Dan Wetzel is a Hall of Famer; It’s about time, guys!
I was 19 when I had my first full-time job as a journalist. I’ll be 59 in October, and I’ve seen, heard and done a lot. I’m not sure if the 40-year anniversary has passed yet or not, but there is one thing I’m certain of: In those four decades, I have never met another sports writer quite like Dan Wetzel.
Wetzel was inducted into the United States Basketball Writers Association’s Hall of Fame at a luncheon in Minneapolis on Monday, and my first reaction was simple: What took them so long?
Wetzel is the lead columnist for Yahoo Sports, which means that he’s tasked with writing interesting, entertaining, insightful and thought-provoking columns on just about any sport you can name, often on a moment’s notice.
My first day at Yahoo Sports was April 30, 2007, and my first assignment was covering the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather boxing match at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas later that week.
It was a massive event, and wound up crushing the existing pay-per-view sales record. Sports Illustrated put its preview story on the cover, calling it, “The fight to save boxing.”
My new boss, most certainly not sure how I’d work out, assigned Wetzel to cover that fight with me.
I met Wetzel for the first time on Wednesday of fight week. After laughing my way through dinner and drinks and listening to him tell me how little he knew about boxing, I was fully prepared to hold his hand and help him through that night.
Little did I know.
Wetzel, the guy who self-deprecatingly told me he knew next-to-nothing about boxing three days earlier, wrote arguably the finest deadline column on that event. It was quite remarkable. He pinpointed the story of the event, as I would see him do night after night for 12 years and counting, and wrote a compelling, rollicking column that both the boxing lifers and those who had only mild interest in fighting could enjoy.
Wetzel has the unique ability to write boxing, MMA, football, basketball, baseball, hockey, bull riding, golf, tennis, gymnastics, car racing — hell, even fencing — and come up with the definitive account of an event.
I didn’t know Wetzel much before I started at Yahoo Sports, but I was in awe of my new teammates. Adrian Wojnarowski was our NBA writer. Jeff Passan and Tim Brown were our MLB writers. Mike Silver would soon join us as our NFL writer. Charles Robinson was handling investigations. Michael Arkush provided us terrific golf coverage. This was an all-star team the likes of which has rarely been put together at one place at one time.
The leader of it all was Wetzel. On my first day on the job, Dave Morgan, my new boss, called to talk about what he expected. After going through things, he asked me to call Wetzel, and added this, which has always stuck with me:
“If Wetz tells you anything that conflicts with what I’ve said, just do what he says, because I’ve never met anyone who understands writing for the internet better than Dan Wetzel.”
Robinson was breaking huge stories left and right in those days, and often found himself working on them with Wetzel.
On Monday, Robinson aptly noted that Wetzel is a rare find among sports writers.
“I’ve always said that if there was a sports writer draft, Dan should be the first pick in our industry,” Robinson said. “He’s prolific, eloquent, funny, amazing to share a project with and arguably the most versatile sports writer in America. He understands a readership as well as anyone I know, while somehow managing to look at the same thing we see in front of our eyes and report it from an angle that nobody else can peg. And in an industry that is often driven by egos and brands and social media back-patting, he does his work with rare humility.”
Pat Forde joined us in 2011, coming over from ESPN, and everyone on our team was excited to see him join the staff to cover college football and college basketball. He was a highly talented writer and reporter who had made a big name at ESPN.
Like I had four years earlier, he made his maiden voyage as a Yahoo Sports columnist while on assignment with Wetzel. He saw vintage Wetzel in action.
“My first week working for Yahoo Sports was the huge, LSU-Alabama football game in November 2011: No. 1 vs. No. 2,” Forde said. “Wetzel and I were both covering it. I picked him up at the Birmingham airport, he got in the car and informed me some other news had broken: the Jerry Sandusky allegations at Penn State. Wetzel wrote a story in the car on the way to the game while orchestrating our coverage — he basically assigned me to Penn State the next day.
“When I said I should clear that with the office, Wetzel said, ‘We tell them. We don’t ask them.’ Then he dominated the coverage of that story like nobody else. After seven years in the bureaucratic gridlock of ESPN, I had my education into a totally different way of doing the job in a one-hour car ride.”
Wetzel has been into doing the job as fast and as well and with as much grace and humor as possible. He’s not bound by pretense and he’s not afraid to put his neck on the line.
Anyone who has worked with Wetzel would say the same thing: If you covered the same event with him, you’d read his column the next day and ask yourself, “What didn’t I think of that?”
Over and over through the next seven-plus years, Forde has watched as Wetzel got the job done in his unique and inimitable style. But it was another moment early in their tenure that sticks out to Forde. ESPN is a massive monolith, and decisions are considered and analyzed for months, if not years.
At Yahoo, which did not begin as a media company, things were, well, different.
“At the Final Four the next spring in New Orleans, Yahoo Sports Radio wanted Dan and I to start a radio show,” Forde said. “Wetzel called a meeting with the radio execs to hammer out the deal in a dive bar. Then there was the podcast, which we once taped after the College Football Playoff championship game while drinking a 12-pack of Keystone Light. Again, [it was] an indoctrination into unconventional sports journalism.”
But it was good sports journalism, and there are few who can match Wetzel. There are writers who spend months on a story and produce extraordinary profiles of a subject. But in those months, Wetzel might write 25, or 35, or 50 columns that were easily the best of the day in sports and which made the right point time after time.
Wojnarowski, our former colleague who has gone on to massive stardom at ESPN, raved about Wetzel’s consistently good work in a post on Instagram.
“Few have done so much, so well,” Wojnarowski wrote. “The volume, depth and insight within the body of Wetzel’s work is staggering, perhaps even peerless. And yet, it barely begins to tell the story of Wetzel’s impact on the industry because he changed the whole thing. He influenced a generation of college basketball reporters, teaching them to reassess the stereotypes and prejudices that have long surrounded coverage of the sports. The so-called good guys weren’t always so pure, and the so-called bad guys weren’t always so flawed. In a sport full of bullshit guys, you were never bullshitting Dan Wetzel.”
Jay Busbee is another of my Yahoo Sports colleagues — We’ve got a lot of talented writers, don’t we? — and he shares my admiration for Wetzel.
“Here’s all you need to know about Dan: Somehow, all the best stories I tell to my non-sportswriting friends have Wetz as either the motivator or the instigator,” Busbee said. “The devil on my shoulder looks like Dan Wetzel, and I mean that as the highest praise. From beachfront houses in Daytona to piney groves in Augusta, from a bowling alley in South Korea to a way-too-nice-for-the-likes-of-us steakhouse in Houston, I’ve hung with Wetzel literally all over the planet, and every single time I come away with a new Dan tale or quote to tell my friends back home … tales and quotes I can’t repeat here. Sorry.
“Wetzel’s a storyteller who also creates his own stories, a must-read every time he publishes a column, the ultimate guy to share a pitcher with at the bar … and, I would assume, the last guy you want to have on your trail.”
And now, finally, he’s a Hall of Famer.
It’s well deserved, even if long overdue. I suspect, however, this is the first of many such honors he’ll receive.