My conversation yesterday with Michael Hiestand, the TV sports reporter for USA Today, started with Tuesday’s Sports Emmys and ended with where his twins decided to go to college (North Carolina and Virginia). It was similar to the 500-plus Sunday afternoon chats I’ve had with the quirky reporter since 1990, but may be the last as Hiestand has accepted a buy-out from the “Nation’s Newspaper” and looks for his next assignment.
USA Today Sports has had a reserved spot in the psyche of the sports media industry since the full-color paper debuted in 1982. More space is devoted to covering sports media in USA Today than any other newspaper, and its ubiquity in hotels and airports have furthered its place in the travel-heavy sports world.
Hiestand started as a back-up to the legendary Rudy Martzke. This meant he wrote at the whim of Rudy. A weekend with no big event? Hiestand was off the bench to find an angle like how ESPN’s Championship Week comes together. A beautiful spring day perfect for golfing? In stepped the back-up to quickly attempt to uncover news of changing commentator assignments.
In his first column in March 1990, Hiestand noted that while CBS experts were busy discussing the college basketball invincibility of Oklahoma, over on ESPN Big 8 bottom dweller Colorado was leading the Sooners. Hiestand gently implied viewers might’ve been better off watching ESPN, which sent Tiffany Network publicists into a fury and earned Hiestand instant appreciation from Bristol.
When Martzke retired in 2005, Hiestand became the “A” team for the column, ratings charts and the “spice rack.”
Those ratings charts are a simple device to give the media business a sports-like scoreboard. But they set off aggressive spinning – the kind you would do at report card time with your parents – from networks and sports leagues. One league spokesperson once screamed at me: “Why can’t you get Hiestand to understand this .4 rating is a big success?!” As Hiestand, a laid back left coaster, would respond: “Hmmmm.”
Hiestand wrote the first national features on Robin Roberts, Keith Olbermann and Lee Corso, explaining Coach’s affection for #2 pencils. In recent times, he has been the go-to space for inspirational medical recoveries for Dick Vitale, Stuart Scott, Sean McDonough and just last Friday, Digger Phelps.
The Phelps piece included a Hiestand signature, his love of uncovering odd historical details. For Phelps it was that he was with Vice President Dan Quayle when he misspelled potato. Hiestand gleefully reported that Jay Bilas successfully defended a lawsuit against Barney the purple dinosaur. And, that Gary Thorne was a lawyer in the My Lai massacre trials.
A PR person and a TV network’s biggest hope of a writer that chronicles them are fairness and an appreciation for an interesting story. USA Today readers have enjoyed just that from Hiestand.
And now, the Weekend Tweetback. . .