by R.L. Bynum
“Country Dan” left newspapers on his terms
In a volatile newspaper industry where bean counters too often toss aside respected, veteran sports writers as part of the latest cost-cutting measures, Dan Collins is one of the lucky ones.
Better known as “Country Dan” — or just “Country” — he survived more than a dozen rounds of layoffs before he retired on his own terms in August after a 45-year sports writing career, the last 39 at the Winston-Salem Journal. You can still read his writing on his personal blog, My Take on Whatever, which he started last fall.
“One of the reasons I got lucky is I got to be the beat guy for Wake Forest,” Collins said. “That was probably about as safe a job as you could find in the industry in North Carolina. They had to have somebody cover that.”
Well, another reason is that he’s a talented storyteller.
It doesn’t take long to realize why they call him Country, a nickname that dates back to his freshman year at UNC in 1970.
“I showed up from Franklin and my mountain accent was so strong, people started calling me Country, two or three weeks after I had gotten to college. And I’ve been Country Dan ever since then,” he said.
He’s put aside the coveralls he commonly wore for years, but the cowboy hat or baseball cap and the down-home, gentle and friendly demeanor remain.
It’s no surprise to many that the part of sports writing he misses the most is seeing his fellow sports writers and sports information folks in the couple of hours before games. He says that he doesn’t miss the games at all.
He’s still the easy-going guy who enjoys writing music as much as sports and revels in a night filled with good, live music.
“My dream is that someday somebody will cover one of my songs and I can make it as a songwriter. I’m not going to make it as a performer. I’m not good enough. I’m too old. That’s really my big thing going now,” said Collins, whose music is mostly, and appropriately enough, country.
Listen to him perform his “Deacon” song in the below video from 2010. He fell, and wrote the song to make light of it.
Thursdays, you can find him at the Muddy Creek Cafe and Music Hall near his house in Winston-Salem running the open mic, playing guitar and enjoying good friends and good music.
He doesn’t enjoy what the newspaper industry has become, though.
The Journal is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which late last month laid off longtime ACC sports writer/columnist Jerry Ratcliffe, after 36 years at The Daily Progress of Charlottesville.
“That’s just so, so sad,” Collins said. “And you know what that’s all about, that’s all about salary dump. It gets to be if you make $50,000, you’re making more than anybody in the newsroom. Next thing you know, they’re looking to cut salaries. You spend 40 years somewhere and then they tell you you don’t work here anymore. It’s pretty tough. That bothered me.”
It’s just the latest in a long line of such moves, including when The News & Observer forced the late Caulton Tudor to retire (although he later wrote for WRAL’s website), The Herald-Sun laid off Al Featherston or, more recently, when the Journal laid off columnist Scott Hamilton to leave the state of North Carolina with only three full-time newspaper sports columnists.
There is a lot about the newspaper industry that bothers Country, and it’s been like that for a while. That was one reason he decided he had had enough once he turned 65 last year. He also noticed that many sports writers he knew who were retired were “happy as hell” while he still was grinding.
“I was done with it. It’s my call,” Collins said. “I had just done it long enough, mainly. And the industry, as you know, has been imploding now for the last 25 years. Every year it gets a little worse and gets harder. It was time.
“You really hate to see what it became at the end of my time in the industry,” he said. “You really do, because it was so good for so long and then you quit hiring people who have a whole lot of experience and you quit putting money into it.”
He admitted that if the industry was more like it was years ago, he probably wouldn’t have retired.
“I might have hung around another year or two until my wife got out,” he said of when is wife retires. “I might could have if it was back when it was really, really good. To be honest, it’s been a long time since it’s been really, really good.”
He noted with sadness that the trend of talented young sports writers leaving newspapers, pointing to Stephen Schramm, who now writes for Working at Duke, and Bret Strelow, who left the Journal to become Director of Communications for Appalachian State athletics.
“That’s pitiful that you’ve got guys like Bret Strelow and Stephen Schramm, young guys who are good, into it and know what they’re doing and they’re having to work out of the newspaper industry to make a living,” Collins said. “It’s just sad but there’s no industry left. There’s nothing to get out of anymore.”
Collins realizes that he was fortunate to enter the business when a newspaper career was a solid and sustainable choice. He tells young journalists to be flexible with their career paths.
“I always told them all, just have a plan B,” Collins said. “I never needed a plan B. I got away with a plan A my whole career. But you can’t do that anymore. You need a plan B.”
He likens newspapers to Rock Ridge in the movie “Blazing Saddles” with the fake store fronts.
“They just built fronts and they’re all facades. That’s newspapers today,” Collins said. “They’re Rock Ridges: You walk through the front of them … there’s nothing. I’m talking about every newspaper. They’ve just been gutted. They’ve all been gutted out. They’re just not the same anymore. It’s like anything with technology, one click of the technological curve and you become obsolete. Paper itself is obsolete.”
Newspapers have made it harder for sports writers to do their jobs. But there’s one word that Country says illustrates how schools have made it more of a challenge as well: availability.
“That was one of the major, major changes: how much access dried up. My God, one of the words that drove me out of the business was ‘availability,’ ” Collins said. “It used to be I’d call up a coach and said I want to talk about your team. ‘Yeah, come over here at 2 o’clock and I’ll see if I have a half-hour for you.’ I’d go over there and sit in his office and we’d talk back and forth. Now, what you get is, ‘coach so and so will have an availability at 3:30’ and that’s everybody.”
The one-on-one interviews have given way to press conferences where a writer might be able to ask one or two questions, and it’s not really a conversation.
Collins says he was lucky in that access dried up more slowly at Wake Forest than at other places. Until Jeff Bzdelik was fired, Collins says that practices always were open.
“I could go and hang out, get to know the players,” Collins said of the value of attending practices. “But Danny Manning closed practices and that changed things a whole lot in terms of being able to cover the team and just little things like that got to bugging me after a while.”
Former Deacons basketball coach Dave Odom sent Collins a long note last summer with thoughts on his retirement from the Journal.
“I had a relationship with Dave Odom that I was not allowed to have with Danny or even with [Wake Forest football coach Dave] Clawson. The modern coaches don’t allow you in that way,” Collins said.
“Some of it is understandable. Back in the old days, they knew me, they knew the Journal. They knew that if I screwed up, I had to answer to the Journal. This day and time, there are so many internet sites and there’s so many fan sites and there are so many different people coming in and not everybody practices journalism the same way. If you open up your program to people who aren’t responsible, it will bite your ass and I recognize that.”
Last August, Collins did a very interesting interview with Ed Hardin, the sports columnist at the News & Record of Greensboro, talking about his newspaper career. It even included some music at the end.
Country says some of the best times he had in his career were when he was working a game with columnist Lenox Rawlings, a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame who retired from the Journal in 2012.
There were always multiple angles for a story/column on any game. They would discuss which one each would take. After coming out of the dressing rooms and press conferences, they’d share the relevant information for each story.
“We’d get better material in the paper, not really worried about who got what recognition,” Collins said. “I love that. I love the part about working with a team, particularly somebody I liked as much as Lenox. I miss that, but I didn’t have that by the end, anyway.”
Collins admits that he also changed over his 45-year career, which began with six years at the Chapel Hill Newspaper after graduating from Carolina. As a young sports writer, he loved getting on planes, staying at hotels, covering games in far-flung places and being able to rub shoulders with famous people such as Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski.
“So, I got to where I didn’t like the travel and being around famous people … that wore off,” Collins said. “I’ve been around Mike Krzyzewski dozens of times. If I don’t ever see Mike Krzyzewski again, it won’t bother me. It won’t break my heart.”
There was one change over the course of his career that might be surprising. He warmed up to the newspaper deadlines that only got worse with every passing year after hating the “damn intense pressure of being on deadline” for most of his career.
“But late in my career, one of the things I really, really enjoyed was a good deadline,” Collins said with a laugh. “I enjoyed, just the adrenaline rush. I got to where I was confident enough that I enjoyed that. It’s funny how those things will go. They got worse, it made me feel like I was alive and gave me a good jolt. Part of it was confidence. I did it solo so many times, I just knew I could do it, so it helped me.”
His blogging career started around 2007 when the “My Take on Wake” blog for the Journal began. Conor O’Neill, who took over for Country on the Deacons beat, now writes that blog.
“As it turned out, that got to be my thing,” Collins said. “That got to be what people knew me by and I had a knack for it. I enjoyed it because you’re writing in two different voices. You write a little more formal voice for the daily newspaper and then you’re writing a more conversational style for the blog. I found out that my conversational style … people liked it and I so I started writing My Take on Wake as a whim and by the end of my career that’s what I was known more for.”
Regarding the “My Take on Whatever” blog, one of his good friends made an observation that Collins said was pretty astute: That a lot of people blog to get into the business but he seems to be blogging to ease his way out of the business.
“It really has helped me ease into retirement,” Collins said. “Writing for me was never an elective. It was always a required course. I always loved to do it, period, whether somebody paid me for it or not. I’m a writer, so I’m going to write, yeah. The reason I’m doing it is because I enjoy doing it.”
Country never wrote about anything but sports during his newspaper career, but “Whatever” is also sprinkled with music and politics. His daughter, Rebecca, set up the website for him.
“When I retired, I got a little bored, looking for something to do, fill the days and once we got that blog going last fall, that helps,” Collins said. “That allows me to get up and run my mouth and talk about stuff. It’s my take on whatever I feel like writing about and if people want to read it, there it is.”
The sports posts generally focus on Wake Forest. Recently, he’s written about the Deacs being left out of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and how nobody seems to be buying Manning’s sales pitch. There was also an interesting series on the top ACC men’s basketball coaches, based on a point system that he came up with and Featherston helped him refine.
He’s not the only retired sports writer who is blogging. Kip Coons, who still strings occasionally for The N&O, has written his “Press Box View” blog since November. Part of what motivated Coons — who famously portrayed a sports writer in “Bull Durham” after Nuke LaLoosh’s first professional start — to start his blog was a conversation with Collins.
Memorial Day weekend TV gaffes
Two TV gaffes stood out during the holiday weekend last month.
On WRAL’s 6 p.m. sportscast on Saturday that weekend, in addition to getting two outcomes wrong either on the screen or verbally, an interview with Duke men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski was shown.
The only problem: He was incorrectly identified on the screen as Mike Pressler, the coach who was forced out 12 years earlier in the wake of the Duke lacrosse scandal.
The other mistake came from ESPN during its program that announced the pairings for the NCAA baseball tournament. Toward the end of the program, it showed logos of the schools that were regional hosts allegedly placed correctly geographically.
The North Carolina schools were placed in Virginia and the South Carolina schools were placed in North Carolina. What was even more odd? The new state between Maine and New Hampshire.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
Bomani Jones’ ESPN show with Pablo Torre, “High Noon (9 a.m. Pacific),” debuted Monday. Bryan Curtis of The Ringer, took a deep dive into how the show came together. It airs at noon weekdays on ESPN and sometimes repeats during the 7 p.m. hour on ESPN News.
Can Duke continue to dominate recruiting without Jeff Capel, who left to be the head coach at Pittsburgh? C.L. Brown in The Fieldhouse, The Athletic’s college basketball site, looks into that.
In The N&O and The Herald-Sun, Chip Alexander wrote about the tough spot one-time N.C. State recruit Brian Bowen found himself, caught between the FBI, the NCAA and the NBA.
There were plenty of people who were excited about the Supreme Court ruling that gives every state the right to have sports gambling. Hardin clearly wasn’t one of them.
How did Duke’s baseball program go from a 57-year NCAA tournament victory drought to a berth in the Super Regionals? Correspondent Ron Morris, who covered the Blue Devils’ run through the Athens Regional, wrote about that.
It’s been trial, error and improvement for former UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky as he tries to learn the wide-open offense of new Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy, wrote Rich Campbell in the Chicago Tribune.
East Carolina didn’t survive the baseball regional it hosted last weekend, but Baseball America’s Michael Lanana did survive to write about life in The Jungle, the famous outfield fan section in Greenville.