Someone wiser than me once said “When we are through changing, we are through.” In my own life, my most vivid memories are in times of a major transition – despite that in those moments, I was wildly uncomfortable, full of anxiety and fear and hope and doubt. I was living, as an action verb.
Now, as many of you know, I’m onto another major change. Next month, I’ll be leaving the sports world – the realization of a lifelong dream – and moving on to another journalistic dream that has grown stronger and clearer over time. I’m happy to report I’ll be staying with the Star Tribune, in our features department, focusing on food, travel and other feature topics. I know my new job will give me the chance to stretch my wings in a new way and will force me to improve – and change – as a writer as I try to find my footing in a very different genre. I hope I can push the limits of those branches. I hope I can get a little better each day. I hope I can be uncomfortable for a while to come.
In the meantime, despite my excitement for the next phase, I’ll sorely miss my sports job, the frenzy of covering a beat, the pull of breaking news stories, and all the great people and incredible writers and editors I’ve gotten the pleasure to work with over here. Don’t be surprised if you see me next season, creeping down from the stands at Williams Arena and trying to sneak onto press row. Just kidding! (Or am I?)
I’ve had a blast over the last five years covering the Gophers through the ups and downs and interacting with readers here and on Twitter. You guys have been awesome. I hope to continue some of the fun pieces I’ve developed here (aMAILiaBAG; #AskAmelia) in new ways, and keep the interaction going over in Features!
Until then, I’m diving into one final monster sports mailbag that addresses my old specialty and my new with a few heavy doses of nostalgia stirred in. Here we go!
Do you like college sports more or less after you experiences covering the U of MN? #aMAILiaBAG
That’s an interesting question, T Gage. Certainly it’s impossible to see any sport in the same way when you cover it. You’re no longer allowed to be a fan, and while great games are still very enjoyable to watch, you’re looking at different things, you’re responding in different ways and when a last-second shot changes everything in an amazing way, you have the same reaction as a fan --- HOLY BUCKETS THAT WAS AMAZING --- but it’s followed by another reaction --- HOLY BUCKETS I HAVE TO REWRITE MY ENTIRE STORY IN THREE MINUTES.
Covering a team also makes you appreciate the work that goes into a season in a different way than you can as a fan. You see it up close. You get to know the athletes. You see their personalities and their struggles and their tears. You see their flaws, too; sometimes their arrogance or rudeness. Even so, you have to write things bluntly and without bias. It’s a tricky balance and a sports experience unlike any other. But it’s so worth it, if only for the feeling one gets after slaying a deadline. Top. Of. The. World.
Considering that Gophers basketball managed more in one of the historically worst seasons on record, I think they’re safe to do so again next year -- I expect both totals to go up.
No season tickets here, but I plan to attend some games. And sneak down to press row. (Still kidding! Maybe!) I’m also going to really enjoy getting to watch other college basketball games – UNC matchups among them – now that I won’t have so many nights eaten up by work. Or I might be doing the eating up instead on the restaurant news beat. Huzzah!
What is your Mt. Rushmore of pies? #aMAILiaBAG
I mean, Mt. Rushmore includes four faces, so do I get four pies? Well I’m taking four pies. Blueberry, chocolate meringue, apple and ricotta. Dare you to argue that lineup of sugary perfection.
Do they know about Bigfoot in Iceland? #aMAILiaBAG
I’m not sure they do to be honest with you – everyone gave me strange looks when I asked where I might seek out the swamp ape up north – but they’re also no idiots when it comes to cryptozoology. The Icelanders’ version of Sasquatch is the Huldufolk, a secret population of elves. So the locals and I had a lot to bond over on my recent trip.
Your highest and lowest points in covering Gopher hoops.
My highest points on this job have honestly been the execution of individual stories because that’s what this is all about for me: finding stories that I feel compelled to tell, doing it in unique ways, loving it enough to barricade myself in my cubicle for days at a time. My profile on DeAndre Mathieu comes to mind. The series of stories Joe Christensen and I wrote on the wrestling drug controversy were complicated but fulfilling because investigative journalism can be very rewarding. On the court, I’ll never forget almost getting trampled as a happy stampede of fans rushed the raised floor at Williams Arena after Minnesota beat No. 1 Indiana in 2013. Or the surreal feeling at what turned out to be my last college basketball game, the national title, when THAT MARCUS PAIGE OFF-KILTER SHOT was, in a second, overwhelmed by THAT [expletive] OTHER SHOT by Kris Jenkins at the buzzer. Wow, wow, wow, wow, those memories won’t fade anytime soon.
Lowest points? Dealing with all of the context leading up to this, and in some respects, handling the immediate aftermath of writing about it.
In general, though, I can’t complain. I’m lucky to have somehow found my way into this wacky/wonderful business and I’m thankful every day.
Gut feeling. What season does Pitino take the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament, if at all?
If all goes according to plan – that means no injuries, no more off-court problems and players continue to develop at a good pace – I think 2017-18 could be the year. For all Pitino has been criticized (and fairly so), the core moving forward has potential.
How could I ever pick just one! There was the time that Sid demanded that someone print out all of that morning’s Twitters for him, as if it was a publication to be parsed. There was the time he parked on a curb outside of TCF Bank Stadium before a game with his keys in the ignition and the car running. There were many occasions he yelled back and forth with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo – among other coaches – in press conferences. There was this video. There were all the times, side-by-side on press row, him taking ownership of my stat sheets and spilling his ice cream on them. Best of all? Maybe after he read this piece and – visibly agitated – told me I was a great reporter and always kind to him, then loudly declared, for all of the newsroom to hear, that if he had known, he would have defended my honor. It was one of those moments, while extremely uncomfortable, made me smile. I’ll miss being around him.
Most fun bar/restaurant in Iceland?
My list is long, but two of my favorites included Saeta Svinid, meaning Sweet Pig – a great, West Village-esque bar that lit up at Happy Hour. Also, weirdly, Sushi Samba – an unlikely Japanese-South American fusion sushi spot that blew me away. I certainly didn’t plan on eating sushi, especially Latin-inspired sushi, in Reykjavik, but the fish – super fresh off the island’s coasts – was some of the best I’ve had, and the menu, otherwise, was quite inspired.
Will your new job interfere with your work on the Strib's cryptozoological beat #aMAILiaBAG
Obviously not, Stu. Clearly, I’m using the role switch as an excuse to travel to more Bigfoot-friendly locations and ramp up the hunt.
#AskaMaiLia What's your dream travel destination and what are you eating and drinking?
I don’t really have a dream destination because for me, travel is fluid and ongoing -- all about discovering new places and trying new things. I have a whole list of dream destinations and I never want to get to the end of it! Near the top right now are trips through Southeast Asia and South America. In Europe, I’m hoping to get to Greece, Portugal, the UK and the Netherlands in the not-so-distant future. What am I eating and drinking there? As much as possible, and whatever the cuisine of the land happens to be!
What's the most redeeming part of the UofM basketball program, in general? How would you sell it to recruits? #aMAILiaBAG
Right now, I would sell their youth. Despite the horrendous struggles of last season, the team appears to have a foundation of freshmen and sophomores that have the opportunity to grow together, develop strong chemistry and move the program forward in the years ahead. Selling that vision requires that recruits have faith in Pitino, and trust that last year was a fluke of sorts. Beyond that, the Gophers can sell a big stage in the Big Ten, where they’ll play against some of the nation’s top competition.
Minnesota will have to lean heavily on those points as the recent past, Pitino’s youth and track record, Minnesota’s middling history and the frigid weather are not helping them out any.
What's the largest hurdle to recruiting this year that hasn't become a barrier yet? #aMAILiaBAG
Well, the Gophers’ first hurdle this year was probably re-recruiting their current players and 2016 prospects considering the way last season ended with just eight wins and a bevy of off-court troubles. Crisis No. 1, averted. Only Charles Buggs – who wasn’t expected to get much playing time – and freshman Kevin Dorsey transferred; the core of the team is back and all of the recruits stayed on board. Next up is the task convincing the coming wave of recruits that the team can turn things around and that coach Richard Pitino will be here to guide the transformation. That’s going to take even more work, and it’s impossible to say how much of a hurdle (or barrier) it will ultimately end up being since no 2017 recruits have committed yet. Still, Minnesota has to feel good that at least one of the locals in that class is continuing to talk positively about the program.
Besides covering a coaching search and dealing with an always rational fan base on Twitter, what will you miss the most?
I’ll miss the hectic pace of the basketball season, and the excitement. I’ll miss working on investigative stories that make days evaporate in seconds. I’ll miss my incredible editor, Chris Carr, who was always good for smart questions, a careful but wildly improving editing touch and a general weirdness that rivals my own. I’ll miss our boss Glen Crevier, his vision, his understanding and his Red Sox patriotism, and I’ll miss all of the other amazing editors in this department although I’m excited to work with another bunch of very talented editors in Features. I’ll miss working side by side with talented reporter Joe Christensen, who always inspired me to be better, always helped flesh out ideas and always allowed me to vent. I’ll miss traveling to all the little college towns I got to know and love (or hate, depending on which we’re talking about) so much. I’ll miss the select “club” that being a sportswriter got one entry into – and all of my favorite people in the business across the country. I’ll miss the feeling of nailing a deadline in the middle of the night. I’ll miss listening to Sid scream at the officials at the games. I’ll miss walking through Williams Arena after all the lights are out and everyone is gone. I’ll miss being a “sportswriter,” a title that has accounted for a huge piece of my adult identity.
I wanted to make it clear from the start that in taking a new job, I am reaching for something I believe will be worthwhile, challenging and extremely fulfilling – and that I am not running away from something I no longer wanted. The truth is, while I’m so excited for the future, I’m also really sad to leave sports.
If the 2016-2017 Gophers were a food truck, what would they serve as their specialty? #aMAILiaBAG
Tacos, the ultimate street meat!
Let me explain. Most of us go into taco orders with an open mind. These days, tacos can be gastronomical playgrounds – fun and satisfying if not life changing. Who doesn’t love a good taco with tender meat, flavorful accompaniments and the perfect amount of sauce?
Oh, but tacos can go horribly wrong, too. Maybe the vendor forgets the cheese – a cardinal sin – or worse, sprinkles cold cheddar on that folded fiasco. And just when you decide you’ll put up with those setbacks, you realize the corn shell, this taco’s foundation, hasn’t been properly warmed. All of the sudden, these brittle maize walls are crumbling and the bottom is falling out. Now you’ve got chorizo all over your shoes and you’re left feeling empty inside – and you are because your taco is on the ground.
Can the 2016-17 Gophers avoid such a fate? Are they starting to braise the meat right now? Are they stocking the fridge with team players cotja cheese and pickled onions? Does their hot sauce have any heat? We’ll all find out soon.
If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go get a taco now.