Matt Fortuna spent six years covering the Notre Dame football team up close for ESPN. In part one, we talked to Fortuna about his departure from the cable sports network and his future. In this final part, Fortuna discusses his interview with Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick, his impression of Irish fans and his bold fashion choices.
One of your biggest “gets” was the mid-season interview with athletic director Jack Swarbrick this year. Take us behind the scenes a bit. What was your pitch on why Swarbrick should talk to you? Or did he seek you out?
Simple: I asked him during the bye week if he’d be available to chat about the season. He’s usually pretty accessible, and this case was no different. When it comes to work philosophy, I’m from the Joe Maddon school of thought: Do Simple Better. And this job, at its core, really comes down to one skill: Asking — asking questions, asking for documents, asking for contact information … you name it. The worst that can happen is you get told no.
Swarbrick later said he’d be “much less likely” to speak about a coach’s status midseason because “it came back and bit me in the butt.” What did you make of that? Was there any part of you that thought he was taking an unnecessary risk by speaking to you?
Not really. Like I said, he’s pretty accessible. If you think about it, there was only one way to really answer my question, which Swarbrick did. No sane athletic director is going to publicly put his head football coach on notice via the media when the season is only seven games old. Add in the fact that Brian Kelly and the staff were out recruiting that week, and what other message is there to send to the public? He’s smart enough to know that I’m a reporter and that my antennae might go up if he chooses to ignore me. And that usually does no one any good.
Social media has opened up new avenues of interacting with media. What’s your overall impression of Notre Dame fans? Where do they rank on the spectrum of “awesome” to “annoying”?
It can be a tough group to gauge for the simple fact that the school itself is small, so the majority of people praising or criticizing your work didn’t attend Notre Dame. That’s not to say that you can’t be a real fan if you didn’t go there — some of my extended family members are proof of that — but the emotional attachment to the place might be a little different for somebody who lived in those dorms and sat in that student section during some of the most important years of his or her life.
Most of the Irish fans I’ve interacted with beyond simple tweets are really, really nice. They’re very hospitable to opposing fans at tailgates — coming from a Big Ten school, I was blown away by that — and they always make me feel welcomed whenever I walk around campus. Of course, after my second game on the beat — that infamous collapse in the Big House’s first-ever night game — another writer shared an email he received from an anti-abortion website saying Notre Dame’s loss at Michigan could only be explained by the Holy Mother exacting her vengeance on the place for having invited that “baby killer” Obama to speak on campus. Somehow, I managed to miss that angle while covering the game.
What’s one thing that you’ll miss about covering the Irish, if you don’t continue in this capacity with another outlet? What’s one thing you won’t miss? What’s one thing that the football staff could do that wouldn’t take a lot of effort, but would help the beat writers considerably?
The last part is easy, and one that anyone who works at Notre Dame has heard me and countless other writers talk about again and again: Make assistant coaches available to the media in-season. I know assistants speak at fewer and fewer places these days, but it wasn’t this way at Notre Dame as recently as 2011. When we do get them, most of the assistants are awesome to talk to and represent the school in a great way.
I’ll never forget Pat Narduzzi’s answer when I sat in his office after he got hired at Pitt and asked him how different it was to be in the head coach’s seat, after so many years as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State. He said it wasn’t too big of an adjustment, citing the fact that Mark Dantonio had prepared him for the moment while at Michigan State by making him face the media often.
Moreover, the simple fact of the matter is that a head coach alone is not qualified to speak in-depth about 100-plus kids on his roster. It’s literally impossible for Kelly, or anyone, to do that intelligently on a weekly basis, and it leads to a few unintentionally awkward moments where he misspeaks at times. (I’ve had at least one starter over the years tell me he had no idea what Kelly was referring to whenever Kelly referenced a play of his, since the two interacted so infrequently on the field.) That’s where assistants come in, since they’re more hands-on with a smaller group of players than a head coach probably ever could be, given the demands of that job.
As for what I’ll miss the most: The people. Some of the nicest and smartest I’ve ever dealt with. But enough about the basketball team. (Kidding!) And the place is never, ever at a shortage for stories or readers, no matter how good or bad things are going.
Why did you get involved with the Football Writers Association of America and what do you see as your role as a director in that organization?
My college adviser, Malcolm Moran, was a longtime reporter who still plays a big role with the FWAA and suggested I try to help out wherever I could. Frankly, I owe my career to Malcolm and would jump off a bridge if he told me to, so this was a no-brainer. The organization asked me two years ago to be in charge of its Courage Award — which, as you can imagine, annually goes to college football’s most courageous figure — and I have been tasked with nominating players and coaches weekly during the season, before ultimately choosing a winner. Some of these stories are simply incredible, and they have made for some really tough decisions on our end. Miami offensive lineman Hunter Knighton, who nearly died on the practice field from heatstroke, was last year’s winner. Pitt running back James Conner was this year’s winner, and having gotten to know him and his family before he was diagnosed with cancer and became a national symbol, I’m not surprised by the way he’s handled everything good and bad that’s come his way in the past year.
You’re a Penn State alumnus, who graduated right before the child abuse sex scandal rocked that university. How did you process what you were reading and learning, both as an alumnus and as a sportswriter who recognizes how huge this story was?
As an alumnus, I was infuriated. That grand jury report had my stomach in knots. And while whatever belief you have in institutions or famous people erodes once you’re in this business and you get a front-row seat to some of the politics that go on behind-the-scenes, you also don’t envision being flat-out embarrassed to tell people where you went to school. But that’s the bed Penn State made for itself.
Once that first wave of news hit, I can’t say I was too surprised by much of the fallout. Having covered that program in the two years prior to the scandal, the level of institutional arrogance there at the time was off-putting and you just knew the place would trip all over itself if a day of reckoning ever came. There is certainly a segment of the fanbase that has contributed to the ugly picture being painted there, but most of my college friends are fellow journalists, and we all find ourselves from time to time asking each other: “Wait, this place wasn’t that crazy when we were there, right?” (Most of the remaining crazies there do seem to be non-students — and in many cases even non-alums stationed in Central Pa. — for what it’s worth.)
That said, knowing the circumstances, I’ve been beyond impressed with the jobs both Bill O’Brien and James Franklin have done there. If you were following me on Twitter when Penn State was 2-2 earlier this year amid plenty of hot-seat talk for Franklin, you’d know I felt that that chatter was ridiculous, despite the fact that that noise wasn’t coming from just nowhere. (Though I most certainly did not see PSU winning nine straight games and making the Rose Bowl anytime in the near future. Wow.)
Let’s talk sartorial choices for a moment. You’re not afraid of bright colors and you’ve taken at least two pictures in a “brotop.” Where do you find the courage, sir?
You only found two, huh? Well, I figure if Brian Kelly can wear a crazy plaid jacket to a press conference — and still accuse me of looking like a damn leprechaun — the rest of us can exercise a little creativity. And when you’re working at the same place as Edward Aschoff and Sam Khan, well, a high bar has been set. Having a mother who works at J. Crew has also probably allowed my wardrobe to venture to places I might otherwise avoid. I’m just glad you didn’t ask about the infamous inadvertent mustache episode. (Between that, the Freddie dust-up and my brief moment of fame at Wrigley, I’m pretty sure I’ll at least have a cameo in any remake of “Seinfeld” if this writing thing doesn’t work out.)
Jesus fed 5,000 people with four loaves of bread and two fish. What have you accomplished with Fortuna?
I just made it through a Notre Dame/journalism Q&A without being asked about Manti Te’o’s girlfriend. That has to count for something, no?