written by R.L. Bynum
Kirschner has seen a lot working with two legendary basketball coaches
At least the second time a Hall of Fame UNC men’s basketball coach retired, Steve Kirschner didn’t need to convince him to hold a press conference.
Anybody in sports information would be lucky to work with one Hall of Fame coach at a program with a rich basketball tradition. Kirschner has worked with two in Dean Smith and Roy Williams in his 26 years as the primary media contact for North Carolina men’s basketball. During that time, he’s been through the highs of national championships and the tough times of a prolonged NCAA investigation.
“It’s just an extreme privilege to have worked with, in some ways for, people like Coach Smith and Coach Williams,” said Kirschner, who was the primary football contact at the end of Mack Brown’s first tenure as coach in addition to formerly being the main contact for women’s soccer and Hall of Fame coach Anson Dorrance. “So, I’ve been very blessed to have come to a school early in my career that had such great national stature coaches.”
Kirschner was the trusted communicator between reporters and legendary coaches who were in high demand, and will do the same for new head coach Hubert Davis.
“It is an unbelievable opportunity,” said Kirschner, UNC’s senior associate athletic director for strategic communications. “But it goes to the type of people that I’ve actually been asked to work with, who really trust you in doing your job.”
Many don’t realize the wide range of duties people in sports information perform, but Kirschner provided a good list in a Twitter thread last October. It also elicited plenty of quote tweets and replies praising Kirschner.
“Ultimately, my job is to help the university and help those coaches and student-athletes deal with the media, deal with being public figures. And I’m not a decision-maker,” he said. “I advise them how to handle certain situations and my job is to help them be better. And I don’t make a shot. I don’t pass the ball. But I do a lot of things behind the scenes to try to make their job easier so that they can be successful.”
SIDs also want to accommodate media requests and make it easier for reporters to cover their teams. Many SIDs across the country do that well, but Kirschner is on the short list of the best from a media perspective. When only one player was allowed at NCAA tournament postgame Zoom press conferences, for example, he found a way to field questions and provide quotes from other players.
“I’m kind of like a dotted line to the coaches and the players and the trainers. They’re the program and I’m closer than most anybody else. There’s still a line there and you get to know the people,” said Kirschner, adding that when anybody in the program or has been in the program goes through life changes, they are felt personally because he gets to know them all. “Those relationships kind of last longer than just the wins and losses. It’s the amount of time and the amount of connections you make. That’s why you want them to be successful.”
National-level coaches have plenty of demands on their time and part of Kirschner’s job is to manage that. He made that clear to Williams the first day he started as UNC’s head coach.
“I remember exactly where we were standing here in the tunnel outside the locker room,” Kirschner said. “I said, ‘Coach, to me, my most valuable resource is your time. I said I’ll never abuse it. I said, ‘If I ask you to do something, it’s because I think it’s best for you or the program or the school.’ From day one, he did trust me. Coach [Bill] Guthridge was like that. The difference between Coach Guthridge and Coach Williams was Coach Guthridge knew he wasn’t a national name. Coach Smith and Coach Williams were already nationally known, nationally successful, and they didn’t have to weigh in on every single topic.”
A legendary 36-year coaching career and no press conference?
There are times that he’s had to deliver tough news to legendary coaches or tell them something they didn’t want to hear.
One of those latter times came in 1997 when Dick Baddour, then the school’s athletics director, asked Kirschner to come to the basketball office, which — at the time — was right across the lobby from his office. Baddour, Smith and assistant coach Guthridge were waiting there.
Baddour told Kirschner that Smith was retiring immediately and Guthridge would be the next coach. That was only Kirschner’s first surprise. The second came from Smith:
— Smith to Kirschner: “Well, I’d like you to put out a press release.”
— Kirschner: “A press release about what?”
— Smith: “Well, that I’m retiring.”
— Kirschner: “Sir, with all due respect, you can’t do that.”
“Fortunately, Coach Guthridge and Mr. Baddour backed me up and said, ‘Coach, we’re not going to have you retire after 36 years with a press release.’ ”
After losing that point, Smith implored Guthridge to have the team practice during the press conference. That also didn’t happen.
Delivering bad news to a legendary coach who is also the authority figure in the conversation is never easy.
“Every person has a different way of knowing how to do that and where that line is,” Kirschner said. “It’s an incredible trust factor that there were only a couple of times in 18 years where, when I told Coach Williams something, he got upset at me.”
This retirement no surprise to Kirschner
After the conclusion of a UNC golf tournament March 29, Williams told Kirschner that he “had something to tell” him.
“My instant reaction was he’s gonna retire,” Kirschner said. “That was my gut just because, all year, I thought he was going to retire.”
Williams called Kirschner from the Augusta National Golf Club the next day, confirmed those suspicions and the press conference was two days later. Kirschner says that Williams nearly retired in 2019 after UNC’s season-ending, one-sided NCAA regional semifinal loss in Kansas City to Auburn.
“It wasn’t very widely known but he was thinking about it a couple of years ago,” Kirschner said. “We just talked to him and it wasn’t time. This time, I didn’t push him. I asked him, I said, ‘You want me to talk you out of it?’ He said no. I respect that.”
A 14–19 finish followed by a pandemic season with many other challenges made the decision easier for Williams.
“The last two years have been really hard to be in college basketball, and he’s 70 years old,” Kirschner said. “He just took so much responsibility by himself, and then got the crap beaten out of him for saying that this was the least-talented team. That was one of those times where he was trying to protect his players by saying, ‘Look, guys, lower the expectations.’ By him being honest to a fault, he just got beat to hell by that statement.”
Kirschner, a Bristol, Conn., native and 1988 sports studies graduate of UConn, was first an intern in UNC’s sports information office in 1988–89 and was assistant director from 1990–95. He became the primary media contact for men’s basketball during the 1995–96 season and also had that role for football until 2000.
Smith went to John Swofford, then UNC’s athletics director, to ask him to make Kirschner the main basketball contact.
“I was massively intimidated, but I also worked with Coach Smith for the previous six years,” Kirschner said, who helped the primary contact, former sports information director Rick Brewer, but didn’t travel with the team during the regular season and didn’t set up Smith interviews or advise the coach. Kirschner put together game notes, did the media guide and set up the player interviews.
It was an interesting and busy time after he became the primary basketball contact in January 1996: UNC won the ACC tournament and made the 1997 Final Four, Smith broke Adolph Rupp’s all-time wins record, won Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and retired after the 1996–97 season.
“It was just an extraordinary time to be working with Coach,” Kirschner said of Smith.
Smith wonders why negative recruiting information coming from “inside” the school
There was one time when Kirschner had to defend himself to Smith for something he had nothing to do with. Jason Collier had initially committed to Indiana and transferred to Georgia Tech.
“He called me in and got very upset because he thought that we, the University of North Carolina communications, were putting out something negative about Jason Collier through this new thing called the internet,” Kirschner said.
“I was like, ‘Coach, I’m positive that didn’t come from us. We don’t talk about recruiting. We’re not allowed to talk about recruiting,’ ” Kirschner said. “I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ He says, ‘Yeah, there’s this thing called Inside Carolina commenting on Jason Collier’s recruitment. I said, ‘Coach, that’s not us.’ ”
That, of course, is the former print magazine and current robust 247 Sports website that covers Carolina athletics and is independent of the school.
Push nearly came to shove at Clemson
His first road trip working with Smith as the only UNC sports information person on-site was memorable and had Kirschner seconds away from possibly making national news.
It became known as the Bill Harder game on Valentine’s Day 1996 at Clemson, then coached by Rick Barnes. Harder claimed that Smith called him a dirty player and said that Harder was better than that.
After UNC’s 53–48 win, Smith didn’t have an easy time making it into the tunnel behind one of the Littlejohn Coliseum baskets on his way to the visitor’s dressing room.
“After the game, Rick Barnes went down right in Coach Smith’s face as we were walking off the court together,” Kirschner said. “It was my first [solo road] game and I was in between Barnes and Coach Smith, and Coach Smith was trying to get to the tunnel.
“We couldn’t get off the court, and Barnes was poking his finger at Coach Smith and kept getting closer,” Kirschner said. “I had made the decision that if he took one more step, I was gonna two-hand shove him and just shove him away. And I’m thinking as all of this is going on, ‘Oh my God, how am I gonna explain to John Swofford that, on my first trip, I shoved the other coach?”
Luckily for Kirschner, Tim Match, now an associate athletics director at Clemson, stepped in and pulled Barnes away.
“And I thought, ‘Thank God, that would not have been a great way for my first road trip to go,’ ” Kirschner said.
Barnes randomly showed up at the Smith Center while Matt Doherty was UNC’s head coach. Barnes was the coach at Texas at the time and wanted to tour the facilities. Kirschner gave him the tour and couldn’t help but bring up that night.
After Barnes laughed about it, Kirschner asked him why he was so aggressive with Smith that night and at the ACC tournament.
“He said, ‘Oh man, I love Coach Smith. I have nothing but respect for Coach Smith. But I was at Clemson. And I was trying to knock off the king of the mountain. I had to do that stuff. I hope you didn’t take it personally,’ ” Kirschner remembers Barnes saying.
Interesting defense of Valvano
Kirschner says one Smith comment that stands out came the day that N.C. State and Jim Valvano visited the Smith Center right after the critical Peter Golenbock book Personal Fouls came out and the Wolfpack was embroiled in controversy.
Smith liked Valvano and, in attempting to defend him, quipped during the postgame press conference that, “Even Yale cheated in the ’20s!”
“I thought that was the funniest thing, that that was his defense of Coach V and everybody just looked and said, he’s probably right, they probably did,” Kirschner said.
The press conference that wasn’t supposed to happen
The print media wasn’t happy with Kirschner in 1999 after Michael Jordan retired the second time from the Chicago Bulls. But the fault was with Smith’s openness with the media that day, rather than anything Kirschner did beforehand.
Smith had Kirschner put out a statement from him about Jordan. But television journalists, particularly national reporters, wanted video of Smith reading the message. Kirschner invited TV people but told print and wire journalists they didn’t need to come because Smith wouldn’t be taking questions. Kirschner asked Smith to just read his statement on camera.
“Coach is about to read his statement and he goes, ‘Well, I’m here, why don’t you guys just ask me questions?’ ” Kirschner said. “I didn’t jump in. I should have jumped in and said, ‘Whoa, coach, we can’t do that.’ ”
Several sports writers were eating together at an Outback Steakhouse before that night’s UNC game against No. 5 Maryland and saw the “press conference” on the 6 o’clock news.
“I thought they would kill me when they got to me,” Kirschner said.
Kirschner says one of his biggest mistakes was not making sure that the current players were dressed appropriately when they showed up for the press conference announcing Doherty’s resignation as head coach. The images of players casually dressed weren’t what he wanted.
“I’ve always regretted that,” Kirschner said. “Just kind of ran out of time with all the things that we were doing. That was just a detail that slipped through the cracks. But they came straight out of class. They came to this press conference. They probably weren’t sure that we were going to ask them to sit out there at the press conference. No one really told them, ‘Hey, dress up.’ ”
Fans knew Williams when he returned but Kirschner didn’t know him well
Since Kirschner didn’t start at Carolina until Williams had already left for Kansas, he only knew him personally as the father of walk-on player Scott Williams. Smith and Guthridge spoke up for Kirschner when Williams became UNC’s head coach and that helped them build a rapport.
“So, I had that benefit of the doubt early on, but then you’ve got to earn it,” said Kirschner, who knew he had earned it by the 2005 Final Four when Williams told Jerod Haase, who was doing the scheduling, to add anything Kirschner said that he should do.
“And I thought, wow, that made me feel good. Here he is going to his first Final Four with us and he felt confident enough that whatever I said he had to do, wherever I thought he needed to be, he didn’t push back,” Kirschner said. “But I do remember, too, leaving Denver in ’04 — when we lost to Texas in the second round — he and I were walking out of the arena together at the very end of the night. And he just looked at me and said, ‘I just really want to tell you how much I appreciate everything done the last year.’ And that was pretty cool.”
When another F-word comes out instead of “frickin’ ”
Smith and Williams ran their programs in very similar ways, but one big difference between them was profanity. You never heard Smith curse, but a few curse words have slipped out of Williams’ mouth over the years in front of reporters. That includes in 2003 after his last Kansas team lost in the national championship game to Syracuse, and he told Bonnie Bernstein of CBS that he “could give a s**t” about North Carolina right now.”
And there were the occasional times when another f-word came out of his mouth instead of frickin’. The last time it happened was after a home win last season at Notre Dame when a reporter didn’t explain a player’s comments very well, leading Williams to incorrectly believe that a player said something, and that had him very upset.
“He always felt bad about the couple of times that happened. He was just distraught,” Kirschner said.
He let out another when a reporter once asked why he didn’t press more.
“He let one of those go, and so he always felt really bad about it,” Kirschner said. “But if anybody in the media ever asked for an interview and we told them no, there’s about a 99% chance it was because I told him not to do it. He did pretty much every interview I ever asked to do over 18 years because he said, ‘I’ll trust you to tell me what I should do.’ ”
Finger on the pulse of public perception of a phrase
One of the times that Kirschner told Williams something he didn’t want to hear was when he offered his opinion on the coach’s use of a certain phrase meant to show his passion for Carolina and the basketball program.
“I told him his fourth year, I said, ‘Coach, I’m probably gonna be out of a job after I tell you this, but I think it would be best to not use the reference about how you care more in your little finger than all of Carolina nation cares,” Kirschner said. “And I said, I just don’t think that plays particularly well with our fans. They feel they care. They do care a great deal, too. I think there’s a better way to express it. And he looked at me and said, “OK, all right. Point taken.’ Over the next 14 years. I don’t think he’s said it more than a couple of times.”
Now, it’s onto the next era of Carolina basketball with probably the most media-savvy coach in program history at the controls in Davis. Kirschner will be right by his side to help Davis navigate the ever-changing media challenges.
McClatchy outsourcing design duties; 39 to lose jobs
McClatchy, the parent company of The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun and The Charlotte Observer, will outsource most design work to Express KCS, which will mean that 39 journalists working out of its Publishing Center in Charlotte will lose their jobs. “Design/editor 1,” one of three positions on the desk along with “designer/editor 2” and “team leader,” will no longer be needed.
That means that the number of people employed on the desk — many who worked remotely even before the pandemic — will drop from 64 to 25.
Express KCS, which has built digital and print advertisements for McClatchy, will begin handling design and typesetting for 21 McClatchy newspapers, including The Herald-Sun, starting next month.
Express KCS, which has clients in North America, Australia and Europe, isn’t scheduled to begin designing The Charlotte Observer and The N&O until early August.
The Publishing Center and local newspapers will decide how stories are played on print pages and make sure online headlines, captions and other display type work for print. McClatchy will review and sign off on pages before Express KCS typesets them.
The last day for 16 employees is scheduled to be May 16, with 10 more expected to leave June 13. The remaining journalists who are in “design/editor 1” positions are scheduled to leave Aug. 15.
Williams’ retirement leads to a hectic week, publications
For reporters, it was, thankfully for them, a fast UNC coaching search. It still created hectic days for journalists at newspapers, UNC-focused news outlets and TV and radio stations. Given the active transfer portal and the one-time transfer rule, the pace hasn’t slowed that much since Carolina hired Davis.
On April 11, The N&O produced a 12-page special commemorative section on Roy Williams and McClatchy is selling a hardcover collector’s book.
Some UNC fans on social media criticized the book project, pointing to a 2015 op-ed piece in The N&O by a former Chapel Hill News reporter that called for Williams to be fired and issues some had with The N&O’s NCAA investigation coverage.
On April 2, The Daily Tar Heel published a 20-page special section, which included reactions from former sports editors Brooke Pryor, Chris Trenkle, C. Jackson Cowart and Pat James.
— Former N&O sports editor Steve Riley, the executive editor of the Houston Chronicle for more than three years, is retiring after 41 years in journalism. Riley was N&O sports editor for nearly three years until September 1999. He was metro editor, deputy managing editor and senior editor for enterprise before leaving to become the Chronicle’s deputy managing editor in October 2017.
— Peter Gammons, a UNC alum and longtime nationally acclaimed baseball writer and analyst, was one of five inducted into the North Carolina Media & Journalism Hall of Fame earlier this month in Chapel Hill.
— Zora Stephenson, a 2015 Elon graduate, became the first female to handle the television play-by-play call for a regular-season Milwaukee Bucks game when she worked the April 9 game against the Charlotte Hornets. This is her second season as the sideline reporter for the Bucks TV broadcasts. Stephenson, who got her TV start as a reporter for WNCT in Greenville, was a guard at Elon for four years, leading the Southern Conference in 3-pointers her senior season.
— Former N&O sports writer A. Sherrod Blakely has joined the Bleacher Report as an NBA writer. During Blakely’s nearly five years in Raleigh ending in November 2000, he covered both N.C. State and Duke.
— “SportsChannel 8: The Radio Show,” which has aired from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays on WCMC (99.9 the Fan), began a spring/summer hiatus April 5. It’s hoped that the show will return in late August. “Greeny,” the ESPN Radio show featuring Mike Greenberg, takes over that time slot on WCMC. Replacing that show on Buzz Sports Radio is audio of the first two hours of ACC Network’s “Packer and Durham.”
— In partnership with Raycom Sports and the ACC Digitial Network, VUit launched ACCDN Confidential, an ACC-specific digital channel, on Thursday. The 24-hour channel will feature highlights and athlete spotlights from around the ACC.
— Dish Network took MASN off its menu earlier this month, meaning that the only way to watch Baltimore Orioles or Washington Nationals games using a non-streaming programming provider (other than for ESPN or national Fox national games) is through DirecTV. MASN has never been on North Carolina cable menus.
— With more fans attending Carolina Hurricanes home games, media covering games who had been sitting in the West Priority Lounge moved a couple of weeks ago to the hockey press box on the fifth floor. PA announcer Wade Minter, the subject of this column in late January, has moved from a table a few rows up to the top of section 118.
— N.C. State star Elissa Cunane earned The N&O’s 2021 Tudor Award for media cooperation.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
There were numerous terrific stories written when Williams retired. A few of the best were from Ed Hardin in the News & Record and Winston-Salem Journal (in a pleasant surprise for readers who have missed his work since he was laid off last year), Andrew Carter, Brendan Marks of The Athletic, and Luke DeCock.
In The N&O, C.L. Brown wrote that Dean Smith would have been proud that Davis became UNC’s first Black men’s basketball coach, Carter wrote about how faith and perseverance paved the way for Davis and the Winston-Salem Journal’s Ethan Joyce got the reaction of Charlie Scott, the first Black scholarship athlete at UNC.
In the Indianapolis Star, Gregg Doyel, a former Charlotte Observer sports writer, wrote about how referee Bert Smith’s fall during the NCAA tournament didn’t kill the official who frequently works ACC games. It saved his life.
Four years after Luke Maye’s shot against Kentucky put UNC in the Final Four, Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer talked to Maye about how the shot changed his life.
In The Fayetteville Observer, David Thompson wrote about how N.C. State running back Jordan Poole joined a family he never expected.
On mlb.com, Matt Monagan wrote about the amazing connection between Kenny Lofton and former N.C. State star Tim Stoddard. Both went to the same Indiana high school, played in the Final Four and became World Series champions. Stoddard has the edge, though, since his Wolfpack won the 1974 national title.