I have been reading Gary Parrish's work for a couple of years now. There are two characteristics that strike me about him as a writer; he has a good sense of humor, which is something that is not often found in sports writers, and he is very even-handed and fair in his analysis. His work is consistently entertaining and an easy read.
Parrish began working for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis just out of college. He toiled there for several years, and during his time at The Commercial Appeal he covered John Calipari and the University of Memphis for five years, and along the way he uncovered the Albert Means recruiting scandal. This won him several awards, most notably two AP Sports Editors Awards.
He left The Commercial Appeal to go to work for CBSSports.com roughly two years ago. He not only writes an excellent column, he also operates one of the more entertaining and informative blogs in the sports "blogoshpere". He's not shy about telling folks who the best, and biggest fans in college basketball are ... of course UK fans, and he is generally very positive when discussing anything UK related. Which of course is the polar opposite of many other national sports writers who shall remain unnamed.
Not long ago I contacted Mr. Parrish to gauge his interest in doing a Q&A with A Sea of Blue, and he graciously accepted the challenge. As I suspected, he was very forthright with his answers:
ASOB -- You're from Olive Branch, MS, which is only a few miles from Memphis. Did you grow up a Memphis fan or did you root for one of the Mississippi schools?
GP -- "I'm actually from Horn Lake, MS, but now I live in Olive Branch. Same thing really. But anyway, yeah, I grew up a Memphis fan. Keith Lee was my childhood hero, Penny Hardaway too. But when I got out of college -- and before I got this job at CBS -- I covered the Tigers for five seasons for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and the 'fan' aspect totally disappeared. I mean, sitting courtside at this years national title game should've been one of the highlights of my life. But it wasn't. I was indifferent to the whole thing, and I don't say that in an attempt to prove I'm impartial. It kinda makes me sad, actually, because the main reason I wanted to be a sports writer was because I loved sports, and I don't really love sports anymore. Don't get me wrong. I love my job and consider myself lucky to have it. But I have no emotional interest in any team in any sport anymore, and sometimes I wish that wasn't so because there's something nice about living and dying with a team."
ASOB -- What is the most memorable sporting event you have ever covered?
GP -- "I covered the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight while at the Commercial Appeal. That was just tremendous. I was on the Tyson beat all week, so I spent 10 hours a day around Tyson. Obviously, that was interesting, and I found Tyson to be a compelling figure. He's insane, for sure, or at least bipolar. But he was pleasant and genuinely kind to most people that week, and that's the way I remember him. Anyway, Fight Night was like nothing I had ever seen. Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and practically every other major star was there, just walking around the floor. Honestly, you couldn't take five steps without bumping into somebody, and the 20 minutes leading up to the main event was the most electric atmosphere I've ever encountered. All in all, it was a fabulous night ( for everybody except Tyson, of course )."
ASOB -- You did an award winning job of uncovering the whole Albert Means mess. Based on your experience do you think there is a similar scandal waiting to be uncovered in college basketball?
GP -- "Oh sure, there are tons. This is a sketchy sport. But what people don't realize is that things like the Albert Means scandal are incredibly difficult to uncover and report because you basically need somebody on the inside who is willing to sacrifice himself to bring down others, and those people are rare. Without Milton Kirk I would've never been able to uncover that scandal. And do you remember what happened to Milton? He was fired, indicted and is now a convicted felon. That was his 'reward' for coming forward and telling the truth. He destroyed his own life, and how many people are willing to do that just to tell some reporter about a scandal? Not many. And that's why the Means story was so rare, because what I had was a guy who was pissed to the point where it meant more to him to bring down another person than it did to save his own career. There aren't many people like that, which is why most scandals are never uncovered even though I'm confident there are similar stories every year."
ASOB -- You've written abut the unscrupulous nature of big-time college basketball recruiting, in particular the AAU coaches and their ubiquitous "scouting services", as well as the Elite Camps that have become popular. Do you think there is anything Myles Brand and the NCAA can to to put a stop to these borderline illegal practices?
GP -- "In short, no. The NCAA can make as many rules as it wants, but college coaches are smart and creative and they'll always figure out a way to get things done, if you will. This is a business built around men making millions of dollars to win basketball games, and it's hard to win without great players. Consequently, it's crucial for a coach to get great players, and a man will always find a loophole in the system when his livelihood depends on it."
ASOB -- What is your take on the current trend among college basketball coaches of recruiting younger and younger players? After Billy Donovan's acceptance of Austin River's verbal commitment, do you think coaches will follow the NABC's non-binding finding?
GP -- "I think its a rule/suggestion that can't be enforced, and completely unnecessary in most cases. The coaches and parents can handle this on their own, as far as I'm concerned. If a kid wants to commit and a coach wants to commit him, who is the NABC to step in the way. Plus, basketball is a sport where the elite players can usually be tabbed pretty early. We knew about O.J. Mayo when he was in middle school. LeBron James was considered a future NBA star by the time he was a sophomore, as was Greg Oden. In other words, it's not crazy to peg a young prospect as a future Division I player. So I don't have a problem with a college coach who wants to do it and get a headstart on the process, because if you're not in front of the game you are behind."
ASOB -- Based on your own personal experience, who is the best "game" coach you have ever seen, and why?
GP --" Ben Howland is pretty damn good, the results of the last three Final Fours not withstanding. For my money he's the best ... though he's probably gonna have to open it up on offense a little more to ever get that national title that has eluded him. But rest assured, he'll get a national title. He might be the best combination of recruiter/coach in all of basketball."
ASOB -- Billy Gillispie has become a rather popular figure in Kentucky over the last year-and-a-half; what are your thoughts on the job he's doing?
GP -- "I think the world of him as a coach. There are people who love him and people who don't love him, but even the ones who don't usually acknowledge he's good at what he does. He's smarter than you think, smarter than he lets on. So though I know he got off to a terrible start in his UK career, I can't imagine any scenario under which he doesn't return UK to prominence. He's too good at -- and to obsessed with -- his job to not succeed."
ASOB -- UK alum Travis Ford seems to be doing a bang-up job at Oklahoma State. How long before he moves up the ladder again? And do you think he would be a good fit to someday coach Kentucky?
GP -- "Obviously, Kentucky would be his dream job, and you could make the argument that if he and Gillispie switched places they might both be more comfortable. As for moving up the ladder, if he wins at OSU and the fans ( T. Boone Pickens included ) fall in love with him, the school will make it difficult to leave because nobody will outbid Pickens. Put another way, I think Kentucky might be the only 'step up' for Travis because if he fails nobody else will want him, and if he succeeds nobody else will be able to pay what Oklahoma State will be willing to pay. So he's in a good spot. I wish I had his salary."
ASOB -- You have Tennessee and Florida as the only ranked SEC teams in your "Ridiculously Early But Still Kind of Fun Preseason Top 25 ( and one )". Do you foresee, if Jodie Meeks is healthy and DeAndre Liggins qualifies, UK challenging UT and UF for SEC East supremacy?
GP -- I think UT is, on paper, the best team in the SEC. After that, everything is up for grabs. And though I don't have Kentucky ranked in the preseason, I won't be surprised if the Wildcats are ranked at some point. I think the world of Billy Gillispie as a coach. To pick against him being successful would be to pick against a career body of work that is impressive. So while he still doesn't have the type of roster to challenge for the things Kentucky is used to challenging for, I do think he'll win this year and continue to lay the foundation for what I suspect will be big things"
I want to thank Mr. Parrish for agreeing to do the interview, and I certainly appreciate his candidness.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!
UPDATE 04:25 PM: MInuteblog, a Umass blog at Masslive.com, apparently didn't like Ken's question to Parrish about Travis Ford. It looks to me like some in Massachusetts still carry around a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to young Mr. Ford.