the thought process that enabled you guys to press the pause button on Ramsey & Rutherford.

MR: It was a tough call. I like a lot of people at The Ville and ESPN Louisville. It was the first place I got to be on the radio and have it be a full-time gig. John Ramsey, my co-host, fought really hard to get me that job in 2014 and I think I became full-time in 2015. Anyway, he was unhappy with some of the stuff that was going on there. I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of his complaints, but I respect him. He saw an opportunity to make a move to another station and it all happened very quickly. I didn’t really know what to do, because it was kind of “you gotta make this decision now and what it came down to was the guy that got me a job, wanted me to go with him to a new station, and so I owed him at least that much.

DR: It is a whole new world going from a place that is purely locally owned like The Ville and ESPN Louisville to iHeartRadio. What sort of changes have you had to get used to?

MR: It’s certainly way more corporate. You actually have to log if you want to take off. At the old station you just kinda didn’t show up. There was no one keeping count of your vacation days. Our new studio is much bigger. We meet people from different branches. They’re keeping track of our remotes and we’re getting paid for that, which is really nice. I really liked the “we’re doing this on the fly” nature of ESPN Louisville, where there wasn’t a hub of “this is where this gets done” and “that is where that happens.” But, it is really nice to be with a company that has been doing this at a really high level for a very long time.

DR: How much did you and John Ramsey talk between signing off on The Ville and signing back on on 790 KRD?

MR: We talked a decent amount. John always wants to hang out with me, which I love. We went to a couple of concerts together. Our wives get along great, so they like hanging out together too. Everything we did was social stuff. It wasn’t a whole lot of “are you paying attention to this?” or “have you called that person?”.

DR: So the day the Hoopocalypse (the pay-for-play college basketball scandal that has turned into an FBI investigation) breaks, you guys were still a week or so away from coming back on air, right?

MR: It was just perfect timing. We were supposed to do a reintroduction party for advertisers and Tom Jurich (Louisville’s recently fired athletic director) and Rick Pitino (Louisville’s recently fired head basketball coach) were going to be there. John was really excited about it and then the story breaks and I was like “so, I guess party’s off, right?” And John was like “yeah, party’s off.”

DR: So let’s talk about that, because over the last three years, has there been any time to come up for breath between scandals at Louisville?

MR: No. Just when you start to think you’re getting back to some normalcy of talking about wins and losses, something else insane happens and throws everything into turmoil again. That week when the FBI stuff broke, I was starting to think Pitino’s got the five-game suspension. There’s the NCAA appeal, but you can guess how that was going to go. At least we know how the whole thing was going to shake out and we can now get back to focusing on basketball. Then that happens and you’re back in total turmoil.

People forget that this whole thing – not this FBI thing, but Louisville’s string of scandals, kind of got started with the Chris Jones deal, where he was accused of sexual assault. He was ultimately vindicated, but ended up getting kicked off the team for missing a meeting or something like that. Then a few months later there was the Katina Powell stuff, which had a new lead every other week. Now there’s this.

With this investigation and the fall out, it has been exhausting. Tom Jurich is out. Rick Pitino is out. It’s been something every single day. It’s amazing how normal it felt last night just sitting and watching an exhibition game and I’m not listening to board meetings and taking minutes, waiting for someone to call someone else an a-hole.

DR: One of the weird things that has happened in the middle of all of this is the rise of Lamar Jackson (Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback). It’s not a scandal certainly, but he brings a whole new level of attention than Louisville football is used to. That had to add to the madness somewhat, especially for your role at Card Chronicle.

MR: In a weird way, it almost became another negative. Not Lamar himself, but there is this overwhelming sense that here was a generational talent that we just kind of lucked into. He’s the type of kid that doesn’t usually come to play for Louisville football, and he’s been wasted. They aren’t going to win double-digit games with Lamar Jackson. That is remarkable!

We’re going to watch his highlights and be blown away by them. We’ll look at the stats and be blown away by them. Then you’ll look at the record and be blown away by them in a terrible way. In a strange fashion, Lamar’s greatness will add to the frustration of being a Louisville fan during this time period. What did we get out of it? One 43-point win over Florida State is the lone on-field result you take away from the Lamar Jackson era. Fans are furious about that! We hear about it after every loss on the radio show.

DR: So starting with the Chris Jones scandal up to now, do you feel pressure to beat the ESPN’s and USA Today’s of the world to the newest, biggest details of this story given that you live in the town and are part of the Louisville community?

MR: I’m not really trying to beat anybody. I mean, I am rarely reporting stuff at all. People come to the website or my radio show for reaction. John was really well connected to Tom Jurich, the former athletic director. People around here knew that. He never tried to hide it. So, he’d get news, but it could be counterproductive, because people knew exactly where it came from and then assumed the story was being spun. In those cases, being first to a story didn’t really help us.

In terms of competition though, no. If the goal is to get more readers or listeners, being first isn’t the best way to do that. My goal is to be the most informative or most entertaining.

DR: I’m glad you brought up John’s relationship with the athletic department, because it goes to my next question. How much do you feel like you have to balance access with being able to do the show or write the kind of pieces you want?

MR: Oh, a lot! John is a really talented guy, but sometimes he only wanted to tell one side of the story. He was always willing to listen to the other side when people called in or brought it up, but he didn’t want to project it himself, and Tom was his friend. If my best friend worked for AT&T and I hosted a tech radio show, I probably wouldn’t want to come on singing the praises of Google Fiber, right? But I was always really careful with what I did, because I never wanted to cast the show as only giving you half the truth every single day. I wanted to balance him out, because I know people are aware of his relationships. It’s been a daily thing and it still is.

DR: Since teaming up with John, and transitioning from being a writing talent to someone who also hosts a radio show, what have you discovered needs to change in terms of your preparation and the goals of what you’re trying to put out?

MR: The prep is still something I’m trying to get a handle on, because I’ve got Card Chronicle, I’m the college basketball editor for SB Nation, and I’ve got the radio gig. At some point something has to be sacrificed to a certain extent. Typically I go with Card Chronicle, because I get paid full time for the other stuff.

Each is its own thing. One job wants me to kind of be a Louisville homer. One wants me to be an entertaining Louisville guy. And then one demands that I am totally objective. Covering the Powell story especially was really hard. The radio show wants all the details and they want you to talk about what this news means for the program. Card Chronicle is supposed to be a Louisville fan that says “hey we can make fun of it and we’ll get through it,” you know? I mean, how “woe is me” are we supposed to get here? Then there’s the objective side for SB Nation that is all about “this is going on at Louisville, one of the ten most successful programs of all time, so what does it mean for college basketball?”.

It kinda makes you realize that there is room for the same voice to touch all three. Media is changing. People aren’t trying to hide their fandom as much anymore. You’ve got Scott Van Pelt on the 11:00 Sportscenter every night talking about Maryland. So, I don’t think people care so much as long as you’re being fair.

DR: So what is the makeup of fandom in Louisville? Since it is the city’s university, is the town overwhelmingly red and white or is it more evident that it is the biggest city in the state of Kentucky and you more often see Kentucky fans that want to revel in the misfortunes of Louisville?

MR: Yeah, I mean there are more Kentucky fans in Jefferson County than anywhere else in the state, and they’ll tell you that the town is 50/50, but its not. It’s closer to 65/35 or 60/40.

DR: 60/40 Louisville?

MR: Yeah. The only big, comprehensive study done on this was about ten years ago, but it was related to football. Kentucky fans are Alabama fans or Ohio State fans or whatever when it comes to football. The results of that one were 61% Louisville, 28% Kentucky and the remainder just didn’t care. So it’s more than 50/50, but they have a huge influence. You grow up with Kentucky fans. You work with them. You’re around UK fans everyday. It’s why UK fans will tell you the games in Lexington are more contentious – football or basketball, because you’ve got this population of Kentucky fans that have never had to interact with Louisville fans and they’re just going to let you have it while you’re there.

DR: I’ve never thought about it from that angle before. I wonder if Auburn fans would say that about going to Tuscaloosa. Or really any rivalry that is the town against the big state university.

MR: Yeah, there’s a lot at play there. You’ve got Louisville fans vs. Kentucky fans, but there is also the state of Kentucky vs. the city of Louisville or country UK fans vs. city Louisville fans. It opens up a window that can get pretty ugly.

DR: So in learning your audience, what have you discovered their expectation is? How much of the show is going to be about Louisville basketball or football…or hell, baseball. They’ve had a really good baseball team recently.

MR: No doubt. I’d say about 75-80%. I mean it’s supposed to be a Louisville show, but we get off topic a little bit. You have to, unless there is a prostitution scandal or some other national news thing going on, but we take a lot of calls too. They drive the show sometimes and typically they go to football or basketball.

John and I are so different. The people that follow me on Card Chronicle expect me to be funny and make jokes. It’s why they tune in. John’s a long time radio guy. He’s a lot older than me and knows how to talk to that audience.

DR: So given the way the town lines up behind both Louisville and Kentucky, do you think Louisville could ever support pro sports?

MR: Oh yeah. A publication in town named me one of the 20 sports business people to know. So they did this cool round table discussion with all of us and one of the things that came up is getting a pro team here and how that could keep Louisville going and keep pace with cities like Indianapolis and Nashville. These are cities that Louisville would compare itself to about 30 years ago, but it hasn’t really kept up in part because it doesn’t have a pro sports franchise.

But it also came up that a pro team could be a unifying deal for this rivalry. And it’s amazing how much the rivalry came up. J. Bruce Miller is a prominent attorney in town who used to work in government and he said that in the 70’s and 80’s they would go to the capital in Frankfort and they could get whatever they wanted. They could get anything done. Now you can’t go to Frankfort from the city of Louisville and get anything done because no one wants to work with you because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of this rivalry.

He blamed the media, which was great, because I was the only media member. But you blame the rivalry. Hell, if they do bring an NBA team here, there’s a vocal contingent that doesn’t want them to play in the Yum Center because it’s associated with U of L basketball. We have an NBA ready arena and they talk about renovating Freedom Hall if it ever does come here.

I think we’d do well with a pro sports franchise and it would do great for the entire city.

DR: So if a league were to come to Louisville, the best fit would be the NBA?

MR: The NBA or MLS. There is a USL team here. I think it’s their third season and they’re well-supported. Just a couple of nights ago, the city approved a plan for a 10,000 seat stadium for the team in the Butchertown neighborhood and then there will be a big push for an MLS team. It will be tough though because they would be competing with Cincinnati and Columbus, and the MLS would probably go to Austin first, but there’s hope. But in the next decade if anything moves to town it’ll likely be the NBA or MLS.

BSM Writers

Jason Barrett Podcast: Rich Eisen, NFL Network

Jason Barrett

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Rich Eisen reveals how he ended up partnering with Stuart Scott, the moment he knew he made the right move joining the NFL Network, and the influence standup comedy had on his broadcast career.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3nTJC5K 

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3z9hErM

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3oyi0U0

Google: https://buff.ly/3vh7Tqu

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3w9hqAh

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Does FOX Need West Coast College Football Success?

“I think we are all looking forward to the twelve team playoff and I don’t know if it matters as much as it did in the last eight years.”

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Don’t believe them. Don’t believe those people that try to sell you on the idea that a given sport is better if a given team in said sport is good. You know, college football is better when Notre Dame is good. Maybe they tell you college basketball is better when UCLA is good. Might they say the NFL is better when the Dallas Cowboys are good? Let me tell you, whoever the they is saying those things, they are wrong. FOX isn’t living or dying on it?

I am not here to tell you college football is better when USC is good. The Trojans are ninth all-time in FBS wins with 866 victories, they claim 11 National Championships and 39 conference championships. There is zero doubt they are among the elite, blue blooded programs of the college football world. With all of that said, USC hasn’t contributed to college football’s national championship discussion in more than 15 years. But, now Southern California is back and in College Football Playoff contention.

With only Notre Dame and a PAC 12 Conference Championship left to play, 10-1 USC is in excellent position to earn the first College Football Playoff bid in school history. The Trojans would be the third west coast team in the playoffs, 2014 Oregon played in the inaugural edition and 2016 Washington was the only other PAC 12 participant. It has now been five playoffs since a PAC 12 team has been in the top four.

That brings up the obvious question, how important is it for the health of the College Football Playoff to have west coast teams involved, especially one based in Los Angeles? L.A is, of course, the second largest media market in the nation. College football is well down the list of priorities in the City of Angels but having a team in the mix might help the overall national rating.

College Football has long been criticized for becoming too regional of a sport. The results thus far do lend themselves to that belief, the only team from outside the South to win a national championship was 2014 Ohio State. The SEC has twice had two teams among the four playoff teams and two of eight championship games matched Alabama and Georgia from the SEC. 

So, does the College Football Playoff need West Coast teams for long term health? FOX is one of the rights holders for PAC 12 football and the main FOX college analyst, Joel Klatt, doesn’t think it is necessary. “I don’t know if it matters this year. This is like the last two years in an eight year term for a president,” Klatt told me on my show, The Next Round, “I think we are all looking forward to the twelve team playoff and I don’t know if it matters as much as it did in the last eight years.”

To Klatt’s point, the College Football Playoff seems to be screeching towards that twelve team format and a bigger media rights deal. That deal will almost certainly include multiple networks, not just ESPN/ABC, and will be worth significantly more money than the current deal. So, it is not as if the lack of a presence west of the Rockies has hurt the attractiveness of the College Football Playoff to the networks.

On the other hand, the playoffs have never reached the lofty ratings they had year one. Was the 2014 edition just ratings lightning in a bottle or has the regional nature of the product hurt those ratings? The 2014 semi finals did fall on New Year’s Day which meant the games were played in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl which has proven to be the most successful schedule in terms of ratings success.

The college football lover in me couldn’t get enough of FOX’s Saturday night USC-UCLA telecast. There’s something about both teams wearing those classic home colors and playing in that historic stadium under the lights. They put on a great show, the show also would go on without them.

I want as many people as possible exposed to college football; it only makes the sport healthier. If that means more West Coast teams need to be in the playoffs, I hope they earn their way in. An expanded playoff will only make it easier. Until then, just keep telling people college football is better when your team is good

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HBO’s ‘Shaq’ Docuseries Tells Shaquille O’Neal’s Story With Style, Personality

What ‘Shaq’ wants the audience to know is that success wasn’t easy for the man, despite his physical gifts.

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Screen cap via HBO Sports

From the very beginning of HBO’s Shaq docuseries, Shaquille O’Neal tells us how important storytelling is to him. Just recapping a sequence of events isn’t enough for the Hall of Famer. As the man puts it himself, “sometimes when you tell a story, you wanna add a little barbecue sauce.”

Director Robert Alexander (The Shop, A Man Named Scott) adds plenty of barbecue sauce to O’Neal’s life story, especially in the first two parts of the docuseries. (Shaq runs four episodes, with the opener debuting Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max. Each of the following three episodes will premiere on the subsequent Wednesday.)

Nothing less should be expected from a gigantic personality like O’Neal. This isn’t a dry documentary that simply chronicles a series of events. Alexander mixes in stock, news, and archival sports footage to add embellishment and punctuation to many stories and important points. Music, creative set design, and animation also play key roles in keeping the narrative moving and the audience engaged.

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Each episode has a visual theme to it. Part 1 emulates a music video. Several comic book elements are incorporated into Part 2. Part 3 is meant to invoke a classic stage drama, a Shakespearean tragedy. Unfortunately, Part 4 is less focused in that regard, though some fun video game graphics are produced. Editors Freddie DeLaVega, Lenny Messina, and Ted Feldman deserve significant credit for making all the pieces fit together into a cohesive visual trip that gives the documentary an energy not seen in many projects like this.

Much like The Last Dance did for Michael Jordan, Shaq helps define a basketball icon for newer generations more familiar with the athletic giant from being part of TNT’s Inside the NBA panel and his many, many commercial endorsements.

The documentary begins with an adolescent O’Neal growing faster than his body and mind could handle. He wasn’t a phenom who was a superstar from the very moment he took the court, despite his obvious size advantages. And his path to major college basketball didn’t take the typical route.

Eventually, however, viewers see what those of us old enough to have watched O’Neal play at LSU remember. He looked like an adult among boys. His dunks were ferocious, raising his knees as he bent the rim to his will. And, as you might recall, young Shaq was much thinner than the diesel he became late in his professional career.

The first two episodes of Shaq chronicle O’Neal’s rise to superstardom, from college sensation at LSU to No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick by the Orlando Magic, developing into a force for whom there was no match on the court on the way to NBA championships. O’Neal was so dominant that the game had to adapt to him. Rival teams stocked their rosters with three to four big men that could each spare six fouls roughing O’Neal up and sending him to the free throw line. The NBA’s defensive rules changed to allow more double-teaming.

Parts 3 and 4 of the docuseries are less fun, as the second pair of episodes follow O’Neal’s fall from the ultimate heights of his career and difficulties in his personal life. His relationship with Kobe Bryant deteriorated and took a championship dynasty down with it. A major factor in those tensions developing was O’Neal’s reluctance to stay in shape during the offseason, continuing to put on weight, and eventually having toe surgery right before the 2002-03 season.

This is where O’Neal’s involvement and cooperation probably hurt Shaq the most. Unlike the first two episodes, when everything was going well for him, the big man doesn’t offer as much insight into his shortcomings. Particularly frustrating is his lack of accountability. At one point, O’Neal flat-out says he’s not talking about what went wrong with the Lakers.

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Looking right into the camera and accepting responsibility for his role in the demise of two championship teams (later including the Miami Heat) would have been riveting. Instead, others are left to try and explain O’Neal’s actions, which feels dishonest as teammates like Rick Fox and longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti try to cover for him.

What Shaq wants the audience to know is that success wasn’t easy for the man, despite his physical gifts. Basketball did not come easily to him as a youth, nor did championship success in college or the NBA as he grew up. But like so many great athletes do, O’Neal channeled criticism from the media and slights from opponents including Dikembe Mutombo into major aggression on the court. (His words for the 1999-2000 NBA MVP voter who prevented him from the league’s first unanimous win are profanely hilarious.)

O’Neal makes it clear that strong figures in his life provided discipline and guidance — beginning with the military-influenced upbringing of his stepfather, then coaches who could teach him how to be a great player like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley — made him who he is. He has always been a personality and time has been kinder to some of the behavior that was once considered brash. Now he’s a worldwide brand known even to non-sports fans. Those viewers, along with diehard basketball fans, will enjoy getting to know him better in this docuseries.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Part 1 of Shaq premieres Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Each of the three episodes will premiere on the subsequent Wednesday, through Dec. 14. The docuseries will also stream on HBO Max and be available on-demand, with repeat airings on HBO networks.

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