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AE Champ: Q&A with Tony Kornheiser

What better a time to talk to one of the nation’s most prestigious sports voices than before the biggest game in the history of Binghamton University athletics. Tony Kornheiser, class of 1970 and a sports editor emeritus of Pipe Dream (or as it was called for most of his time here, The Colonial News) spoke to Pipe Dream on Thursday about the emergence of the men’s basketball team, his thoughts on the team’s recent controversies and that mansion on Riverside Drive he always wanted to buy.

We basically played Michael Wilbon for a day. We had to do a little editing for space, but a whole page of Tony should be enough.

Pipe Dream: What was your reaction when you saw The New York Times’ story on Binghamton University’s basketball program on Feb. 22?

Tony Kornheiser: I was in New York and I was doing “Sports Reporters” [an ESPN program] that day, which I hadn’t done in years and years. I was doing the show as sort of a reunion tour with my friends, and I was astounded to see Binghamton stripped across the top of The New York Times sports section.

That was, “Wow!” There might be five people [in The Times sports department] who even knew where Binghamton is. So it was a real measure of pride, even though I knew what was coming in the story, it was pretty cool on some level.

PD: What about the piece itself?

TK: First of all, I thought it was amazing that the first quote in the piece was by Tim Schum, a geezer who had retired in 2002. What does he know? That’s like asking Buck Showalter about the state of the Yankees. I just didn’t get it. It was a piece aimed like a torpedo to blow up a ship. I think there’s no question of that.

[Full disclosure: Kornheiser said he and Schum do not get along. According to Kornheiser, Schum attempted to have him removed from his position as sports editor at The Colonial News. Schum does not recall that, but said he did criticize Kornheiser for his commentary.]

Some of these kids that the Times article’s attacking don’t seem to have been recruited by the present administration, so [the current administration] doesn’t bear any responsibility for them at all.

It seemed [all the players] were passing their courses, it seemed that they were in line as students of a public university, with students at Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida and all the other very good, very distinguished public universities that have made a commitment to athletics as well.

I didn’t see the scandal that obviously The New York Times did. Look, I’m the wrong guy to ask. This is my school, I’m going to be very supportive of my school. Without my education at Harpur College, I wouldn’t be what I am today.

PD: How do you feel about Kevin Broadus?

TK: Kevin Broadus, I knew nothing about him as a head coach. I knew he had recruited very well at George Washington and Georgetown, two schools which are in the highest possible quadrant of academic schools in the country. He must’ve known, must’ve understood, that there are academic rules. He’s certainly within the margins, it would seem to me.

This is his second year. Have they ever won 20 before? In the history of the school have they ever won this many games? Have they ever been a game away from the NCAA Tournament?

PD: Nope.

TK: I would think he’s done a very good job.

PD: What about the players?

TK: The only game I really watched, I watched live against GW [a 71-57 loss on Nov. 19]. They weren’t very good at all, I didn’t feel. I watched the entire semifinal game. The steal by Rivera was great, but I said in e-mail to Joel Thirer that he looks alarmingly like Snoop Dogg to me.

You’re in real jeopardy that game at the time of the play, even though you’re up by one, New Hampshire hung tight the whole game. [Binghamton led 68-67 with 11 seconds to play at the time of the steal.] They were getting the ball, had a kid who nailed about five 3s and got a pretty good guard, who, if he drives in and gets fouled, he’s going to make both.

It stands out enormously to me, great play by Rivera.

PD: And now we’re in the finals. You wanted to do the PTI broadcast from the area, but can’t because there’s no local facility that can handle the broadcast and it’d be a long trip for you. It’s a shame.

TK: If you’re the America East and ESPN tells you you got to be on at 11 a.m., you have to do it, you can’t bitch about it. For me it’d be about five hours by car. It means getting out of here at five in the morning. I’m just getting up for the second time to pee at five in the morning.

PD: So you’ll catch the game on TV?

TK: I’ll watch, I’m enormously excited, I hope that Binghamton wins, and then for selfish reasons, hope they get to the region that nobody in Binghamton wants them to go to, which is Philadelphia. Then I can watch my school get pounded in the NCAAs, which is what everybody wants to do. Everybody in the frozen tundra of the Triple Cities would rather Phoenix.

PD: Seriously? That’s far. Warm, but far.

TK: No. Binghamton is a predominantly, overwhelmingly instate public school. People aren’t going to be able to travel the other distances.

PD: What about higher aspirations than just making the tournament, for the future?

TK: When you’re a mid-major, it’s about getting to the NCAAs. Binghamton’s going to get at best a 14 seed, so they’re going up against a Top 10 team. I don’t think they’d get a 15 because they haven’t lost at all in February and March.

Maybe [Binghamton’s deficit in the first round] is below 10 with eight, nine minutes to go, and they end up down by 15.

But the great celebratory moment is now: you can clinch at home, you can go to the NCAAs. There can’t be anything better than that on this level. They’re not Maryland, UConn or Duke, they’re never going to be.

You want to play big-time basketball, you have to play in a big-time basketball conference. There are only two exceptions currently: Gonzaga and Memphis. Gonzaga almost perennially disappoints.

PD: So does Binghamton need to leave the America East?

TK: If you’re going to go out to the next level, you have to get out of that conference. Where do you get to next, do you go to the Atlantic-10? You’re not going to the Big East. You’re not. Where are you going? What is going to accommodate you? And if you’re not a football school, you can’t generate the kind of income that you need. Do you separate yourselves from Albany and Stony Brook? Because Buffalo did that and has a football team. Buffalo has ambitions that Binghamton has.

PD: You know, our men’s soccer team’s been great, but some Bearcats fans still lament the lack of a football team. Should we?

TK: I’m a sports writer of longstanding and the first time I ever went to a college football game that I didn’t cover, my son went to Penn and I was 56 years old. There are fine athletic schools that make their reputation on basketball, all those Catholic schools in the Big East, Georgetown has been able to do without a football team. If you want to be Florida or Penn State or Texas or Michigan and Berkeley and Wisconsin, and I think I’ve just named at least six or seven the top schools for athletics, you have to have a football team.

It’s an enormous commitment in money, with Title IX changing everything.

PD: Tell us about your Harpur days.

TK: It was a tiny school. When I started going there I think there were 4,000 or 5,000 people in the entire school. It was a D3 school and there were no athletics. We made one big road trip to Stony Brook and Drew, and the rest were bus trips; you went home in the evening.

It was not on the map athletically and we were all OK with that. We went there predominantly for academic reasons. We had some wonderful basketball players here and there who could have played at a higher level, but they were happy to be here and the students supported them to the degree that any of them were straight enough to support.

PD: You worked for the paper then, too.

TK: It was a “Hey kids, let’s go out back inside the barn and put on a show” kind of thing. We were radical revolutionaries and bomb-throwers, and probably hardly responsible.

We didn’t have a single journalism course in the entire curriculum of school, so I can proudly say I got my first job without the benefit of any journalism courses.

PD: Did you go drinking on State Street on weekends?

TK: People didn’t go Downtown all that much. Pancho’s Pit, a lot of people went there. People went to Dunkin’ Donuts and A&W on Vestal Parkway. There was a great restaurant called Scotch and Sirloin. And Vestal Steakhouse, which closed a few years ago. I lived in Johnson City, there wasn’t that shopping center. They hadn’t even built the Broome County Arena in Binghamton.

You had movies on campus, you didn’t go Downtown all that much. People didn’t have as much money then, even though gas was 25 cents a gallon. A lot of people hung out at the school. There was a real sense in those times that if you don’t belong to this town, you better think twice.

PD: Sometimes we feel the same way.

TK: I loved Binghamton, though. This is a true story. In 1989, I went back for a reunion, almost 20 years, with my friends and there were about eight or nine of us who had become doctors and lawyers.

And one of the great mansions, one of the great venerable mansions with about 16 or 18 rooms was up for sale for $150,000. It didn’t seem like that much to us then, we were going to buy it, going to move our families.

That was, in fact, a pipe dream. We didn’t realize that the only person that could’ve made anywhere near the amount of money while they were outside the Binghamton area was me, and I would have had to write books. In Binghamton, doctors couldn’t make money, lawyers couldn’t, people in business couldn’t even.

We would get here and we would end up burning the furniture for heat in the winter. It’s always tempting, we had great memories of Binghamton.

PD: These days you’re a busy man. How rabidly do you follow Bearcats sports? Do you know Paul Marco?

TK: To be honest, I was never a soccer fan. I know they had a pole vaulter who was world class, I learned about that. They had diving teams that were world class in past years, some competitors in the winter Olympics. Basketball for me would be the highest profile sport.

I don’t want to say I’m a fair-weather fan, but I love my school, I never thought of it as having athletic prowess before.

PD: You show your love on air sometimes.

TK: It’s a real small school, anything I can do to publicize it, wear the pins.

PD: How often do you make it to Binghamton these days?

TK: Once a year I like to play golf with Joel Thirer and anybody who cares to play. But because of Monday Night Football I don’t have August anymore, so I don’t really have to the ability to be there as often as I like to be there. I have such warm feelings for it, and for Joel and Lois [DeFleur]. I once took Joel and Lois to Sharkey’s for spiedies and beer — Sharkey’s has the greatest spiedies in the world.

When I’m 70 years old and I want to retire, I’ll come up and live in Binghamton and teach something. I’ll just sit there and babble and yodel like I do now, just an old rabbi from the Talmudic era in the ninth century, and I’ll just yodel for people.

PD: OK, time for the big finish. You’re a happy guy when you think about BU basketball these days, right?

TK: Happy doesn’t do it. I’m ecstatic, I’m over the moon. Why wouldn’t it be great?

Do you think anybody at Georgetown feels bad about his degree from Georgetown or do they feel great about their basketball team?

Who are these people [who complain]? If academics and a degree were that important, why didn’t you transfer out and go to Harvard?

Stop it, stop being an old sort of scold, stop being some horrifying knuckle-rapping school teacher from Dickensian times.

People need to remember about athletic scholarships. The athletes aren’t taking the seats of your child. Those are separate seats. They’re add-ons. So enjoy this, cheer your brains out, paint your face, have a good time.