The Van Pelt Q&A
--- EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the June issue of Inside the Shell Magazine -- the No. 1 Terps sports publication on the market. For more on Inside the Shell or to subscribe, visit WWW.SHELLMAG.COM. ---
Inside the Shell Editor Jeff Ermann recently chatted with Van Pelt about free beers, grown men crank-calling him and cursing out LeBron James with no fear of bodily harm.
JE: A lot of people, once they graduate college and move on in life, tend to lose some of their passion for their alma mater. Yet you remain as diehard a Terp fan as there is. What is it about Maryland sports that has you hooked for life?
SVP: Well, I think that long before I talked about sports on television and long before anything happened to me professionally, I was a Terp. I grew up sitting in Byrd Stadium with about 20,000 people in the mid-70s. I grew up going to Cole Field House.
My father was a Terp. He was in the Terrapin Club and this and that. So I came to games with him and with great family friends. And, you know, my dad passed away when I was in college. And I think that in a lot of ways I had this sort of connection with him, and that's sort of my connection to him – the passion that we both had for Maryland. And I was never going to let that go no matter what happens. Long after I stop talking about sports on TV, I'll be a Terp. I always have been and I always will be.
JE: You wear your fanhood on your sleeve as well. Maryland fans love it when you drop your "Let's go to Bentley's" line and other locally-related catchphrases on SportsCenter. Has there ever been a concern that some viewers or colleagues would see it as you being unprofessional or biased?
SVP: My bosses actually at one point thought it was a bad idea for me to say stuff like that. But as I explained to them, if we're doing Auburn [highlights] and I say something about Toomer's corner, or if I say something about Kansas and I say something about The Wheel, or if I say something about North Carolina and I talk about Franklin Street – the people there know what you're talking about. Nobody knows what Bentley's means outside of College Park, but the people there know, and it's sort of my little shout-out to them.
The way I sort of explain it to my boss is, we're all from somewhere, and that just happens to be where I'm from. I didn't see it as rubbing it in anyone's face to throw a little love out to the old stomping grounds … And if I scored a free beer out of it from [Bentley's owner] John Brown, then that would probably be all aright. I'm still waiting, by the way.
JE: How much grief do opposing fans give you?
SVP: People will say something from time to time. I've gotten crank phone calls when Maryland's lost games and they were headed to the NIT. There were some idiots that were clowning on me about the fact that Maryland was headed to the NIT. But the way I look at it, if you're a grown man and you're crank calling another grown man ‘cause my team lost, I think that makes you the punch line of the joke, not me.
People are generally really cool about it. The Duke people may hate me, but I don't hate them, so it's one-sided.
JE: Yeah, sure you don't … So who's your favorite Terp of all time?
SVP: Len Bias. Period. No one's close. It's just Leonard Bias. Period.
JE: The two of you attended Maryland during the same time period, right?
SVP: Yeah, I knew him, I was friends with him. He was mythical. He was a comic book character come to life, and he was as good as advertised. The thing that bummed me out as much as anything selfishly is that we didn't get to see how good he was going to be at the next level. I'll tell you a quick story:
I was doing a story with [NBA star] Tracy McGrady. And we were walking out of the facility. And Tracy's kind of eyeing me up as we're walking out. He says, "You're pretty tall [6-foot-6]. Did you play any ball?" I said "Nah … I went to Maryland when Len Bias was there. Did you ever see him?"
He said, "Nah, sometimes a little bit on [ESPN] Classic. And as I'm saying this, Horace Grant is walking up. So Tracy yells, "Ho, what you know about Leonard Bias?" And his eyes got as big as dinner plates, and he said, "That was the baddest mother f***** I ever saw." And [Grant] played with Michael Jordan!
I'll never forget the reaction.
JE: That's classic. On Gary, people tend to see his demeanor on the sideline and assume his general personality is that of a frothing, sweating lunatic. But you know him personally -- wouldn't you say most would be surprised by how calm and charming of a guy he can be off of the court?
SVP: I feel very fortunate to know Gary on a personal level. And it's stunning, I think, to most people, to see him interact socially. Because the word that, I think, would describe him best around people he doesn't know, is shy. You know, he's pretty soft-spoken. And I think when he's around people he's comfortable with, he's happy, he's laughing, he's enjoying himself.
But he is a charming guy, and I think the reason that he and I have gotten along the way we have is, I think he has recognized that I am as passionate and loyal to his university as he is. And I know that's something that matters to him.
He knows that I've got his back and I've got Maryland's back. It means a lot that I know he views me as a friend, and I support him through the times that haven't been as good.
JE: On SportsCenter, you've mastered in the art of mixing in some one-liners and a few catchphrases without becoming a caricature like, oh, perhaps someone like Stuart Scott. Is it difficult to find a comfortable medium between being too dry and too animated?
SVP: I think that there's almost an implied notion that you have to do that, and it's what the medium has become. And the longer that I do it, the less and less I find myself doing things that are sort of catch-phrasey. I just don't think it's necessary.
Although, there are times when you're in there for a couple of hours and you get a little punchy, and you start acting like an idiot. But I find myself feeling like you can just be a passionate, informed sports fan and give your interpretation of what happened in a highlight without having to scream out 19 different cutesy things. A pinch of sugar is sweet and two tablespoons will make you sick. I don't want to be the guy that's beating people over the head with it.
JE: What are your favorite catchphrases?
SVP: I just like doing things that are just D.C.-isms or Baltimore-isms. The Orioles win, and I'll always say "Os, Stros and Natty Boes" in a horrible Baltimore accent. And I'll give references in over Washington highlights about Trouble Funk or Go-Go music. Things like that, I enjoying doing along the lines of Bentley's; because it's just my way to sort of send a little love to the people where I'm from.
JE: Does Stuart Scott yell "Boo-yah!" when his drink falls out of the soda machine?
SVP: He takes a lot of crap, and part of it he brings on himself because people don't buy the act. It's kind of like Gary. Stuart, and I know this because I do it – he's not a good broadcaster, he's a great broadcaster. My sense is that somewhere along the way he became that guy on television. And he never said this to me, but I think there's a sense that he has an obligation to be that guy. And it rubs people the wrong way. But people accuse me of trying to be black when I drop rap references. If I drop the reference, it's not because I'm trying to be anything. It's because Rakim is in my CD changer.
But he doesn't yell ‘Boo-yah' in the cafeteria.
JE: The SportsCenter commercials have become something of a cult art form. Everyone seems to have his or her favorite. What are yours?
SVP: I've been lucky to be in a lot of them, because early on they figured out that I was an idiot and would do anything they asked me to do. As far as the ones that I've been in, the one with LeBron is pretty funny just because the chair makes me laugh every time I see it. It's just ridiculous.
Early on I did one where I was in the trunk of a BMW convertible with Rich Beem, the PGA Tour player. That was pretty absurd. I did one with Jimmy Rollins recently that hasn't aired yet. But it's so dry and so funny, and I have a hard time saying that about stuff I'm involved with, ‘cause I don't want to say, "Hey, I did this and it's really funny." But the one I did with Jimmy Rollins is one of the funnier ones I've seen in a while.
Just being in them all has been fun, and the athletes have been great. And people should know, they don't get paid for that. We give a donation to a charity in their name, but they don't get paid for being here, so they deserve some credit for coming out here [Bristol, CT] to the middle of nowhere.
JE: Ever have any funny outtakes?
SVP: Absolutely. We did one with LeBron and he asked if it was my chair, and I said, "No it's not your f****** chair. You know, you've got to break up the tension after 15 takes.
JE: You have traveled an unusual path from virtual obscurity to star SportsCenter anchor, but because of the economy and the decay of newspapers, it's extremely difficult for one to work up the journalism job ladder these days. Do you have any advice the students coming out of Maryland's journalism school?
SVP: My path to where I am is as unlikely as anything that has ever happened in the recorded history of mankind. Literally. I wasn't in the J-school, I was a horrible student, I didn't follow the cookie cutter, A-B-C-D path to where I am. And that, in and of itself, is proof that anything can happen. And as corny as it sounds to say this, I truly believe that if you pursue something that you truly enjoy doing and are passionate about, and you're lucky enough to make your living doing it, then you've succeeded.
My father was a plumber. He worked hard. He wore boots to work. I think about him all the time and I'll never disrespect him by saying I work hard, because I don't. I might work long hours, but he worked for a living and I talked about sports. SO I guess what I'm saying is, to pursue your passion. I can't believe I'm an inspiration to anyone accept to say that if my dumb ass can make it to where I am, then there's no reason to think they couldn't as well.
JE: Last thing: Many Terps fans possess something of a tortured, jinxed outlook, as if we have the worst luck and are always mindful that the rug is about to be yanked out. Is this valid?
SVP: Well, I was there that night in Atlanta when Maryland beat Indiana, and I saw it happen, and there's a crystal ball that the Terps won. So to say that there's a jinx … There's a lot of schools out there, and plenty in the ACC frankly, that would love to be jinxed in that way.
Having said that, there's a certain badge of honor that I think Maryland fans wear, that we can suck it up and get through everything, and we're going to get every bad break there is, but we're going to hang in there. And we're probably going to bitch and moan about it – a lot -- but we're not going to turn our back on these boys no matter what because it's just what we do.
I think Maryland fans just view it as their cross to bear. And if they didn't have something to bitch about – and we've proven this – then we don't know what to do. Having said that, I'd love to know what it's like to have everything go your way and to never suffer. But I've been at this for more than 30 years and I don't imagine I'm ever going to give up because things didn't go the way we want.
You watch a 20-point lead disintegrate in the second half against Clemson and things of that nature, and you just pile it on to the pile of the horrible losses and whatever else. But I think at some point, people complain just to hear themselves complain.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the June issue of Inside the Shell Magazine -- the No. 1 Terps sports publication on the market. For more on Inside the Shell or to subscribe, visit WWW.SHELLMAG.COM.
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