An Interview with Gene Collier
“It’s an easy job…Basically, what you have to do for the day is read the sports section and go to the game. Who wouldn’t want to do that?…You’re getting paid to watch sports, go to sports and write your opinion. And you get in free. I got a tattoo on my butt, “Born to Get In Free”.”
“Even though I’m guilty of constantly criticizing (the Pirates) and the front office, for your own sanity you have to go down there. I try to look at it like a movie, either good or bad, as an isolated episode, rather than another manifestation of a hopeless situation.”
“I learned (to write) by learning how to read. I draw a parallel to music. You can’t be a musician if you don’t listen, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t read a lot. To see how language works, and what possibilities language holds for itself and you.”
Gene Collier: Interviewed on June 5, 2007
Position: Columnist, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Born: 1953, Coaldale, Pa.
Education: Penn State, 1975, BA, journalism
Career: Pottstown Mercury 1975-77; Philadelphia Journal 77-81; Camden Courier-Post 82; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 82-84; Pittsburgh Press 84-92; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 92-
Personal: married, two sons
Favorite restaurant (home): PF Chang’s China Bistro. Pittsburgh
Favorite restaurant (road): “don’t know – I’m not a foodie”
Favorite hotel: Grand Hyatt, New York “good location – next to Grand Central Station”
Gene Collier, excerpted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 31, 2006:
From Day One — or was it The Get-Go? — it was evident the campaign for the 23rd annual Trite Trophy was Gonna Be A Dogfight.
Oh yes, you’ve stumbled into still another of these fruitless annual episodes in which we dishonor the worst sports cliche of the fast-fading year by flooding all examples of insipid sports language with the harsh rhetorical light of reason.
…All right, please set your cell phones on vibrate. No flash photography. Yada yada yada.
Our third runner-up:
Managed The Game — Bit of a regression here as Managed The Game got Left At The Altar last year, but again, far more quarterbacks managed the game this year than mismanaged the game, at least in cliche world. This is sportspeak for not throwing interceptions.
Our second runner-up:
Blitzing Off The Edge — A first time finalist, this nonsense conveying the rush of a defensive end or outside linebacker (and sometimes a corner) might have won the Trite had it not morphed into two or three related phrases like Getting Help On The Edge, Attacking The Edge and Protecting The Edge.
Our first runner-up:
Thrown Under The Bus — No one was literally thrown under a mass transit vehicle, but hundreds of coaches, managers, players and even broadcasters were dismissed or scapegoated this year, almost all of them said to have been thrown under the bus. The derivation of this is too frightful to think about, particularly as it might apply to Jerome Bettis.
Now then without further undoing of our reputation, a reminder the three criteria for The Trite Trophy. It has to be essentially meaningless, it has to be pervasive and the Trite Committee (me) has to really, really hate it.
And the Trite goes to …
It Is What It Is.
Ohmygawd the first repeat winner and the first two-time winner of the Trite Trophy, It Is What It Is was even more ubiquitous than it was in winning the 2005 Trite, when it was merely revoltingly everywhere. Its list of star turns simply would not fit in our disappearing space.
The Steelers couldn’t repeat as champions, but they played a huge role in a second consecutive title for IIWII.
If Bill Cowher said it once, he said it 500 times this year, even to the extent that special teams coach Kevin Spencer said in December, “To quote coach Cowher, it is what it is.” Ike Taylor, having lost his starting cornerback job three months after signing a new contract, told the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, “It doesn’t even have anything to do with the contract. They said it is what it is … I don’t know what that means. It is what it is.”
And we all know why Ike doesn’t know what it is what it is means, because it doesn’t mean anything, meaninglessness being the first protocol of all Trite winners. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I don’t know what to say, so I’m saying this instead: it is what it is.” And that’s what everybody said, pretty much coast to coast, in lieu of actual communication.
Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Atlanta’s Michael Vick said it on the same sports page on the same day about two completely different topics. In Vick’s case, he’d just been fined $10,000 for giving fans an obscene jesture, and decided to contribute another $10,000 to charity. Asked to explain, he said, “it is what it is, 20 grand.”
…Not even Red Zone, the greatest living cliche, having spawned both an official NFL statistic and a deodorant, could repeat in 1995 in the face of the West Coast Offense.
But again, as Cowher would say and has said and said and said and said and said.
“It is what it is. And you deal with it.”
Q. Early favorites for the 2007 Trite Trophy?
A. Someone e-mailed the other day and mentioned something I’ve been hearing for years but haven’t included: ‘put a crooked number up’. You don’t want to score a couple runs – you want to ‘put a crooked number up’. Sort of like ‘put points on the scoreboard’ – a former winner that never goes away. Almost as though if you could put points on the scoreboard you wouldn’t have to play the game.
I got another e-mail – there’s a new thing proliferating – this business of saying “clearly”. Mike Greenberg says it 50 times a day. Buster Olney, answering a question about coverage of a players’ private lives, said, “Clearly the line has been blurred.”
Q. Is there an endless supply of trite-isms?
A. I’m amazed. I guess it was kind of a conceit to think if I pointed them out annually people might think about them and they might go away. But the opposite has happened. The Trite Trophy has had no impact other than to become trite itself.
Q. Is it a popular column?
A. Yes. There are a couple of dozen people who look forward to it. I got a letter from a guy, who was probably drunk and making it up, describing his Super Bowl ritual. He gets together with a couple of guys before the game, in a rec room, and they’re not allowed to say anything that is not a cliché. If you do you have to leave.
Q. Why is triteness rampant in sports?
A. It has to do with the expansion of the news hole. Sports coverage used to be whatever total number of newspaper column inches were allotted to sports that day, and a couple of minutes on the local newscast. With ESPN and its imitators people have to talk 24/7 and you can’t do that without crutches. Nobody can speak for hours on end and say something that hasn’t been said 50 times. People have to talk about sports too much and write about it too much.
Q. Are you saying there is too much sports coverage?
A. Yes. But there’s too much of everything. Too much weather on the Weather Channel – 24 hours of weather – it’s ridiculous. People want choices – marketers have figured everything out. Before long there will be a Left-Handed Golf Channel.
Q. As a writer, what is your gut feeling about triteness?
A. It’s an over-reaction on my part. In college I thought I was going to be a writer – one of the first things they tell you is don’t use clichés. If you heard it before, don’t use it. That scared the hell out of me – how am I going to write? When I figured out I could do it, I didn’t have to be afraid. I made it my thing. That’s why I do it. That’s me pounding my chest. I don’t consider myself to have any great natural ability. But I don’t think anybody else should have any trouble either. That’s how come they (clichés) aggravate me.
Q. On another subject, will the Pirates ever have another winning season?
A. Maybe not. I don’t think it’s as hopeless as five years ago. There’s more revenue being shared within baseball itself. They’re not as bad off financially as they were five years ago. But they’re not in the position we were told they would be in with the new ballpark. They’re somewhere in between.
It looks like they’ll tie the Phillies record for 16 consecutive losing seasons. I don’t see any reason they can’t keep it going and set the record.
Q. How do you approach the Pirates as a columnist?
A. Good question. People are getting sensitive to it. I always said when there was a chance the Pirates wouldn’t be here that bad baseball is better than no baseball. Even though I’m guilty of constantly criticizing them and the front office, for your own sanity you have to go down there. I try to look at it like a movie, either good or bad, as an isolated episode, rather than another manifestation of a hopeless situation.
I grew up watching the Phillies and they were horrible until the late 70s. My baseball experience was bad there, and now I’ve been here for 25 years and it’s been bad. I’m very much at home.
Q. How did you learn how to write?
A. I learned by learning how to read. I draw a parallel to music. You can’t be a musician if you don’t listen, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t read a lot. To see how language works, and what possibilities language holds for itself and you. Read a lot of different magazines and books. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where my father and grandmother got out-of-town newspapers. I got to see a lot of different ways to write.
I went to college to be Walter Cronkite, but that was too much stuff to carry around. It was easier to carry a notepad.
Q. Your writing influences?
A. The guy who wrote the Hardy Boys books under a pseudonym (Franklin W. Dixon). Bill Conlin (Philadelphia Daily News), Stan Hochman (Philadelphia Daily News), Phil Pepe (NY Daily News) , Dick Young (NY Daily News). I grew up in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, which is equidistant from New York and Philadelphia. It was also the birthplace of cable TV. It’s mountainous, which is why they put cable in. We had the Phillies and Mets and Yankees on TV when I was growing up.
Q. Who do you read?
A. I read mostly people I come across on the Internet. I’m not going to buy out-of-town papers anymore. Mark Whicker (Orange County Register) is a tremendous columnist. I worked with him on the Phillies beat. The usual suspects.
I try to read things out of the sphere – The New Yorker, New York Times. I don’t have the mentality where I can read about and watch sports all the time. I got so tired of sportswriting at one point I got out of it. I was out for six years and I got pulled back in. I had forgotten how easy it is.
I was out from January 1998 to May 2004. I wrote feature stories, and columns on politics – that was fun, too. But there’s nothing out there as easy as sportswriting, unfortunately.
Q. What do you mean by easy?
A. It’s just easy. Once you figure it out – who’s available, who’s not available, what they’re going to provide for you. I never pretended like it was a hard job. It’s an easy job, which is what I was looking for when I went to college. Basically, what you have to do for the day is read the sports section and go to the game. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
This is a great gig – there’s nobody who wouldn’t want it. You’re getting paid to watch sports, go to sports and write your opinion. And you get in free. I got a tattoo on my butt, “Born to Get In Free”.
Q. But isn’t covering a beat tense?
A. In Philly it was. The baseball beat had Jayson Stark, Whicker, Conlin – you could barely turn around without fearing that someone would beat you. Even at that I was going to the Phillies games and writing about them and how cool was that? And I had my own parking place.
Past Trite Trophy winners
2005: It is what it is.
2004: Shutdown corner
2003: Cover 2
2002: Running downhill
2001: Put points on the scoreboard
2000: Walk-off homer
1999: Somebody’s gotta step up
1998: Eight men in the box
1997: Show me the money
1996: Been there, done that
1995: West Coast offense
1994: Red Zone
1993: It hasn’t sunk in yet
*-1992: Mentality of a linebacker
1991: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist
1990: Smashmouth football
1989: He coughs it up
1988: They went to the well once too often
1987: Crunch time
1986: Gut check
1984: Playing ’em one game at a time.
*-Awarded on WDVE during newspaper strike.
(SMG thanks Gene Collier for his cooperation)