The Beat Goes On
The Exit Interview: This is the first story in a new series at The MMQB covering people who have left the game of football.
After 38 years covering the Packers for Wisconsin newspapers, Bob McGinn left the beat last month and put his house up for sale in Green Bay. He'll move to Ann Arbor, Mich., near his alma mater, Michigan, and live with his wife, Pat, and he'd like to continue working. Doing exactly what, he's not sure yet.
McGinn, 65, was the dean of NFL beat writers. Highly respected for his diligence, knowledge of the game and his tireless tape study of every play, he taught a generation of NFL writers how to cover football teams. “Bob was an icon,” Packers president Mark Murphy said. “I would get letters from fans quoting Bob McGinn. He timed the hang time of punts! He timed the hang time for the snapper to get it back [to the punter]!”
This exit interview is McGinn on the record about football, about the Packers, about journalism. It's not just about his favorite Packer stories, but also about the state of the media business, the state of football coverage, the line there has to be between reporter and team, and the McGinn style.
Let's start with that style.
The MMQB: Is there something in the way you covered the Packers that people are going to try to emulate?
McGinn: I don't really look at that kind of thing. I just kind of developed a style after some years and just did it.
The MMQB: What is the McGinn style?
McGinn: “Okay, let's see. To learn the game and then as I learn it, to teach it to my readers. There are some things that are really important to me. I mean, I could never stop thinking about the team I covered. I was a beat man. I could never stop thinking about what [GMs] Ron Wolf or Ted Thompson or the coaches might be thinking or plotting. I tried to put myself in their shoes. That's important. You can't cover a beat like this unless you know how every man on that 53-man roster is playing, what his value is. If you don't know that, you can't write intelligent stories. You have find a way to know how each guy is playing. And you do that by learning the game yourself and talking to experts in the field— scouts, assistant coaches for other teams, Packer people. Once you know if the left tackle can play, if the fifth cornerback is any good, then you just know. You walk into that locker room and you know everyone's value and the stories just kind of flow. That's crucial I think. And you can't be lazy about it.”
The MMQB: That must have led to conflicts and disagreements with players. How far back do they go?
McGinn: “Well, aging does have its advantages. It's hard to yell at a guy who's the age of their dad or even their grandfather. There was much more confrontation in the '80s. I started on the beat full time in '84, as a backup in '79, and I didn't know the game. I may have thought I did back then, but I was learning too. After being taught this game by so many people who went out of their way in the business, and I had so much access back then, I better have learned the game—and I hope I did. So players would see me making mistakes. With the media in the '80s, all the focus was on the beat writers. There was no internet and man, you walked in that room and everyone was focused on you. Everybody read that paper and they just knew it. So there were a lot of screaming matches, and I think players were sometimes right! Some offensive lineman … I know now after talking to so many people that probably at least on the teams I have covered with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, 25 to 30 percent of sacks are on the quarterback. Well, I never knew that in the '80s and offensive lineman would tell me that and I just didn't quite get it. So I had a lot of screaming matches with Keith Uecker, a guard/tackle, and Tony Mandarich, a tackle. Uecker was really a tough guy and it was a smaller locker room then. Just screaming at me when I entered the room, ’You f—— a—— McGinn, get the f— outta here!' It was a wild west show. Players weren't as professional. They weren't as highly paid. And I deserved a good share of it, there's no doubt, because I was ignorant.”
The MMQB: And in your later years?
McGinn: “I don't know if guys aren't reading as much. But the primacy of the daily newspaper has decreased. Or maybe they are making so much money they are just bigger than the daily newspaper guy. But it never changed me, I didn't care.”
The MMQB: What do you think of the way the NFL is covered? Does anything concern you?
McGinn: “It does. Teams want to play the games and cover the games; they want to do both. All these team websites are just a pox on our business. All the coverage is slanted. It's all pro-team and the people who cover, who work for a network one way or another that is paying the league billions of dollars to broadcast games and be partners, everything they say I take with a grain of salt. It's left all to beat writers and magazine guys apart from these teams, and networks who have independence, to dissect the game and look at things with an unbiased eye. We're journalists. These people on these networks aren't journalists, to a large degree. That means a lot. We know how to be fair, we know how to source and we know how to ask questions. We know how to tell stories.”
The MMQB: You documented how fortunate it was that Aaron Rodgers didn't have to play the first couple of years—he just wasn't ready.
McGinn: “He was a very poor player here for his first two summers and regular-season practices. Fortunately for him, and he knows that down deep, he didn't have to play early. His delivery was a mess, bad body language, he didn't know how to deal with teammates. He learned so much from Brett Favre on how to in some ways be one of the guys and relate, and he became much more of a leader. He was really poor and how many great players have ever had a start like that? Not that many. A lot of scouts look at that exhibition tape those first two years and he was a little bit better the third year, but not to any degree, and then he just really developed. He lost a lot of close games in '08, but by '09 he was playing great and by 2010 he was maybe the best in the business. And then there have been a lot of playoff disappointments and poor performances. It's a quarterback league and all the rules are designed for that quarterback to dominate, and he hasn't done it in the most important times since 2010.
The MMQB: Favre or Rodgers?
McGinn: “Would I take Favre or Rodgers? Right now, Favre. Because he was there every single game and he inherited a team that was the armpit of the NFL. It's one of the greatest reclamation projects in NFL history. Favre just did it all from nothingness.”
The MMQB: Over the years you've told me you liked dealing with Favre and [GM] Ron Wolf. Why?
McGinn: “That whole team was fun. Favre gave me so much time—after games, after practice, walking out to the buses. He knew every play. Photographic memory. Wolf returned every call. I don't know if any writer could have ever had a better relationship with a GM than I had with Wolf. Returned every call. Bob, Ron Wolf. He'd bitch about something for the first 20 minutes. Why the f—! How could you write that s—? That's BS! That's contrary to what I told you. I would hold my breath for 45 seconds and let him rant and then you know what he said? Okay, what do you need? And there was no grudge. When a historian goes back and reads our paper for those nine years, that historian will find Ron Wolf explained everything every day! And he came from Al Davis! The paranoia!”
The MMQB: Should football exist?
McGinn: “Yes! Yes, by all means. I played it. I got knocked out. A lot of kids suffer concussions in soccer. Yeah, I don't think kids should be playing [tackle football] until 13 or 14. I didn't put on pads until I was a freshman in high school and I'm glad. You want your body to develop, it's way too young to start stuff. But once you get to high school and a certain age, the padding today, the safety measures, I think it is a great sport and I don't have any problem with it.”
The MMQB: In your farewell column last month, you were eloquent about being a newspaper guy. What's the fate of papers?
McGinn: “I see what the New York Times and the Washington Post are producing right now at this critical time for our democratic republic and I am so proud again to have spent 40-plus years in journalism. Yeah, obviously people aren't reading the print versions as much. You look in airports and trains and how many papers are left at newsstands everywhere you go. I'm still going to read newspapers as long as I can get them. But the power of journalism, this unbiased coverage of our country, of these sports, people with no axe to grind, standing up for the little guy, asking the questions the fans would want to ask, that is never going to change. There is always going to be a market for that, I hope.”
The MMQB: Did caring so much about your job have an affect on your health?
McGinn: “No, I never missed a kickoff, I never missed a game. My health is really good, knock on wood.”
The MMQB: Why leave the beat?
McGinn: “I wanted to do something different. There's family reasons too, but I'm not going to get into all that.”
The MMQB: What do you see yourself doing for the next 20 years?
McGinn: “I wouldn't mind teaching. I would like to take classes at the university in a whole lot of areas. I am wide open, really. I love the act of writing and I would love to do that—on any subject. I want to get closer with my family. And maybe travel. But I absolutely want to continue writing and working, and I will.”
The MMQB: Will you miss putting a stopwatch on the hang time of punters?
McGinn: “No, but I will miss sitting there after Packer games on that Monday for seven or eight hours with that remote, and the mysteries of the game, back and forth, 20 times maybe on a one-yard run, just trying to figure out what happened and knowing and having talked to enough players, that I kind of know the scheme and I know what should happen, and just going back and forth and seeing why this play failed, who was at fault or who threw a great block on a great play. That was really fun. And then I love the act of writing.”
McGinn: “Can I mention a couple of other things I want to talk about?”
The MMQB: Of course.
McGinn: “Okay. Modesty. I think that's crucial. I think too many young reporters think they are the show, think they are the game. It drives me nuts. We have to know who we are. We are journalists. We're reporters. Every scout and assistant coach, to me, knows 100 times more football than I do. The scouts in Green Bay can go down the hall and there is [defensive coordinator] Dom Capers sitting in his office with his tape on. They can sit there for 15 minutes. Dom, let's talk about this coverage. I would love to have had a chance like that. I never did. So when you interview these people, don't act like you know a lot. Be modest. Temper it down. Listen, listen, to what they're telling you.
“You can't make any friends on these beats. I don't have any friends and if you try to, these players and coaches, they're just going to laugh at you. They are them. We are us. They know how to perform their skill. They know how to perform in front of 70,000 people screaming at them. They know how to do that. We know how to interview and we know how to write stories. But you're not them. Any of these people who try to get tight with players and coaches, I just don't see it. If you're not pissing people off, you're not doing your job. There has to be an adversarial relationship. I was on this beat for 35 years. There's no friends, it's not about friends. It's about professional respect and doing a job for your readers, for your newspaper.
“Another thing: You have to take this job personally. I played high school sports, [then] all my competitive juices went to the beat. Everybody knows who wins every day. You got four or five newspapers, you lay 'em out and you see who covered the team better. Every day. There's a winner and a loser. That was the competition for me. It was great.
“A couple more things. I provided diversion for people. They love their Green Bay Packers. I am providing a diversion for that surgeon in Omaha or for the lawyer in Detroit who is a Packer fan, or the guy over in Turkey who is in the service. I'm a diversion and I'm okay with that. But I never treated it like that. For me it was my life. It was my career, and as a journalist and a representative of my newspaper I tried to do the best I could. You want to stimulate and challenge these readers, you don't want to go with the flow or go with the groupthink. Writers who listen to radio broadcast with an earphone, why? The readers of your newspaper are paying for your thoughts. The worst thing in the world is if you'd ever hear a TV in a press box, I would go and talk to that home PR guy and ask them to immediately turn it down. We're us! Have pride in yourselves and pride in our profession. Learn the game and then bring it to your readers without all this mumbo-jumbo from guys who are getting paid by networks who are paid by the league.
“Be independent. Think for yourself. These teams are trying to co-opt you; they are trying to brainwash you. Get beyond that. You have to be a journalist. You have to be a newspaperman.
“Finally, this podcast I did. Young [reporter] Tyler Dunne came in here and he said, ’Let's try this podcast.' So I did it two or three years with Tyler, and two years now with Michael Cohen. I must say that a lot of readers have told me that they understood me better and they started to consider me a friend and not just a columnist or a beat writer. I see a lot of value in the podcast. I never wanted to do TV because I wanted to remain anonymous.”
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