Dustin Dopirak has done a fantastic job covering the IU athletics beat for the Bloomington Herald-Times over the past five years. However, he will be moving on later this month to the Knoxville News-Sentinel to cover Tennessee Volunteers football. I asked Dopirak ten questions via email earlier this week, and his responses follow. In the Q&A, Dopirak discusses the most memorable games he saw while covering IU, the most memorable coaches and athletes to cover, as well as what lies ahead for his next opportunity.
1. When did you start writing for the H-T, and when did you begin to cover the IU beat? And what had you been doing previously?
Started working at the Herald-Times in August of 2009 and I was hired as the IU beat writer. Chris Korman had been the guy, but had been promoted to sports editor when his previous boss - and generally awesome dude - Doug Wilson decided to get out of the business. Korman and I have been close friends since we worked together at the Daily Collegian at Penn State and he remains my best friend in the business. He apparently put my resume through the ringer, but decided to hire me anyway.
2. What's the most memorable IU game you've covered?
My number one is too obvious, so I feel like I have to give at least a top 5 here.
1. Indiana basketball 73, Kentucky 72. Dec. 10, 2011
I'll never see anything like that game again in my life. Never. There's just no way to recreate all of the factors at play there. When Watford hit the shot, I remember thinking that there was no reaction that the IU fans could have that I would possibly consider over-the-top considering the significance of beating Kentucky at that point in the rebuild. And as insane as the next few minutes were - from where we were sitting, it felt like we were backstage at Lollapalooza - I didn't think it was more than the moment called for. For a moment I thought I was going to have to crowd surf to get to the media room. It was also memorable for me because I thought coverage wise, we nailed it. That was probably the best game story I've ever written and Ryan Kartje's column was terrific.Plus, it' s awesome that I can still find myself in that panoramic shot they have of the court at Upstairs.
2. Kentucky 102, Indiana 90, March 23, 2012
Zach Osterman and I agree on this. This game obviously didn't have nearly as crazy an ending as the game in Bloomington, but for basketball artistry, it was a far better game, probably in terms of sheer quality without accounting for drama, the best game I've ever covered. Just poetic basketball. Victor Oladipo was unguardable off the dribble before he fouled out. Hulls had 12 points, nine assists, zero turnovers - one of the best point guard floor games you could have. Watford had 27, Zeller went to war with Anthony Davis and still had 20. IU made 52.2 percent of his shots, had 16 assists and just eight turnovers. And still lost. Say what you will about Kentucky (and there is probably a lot to say), but man that was an amazing game.
3. Indiana 72, Michigan 71, March 10, 2013
The ending of this game becomes more amazing every time I think about how tired that team was toward the end of the season. Because that, more than any other reason, was why they lost to Syracuse. Not because they didn't know how to attack a 2-3 zone, but because by the time they got to that game, they pretty much bonked and the Orange were way too good for Indiana to play on fumes and still beat them regardless of what defense they were playing. I'm not sure who bears responsibility for that, but I maintain that exhaustion was more the cause of that than x's and o's. Anyway, I digress. IU already started to look like it had lost its legs after the Ohio State, senior night, net-cutting loss, When they were down by 11 in the first half against Michigan, I thought they were about to get rolled. When they were down five with 52 seconds left, I still thought it was over. And when Jordan Morgan got a point blank look at the rim, I thought that was going in, but darn if they didn't pull it off.
4. Indiana baseball 5, Valparaiso 4, May 31, 2013
The run to Omaha overall was the most memorable thing I've ever covered, so I could have easily put either of the Florida State games in here, but it doesn't happen if Chad Clark doesn't hit his first home run of the season against Valpo's closer in a four-run ninth after having some fielding miscues in the previous inning. I'll also never forget that Osterman (kind of) called it. Heading into the inning, he said, "Chad Clark, walk-off grand slam," He wasn't that far off.
5. Syracuse 61, Indiana 50, March 28, 2013
Obviously, it wasn't memorable because it was a good game. Was ugly in many regards, and just kind of a stunning way for that whole run to end. But I'll never forget watching that game slip away and I'll never forget the mood in the locker room either. It was like someone had drowned.
6. Indiana 2, Louisville 0, June 15, 2013
When DeNato came out for the seventh inning, I was skeptical. When he came out for the eighth, I think I publicly called Tracy Smith insane on Twitter. But by the time he got to the ninth, I realized it was just his day. It took him 136 pitches, but it was one of the greatest pitching performances I've ever seen, and the fact that it was Indiana's first ever game in Omaha made it all the more significant.
7. Stanford 5, Indiana 4, June 2, 2014
Never seen a team get beat by a walk-off home run on its home park before, and I don't think I've ever seen a crowd go silent like that either.Just swift, nasty and bloodless, but one heck of a baseball game. The rain delay. The fact that even at the end no one could get Kyle Schwarber out. And Tommy Edman being Indiana's Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone. Was gut-wrenching for IU, but just awesome baseball too.
8. Iowa 18, Indiana 13, Nov. 6, 2010
I was dead certain Damarlo Belcher caught that pass. To this day, I'm not entirely sure how he didn't. I do know, however, that Bill Lynch is still coach in 2011 if he gets his hands on it.
9. Indiana 63, VCU 61, March 17, 2012
This might belong higher because it was a heck of a game too. VCU gave Indiana everything it could handle, but it was still a game Indiana absolutely had to have to put a bow on that season and they got it done on the Sheehey jumper.
10. Indiana 86, North Carolina State 75, Nov. 30, 2011
There were a number of others I thought about here, but I picked this one because this was when we in the media knew that the team we were covering had a chance to be really good. IU was down seven with 7:48 to go on the road, but just found a gear after that. I remember interviewing the guys afterward in this random anteroom with leather couches and thinking that there was a level of confidence in them I've never seen before. I'd never covered an NCAA Tournament team up close before, and that's when I knew that's what they were.
3. Is there an IU team from a specific season that was your favorite to cover?
The 2013 baseball team and the 2011-12 men's basketball team run neck and neck for me because those teams were so talented and so close and everything about those seasons was a joy ride for both. The 2012-13 men's basketball team was better, but it was so much more tense because of all of the expectations, and I think those guys were sick of us by November. I'd take the baseball team by a hair simply because of the access. I didn't feel like we really got to know them up close until the NCAA Tournament, and then there was so much media even on the road in Portland it was tough to do stories. Baseball was awesome because I felt like we were ahead of the game for that because I'd made a point to cover the team since 2010 and only a handful of others (really, the IDS and Osterman) had. We had great insights and they also seemed to enjoy having us around. Plus, they were doing something that no one at IU had ever considered, while that Sweet 16 team was returning IU to where everyone figured it belonged. There was something cool about getting to watch something in the College World Series that I never thought I'd have a chance to cover.
4. Is there an athlete, coach, or administrator that stood out for you in terms of providing good quotes for your stories?
As far as administrators, I think Fred Glass is one of the most accessible and honest athletic directors in the country. Not only am I going to miss him personally because he's just a heck of a nice guy, but my work will. I knew that if I had a question, he would always call me by the end of the day, and even if he wasn't going to comment, he would at least explain to me why. I can't imagine there are too many other athletic directors like that.
Coaches, there were several. Tracy Smith and Ron Helmer are two of the best I've ever covered. They were honest, and they always knew what I was looking for when it came to feature stories. Bill Lynch was dull but a prince of a guy. Kevin Wilson is the most entertaining, but when you get back to transcribe him, you realize that half his sentences weren't finished and you need ellipses and parentheses to explain what he meant. Tim Buckley is one of the most efficient coaches in terms of explaining what you want in as few words as possible. You ask him a question, he pauses, gives you a slightly strange look, but then gives you two to three golden sentences that get straight to the point.
Kyle Schwarber was always a very good interview, and Victor Oladipo was always entertaining, and there is a long list of other players who were very gracious with their time but the most reliably awesome quote in my IU career was Dylan Swift, a former IU catcher. Even if he went 0-for-4, I still requested him every game. I asked him once how he got a former lefty, Matt Igel, to shake off his control problems. Swift said he went to the mound and told him, "Matt, best-case scenario, when this is all over, we're both going to be working construction anyway. So you might as well throw it across the plate." The next year, he had to pitch some mop up innings when they were getting housed by Louisville and he managed to retire Ryan Wright, an All-American second baseman. Swift said, "Off the record, I mean, I know they were probably swinging for the fences, because it's coach-pitch (meaning he was throwing as fast as coaches do in BP) and they were just over swinging. On the record, I don't know why the f--- I don't pitch more."
5. Can you point to any specific piece from your time at the H-T that was your personal favorite to write?
I'd say either my Kevin Wilson introductory feature story in 2011 or my story on Will Sheehey this past year. I like trying to unravel complicated characters with flaws, and I thought that was my best work with that. Also, it really took me four years to get inside of Sheehey's head and I only kind of did, but no one else got what I got out of those two stories, and I'm really proud of that. Sheehey telling me that his two front teeth are fake because they both got punched out because of playground squabbles might be the most exciting piece of feature material I've ever received. Just really fits the whole Sheehey persona, doesn't it? Also, my piece on Kevin Bush, the former defensive end who was an Iraq veteran was one that I'm proud of. But I still read it and wish the lede was different.
6. What was the most challenging IU-related team or event that you've had to cover while at the H-T?
I'd say the 2012-13 men's basketball season was the most challenging event. There were others that were certainly sadder, and any time I've had to cover a death it's been brutal, but that whole season, I felt like I never got to take a breath. The Indy Star was usually 2-4 guys to cover the beat. Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine and Yahoo! were all writing features on Oladipo and Zeller so I spent the whole year feeling like I was constantly being judged and that I couldn't miss anything. I couldn't wake up without going straight to Twitter, and I felt like every game story had to be flawless, but yet I still felt like I could only get so close to the program even though I was here. It was still fun for sure, but there was just a lot of tension and anxiety.
7. Who will be replacing you at the H-T?
Mike Miller. He's been our high schools writer and has also covered the women's basketball program for the last two years. He's flat out awesome and he's going to be even better in a bigger role. He's a phenomenal writer, just incredibly smooth and outstanding when it comes to narrative journalism. His story on the death of a race car driver at Bloomington Speedway and the story he did on Jeremy Eads, the older brother of former South running back Eli Eads, who died of Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, were two stories better than I can even imagine writing. He's going to be very, very good. Jon Blau is moving over from news side to take his spot. He was a sports writer at Penn State and has wanted to get back on this side since he got here, and he's going to be a tremendous addition.
8. What are you most excited about with your new opportunity covering Tennessee football in Knoxville?
I think this position will push me in all the ways I need to be pushed. I think I always hoped that my next move after Bloomington would be a destination move. Some major metro out East - preferably near Pittsburgh where I'm from, but anywhere in shorter driving distance would have been nice - where I could settle down and stay for a while. Part of the decision to make this move is that I realize I'm not there yet, that there are parts of my job where I've been lacking and that I need a change to focus on. One issue I have is that I always want the ball in my hand. I'm very territorial as a reporter, I don't delegate much at all, I put a lot on my plate in terms of the day-to-day grind, and I don't pass things on to anyone else to free myself up for much larger projects. I can break away enough to do longer features, but the sort of document-based, investigative journalism isn't something I've done a ton of because I've just been doing so much beat work. They put a lot of emphasis on FOIA requesting at the News-Sentinel, and I think having someone sitting over my shoulder and forcing me to do that will be good for me. As much as I've loved covering college basketball for the last 10 years, it's also going to be good to not have to do both beats, as I'm sure I'll spend the winter doing more of those projects. Those are really hard work, but I think I need to prove I can do that and do it well before I can end up where I really want to be.
9. The Vols and Hoosiers both finished 5-7 in football in 2013. Who finishes with the better record this season, and will both teams get over the hump and back to a bowl game this year?
I have the feeling that both of them will go 6-6. I don't have a lot of evidence to support that for Tennessee especially because I haven't really delved too deep into what makes them good and what doesn't. But it seems that the vibe is generally positive and Butch Jones seems to be held in high regard. I think the Indiana offense is going to have a harder time getting going than a lot of people realize because of the receivers they lost, but I still think the defense gets just better enough and the offense is going to be just explosive enough to beat Rutgers, Purdue, Maryland, North Texas, Indiana State and Bowling Green. That's enough to get you in a bowl game.
10. Do you have any words of wisdom for young writers and journalists who want to get their voice out there?
Wow, Good one. Not sure if I'm even someone you should listen to on that one. I'll give a few. I guess one, don't get into this business because you "want to get your voice out there," because that's kind of a recipe for disaster. A lot of times, you get your voice out there by being the loudest or the most self-aggrandizing and that can get you in trouble. Do it because you love it. Take joy and pride in talking to people and telling their stories for their own sake, because at the end of the day, you have to deal in truth, At some point, one of your stories might make you rich and famous, but that can only happen if it's actually true. You write stories for what they're worth, not for what they can do for your career. If you put all of your effort in to finding the greater truth in every story, never considering yourself too big for a piece, and trying to write every great story you can, you will get there.
The other thing I'd say is that you have to want it bad, and you have to be willing to be patient. Some kids graduate college and go straight to the Washington Post and some kids throw together a genius blog a year or two out of college and end up getting a seven-figure buyout from Yahoo or USA Today. But a lot of us don't. A lot of us start out covering preps in small towns that our friends have never heard of at hole-in-the-wall papers, taking on desk shifts in between games because the sports staff isn't nearly big enough to have its own separate copy desk. Sometimes you catch a big break from there. Sometimes you catch a series of small ones that leads to the big one. Sometimes you don't get a job that you absolutely deserve, sometimes you get one that you totally don't. There's a ton of subjectivity in this job, because it really comes down to what other people think about how you use words. There's no predicting what path you're going to have to take to make it to where you ultimately want to be. I've been doing this for 10 years since college, and really 15 if you count everything professional I've done since high school and I'm still not where I want to be. But I just kept going, and that's the only advice I can really give.
Thanks again Dustin, and best of luck in Knoxville!