In the Wake of the Q’s: One-on-One with Chicago Tribune Columnist David Haugh
I was born at Pulaski (pronounced with a long “I,“ for all you Chicagoans) Memorial Hospital in the rural Northwest, Ind. town of Winamac and I spent the first 10 years of my life on a farm with a Winamac address. But, thankfully, we lived inside the expansive scope of the North-Judson San Pierre school district. Warrior by birth, Bluejay by the grace of God.
As with any other small community, high school sports ruled the weekends in North Judson. Consider that in a town of only 1,500 residents and one (blinking) stoplight, the gym held 3,600. And it was packed for every home game.
The same was true of the stands at the football games; arriving too close to kick-off meant being relegated to SRO. And this wasn’t just because there was nothing else to do; we had some really good teams over the years. In the mid 80’s, the football team was a juggernaut that went 13-1 and featured the state’s all-time leading receiver (since broken).
The basketball team was just as good, as both the record-setting wideout and his quarterback excelled on the hardwood too. This time it was the receiver throwing passes to the QB, Kirk Manns, a lights-out shooter who twice led the state in scoring (34 and 33 ppg) and earned a hoops scholarship to Michigan State.
But it was the wideout, who went on to study journalism and play football at Ball State, where he was an all-conference safety and Academic All-American, who truly became a source of pride for both myself and our small community. It was great to see a hometown guy, particularly one whose exploits I had followed so closely as a young kid, doing well.
When he got the gig covering Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune, which was our go-to paper, it was a real thrill for a lot of us. Then, as if writing under the Golden Dome for a decade wasn’t enough of a dream job, the kid from a town surrounded by mint and cornfields got the call to cover the Bears for the Chicago Tribune.
He now writes the “In the Wake of the News” column for the Trib, where he essentially covers all sports in Chicago, and can also be heard on Kap and Haugh on The Game 87.7FM, weekdays from 9a-1p CST. I recently got the chance to catch up with David Haugh to discuss those halcyon days of my youth, his transition from small town to big city, and, of course, the Cubs’ present and future.
EA: So we’ve a fairly common background, at least in terms of our shared hometown. Did growing up in North Judson have an impact on your career in any significant way?
DH: I love North Judson. I don’t know if growing up in a small town affects my job now in a big city, but I do believe the sense of community and camaraderie I was part of at an early age in a place where the population was 1,500 influenced the way I try to treat people. Everybody has a story to tell, and they all matter.
EA: What about the move from covering Notre Dame football in South Bend, which is a pretty insular community, to covering the Bears and sports in general in Chicago?
DH: I don’t know if I’d agree that South Bend is an insular community. Notre Dame plays a major role in the city but there’s more to St. Joseph County and the people who live there. Covering Notre Dame for the South Bend Tribune — a terrific time in my career — required the same approach as covering the Bears or anything else in Chicago; do your job, stay professional and ignore the noise.
EA: You’ve been in the newspaper business for a little over 20 years now, since just prior to the so-called “digital age.” How has the growth of the internet and social media affected your business and you personally as a columnist?
DH: Social media forces sports writers to pay attention more often during the day and night, and extends the hours of the job because news can be broken quicker and easier than before. I have tweeted from the side of an expressway to break news because of the immediacy of social media and the competition that compels us to want to be first. That said, you also need to be cognizant that everything you put on Twitter and Facebook is essentially an extension of your byline. It’s self-publishing, so be smart, selective and deliberate.
EA: I’m sure you don’t remember this, but about 10 years ago, I reached out to you via email to ask about advice on getting into journalism. You told me to stay away from writing opinions. Well, I never got into the print world, but I’ve been blogging and submitting work online for a while. What are your thoughts about the explosion of blogs, particularly when it comes to sports?
DH: I vaguely remember that because you’re from the same hometown, but it mirrors the advice I give most young writers asking about journalism. Stand out for writing well before you make an impression for having a strong opinion. Everybody has an opinion but not everybody writes well.
Learning to report and write are better skills to have in journalism and that was my point to you. Blogs in sports are nice additions to the landscape. The good ones include thorough editing, a mix of opinion and information and a unique point of view. Congratulations on your progress blogging.
EA: I’ve had some work featured on the Trib’s sports page; on those occasions, is it strange for you to be only the 2nd-most-well-liked writer from North Judson?
DH: Don’t confuse having a lot of people read you with having a lot of people like you – especially in Chicago, ha. I’m glad to welcome anybody from North Judson on the pages of the Trib anytime.
EA: In all seriousness though: as a columnist, you’ve got the freedom to express your opinion, something that is surely going to draw a fair share of detractors. Do you ever read comments or feedback, either good or bad? Did it take you a while to develop a thick skin or is that something you’ve had from the start?
DH: I accept negative feedback in any form as part of the job. I consider it a privilege to have this job so if I respect the right to express my opinion, I have to respect the right for people to disagree with it – even strongly. I respond to as many emails as is practical, and tweets and Facebook messages if I can.
I won’t bother if the feedback takes on a profane or over-the-top rude tone that doesn’t deserve the professional courtesy of a reply. At first, in South Bend, I found negative responses a bit jarring, but that was a long time ago. I expect a level of dissent now that is healthy because, when debating sports, there often is no right or wrong answer. You can’t have a job intended to provoke thought and then turn around and try to discourage it.
EA: Who were your favorite teams growing up and is it difficult for you to set those feelings aside for the sake of your job?
DH: I grew up a Cubs fan, a Lakers fan and a Vikings fan. Now the only team I openly root for is Ball State, but I played football there and I don’t cover them so it’s allowed. Beyond that, I found it easy to stop being a fan and start being objective once I started covering sports.
EA: Before I get a little further into the teams you cover, I just want to ask you a little bit about your own playing career if you don’t mind. You were a darn good football player in HS and college; who was the best athlete you ever played with or against? How about a favorite personal exploit or memory?
DH: Playing high school football in a town that revolved around Friday nights was formative for me, and it’s impossible to pick a couple memories. College football paid for my education so I always will value that experience. I played against Jeff George in the Indiana High School All-Star game and when he played briefly for the Bears I got a lot of mileage out of reminding him of batting his pass away on the final play of the game to preserve a victory.
George is a good guy often misunderstood as an NFL quarterback, by the way. But as rewarding as my career was at Ball State, I knew Northwestern grad school was the right choice, even for an All-MAC safety, after chasing a Fresno State wide receiver the final 20 yards of a lonnnnnnng TD pass in the now-defunct California Raisin Bowl. The game was on ESPN, I believe, and that was my SportsCenter moment.
If you’d like video evidence, fast forward to the 5:03 mark…
EA: My freshman basketball coach, Ken Hampton, played against you as a member of the Knox Redskins and he was sharing his exploits with us one day. If memory serves, his exact words were, “I played here. I rocked this gym, baby!” Of course, he then described cutting through the lane, only only to be stopped cold by a forearm shiver from David Haugh. Did you bring a football mentality to the court, and did Kenny Hampton really rock that gym, baby?
DH: From what I remember, Ken Hampton was a pretty good athlete. Solid guy, respectable game. But I recall him rattling more rims with his jump shot than rocking any gym. And the only mentality I took to the basketball court was a commitment to get the ball to Kirk Manns, my best friend in high school and former Michigan State guard who led Indiana in scoring our junior and senior years at North Judson, a big deal for our small town. You are too young to remember.
EA: Too young? Nah, I remember it well. But on to Chicago sports. Let’s see: the Bears aren’t doing much yet, the Bulls and Blackhawks are done for the season, and this blog has its name for a reason. Can you say something about the Cubs that hasn’t already been said about Afghanistan or Detroit?
DH: I don’t agree with everything Theo Epstein has done, and think they could have done a better job of staying true to his Day One mantra of “Every season is sacred.” But I will say that I believe in the overall philosophy of rebuilding the entire system and enough young quality has been accumulated to give the Cubs hope for the future. Away from the field, on the business side, that’s where more legitimate questions have been raised.
EA: You’ve been somewhat critical of the Cubs recently; do you see this whole “plan” building toward something or do you think they’re stuck?
DH: People often assume if you’re critical of certain phases of a plan that you have abandoned your belief in it. False. I agree I’ve written some columns critical of the Cubs but even the best of leaders need a check-and-balance system that ideally the media (and bloggers, etc.) provides in a sports town as passionate as Chicago.
As previously stated, I see more positives than negatives but occasionally it’s OK to keep Epstein honest – like when he signed Manny Ramirez. It still seems like a ridiculous idea to me, and the fact I told Theo that on the phone the day I wrote that column doesn’t mean I lost respect for his plan. It only meant I didn’t like that particular move.
EA: Speaking of moves, what are your thoughts on the big trade that just went down?
DH: I encouraged the Cubs last month to make another effort to sign Samardzija long term because he represented everything they sought in a Cub: good character, great skill set. They tried, offering a fair five-year, $85 million contract he rejected. He sought a salary north of $20 million, a source told me, and based much of that on the market established by Homer Bailey’s Reds contract worth $105 million over six years. To me, that’s using one bad deal to justify another but Samardzija had every right to bet on himself.
The timing of both sides’ desires just weren’t compatible but the Cubs made at least a cursory attempt to keep him — $17 million is still a lot of money for a starter who’s never won more than nine games in a season. That said, Theo Epstein did a terrific job of using Samardzija to bring back the A’s two top prospects: Addison Russell and Billy McKinney. Russell especially is somebody everybody wanted and many teams would refuse to part with but, under the circumstances, Epstein convinced Billy Beane.
It could be a defining deal for Epstein, and a smart one given Samardzija’s reluctance to commit to the Cubs. Many people have complained about the stockpile of shortstops. I say it’s a great problem to have and the focus should be on the Cubs having four of the top 15 prospects in baseball. Throwing Jason Hammel in only confirmed that his signing served the purpose.
EA: One of the local radio guys here in Indy, Jake Query, shared with me his theory that losing is part of the Cubs’ allure and that winning would actually tarnish or diminish the team’s mystique. Do you agree with that?
DH: I don’t know Jake, and I’m sure he’s a good guy. But that’s nonsense.
EA: At the risk of putting you on the spot, which of the teams you’ve covered has the most rabid fanbase? How about the biggest?
DH: Chicago remains a Bears town. Always will be. The Blackhawks have closed the gap but not enough. Cubs fans are plentiful…but mostly pleasant. The most “rabid” fan base I’ve had direct experience with is easily Notre Dame football fans. Whether online, over the phone or in person, early days dealing with the passion of Domers everywhere helped prepare me for Chicago.
EA: Has any city seen a celebration like the one that would follow the Cubs winning a World Series? Do you think Kap would make it in to work the following morning?
DH: The celebration for the Cubs winning the World Series would create international attention. It truly would be a global event. It’s hard to imagine – but Kap definitely would be at work the next morning to gloat, and it would be the easiest show I ever did because he would talk nonstop for three hours about how complete his life was now.
EA:Speaking of celebrations, when the Cubs beat the Braves in the NLDS in 2003, someone in Atlanta had a sign that read “North Judson Loves The Cubs!” I know that wasn’t a question, but I figured you would appreciate it.
DH: Were you in Atlanta? I don’t know any Bluejays down there. We’re everywhere.
EA: I only wish I had been the one holding that sign, though it’s true that we are everywhere. And I’m sure you’ve got somewhere to be too, so just one more question: if you could only write one final column, a last meal so to speak, who or what would you want to cover, and why?
DH: I’ve been pretty fortunate to write about a lot of fascinating, famous people and cover some of the biggest and best venues in sports. But if I had only one column left to write, as odd as it sounds, I think I’d want to interview and understand my high school football coach, Russ Radtke, because of all the things I know now that I didn’t when I was 17. He had so much impact on me and other kids during his Hall of Fame career, I would find that the most rewarding column I could write.
But if I had to pick one person in Chicago to interview one on one who I haven’t, it would be Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of George Halas and matriarch of the Bears.
EA: That’s awesome. Thanks again for working with me on this, I really enjoyed it.
DH: Great…I suspect we’re both always going to be kids whose ideal summer night includes the smell of mint.
I have to admit, this was a little surreal for me; I mean, it’s not every day that you get to interview a childhood hero. More than anything though, it was a lot of fun. I was pleasantly surprised by how well his answers and my intro — which was written prior to conducting the Q&A — dovetailed.
I’m not always going to agree with everything David Haugh writes, and I know that he doesn’t need or want me to. I know that because it’s the same way I feel about my own writing; well, that, and the fact that he said as much in our interview.
But us Starke County (I moved from Pulaski when I was 10) guys have got to stick together, right? So while he may have moved to the big city, and likely changed his understanding of the pronunciation from “Pula-sky” to “Pula-skee” in the process, Haugh will always be a Bluejay in my book.