To read Part One of this interview, click here.
VM: I think Vanderbilt fans universally thought the long piece you wrote on Matt Freije back in late February was one of the best pieces they had ever read on a Vanderbilt player. You interviewed his family members, his friends, his old high school coach. Could you talk about how much work went into writing a piece like that one?
Mullen: Sure... at the beginning of the season, my boss, Bob McClellan, the sports editor at the Tennessean, looked at the season and said, let's take one of these weeks when you have a Wednesday off, and let's send you up to Kansas for a big Matt Freije piece. I used to do pieces like this when I was at the Times-Union. They would send me somewhere for a few days, really with no idea how it was going to turn out. I would just go and get color. So that's what we did here. Matt gave me his best friend's number and his Mom's number, so they knew I was coming into town, but I didn't want to tell them too much about what I was wanting. I always found that if you go somewhere a little bit lost, you'll find the right direction somewhere while you're there. I don't do a lot of pre-planning. I always find if it's too structured, you'll lose some color.
One note about that Kansas trip... I purposefully got lost a few times, around where he lived, and close to his high school. I'd just walk up to random people and say, have you heard of Matt Freije? Just trying to get interesting things. A lot of them had, and a lot of them hadn't. I ate lunch at the pizza place where he worked one summer, and at the end of the meal I asked to talk to the manager. Little things like that. The whole story was probably about 40 inches longer than what ran in the paper. I ended up cutting about 40 inches out of that story. It's hard, when you get so much good stuff, not to put it all in there.
I think it turned out well. I think the biggest compliment I got on it was when his Mom walked over at the gym the next time I saw her, shook my hand and said, that was a good story. I asked her, was it fair? Was it accurate? Because there was some stuff in there that it wasn't easy for some people to talk about. She said yes, it was very fair, and that was probably the best compliment.
VM: Where do you think Vanderbilt ranks these days in terms of how the Tennessean covers sports? Obviously the Titans have come in and captured a lot of the interest of sports fans. But where do you think Vanderbilt ranks in the pecking order?
Mullen: I'd probably have to say, they're obviously on the upper echelon somewhere. If you think back recently, I know when I took over the beat, the basketball team started playing very well. The reality of it is, a lot of times, how well a team plays dictates how they're covered. You always cover them, but it might dictate how the page is laid out. If Vanderbilt is 1-20, would we be doing huge center pieces on certain players, like the Freije piece? Probably not! There would be good coverage, but I don't think you'd see the blowout coverage. That goes for every sport. You're probably looking at Titans No. 1, Vanderbilt and Nashville Predators right there at No. 2, and you could probably throw Tennessee in there as well. But those all shift around at times through the year. Football season and basketball season at various schools, for various reasons, shift around. But I can say one thing. Since I've been here, Vanderbilt stuff has been played up a lot more prominently than maybe it had in the past. I think it's because they're winning more.
If we put a UT story on the front, we get calls from Vanderbilt fans. And if we put a Vanderbilt story on the front, I'll get calls from UT fans saying, why are you giving them all this coverage?! But that's fun. That's part of it. The readers are great. So I'll just say they're right there on that upper echelon.