After six seasons of covering the same conference (the ACC), ESPN college football reporter Heather Dinich was up for a new challenge. She hoped to cover the sport from a national perspective. Her resulting beat was one that didn’t even exist a year ago: Dinich was assigned to be ESPN’s beat reporter for the new, four-team College Football Playoff. That meant covering a whole different kind of team – the CFP Selection Committee and everything that comes with it.
Front Row caught up with Dinich in Dallas as she prepared to cover the College Football Playoff committee’s final rankings of the season. ESPN will reveal those rankings on the College Football Playoff Selection Show Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET) with Dinich reporting from committee headquarters throughout the weekend.
What have been the positives of being the first to cover this new beat and what have been the challenges?
The biggest positive has been being a part of history in the sport. To be able to document this season from start to finish is something I will be able to look back on 10 years from now with perspective on how the system has evolved, knowing where it began. Another huge positive has simply been having the opportunity to broaden my role in college football to a more national level, to learn the TV side of the business, and to be exposed to every conference.
The biggest challenge is that it is new for everyone involved. There is no precedent, and this is an ambiguous, subjective system – which makes things tricky when you’re in the business of making predictions. The selection committee has certainly given us clues, but it will take more than one season to figure out how 12 or 13 people think. Another challenge has been the limited access to committee members. I spoke with more than half of them prior to Oct. 28, when the first ranking was revealed and they ceased doing interviews. Only [committee chair] Jeff Long has been available since then. That makes cultivating sources extremely challenging.
– ESPN College Football Reporter Heather Dinich on one of the positives of covering the CFP Committee
What have you done to embed yourself into the beat and build the trust needed to do your job?
Still working on that one. It certainly helped to be at the committee’s headquarters, the Gaylord Hotel in Grapevine, Texas, earlier this season when the first ranking was revealed. There was actual face-time with committee members, and I will get more of that this weekend as I head back for the final ranking. I’ve spoken with some of them off-the-record and traded emails, and am confident a trust has been established with the playoff officials, but it’s difficult to build a relationship with people when they’re not doing regular interviews. To me, this offseason is probably even more important than the season was in that regard.
What has been your approach to finding the angles that will tell the best stories around the Playoff while still serving the fans with the news they would be interested in?
The committee members are the heart of this story, so I tried to get as many of them on the phone as possible because I thought the most important thing to relay to fans was what mattered to the group. How important are conference titles, strength of schedule, margin of victory, etc.? It was important to convey from the start that what was important to one is not necessarily important to another. When the first ranking was revealed, the focus shifted more to the games – which ones were most relevant to the playoff, who fans needed to root for and against, and trying to explain to readers why the committee did what it did, and why it might be different next time.
What has been your biggest surprise so far?
That the committee clearly isn’t swayed by public perception, and that’s awesome. If they were, then Florida State would be No. 1, and Baylor would be ranked ahead of TCU, because that’s the outcry. But they’ve ranked three teams from the SEC West at one point, showing they don’t care about having more than one team from the same conference in. They’ve dropped the only undefeated team in the country to No. 4, proving that the “eye test” matters. The biggest surprise might not have come from the committee, but the Big 12, which said it would present “co-champs” to the committee if that’s how it ended.
Are you looking forward to covering it again next year?
Oh heck yeah. You know what’s neat? The playoff has been cross-cultural, in that it has made Florida State fans care about TCU football, and it has made Baylor fans care about Ohio State football, probably more than ever before. This system will continue to evolve, the committee will work out whatever kinks there are. We all learned things from the first season of the College Football Playoff, and it’s only going to get better moving forward – not just from the playoff’s perspective, but the coverage of it as well.
Editor’s Note: This past summer, Front Row asked several college football coaches visiting ESPN’s campus to play “word association” with the concept of the College Football Playoff. Their answers are in the video below, produced by Mike Humes.