EDITOR’S NOTE: Fifth in a series. Staff writer Rick Ryan has seen a lot come and go in his newspaper career. Following are recollections from his days at the Wheeling Intelligencer (1978-90), Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times (1990-94) and Charleston Gazette-Mail (1994-2020).
This is part two of my most memorable one-on-one interviews with celebrated players and coaches. I know the other day I said four more interviews were coming, but I found a fifth that belongs here, too. They remain in alphabetical order:
Randy Moss (1996)Because I didn’t start at the Charleston Gazette (as it was called then) until the end of May in 1994, I missed Moss’ athletic exploits at DuPont, and because my two years as the Marshall beat writer were over by the fall of 1996, I never got to cover Moss’ scintillating run with the Thundering Herd, whom he helped to an NCAA I-AA championship that season.
But by fluke in August of 1996, I got a one-on-one interview with the future Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver. Our Herd beat writer at the time, Frank Angst, was just finishing up vacation when MU coach Bob Pruett surprised the Gazette and Herald-Dispatch by allowing their beat writers to interview Moss and Eric Kresser, a pair of heralded incoming transfers, a day before they were available to other media for the opening of fall drills.
So I got to talk to Moss one-on-one in the football office. As was my custom back then, I stood next to him and scribbled down his responses to my questions (now I just use a recorder). It was interesting to note that he looked over my shoulder to see what I was writing down in my own short-hand version. I’ve only had that happen a few times in my career.
Moss, understandably, was still wary dealing with the media after all his legal problems in 1994-95 following the infamous fight in his senior year at DuPont. That cost him a scholarship to Notre Dame and later, smoking a joint while on probation cost him his scholarship to Florida State, where he had been red-shirting.
He said all the right things that day, however.
“I’m very happy for the opportunity given to me here,’’ Moss said, “and I’m happy where I am. I can make a name for myself and be closer to my loved ones. I want to get my grades together and get closer to a degree and help this team win a national championship.’’
Don Nehlen (1980)I was never the beat writer for WVU. That job was handled capably during my days at the Gazette by Bob Baker and Dave Hickman.
Occasionally, I went to Morgantown for media functions where Nehlen would talk and field questions during his 21 seasons coaching the Mountaineer football team. That was true during my time at both The Intelligencer and the Gazette.
I even got to interview Nehlen two years ago when he came to South Charleston to speak at the Gold and Blue BBQ at the India Center. But while he was the coach at WVU, there was only one time I spoke with him one on one, and it was thousands of miles from Morgantown, and it came in Nehlen’s first season.
The Mountaineers played a game in Hawaii in October of 1980 and I managed to take a few vacation days and join the WVU Alumni Association’s trip to the islands. The deal was that, in exchange for me taking off during a busy football season at The Intelligencer, I would provide a preview and a game story on my own time.
Fortune smiled a couple days prior to the game when I heard Nehlen was going to be poolside at the team’s Honolulu hotel to do his weekly radio show. Fans were encouraged to come up and ask questions, which I did. But no one else seemed interested in giving up their prime spots in the sun, so I stuck around and asked another question. And another.
Finally, I touched a nerve when I asked Nehlen about coming all the way over to Hawaii when he had big games coming up against rivals Pitt (one week later) and Penn State (two weeks later). He sort of misunderstood the intent of the question, which was gauging the team’s focus while practicing in paradise.
“I’m not going to talk about Pitt, and I’m not going to talk about Penn State,’’ Nehlen barked. He cooled down after I explained it more.
Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the season started to turn south right there. They lost a heartbreaker to Hawaii (16-13), then fell to Pitt (42-14) and Penn State (20-15) to drop their record to 4-4.
Shaquille O’Neal (1992)It’s early fall in 1992 and NBA teams are taking preseason games on the road to non-league cities. One such game was scheduled for the Asheville Civic Center, pitting the Charlotte Hornets (the local favorite in North Carolina) against the Orlando Magic.
The game was supposed to mark the first pro collision of the Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal and the Hornets’ Alonzo Mourning, who were the top two picks, respectively, in that year’s draft. Both big men dominated in their days at LSU (O’Neal) and Georgetown (Mourning), and their first meeting was highly anticipated.
Only something got in the way — Mourning’s contract situation. It hadn’t been finalized by the time the game came around, so there was no showdown in the low post.
Still, I went to the Civic Center the day before the game to catch the end of the Magic’s practice to get a word with Shaq. I waited patiently for about a half-hour just off the court and caught him walking to the dressing room. He agreed to an interview.
Our talk was fairly underwhelming. I asked the usual stuff about his indoctrination to the NBA, and he spoke in a dull monotone with a blank, straight-ahead stare. You see and hear that sometimes even today on the “Inside the NBA” show on TNT.
Only one thing seemed to pique his interest, and that’s when I asked about not getting the chance to go against Mourning. Shaq’s demeanor changed instantly. He looked down, cracked a wry smile and expressed his disappointment, adding (and I’m paraphrasing): “I’ve got something waiting for him.’’
Digger Phelps (1978)Fresh out of journalism school and on the job maybe two months in Wheeling, I got the chance to interview Notre Dame basketball coach Richard “Digger’’ Phelps, who was in town on a speaking engagement.
Phelps was at the top of his game right then, having taken the Fighting Irish to the Final Four in the 1977-78 season. He coached 20 seasons at Notre Dame, with 14 of his teams advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
The offer for an informal chat came out of nowhere, and about 30 minutes after we got the call in our downtown office that Phelps was available, I found myself face to face with him and was woefully unprepared.
Stammering and sweating like a version of the Chris Farley Show on SNL, I had trouble putting full sentences together and kept losing my place and losing my breath. But Phelps took pity on the raw rookie and was a calming influence. He smiled, put his arm around my shoulder and told me I was doing a great job. I’ve never forgotten that.
Spud Webb (1986)My interview with Anthony “Spud’’ Webb didn’t start off too well, either.
Webb, a hot item at the time in the NBA following a solid rookie season for the Atlanta Hawks and a wildly entertaining Slam Dunk Contest championship, arrived at the Fort Steuben Mall in Steubenville, Ohio, in the summer of 1986 during a promotional appearance for Pony athletic wear.
I think my first question dealt with his upbringing in Houston.
“It was Dallas,’’ he corrected me.
Uh oh, I thought, there goes the whole interview. But Webb didn’t bat an eye. He was full of surprises that day for someone who had never met him.
It started with our introductions. I shook his hand and told him my name and he said, “Anthony … nice to meet you.’’
To the rest of the world, he was “Spud.’’ A 5-foot-7 dynamo who could leap like no one else and a point guard who helped the Hawks to a 50-32 record and the second round of the NBA playoffs his rookie season.
But in real life, he was Anthony, polite and humble. Not at all what you might think for an NBA star.
“I don’t like to talk about myself,’’ he said that day. “Being confident is all right, but the one thing I hate is someone with a big ego.’’
Back then, you could tell Webb was a bit uneasy when television reporters lined up to get a word with him. He was much more relaxed making small talk with children who came to get his autograph or get a picture taken with him.
Even though the line was long, Webb was accommodating to everyone. Such was his style, if courtesy can be called style. That has long stayed with me.