Jeremy Schaap ’91 may have followed in the footsteps of a famous father—the late, great journalist and sportswriter Dick Schaap ’55—but he has become a respected reporter in his own right.
An award-winning journalist in his own right, Jeremy Schaap ’91 is following in the footsteps of a famous father
By Brad Herzog
It was early autumn in 2000, and Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight had just been fired after twenty-nine years, three NCAA championships—and one too many temper tantrums. Given the choice of three ESPN reporters to interview him live in primetime, Knight chose the son of a friend. He had known Dick Schaap ’55 casually for years; Knight, Schaap, and their wives had socialized as a foursome, including going to dinner and a show.
Jeremy Schaap ’91 was already making his mark as a serious sports reporter. But he knew that the Knight would be, as he puts it, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most scrutinized.” He flew to Bloomington, Indiana, and spent much of the day avoiding Knight, who wanted to discuss potential questions. As the interview started and Schaap tried to keep the famously volatile coach focused on the particulars of the firing, Knight grew frustrated, telling him he had “a real faculty” for interrupting. Then he mentioned his own son, Pat, an assistant coach who was also fired, calling him “the victim in this.”
“If you would have abided by the rules,” Schaap said, referring to a zero-tolerance policy that had been instituted at Indiana regarding any further misbehavior by Knight, “would he have been the victim? Would he still have his job?” The next day, the back page of the New York Post would shout, “ESPN’s Schaap Stands Up to Bully Knight.” But in the moment, Knight began to boil. He again chastised Schaap for interrupting. Finally, he just stared for a few moments, rubbed his chin and said, “You’ve got a long way to go to be as good as your dad.”
The younger Schaap has since earned a half-dozen Emmy awards—matching his famous father’s total. As a correspondent for ESPN’s primetime newsmagazine “E:60,” a frequent contributor to such shows as “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines,” and “Good Morning America,” the host of the award-winning weekly radio program “The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap,” and the author of bestselling books about track icon Jesse Owens (Triumph) and rags-to-riches boxer James Braddock (Cinderella Man), he is even approaching his father’s prolific output. “My father had a million different deadlines for a million different projects—books, TV, radio, magazines. He had a hard time saying no,” says Schaap. “I think the people I work with would probably say the same thing about me. I do a lot of different things, but when you measure yourself against one of the world’s great workaholics, which my father was, it doesn’t feel like much.”
Dick Schaap was once described by New York Times columnist Dave Anderson as “the most versatile talent in sports journalism.” But actually, he was a master storyteller in nearly every medium and genre—comfortable in sports and news, print and broadcast. The Bo Jackson of journalism (who, in fact, co-authored Bo Knows Bo, the best-selling sports autobiography ever), he served as the youngest-ever senior editor of Newsweek, city editor and columnist at the New York Herald Tribune, editor of Sport magazine, sports editor of Parade magazine, sports anchor for WNBC-TV in New York, and a correspondent for NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Today” and ABC’s “20/20” and “World News Tonight.” He wrote nearly three dozen books and hosted several TV talk shows, including thirteen years on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” (which Jeremy now often guest hosts).
The first journalist inducted into the True Heroes of Sport Hall of Fame by the Northeastern University Center for Sport and Society, Dick Schaap is also a member of the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame. (He was a lacrosse goalie on the Hill.) And if there were a shrine for name-dropping, he’d be a first-ballot choice. “I was able to get close to my subjects, to get to know them, to share their lives in a way that seemed mythic a generation later,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, Flashing Before My Eyes, published just months before he died at age sixty-seven from complications following hip replacement surgery. Over the course of his more than five-decade career, Schaap found himself—or put himself—in notable company remarkably often. “Often I am asked what my favorite sport is,” he wrote, “and always I say, ‘People.’ I collect people.”
When ESPN’s “SportsCentury” series ranked the 100 top athletes of the twentieth century, Dick Schaap calculated that he had interviewed seventy-five of them. He played golf with Bill Clinton, tennis with Johnny Carson, five-card rummy with Wilt Chamberlain. He shared a house with Chuck Barris, a meal with Jackie Robinson, and a joint with Joe Namath. He had breakfast with Jimmy Breslin and Hubert Humphrey, brought Norman Mailer to Henry Miller’s house and introduced Muhammad Ali to Billy Crystal (both posed with him on the cover of his autobiography). “Being out on the town with him,” Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote, “was like walking through the fields of heaven with a tour guide.”
But his son inhabits a different world. “The athletes have become further removed from the lives of the people covering them,” says Schaap, who lives in Westport, Connecticut, with his wife, Joclyn, daughter Katherine, and infant son Winston. “But also, the reporter has become more adversarial. The entire dynamic has changed.” Which is not say that he dislikes the shift; when he does his job well, camaraderie’s loss is journalism’s gain. For more than a decade and a half now, ESPN viewers have grown accustomed to Schaap asking the tough questions. “I think there’s a great reluctance to do that in the sports world,” he says, as he settles into his nearly bare cubicle in Building 4 on the massive ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut. “The justification has been, ‘I have to preserve my relationship with this guy or that guy.’ But if all you’re doing is preserving your relationship in such a way that you can never ask the hard questions, what’s the point?”
While his father preferred to, in his words, “be probing, but not confrontational,” the son suggests that there is “an element of theatrical to what we do” in which the best interviewers—think Mike Wallace—are actor-journalists. Just this July, he sat across from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and took him to task for complaining that “Don King got a tax lawyer to defend me” in his 1992 rape case. “Now hold on, Mike,” said Schaap, his ears within biting distance. “I’ve heard you say that a lot over the years. Vince Fuller was not a tax lawyer. Vince Fuller was a very successful criminal defense attorney.” Wallace would have approved.
In Dick Schaap’s autobiography, published not long after the Knight incident, he declared that Jeremy had handled the interview with the coach “better than I would have.” When the book was published, ABC’s “World News Now” used some camera trickery to broadcast five minutes of Dick Schaap going face-to-face with just about the only well-known sports figure he hadn’t yet interviewed: Dick Schaap. One scripted exchange revealed his self-deprecating wit.
“Is there anyone you don’t know?” he asked himself.
“J. D. Salinger,” he answered.
Pause. Wry smile. “You have a long way to go to be as good as J. D. Salinger.”