Lessons learned from Mike Greenberg

Lessons learned from Mike Greenberg

Mike Greenberg (BSJ89), co-host of ESPN’s “Mike & Mike,” the nation’s most listened-to sports talk show, is one of six alumni who will be inducted into the Medill Hall of Achievement on Thursday, May 12. He and co-host Mike Golic were recently inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Greenberg is the author of four books, all of which appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Greenberg visited Medill in 2013 to speak with students about his career path and offer career advice. In honor of his Hall of Achievement induction, take a look back at some of his memorable soundbites, or watch the entire speech below.

On what he learned at Medill

The most valuable thing I learned in Medill was that the most important thing is not asking a question, but it’s listening to the answer.  

The second question you ask should always be influenced by the answer to the first one. Listening is very important. It’s a concept of inputting and output. Almost anyone can output. I can sit and talk all you want. Give me a script, I’ll just start talking. In my case, I don’t even need a script. Just wind me up, I’ll start talking. But the really good ones listen.

I’ve been on the David Letterman show 10 times. Here’s what makes David Letterman so good. He listens when you’re talking. He asks you a question that relates to something you just said. He’ll interrupt you in the middle of what you’re saying to try and make a point. He’s actually paying attention.

“The best interviews are the ones that go completely in an opposite direction from what you were expecting.”

There’s no question that you have to be prepared with a list of things you want to ask and a list of information you want to get. But the best interviews are the ones that go completely in an opposite direction from what you were expecting because something the person you’re interviewing said takes you in that direction.

On breaking into the broadcast industry

If you want to be a lawyer, there are a whole lot of things you have to learn in a classroom. If you want to be a doctor, there are a whole lot of things you have to learn in a classroom. If you want to be in broadcast, there are only so many things you can learn in a classroom.

There are valuable things you can learn in a classroom, but at the end of the day, the only way to become a broadcaster is to broadcast.

What I used to do is sit in the morning with the newspaper as I was having breakfast. And I would read the newspaper — the sports section — as though I was reading a broadcast. That’s a good way to do it. Be on the air all the time.

Now here you guys have endless opportunity. With podcasts and stuff like that. you guys can actually be doing broadcast work even if no one’s paying you to do it. Do that. Do that because at the end of the day, the only way to learn how to do this is to do it.

And I assume I’m not telling you anything new, but if there’s an opportunity for an internship, take it. If there’s an opportunity to go watch someone do their job, take it.

On breaking news on “Mike & Mike”

We have a policy on my show [that] only Greeny may make breaking news announcements. This came up because one day, during the program, I was in the middle of talking and all of a sudden, Golic stopped me and said “Greeny, Greeny we have major breaking news.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “Colin Powell just resigned.” And I looked at the computer and, of course, there it was. Associated Press Bulletin: Secretary of State Colin Powell resigns. Mike was very upset that it is spelled the same. And I said, “What would’ve given you the impression that he would’ve resigned — did you think that he got an offer from another nation?” Mike wanted to know what the signing bonus was.

 

On interviewing Bill Belichick

When we have Belichick on now, I don’t ask him about his team. I ask him other things entirely because he’ll answer.

If I ask him, “How is Rob Gronkowski’s back coming along, and when do you think we can expect him to see you out on the field again?” I might as well open up the window and shout that question out for all the good it’s going to do. He’s not going to answer it.

A lot of people believe you have to ask the question even if you’re not going to get the answer. Bologna. There’s no purpose in it because I’ve got a very limited amount of time. I’ve got four hours. During that four hours, I’ve got 39 minutes of content. I’m not wasting one of those minutes on asking a question I know I’m not getting an answer to.

So whenever we have him on, we ask him about other things. And he often gives us fairly entertaining answers. And if anyone ever criticizes me for it — and it happens — I would say, “You know what? Then you ask him. You ask him the question he’s not going to answer. Have fun. And that would be a terrific waste of your time. I’m not going to waste mine.”

On one of his favorite Michael Jordan stories

(Before joining ESPN in 1996, Greenberg spent seven years covering sports in Chicago)

When Michael Jordan went to play baseball for the Birmingham Barons … there were about five or six of us reporters from Chicago who went to cover him, of which I was one. The best thing about Jordan during those days was he would play pick up basketball with the guys during their spare time. So one day I’m just sitting around, and I’m watching and they only had nine guys. So he looks over at me and says, “Hey, Greeny! Come out and play.” I said, “Alright.”

You can probably tell just by looking at me I’ve got some game. So I went out there and I’m playing a little basketball. It’s all good, and then the next thing you know there’s a switch, there’s a pick, there’s a roll.

And suddenly, I’m guarding Michael Jordan.

Straight up.

At the top of the key.

And he still has his dribble.

So I’m looking at him. He’s looking at me. I did the only thing I could think of. I looked right up at him and said, “You don’t have this shot.” He elevated. He took the shot. He clanged it off the back of the rim and missed. I thought this was hilarious. I thought the entire thing was hilarious. I started laughing. He did not like that I laughed.

Running back down the court, he yelled, “Switch it up. I got Greeny.” So the next 45 minutes Michael Jordan covered me. He knocked me down. He dunked on me. And one time he called a foul on me. I couldn’t foul Michael Jordan in a meaningful way with a machete. But what it goes to show you is the intense competitiveness of Michael Jordan. 

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On fatherhood

One of the things I have found is there are two kinds of fathers. There are those who tell you their family is the most important thing to them. And then there are those who actually act that way. And my role model in that regard, in all honesty, was Golic. When we started doing the show, Mike’s kids were around the age that my kids are now. And my daughter was born the first year we were on together.

As I have said many times, Mike Golic’s kids have cost me a fortune. Because we turned down a million great opportunities that would’ve paid a lot of money because Sydney had a swim meet or Jake had a basketball game or Mike was in a school play. And you know what, it’s the best thing I can think of to tell you about him, and I hope that I live my life that way.

When my daughter was in first grade, they did a day where some of the parents came and talked about what they do and how whatever they do serves the community. So I had to work pretty hard in my own mind to figure out a way to say my job serves the community, but I finally did. I brought in DVDs of stuff of me milking a cow on the air and Golic getting his eyebrows waxed and all kinds of fun stuff I knew the kids would like. And then I took questions, and as I took questions, I was talking to kids who I have known basically all of their lives.

When it was over Mrs. Hoover, the teacher, came over to me and said, “Mr. Greenberg, I want you to know, I’ve been a teacher at this school for 30 years, you’re the first dad I ever had who knew every kid’s name.” That was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. If you can figure out a way to memorize all your kids’ friends’ names, you’re doing OK.

On his favorite Chicago pizza

My favorite pizza in Chicago was Carmen’s pizza. Does anybody know Carmen’s? Carmen’s pizza was in Evanston. I was a waiter at Carmen’s pizza in 1988 and 1989, which I thought would be a good way to meet girls. It didn’t work out that way. And there is a Carmen’s pizza in this city on Halstead and Willow, so when I’m in town I order from there. Stuffed, spinach, pepperoni and extra sauce. So that’s my favorite pizza in Chicago.

People also ask all the time because I’m from New York and my wife is from Chicago: “Do you like New York or Chicago pizza better?” And I always say, “They aren’t the same thing.” It’s not an appropriate comparison. They aren’t the same food. It’s like asking, “Do you think New York hamburgers are better than Chicago sandwiches?” They’re not the same thing. So I like them both for different reasons.

On his sleep schedule and watching late-night games

(“Mike & Mike” airs at 6 a.m. ET; Greenberg wakes up at 3:40 a.m. and arrives at the studio at 5 a.m.)

It is a challenge. There are some things that you have to see in their entirety. The toughest times of the year for me are like the World Series and the NBA finals, things that you really have to see every minute of to get a flavor of it.

To really understand the nuance, you can’t just watch extended highlight packages. You really need to have heard what the announcers said, you had to have gotten a feel for the vibe of the crowd. Those are nights that I’m up much later than I normally would be.

Most of the time I don’t have to watch everything that happened late into the night. I have an hour drive into work every morning. I don’t drive myself, so I sit in the back with an iPad and I can watch pretty much everything. By the time I get to the studio I will have seen everything that’s on Twitter, I will have read every statistic and note, I will have seen all of the extended highlight packages, I will have watched the analysis from after the game … to where I go in feeling very comfortable that I know as much as I need to know to do the show. I would say probably 80 percent of the time that’s the case. And then the other 20 percent of the time, we just gotta suck it up. And you’ve just got to stay up, and you’re going to be tired. And that’s all there is to it.

“People ask me what’s the hardest part of my day. I always say the first five minutes.”

People ask me what’s the hardest part of my day. I always say the first five minutes. The first five minutes stink, no matter how you slice it. The first five minutes you just feel awful. But then you get up, you get in the shower, you get yourself moving a little bit, you get a little something to eat. Next thing you know, you’re just up now. And what you do get used to is functioning when you don’t feel your best. You don’t get used to the hours. But you do get used to functioning.

Sometimes I will take a nap. I generally try not to. A lot of people who work mornings in my business do; they’re nappers. I generally feel worse after I nap than I do better. Sometimes I’m just so tired that I don’t have any option, but as a general rule, I try not to.

On preparing for the future

The truth is people your age think a lot more about their future than people my age when we were your age. That’s just the reality of it. The only thing I was only concerned about when I went to school here was that Buffalo Joe’s would never go out of business. So I’m delighted to see that it is still there.

Your future is going to be there no matter what happens. Make sure you have fun while you’re [at Medill]. You don’t wanna look back on your years at Northwestern and say, “You know, I wish I had a better time when I was there. I spent too much time worrying about my future.”

On why he loves sports

In my first book, in Why My Wife Think I’m an Idiot, I wrote sports is war without the dying. War would be phenomenal if at the end of every single day and the end of every single battle, everybody got up, took a shower, and had a beer together. It’s whenever they’re dying that you lose me, but in sports you never lose me. The reason I love sports is because there’s nothing in the world better than investing everything into something that means absolutely nothing.

On what Medill means to him

I came to Northwestern because of Medill. I’ve written [four] books, and in the author’s bio, I only put three things. I put that I work at ESPN. I put the names of my wife and my kids. And I put that I am a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It’s one of the proudest things of my life.