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Notre Dame Exit Interview: The South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel

We talk to the soon-to-be Seattle Times reporter about his three years covering Notre Dame football

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Mike Vorel

Mike Vorel began life in second place.

Lauren elbowed past her younger brother and emerged first. Mike arrived two minutes later, and Alyssa arrived two minutes after that.

The Vorels lived in Homer Glen, and passed to their youngest son a love of Chicago sports teams, particularly the Bears, Bulls and White Sox. They were agnostic about college football — or at least about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — so Mike was considered “kind of weird or different” for latching onto the team after seeing “Rudy” at an impressionable age.

Mike Vorel had found a passion.

Not playing the sport — by his own admission, he “tried every sport but excelled in none” — but reading and writing about it.

The Vorel triplets finished among the top of their high school class. Lauren and Alyssa stayed in-state for college and are now both medical professionals. Mike graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in print and digital news journalism.

Mike Vorel then began his ascent to first place.

Mike Vorel

“There’s a lot of different forms of good journalism, but the things that I’ve always been most attracted to are stories that humanize someone beyond the game,” the sportswriter said Monday in a telephone interview. “Any kind of story that gives readers a different kind of perspective than they otherwise have, that they couldn’t get from watching the game.”

Vorel saw the deeply reported feature story as reward for completing his day-to-day coverage, which was also attracting accolades.

The Associated Press Sports Editors bestowed a Top 10 honor for the Columbia Missourian’s breaking news piece about Michael Dixon’s exit from the Missouri Tigers basketball team. Vorel was one of six contributors on the piece.

Vorel joined the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune in 2013 and the distinguishments followed. The APSE named Vorel the country’s second-best beat writer for his coverage of Wyoming Cowboys athletics. The National Sports Media Association declared him Wyoming Sportswriter of the Year.

When a position on the South Bend Tribune’s football beat opened up, Mike called home.

“I remember telling my mom, “Well, this isn’t going to happen, but wouldn’t it be cool if it did?” he recalled.

Vorel’s “cool” fantasy became reality in April 2015.

Three years — and several awards for deadline writing, columns, features, profiles and tales of redemption — later, Vorel is starting a new story.

The 27-year-old is trading blue & gold for the college navy, action green, and wolf gray of the Seattle Seahawks. Starting July 23, Vorel will join the Seattle Times and cover the city’s NFL franchise and, occasionally, the Washington Huskies football team.

The following is One Foot Down’s exit interview of Vorel, which has been edited for length.

OFD: What attracted you to the Seattle job?

MV: Really it was a lot of what attracted me to South Bend. It just felt like the next step as far as a place where I can see they really do quality work and there’s opportunity to do really interesting stories. You have the freedom and the resources to be able to do the kind of things that I value as a journalist. Not only that, but it’s the biggest beat as far as the sports section at the paper, and probably in the state. So you know you have plenty of exposure covering that team.

And I think it was just the next challenge for me. I’d also been looking at potentially wanting to live in more of a city and do something different as far as that goes, having lived in college towns for the last nine years or so. So I think it was just a lot of different things where it made sense. The paper there is fantastic and the ownership there is really solid.

OFD: It seems like the Seattle Times has committed to, from what I’ve read, that same sort of long read, in-depth, highly researched stories about human life and the human condition. They seem to think that these are the kind of stories that their readers want to read, and also the kind of stories that turn casual readers into subscribers. So it sounds like kind of a perfect marriage for what you want to do or what your focus has been.

MV: Yeah, and I think that was evident to me not just through talking with the people there, but one of the reasons why they were so interested in me was just looking at my clips. The clips I sent are representative of who I am as a writer and as a journalist. A lot of those stories are those features and are those profiles, and deeply reported stories. So I think that was what they were interested in me, and that shows a lot about them as well.

OFD: It takes a certain kind of structure (management structure, editing team) to give you the time that you need to do those stories the right way, because it often involves a trip to somebody’s home town, not just talking to the athlete that you’re profiling, but their parents, their coaches, people that they’ve interacted with in a negative or positive way. I think a lot of time in this on-demand, breaking news, race to be first kind of journalism that’s being done, a lot of editors aren’t willing to give that time. So I thought it was amazing that you were kind of ... that it was encouraged at the South Bend Tribune.

MV: My kind of approach has always been that the long-form stories and the deeper features were always kind of reward for me for doing all of the day-to-day stuff that you have to do. And some of the day-to-day stuff isn’t as fun, and some of it is a bit of a slog. But the features are kind of the light at the end that you’re turning towards with a the day-to-day stuff.

Some of that requires working longer than you normally would, or working more than full-time, and approaching that as what you’re really passionate about. I wasn’t going to let the day-to-day grind stop me from doing the stuff that I thought was most valuable to me and what most separates me. That was always my kind of approach to it and I knew that I had to do everything that was expected of me as far as the day-to-day work as well, and that had to get done. But the features were sort of the reward at the end of the rainbow for me.

Obviously the team here in South Bend was actually very accommodating. I think they understood what I was passionate about, and what stories I specialized in. They were nothing but supportive of that.

OFD: Do you have a favorite story, one that just makes you proud of when you think about it?

MV: As far as my time at South Bend, but being there for three years, I feel like there’s been one story each year that has been the story that I put the most time into and devoted the most of myself towards. The three of those were the Chris Zorich story this past year, the Will Mahone story the year before that, and then my first year was the Tom Zbikowski story. I’ve written other stories that I thought were good at the time. Those stories are not perfect, but those were the stories that I felt like I invested the most of myself into them. So those were the ones that kind of stand out.

OFD: What do you recall as your first “I made it” moment?

MV: As far as this job goes, the first story where I really like like I had done something to separate myself was that Tom Zbikowski story in my first year there. I felt like, “Okay, I’ve really contributed something that is different, that was new information,” because Tom had never done an interview on the record of what that story was about as far as drug and alcohol use. None of that had ever been on the record with the kind of things he had gone through. It was the first story he had done on that topic. So it felt like something that I could contribute that was different from what everybody else was writing about Notre Dame football.

One thing you learn here on this beat is that it is so much of an echo chamber as far as we’re talking to the same three to four players every week, every day talking to B.K (Coach Brian Kelly) every day, working with the same quotes. So the goal is always just to write something different. That was probably the first time that I thought I wrote something really substantial that was different than what everybody else was writing at the time.

OFD: How do you get Tom Zbikowski to agree to talk about something that he was, up to that point, unwilling to talk about and see in print?

MV: We were always very forthcoming that this was a very honest story and we wanted it to touch on everything. So it wasn’t a situation where I was trying to convince Tom or anything like that. It was just waiting essentially for him to be ready to tell that story. And if he never was, then we never would have written it. But there was a little waiting period before he got back to us and said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

I managed to get that interview because I drove to Lake Forest where he was living at the time. We met at a Starbucks, and we just sat there for like three to four hours talking. That was the basis of that story. In the main interview, everything came out there. I had never talked to Tom before. If you talk to him, he was just such a different person as far as how sincere he is. When he’s telling you the truth, he tells you the complete truth without flinching or hiding details. He just lets it go.

So, that was one of the more memorable interviews that I’ve ever done.

OFD: You’re a Twitter guy, obviously a social media presence on other platforms. I just wanted to get your overall impression of Notre Dame fans. The pat answer is that there are good and bad, but I guess maybe in terms of dealing with them and interacting with them, would you say it’s a net positive, a net neutral, a net negative? And how did you deal with some of the people who just wanted to crap all over everything?

MV: I’ll start by saying that it was definitely a net positive. The Notre Dame fans have been very good to me, and the readers have been very good to me. There’s a clear distinction, I think, between Notre Dame fans and really college football fans in general, six days a week and then on Saturdays. Saturdays are a very stressful time for Notre Dame football fans, and just riding the wave of social media during a game is a terrifying thing at times. The over reactions and the snap judgements, it’s all very rash and in your face. It’s best not to glance too much at mentions during a game. Notre Dame, I don’t think, is any different, honestly, from the other places I’ve been. As far as the fan bases, it’s very passionate.

But people are still looking for information, looking for good stories. There are definitely extremes, and that’s why I’ve really embraced the mute button at times on Twitter. As a journalist, it’s not our job to fight with someone or try to trash someone or even really publicly try to argue with somebody on Twitter. Just try to be as professional as possible, and also maintain your sanity.

OFD: Do you feel Wyoming fans took it as nearly seriously as Notre Dame fans, though?

Yeah, I think they did. It was just in much smaller numbers; it’s a much more concentrated audience. But I honestly don’t think there’s that much of a different in all fan bases. You’re going to find people that are absolutely invested in that program, and live and die by everything that happens. It’s just that at Notre Dame, there’s a lot more of them, and expectations are different. At Wyoming, they’re trying to make a bowl game. They’re trying to go 6-6, or 7-5. But if you fall short of those expectations, the reaction is the same. I think the passion is there no matter where you are, it’s just a little different in terms of the numbers.

OFD: What is one of the things you’re going to miss about covering the Irish?

MV: The thing I’ll miss most is just the group that we’ve got at the Tribune as far as Eric [Hansen] and Tyler [James] and Tom [Noie], and the people we’ve got in the office. We really have a great team there. It was never difficult. There was never any issues as far as a personality or trying to claim stories or whose job or role is whose, and stepping on each other’s toes. It was always just very easy as far as the personalities and the relationships there. That’s something that I don’t take for granted at all. They’ve made the job much more fun for me.

But beyond that, the thing that I think I’ll miss most is just going to the campus, seeing the wave of tailgaters, and just feeling the energy on a game day in South Bend. It’s a very different thing. I think you’d think, or you maybe suspect, that after a while, that would wear on you or it would kind of numb you out a little bit to all of the pageantry, but that really never happened for me. Every time that I would go to the stadium, there was always kind of a special feeling. The days that I felt most lucky do it were probably the home football games where I was at Notre Dame. It was just a different place. Everything about it is very special, especially coming from a kid, like I said, who grew up watching those games.

OFD: Tell me about one thing you won’t miss.

MV: Let’s see here ... trying to figure out what I should say here.

OFD: You’re going to be in Seattle in like a week. It’s like, let’s drop some bombs here, man.

MV: I won’t miss the amount of access we have to players and coaches at times. I don’t think that’s a bombshell even with people at Notre Dame.

The situation is that we talk to the same five players or so just about every week. We request other players, and we don’t always get them. I understand that Notre Dame is very protective of their players, and they put them first.

But, for me, I look at things a little bit differently. My philosophy is that you don’t have to be a good player or someone who ever plays to have a great story. For me, I think there’s a lot of players that I never really got to know that I would have liked to, to be able to tell different kinds of stories. We just never had that opportunity.

Also, we get the coordinators and the assistant coaches a couple of times in spring, and then maybe once or twice in fall camp. Those are fascinating personalities, and guys that have real expertise over these positions. So I would have liked to have been able to talk with the coordinators more and I would have liked to have been able to talk with the assistant coaches more, and really be able to form those relationships.

There are plenty of programs that are at essentially the same level as Notre Dame, where the coordinator speaks once a week, during the week. I don’t feel like that would be too much of a burden. I fell like both Chip Long and Clark Lea are dynamic personalities that are well-spoken, and will soon be head coaches. That would only help them, as far as exposure, as far as being a name out there. They have an expertise obviously into what they’re talking about.

So, we come from the journalist perspective, which is we want to talk to everybody all the time. I understand that’s not realistic, but I do think it wouldn’t be a painful transition to make, to make the coordinators available once a week during the season.

OFD: Were there a couple of white whales, a couple of people that you really wanted to talk to, that you just were never really given access to? Some stories that you thought would be amazing to tell that are just never going to get told, or are not going to get told by you?

MV: The guy that I always wanted to talk to, and obviously it never ended up becoming a possibility, was Kevin Stepherson. That was always the joke after games was, that was always our request — Kevin Stepherson — but we knew in our heart of hearts we weren’t going to get him.

But not necessarily just because of the issues he was dealing with. He had an interesting story. We ended up writing (a story) without ever talking to him, which was the fact that when he was in high school, one of his best friends died. He was the reason he was wearing the number that he was at Notre Dame, in dedication to a friend. If you know my stuff, you know that’s a story I would have been interested in. I went into his freshman year with that story in my pocket saying, “Whenever I get him, I’m going to ask him about this.”

I never once talked to him during his time at Notre Dame because he was never available. We understand the reason for that, but it was just a story that I kind of had there waiting and just never came to fruition.

OFD: I’d like to do some rapid fire in honor of Sean Stires and you leaving [WSBT-FM’s] Sportsbeat. Ready? Give me your top five must read writers who are covering sports beats right now.

MV: Well, Wright Thompson’s got to be there as far as long form goes.

I’m going to put Eric Hansen, obviously, as far as Notre Dame stuff.

I think Gregg Doyel in Indianapolis is one of the best columnists who are currently doing it.

I think Shea Serrano for The Ringer, if you call that sports. It’s more a humor and commentary than anything, but it really has a different kind of voice.

I’ll just put David Haugh as the fifth, as far as the Chicago Tribune sports columnist, someone that I’ve read for a long time and another South Bend Tribune alum who really does quality, no-nonsense kind of work at the Chicago Tribune.

OFD: Best game day atmosphere of any stadium you’ve been to and why?

Notre Dame v Clemson Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

MV: I think the one that stands out the most is Clemson in 2015. I’m sure it’s awesome on a regular day there, but it was downpouring literally the entire weekend that we were at Clemson. You would think that that would kind of dampen the atmosphere, but it actually did the opposite. I think fans just really bought into it, and made things even crazier inside the stadium where everyone was wet. Nobody cared. It was an open air press box. You could feel everything as far as the noise, the base and the Jumbotron. It was just shaking the press box. Of course that was a very big prime time game. It was also a game that came down to a two-point conversion. So, everything together that Clemson weekend was probably the most memorable stadium experience I’ve had.

OFD Tell me two or three cities you’d like to visit that you haven’t already visited.

MV: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been in New York City still, which I would have done this year, if I had still been on the beat. So that one’s an obvious one. Something that I’ve always wanted to do as far as the sports realm was go to Wimbledon. I’ve never been to England, and it’s obviously happening currently. But that’s an event I’ve always felt would be very cool. There’s a lot of stuff as far as sports goes, never covering an NFL team is going to be a whole new world for me. So those are a couple that jump out. Also, with all this World Cup stuff going on, just sitting in on the atmosphere of the World Cup game would be pretty exciting.

OFD: Toss up question: ale or lager?

MV: I’ll go lager, but I’m honestly more of a dark beer drinker at heart. So I would put a good port or a stout ahead of anything else.

OFD: Fair or foul: the Chicago Bulls partying with Jerry Grant is good for the Bulls and good for Grant.

MV: Fair.

OFD: Last question: is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you think is important for our readers to know about you or your next occupation or your last occupation that I didn’t ask you?

MV: I would like to thank everybody for reading and for supporting me these last three plus years. And also just emphasize, obviously I’m going to be at a different job at a different place, but I’m going to continue to follow Notre Dame and make a couple of half-way sarcastic comments during games on Twitter and social media.

There’s a little bit of a sense, when you leave a job like this, like I’m dying or something. You can continue to follow me if you want to. I understand if people don’t.

OFD: We’re expecting you to write the greatest C.J. Prosise profile ever conceived. You think C.J. is going to see you on the beat and just kind of give you a double take, like, “What are you doing here?”

It’s going to be interesting. C.J. is a super nice kid, but I always found he was someone who smiled constantly but who didn’t have a whole lot that he wanted to say. So, getting the great C.J. Prosise profile might be a challenge, but hopefully I’m up to it.