Features

Interview: Bob Glauber

Bob Glauber is Newsday’s national football columnist and president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has covered the NFL since 1985 and was selected as the New York State sportswriter of the year in 2011 and 2015. Guts and Genius, his first book, was published in 2018.

Tell me a bit about how the book came about. What made you choose that era? And what made you decide to focus on three coaches, rather than just one of them?
I started covering the NFL in 1985, when Bill Parcells was coach of the Giants. Little did I realize what a unique time, not only in Giants history, but in NFL history, that turned out to be. I had an obvious connection to that time because I was actually covering it, so the familiarity was helpful. It was also a great time for a journalist to be covering the NFL. We had much more access to the players and coaches – Bill Belichick would regularly talk to the beat writers, for instance, and we got to know him on a completely different level. We would call players at home; it wasn’t uncommon to call Phil Simms a handful of times each year and speak for close to an hour about football. So it was totally a more engaged experience in covering the team than it is now.

As I looked back at that decade on a more global level, I realized that it was a rare instance where three coaches collective dominated the era. Walsh, Gibbs and Parcells were spectacularly effective coaches, yet they were different in terms of their styles. So, while individual books have been written about each of the three coaches, I felt that grouping them together was a more unique way of looking back at the decade and how it impacted the game then and now.

Further reading: Guts and Genius review

What did you learn in researching your book that you didn’t already know? Can you share your favourite examples?
I learned a ton about all three coaches, but mostly Walsh. I had more institutional knowledge of Parcells and Gibbs because I covered the NFC East on a regular basis. I had less familiarity with Walsh, and the fact that he’s no longer alive made it more challenging to get a read on him. But the people who knew him best were extremely helpful in painting a picture of what made him tick. In particular, Dick Vermeil, Mike White, John McVay and Walsh’s son, Craig, and wife, Geri, were incredibly helpful. Craig spoke a lot about Walsh’s early life and was able to relate stories told to him by Bill. I didn’t realise Bill had such a contentious relationship with his father, but that was a very important part of his early life that carried over through his adult years.

Parcells was very open about his experience, and I hadn’t realized he’d had a feud with the team’s radio color commentator, Dick Lynch, former NFL defensive back. Parcells basically hated the guy and felt Lynch was a phony because he tried to cozy up to the coach after he had some success following his disastrous first season in 1983. I also didn’t realize the extent to which Parcells remains engaged with many of today’s coaches, including Sean Payton and Mike Zimmer, among others. Parcells is a major factor in today’s NFL, because he does a lot of things behind the scenes to help coaches and players.

Gibbs has a much more even-keeled personality than Walsh and Parcells, but I found it fascinating to hear how so many different personalities from those Redskins teams were able to relate to him. Gibbs was a straight shooter as a coach, and his players appreciated that. He also let them be themselves. The other part about Gibbs was his inability to avoid the burnout factor and how he really struggled to be a grounded human being. Some of the best stuff I got was from Richard Justice, the former Redskins beat writer for the Washington Post who had several private conversations with Gibbs that he shared for the book.

What’s your favourite anecdote from writing and researching the book?
I had a long sit-down with Parcells, during which he shared so many memories. One of the best was when he talked about the time he accused Walsh of purposely turning off the 49ers’ headsets early in their 1985 wild card playoff game at Giants Stadium. Parcells re-told the story with gusto, and it was as if the incident had happened yesterday. The part that really was fascinating was Parcells becoming introspective about that moment and then explaining how it changed his relationship with Walsh. He basically accused Walsh of cheating, said he’d turn him in if he tried to do it again. Walsh smiled and said it was just some gamesmanship, but by Parcells not turning Walsh in, it showed Walsh that Parcells was just a great competitor and didn’t care what it took to win. Walsh really liked that Parcells kept it between the two of them.

How long did it take to write the book and what was your process like?
The writing took about seven months, although I continued the research process as I was writing. The biggest challenge was just getting started, and it was intimidating – at least mentally. My publisher, Sean Desmond, had a great suggestion of using three anecdotes to show the low moments for each coach. It provided a way of getting into the book with some striking examples of the challenges each coach faced. After that, it was easy to organize my thoughts, and by weaving the three coaches together – loosely in a chronological format – it felt natural toggling back and forth.

What do you most like and most dislike about the writing process?
I loved every single part of the process, including the times when I was afraid I’d never finish it. I’d been warned by many writers that the process could be terrible, especially if I wasn’t totally into the subject. Well, I was totally into the subject, and the words just poured out. I called it a journalistically liberating process, because most of my writing is done with some sort of tight deadline. Columns about games or players, NFL trends, news, etc. It’s all very present tense. The book writing process infinitely expands the timeline, but you’re able to write to your heart’s content the entire time. I’ve been accused a time or two hundred of overwriting for the newspaper, but there were no such constraints with the book. Absolutely adored the process.

How do you define good writing?
Good writing is saying whatever you’ve got to say clearly and descriptively. Can’t try too hard, because it’s phony.

Do you have a writing hero or a mentor? If so, who is it?
Dave Anderson was always my favorite, both as a writer and a mentor. For being a Pulitzer Prize winner, Dave was incredibly humble and always willing to give advice. I always valued his opinion. Dave had a saying about football writing, which dated back to his days as a Jets’ beat reporter when Joe Namath played. “When in doubt, write the quarterback.” In a quarterback-driven league, that saying always works. I adapted that motto to, “When in doubt, be Dave Anderson. And that always works, too.

Without giving away any ideas you’re keeping for yourself, what unwritten football story would you most like to read?
Something about interpersonal relationships between football players – whether they be current teammates, retired players.

What are your favourite football books and why?
“When Pride Still Mattered” is the greatest football book ever written. David Maraniss did a masterful job in bringing Vince Lombardi to life, and his reporting and writing about Lombardi’s personal life and believes were exquisite.
I read “I Am Third” in high school, and just loved the story of how Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo bonded. It was more than football.
“North Dallas Forty” was exceptional, just in terms of going behind the scenes and offering up so many great anecdotes that made you alternately crack up and realize how intense and life-changing football can be.
“Paper Lion” was just such a no-brainer of an idea, and George Plimpton pulled it off brilliantly.

What’s the first football book you remember reading?
“I Am Third.”

What football book would you consider to be an overlooked or forgotten gem?
“The Dark Side of the Game,” by Tim Green was brutally honest in this book, and his writing was so descriptive. I remember interviewing him once about his book and came away so impressive with how well-rounded he was as a player, a person and a writer. It saddens me that he is now dealing with ALS.

And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
Anything by Pat Conroy, Philip Roth, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, J.K. Rowling and John Grisham.

You can buy Guts and Genius at Amazon US, Amazon UK and all good bookshops. Follow Bob Glauber on Twitter.

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