University of Cincinnati football fans have enjoyed a couple of pretty great seasons the last two years. That’s partly why UC grad John Wise is in town during this homecoming weekend as part of his “One Great Season” project, a multi-media documentation of the 2009 college football season.
But although UC's recent success and 6-0 start this year is deserving of the recognition, Wise wouldn’t be here if he didn’t lose his job at WNBC-TV during the summer and choose a passion project over a job search. Wise, a 1994 UC graduate who's enjoyed a successful reporting career, decided to resurrect an idea he came up with back when he was in school at UC — to travel the country during an entire college football season, witnessing the year’s most intriguing games and its most historic programs.
He left his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment in August and has been on or en route to a college campus ever since. Each week’s coverage can be found at www.onegreatseason.com, and Wise will return home to New York in mid-December and begin writing the One Great Season book.
CityBeat caught up with Wise to discuss his project, college football, contemporary journalism and his alma mater.
CityBeat: Did you have any concerns or reservations about taking a break from normal life and hitting the road for four months?
John Wise: I’ve never taken on anything like this in my life so I probably should have given more thought to anything negative — any type of roadblock that could have gotten in my way, whether it was a logistical problem or even like an emotional thing being away from home for four months. But I didn’t realty think of any of that stuff and I’m totally fine. No reservations in planning this project and no reservations now that I’m about halfway into it.
CB: You’ve had the idea for One Great Season since you were a student at UC during the early '90s. Where did this idea come from and how excited were you to finally get a chance to pursue it?
JW: That’s when I did have reservations about it. I had no idea what I was going to do when I finished college, so when I finished in ’94 that’s when I said ‘Oh my god, I’ve gotta get a job and be a real person and start my life now’ and I didn’t want to do that. So I thought of this idea to travel around to college football games and write about the adventure, but I got a job right after school. I couldn’t do it then but once I lost my job just this past summer that’s when I said it’s time to do what I wanted to do back in ‘94 — I’m gonna do it this time.
I had a little sit-down meeting with some people at work with my last job and I was given a heads up about three or four weeks ahead of time that I was going to lose my job, and that was when the excitement really started. I was biting my lip trying to hide my excitement during that meeting. I didn’t go home and try to get my resume together. Instead I went home and got on espn.com and looked at the schedule of the upcoming college football season and started to map out my tour that very night.
CB: You obviously weren’t considering a blog or Web site when you originally envisioned this project. How did the Internet change your original plan for the project? Has it helped document the process and keep information in order for the book?
JW: The site kind of served as little bit of a notebook. Obviously I want to include a lot in the book of what I’m putting on the site. That blog-to-book genre can still be pretty effective, but while I want to do that I still do want to include a healthy portion of the book that readers of my site haven’t seen yet. But it really does serve as a good notebook — as well as the Twitter notes that I’ve been sending out. I can kind of go back and get smaller notes that maybe weren’t big enough for a full entry or just got a short little note in Twitter on my site. Plus I’m trying to take some notes myself offline.
The Internet has really allowed me to not only use the site as an easy way to record the four months but it also lets me be on a gigantic marketing tour almost. I go in these cities and in addition to updating the site I try to get my product promoted. And I realize how tacky self-promotion can be, but I don’t have a choice. Its not like I have an army of publicity people getting the word out. The only way they’re going to be aware of it is to reach out to newspapers, TV and radio stations and try to get them to let me come out and talk about my project. The site has allowed me to, one, document everything, and also to be on sort of a pre-book-launch marketing tour.
CB: Have there been any surprises along the way?
JW: Things have gone pretty smoothly and that has kind of surprised me a little bit because planning and preparing over the years hasn’t been my strong suit. But when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, I feel like it doesn’t take as much work. First of all I’m passionate about this project, but it’s about a topic I’m familiar with, exited about and interested in. So I feel like I’m tackling a project I’m interested in and know a lot about, so once I got a couple weeks under my belt I felt like, "OK, these are going to be serious priorities: coordination, planning flights, putting in requests for media access." Once I got through Week 1 and Week 2, I kind of had it down.
CB: We’re about midway through the season you’re documenting. What’s been the best college-football experience you’ve seen so far?
JW: As far as just crowd noise and electricity and electric atmosphere, I’d say it me that I was onto something cool when I was standing on the field right before Georgia was getting ready to sprint on to the field at Oklahoma State. The band was playing, the players were coming down the walkway starting to bounce rhythmically with the band waiting for someone in official capacity to blow a whistle and let them run onto the field. They were waiting anxiously and it was just a loud atmosphere with a couple of preseason ranked teams. That’s when I realized I was into something cool, and I’m not trying to exaggerate, that’s when the hair started standing up on my arms.
I’ve been to probably eight or 10 Ohio State games — I’m an Ohio State fan — but I’ve never seen it as loud as it was six or eight times during that USC game. If there was a timeout that USC called because it was too loud, during the timeout over the speaker system they played music and it got even louder. That was a zoo up in Columbus that second week, so that was the most exciting atmosphere.
CB: The UC journalism program has grown immensely during the past few years. Talk about your time studying journalism at UC back in the early '90s and how that prepared your for your career even before the official major was offered.
JW: That was back when you could only get a writing certificate. I got the journalism one, and any time you take a class with someone like Jon Hughes you’re definitely going to be much better prepared to tackle the daily requirements of good journalism. I wouldn’t say I had an official mentor, but if I did I’d probably say it was him. Not only do you learn by example from taking one of his classes, but you learn how to conduct yourself. Jon Hughes not only was he a good teacher of how to be a good journalist, but he shows you some of the tricks of the trade or how to go about doing some things behind the scenes not just sitting at your desk.
I was writing at UC, but in the last six or eight years I’ve kind of picked up the photography bug as well, so I try to fancy myself or maybe I aspire to be a Jon Hughes because he calls himself more of a photojournalist — not just a writer but more of a well-rounded package, and I try to seek that same kind of creativity.
CB: Having been a writer and worked in TV and now working on a Web site-leading-to-book project, do you have any advice for young journalists regarding the many skills they’ll need going forward?
JW: Yes, I do — and not only because I’m on this independent journalism college football tour. I worked at what I thought for many years was the ultimate local television station. I worked for eight months at the NBC station in New York. My address was 30 Rock and it was cool, and still that’s pretty much what you would consider the flagship station of local television news. I’m not just trying to be multi-tooled for this college football project, but just from my time at WNBC that’s the direction that local news is headed. It used to be a benefit if you were skilled in more than one area — now it’s a requirement.
If you’re asking me to give one piece of advice to young journalists it’s that you have to know all these things. They probably already know that. But you must be multi-tooled, you must know how to write, you must know how to shoot, you must know to edit what you shoot and have tech skills and be savvy with social media.
When I was going through UC and buddying up with the sports writers Bill Koch and Tom Groeschen, I sat next to them covering UC basketball and football and that was their deal. They’d sit down and write a story and their day was over. Now there’s so much more to do and if you’re into it — and you should be — you send out Tweets or Facebook and you tackle as many genres as you can because your audience is going in so many different directions they’re distracted, and if you want your audience to continue to be your audience you have to have all those skills.
CB: Compare the UC sports scene when you were in school to what you see both in Clifton and on TV these days.
JW: The basketball team had just started playing at the Shoe — they had just built what was then this really nice, new modern facility on campus for the 1989-90 season. So there was so much excitement and everybody kind of thought who is this hotshot new guy talking about the Final Four. At his introductory press conference he was talking about being in the Final Four, and everybody kind of though, "Yeah right."
He took the Bearcats to the Final Four and because of that he owned the city, much like a lot of those great Reds players and even some Bengals later did — he became the favorite son and deservedly so. But then into the last '90s and 2000s the program just wasn’t matching up with those elite teams.
Facilities-wise it’s been pretty impressive to see all the excitement about UC sports, and that excitement has been rewarded with new facilities, and hopefully there will be more improvements coming. I’m not really familiar with the whole "Will Coach Kelly stay in Cincinnati," but from that little I do know if the university makes good on making new facilities by the deadlines it seems like Kelly is the type of guy to keep his word.
I hope Cincinnati football isn’t treated like Xavier basketball — a lot of good coaches have come through Xavier, and that’s definitely been a stepping stone with the last couple of coaches, and I hope Cincinnati football doesn’t become the same deal because they’ve got a great coach in Coach Kelly. If it means spending many millions of dollars to keep him here, you’re doing it for two reasons: to upgrade facilities and to keep a great coach in Cincinnati and the long term gain would be great to have him here.
CB: What happens after the season ends. Is publication lined up? Back to New York to work on the book and publication?
JW: There’s no publication lined up yet, but with these radio and TV interviews I hope to do enough of them that I feel very confident. I feel confident that all it takes is just one person — one right person to find out about my project and to say, "Hey I want to publish your book." But if it’s not a book publisher, if it’s someone who’s interested in what I’m doing and working on a new project, that’s cool too. I’m just really confident that this One Great Season is going to lead to my next gig. I don’t really want to go back to the news business unless it’s really the right fit. I just kind of want to work more independently because it allows you to be more creative.
I would still be excited if someone came to me about a future project. I’ve got some of my own ideas, but I definitely will be interested to listen to other people’s ideas if they wanted to approach me.
You can follow John Wise's travels and the 2009 college football season at www.onegreatseason.com, which is currently offering bonus commentary from three other old-school UC News Record alums. If you'd like to make a donation to help Wise keep gas in his car and burritos in his mouth, you can join the "30 Thousand Helpers" by donating as little as $1 here.