Friday, March 04, 2005

In the News: Rick Hartzell, Gene Smith, Dying Columnist

When a guy is watching a Big Ten basketball game on TV, halftime is supposed to be reserved for emptying his bladder and maybe grabbing a cold something-or-other out of the refrigerator.

I doubt that Rick Hartzell figured he’d be accused of having a “conflict of interest” during intermission of last night’s Illinois-Purdue game on ESPN2.

But that’s what happened.

ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Classics, ESPNU and whatever other ESPN channel is out there have what seems like a million analysts, commentators, colormen, second-guessers—call ‘em what you want—and all have opinions.

If they didn’t have opinions, they’d be back home, telling the wife they really don’t want to go the local movie house and watch “Sideways” because they’d like to see how the coaches are handling strategy in the Sun Belt Conference postseason tournament on the tube.

In the world in which we now live, we have access to many games on TV at the same time.

Some of them are even basketball games.

And every one of them has an analyst—sometimes two analysts—sitting next to the play-by-play guy [sorry, Pam Ward, I mean announcer] with opinions.

Doug Gottlieb, who used to play basketball at Oklahoma State, wasn’t serving as a game analyst when I heard him say Hartzell was guilty of a conflict of interest.

Gottlieb was the halftime analyst back at the ESPN2 studio in Bristol, Conn. And what he said would certainly have gotten Hartzell’s attention had he been watching.

Hartzell has a rather weird work schedule. He’s in his sixth year as the athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa, and as far as I know, does a very good job there.

However, unlike guys such as Dave Blank at Drake, Bob Bowlsby at Iowa and Bruce Vande Velde at Iowa State, he also officiates major-college basketball games in leagues such as the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Conference USA.

I don’t know how he finds the time to carry on a demanding schedule like that, but obviously Hartzell thinks he can do it.

What Doug Gottlieb thinks is a different matter.

On the ESPN2 telecast, Gottlieb mentioned that Hartzell was one of the three officials working the Indiana-Wisconsin game this week at Madison.

ESPN2 showed footage of the last minute or so of the game, in which Alando Tucker’s basket as time expired gave the Badgers a 62-60 victory.

Included in what ESPN2 showed was that Indiana was the victim of what seemed to be a mugging under the basket late in the game.

But no foul was called on Wisconsin.

That’s where Gottlieb’s charge that Hartzell had a “conflict of interest” came in.

Gottlieb explained to viewers that Indiana pretty much needed to beat Wisconsin to make it into the 65-team NCAA tournament field.

He also explained that Northern Iowa—Hartzell’s employer—is a NCAA “bubble” team and is fighting hard to get to the tournament for the second straight season.

Gottlieb meant that another Indiana loss would help teams such as Northern Iowa make it into the field.

Gottlieb wondered why the Big Ten supervisor of officials didn’t take Hartzell off the game because of its implications.

I wonder, too.

In fact, I’ve been wondering for quite some time if it’s a good idea for Hartzell to be officiating major-college basketball games when he’s the athletic director at UNI.

I wouldn’t want to risk being accused of having a conflict of interest—on national TV especially.

I’m also sure Mike Davis, the Indiana coach who is trying to hang onto his job, wonders why Hartzell was in the three-man officiating crew at Wisconsin.

If I were Davis, I’m sure I’d bring up the matter very quickly with the Big Ten.

He sure as hell better not wait until his bosses at Indiana tell him he’s fired because he didn’t get to the NCAA tournament this year.


I asked a friend of mine, who spends a lot of time around football and basketball games and TV announcers, what he thought of the Rick Hartzell/Doug Gottlieb situation.

I value his opinions.

Here’s what he said:

“The thing about officials is that they really need to avoid even an
appearance of conflict of interest. This would sure appear to be one.

“There are also three officials on every event. And if I remember correctly,
Hartzell was accompanied on that game by Steve Welmer and Ed Hightower,
two of the most visible officials in all of college basketball and both
likely to appear at the Final Four. They would not allow anyone to put
them into the kind of situation that Doug Gottlieb suggests.

“The thing about Gottlieb is that he will say WHATEVER comes to his mind
whether it makes sense or not. You might recall him as a point guard
for Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State. He may have a ‘bully pulpit,’ but he really
should think more before he talks.”


The word is that Gene Smith, who once was the athletic director at Iowa State and now is the A.D. at Arizona State, is taking Andy Geiger’s job at Ohio State.

“Almost two decades after taking a Rose Bowl-winning football coach away from Arizona State, Ohio State is making a play for fifth-year ASU Athletic Director Gene Smith," Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic wrote today.

Metcalfe said Smith, 49, “would not comment on reports out of Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday that he is Ohio State's leading candidate to become its new AD. He said through an athletic department spokesman that he has not been asked to interview with Ohio State officials about their vacancy.

”Andy Geiger, 65, announced his retirement as Ohio State athletic director in early January. He cited burnout from ongoing NCAA investigations into the football and men's basketball programs. Geiger is continuing until the end of the school year.

”The Columbus Dispatch, citing a source close to Ohio State President Karen Holbrook, said Smith is the leading candidate. Several sources, speaking anonymously, told the newspaper the hiring could come as soon as today, but Curt Steiner, senior vice president for external relations, said Holbrook "has not reached a decision . . . and the process is still under way."

”A source also confirmed to The Republic that Smith is the leading candidate and will be brought to Ohio for an interview.

”The Buckeyes lured football coach John Cooper away from ASU after the 1987 season, one year after the Sun Devils won the Rose Bowl.

”Smith, a native of Cleveland, is under contract with ASU through the 2007-08 school year. He earns a base salary of $289,406, virtually the same as that of Geiger. …..

”Smith has a strong working relationship with ASU President Michael Crow. His wife, Sheila, is a senior vice president for the ASU Foundation and special adviser to Crow.

"He is always a candidate that people go after," said Sandy Hatfield Clubb, ASU senior associate athletic director. "It happens with every job opening. He's a great guy doing a great job. Everyone within the athletic department would see this as a great loss if something like that were true."

The rest of this segment on ol' Geno is Ron Maly talking:

Smith did two smart things when he was at Iowa State. He fired Jim Walden as the football coach, and he hired Dan McCarney.

He was regarded as a good fund-raiser, but was shaky in some other areas. Reporters rarely believed what he said, and he caused a mess in the athletic department late in his career at Ames when he hired a volleyball coach without doing a background check.

It turned out the coach was not a college graduate, even though she said she was. The coach was fired, but the entire incident made Smith look foolish.

In addition, Tim Floyd—then the basketball coach at Iowa State—didn’t like Smith.

Good luck, Ohio State. You'll need it.


The news of Rob Borsellino’s health problems has gotten to Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune carried this story today on Borsellino's battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease:

Dying columnist inspires Iowans
Bronx transplant gets outpouring of support since revealing illness

By John McCormick
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 4, 2005

DES MOINES -- As a combative New Yorker living among Midwesterners, Rob Borsellino has long been an uneasy fit for Iowa, a place known for its rural conservatism and neighborly politeness.

From the day more than six years ago that he was introduced as the top local columnist for the state's largest newspaper, his liberal voice has sounded louder and brasher than most, almost immediately attracting agitated readers.

He dared to make fun of long-held Iowa traditions, shared gossipy items previously unreported, and got in the faces of politicians and heavy-hitters in a manner more befitting a hard-edged East Coast tabloid than a conventional Midwest daily like The Des Moines Register.

But over time, Borsellino, 55, managed to become a part of the fabric of a place from which he is so different. In a state with few celebrities, he became one, as recognized as any news anchor, sports star or politician.

So last week, when he announced in a bombshell column that he was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, sadness spread across the state.

The response since has been enormous. There have been hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails expressing support, a hand-written note and prayer from Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and even a $100 check from a stranger with instructions that Borsellino take his wife out to dinner.

After a life spent telling the stories of others, Borsellino is grappling with how to write the tragic ending of his own; many people expect he will chronicle the decline.

He claims to have not yet shed a tear about the terminal diagnosis, despite his sorrow about leaving behind two sons and his wife, Rekha Basu, also a columnist at the paper and the other half of one of Iowa's most elite power couples.

"I'm just not allowing myself to go there emotionally, because it would be crippling," he said. "When I'm paralyzed, there will be plenty of time to obsess and cry."

But his announcement column, written in his trademark gritty, staccato-style, left plenty in the state reaching for tissues.

"Each time I hear it I'm in denial," he wrote. "I find myself sitting there avoiding the important stuff:

"I won't be there for my sons' weddings, and I won't see the grandkids.

"What about a will and life insurance?

"Do I want to live strapped up to some breathing machine and a voice box?"

Beyond his decision about how much personal agony to share, there are growing expectations about the potential his celebrity has for fundraising and education about what is formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable disease of the nervous system that often kills within a few years of diagnosis.

"To the extent that I feel it's relevant, I will write about it," said Borsellino, whose symptoms include slurred speech and reduced finger dexterity. "It would be presumptive for me to think that people care that much that they want to hear about it all the time."

But where Borsellino is concerned about becoming a poster child for a cause, others see opportunity.

`A real education'

"As Iowa watches him go through this, it is going to be a real education for the state," said Amanda James, coordinator of the Iowa chapter of the ALS Association. "We have gotten so much attention because he is such a celebrity."

James said donations have started to flood in from across the state and nation and the phone has been "ringing off the hook" ever since Borsellino made his announcement Feb. 23.

Roughly 6,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with Lou Gehrig's disease, which is more prevalent among men than women and most commonly afflicts people between the ages of 40 and 70.

From the time of diagnosis, life expectancy is typically two to five years, although more than half of those stricken live three years or longer. Borsellino's strain, diagnosed in November, started in the upper part of his body and is believed to be rapidly advancing.

The disease is named after New York Yankees baseball star Lou Gehrig, a first baseman who died at 37. Gehrig delivered one of the most poignant moments in baseball history in the summer of 1939 when he said a tearful goodbye to fans at Yankee Stadium by saying he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

Borsellino, a Bronx native and Yankees fan, was the Register's metropolitan editor before he started writing columns. It was a role that made him influential in the lives of many young journalists, including this reporter and two others now at the Chicago Tribune.

Chuck Offenburger, who wrote a column for the Register for 21 years before leaving the paper, said he expects Borsellino's readers will want at least periodic updates.

"There will be great interest and almost an expectation that he will do that," he said. "What makes you a success as a columnist is if you can build an open bridge with your readers."

Managing Editor Rick Tapscott, who edits Borsellino's columns, said he believes readers will trust the columnist to write about his condition when appropriate. "He doesn't want to be the ALS columnist or the columnist with ALS," he said.

In recent days, Borsellino, who plans to continue writing as long as he can, has gone back to topics more his norm: the departure of a local television news anchor and the funeral of one of this city's top philanthropists.

As the wiry columnist struts around the newsroom in his ubiquitous black clothing, his quick humor remains fully intact. He jokes with colleagues that they should treat him with more respect because his days are numbered.

Eventually, Borsellino will be left with a healthy mind trapped in an immobile body. The possibility exists that he will need a wheelchair as early as Christmas.

Borsellino used to write three columns a week but has cut back to two, Mondays and Wednesdays. He hopes to publish a book of his favorite Iowa columns later this year.

Coincidentally, almost exactly five years before he was diagnosed, Borsellino detailed the decline of a Des Moines distance runner stricken with the disease.

"With ALS, you gradually lose control of your motor functions. Your arms and legs are useless. After a while you can't even breathe," he wrote in November 1999.

Borsellino and Basu moved to Des Moines from New York in 1991 and planned to stay only a few years. They left Iowa in 2001 to take columnist jobs at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, a paper that like the Chicago Tribune is owned by Tribune Co., but returned after only a year, saying they missed the close-knit community they enjoyed in Des Moines.

"There is nothing like Iowa when it comes to a crisis like this," Basu said.

At a monthly meeting of an ALS support group in West Des Moines this week, Borsellino's announcement was a topic of conversation.

`Luck of the draw'

"It just goes to show you that anyone can get stricken," said Ken Read, 61, a Des Moines man who was diagnosed in September, 2003. "The fact that Rob Borsellino has been stricken is just the luck of the draw."

Borsellino has not decided whether he will attend the group meetings, where emotional support flows amid sometimes-dark humor, along with tips on wheelchairs, walkers, easily swallowed food and living wills.

If he had been in the room, he would have tied as the youngest ALS victim there.


There were two letters on the opinion page of the local paper today that had Lute Olson’s name misspelled.

In the letters, the Arizona basketball coach’s name was spelled Olsen.


And he coached at Iowa, from 1975-1983, before he went to Arizona.

I can’t believe both letterwriters misspelled the name. I’m blaming the knuckleheads who oversee the letters at the local paper.

You’d think someone there would know how to spell the name of the Greatest College Basketball Coach in the History of the Game.

And, speaking of the local paper's opinion page, Suzanne Nelson no longer works there. So don’t blame her for the paper’s horrible spelling problems. Nelson has been farmed out to the dayside copy desk.

Somebody named Susan Curry, who is listed as op-ed editor/designer, has replaced Nelson. I’m sure all of this is a fallout from Carol Hunter taking over for Dick Doak as editorial page editor.

Vol. 4, No. 315
March 4, 2005