Seattle Times

CF.C asks 15 wide-ranging questions of Singapore product who covers WSU for state's largest daily

STEFANIE LOH of the Seattle Times is a pioneer. She's the first woman to serve as a football beat writer covering Washington State in the century-plus the Cougs have been playing ball. And get this: she didn't grow up in the U.S. so had to work hard as a kid to learn about laterals, false starts and forward progress.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, here's the scoop -- the Loh down, if you will -- on a reporter with an unconventioanl background who, by all accounts, is kicking butt and taking names later in her first season covering the Cougs.

1. CFC: Where did you grow up, who were “your teams” as a kid, when did you know you wanted to do this for a living, et. al.?

I was born and raised in Singapore, where “football” means soccer ... American Football is an afterthought, few watch it, no one understands it, yet as a kid growing up in the mid-90s, I fell in love with the game while watching it on TV from Singapore at odd hours of the day. I taught myself to understand it because this was the pre-Internet era, and it’s not like I could Google the rules or anything.The first Super Bowl I ever watched was John Elway’s swan song, and I grew up a Peyton Manning fan because I started really following football during his rookie year in Indy, so I suppose I was a nominal Colts fan while growing up ... Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football NFL games were broadcast in Singapore weekly during the season at strange times of the day, but college football was harder to come by, so I never watched much of the college game until I moved to the US for college. I do, however have a vague recollection of watching Kliff Kingsbury quarterback Texas Tech in the late 90s, and I watched some Joey Harrington-led Oregon teams too, which is what led me to want to go to college at Oregon.

From a young age, I loved sports and loved writing, so it seemed like a no brainer to try and combine the two and make a living that way. I always knew that I wanted to write for a living, and I decided early on that I didn’t want to starve while doing it. Thus, journalism seemed to make sense.

My first paid internship out of school was at the Spokesman-Review, where I covered the Spokane Indians for a summer and was also given free rein to run around finding stories all over Spokane. That was a lot of fun.

2. CFC: Your first game covering the Cougars was in a rain storm and they lost to an FCS team. What were you envisioning for the rest of the season? Was that your first time in Pullman?

The season opener against Portland State was my second time in Pullman. My first encounter with Pullman came in the summer of 2007 when I was interning at the S-R and was asked to drive out to Pullman to write a feature on a pair of sisters on the WSU soccer team.

To be honest, I found the fan reaction slightly disturbing. One loss — albeit to an FCS team, yes — and everyone was calling for doomsday and the head coach’s firing. It seemed a little over the top to me, but I suppose I haven’t had to watch the Cougars lose for a decade. So from that perspective, I understand the reaction a little better. While surprised by the loss, I didn’t really have an opinion after that first game. I’ve seen enough football in my career to have watched teams bounce back in a big way after stinking up their opener, so I wanted to see how the team reacted to that loss because I though that would be a better measure of the character of this football team. Then they went out to Rutgers and pulled off that comeback win and I thought, “there’s hope for these guys yet.”

3. CFC: What player on the Cougars would you vote for the Most Pleasant Surprise Award and why?

Shalom Luani. He’s been an absolute stud on defense. Until about two games ago, when the Cougs got Isaac Dotson back in the lineup, Luani had played every single snap at that free safety position. He’s a ball hawk and a tremendous hitter. He’s great in coverage, and to hear his former coaches from JuCo talk, he’s still somewhat of a raw commodity. This version of Luani is not the finished product. Can you imagine what we’ll see from him next year after he’s had an offseason to go through WSU’s conditioning program, bowl practices and spring ball?

4. CFC: Where does Mike Leach rank on the list of characters you've covered and what's been the most interesting/entertaining conversation you've had with him?

Mike Leach is by far the most interesting and unconventional football coach I’ve ever had the pleasure of covering. I know he gets a bad rep for being somewhat brusque in press conferences, and his “I won’t talk about injuries” thing is as frustrating for me as any other reporter, but at the core of it, I thoroughly respect the fact that he’s such a unique guy. He says what he thinks and doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of him, and he’s got such a wide variety of interests that he’s pretty fascinating to talk to.

The first time I met him, we sat down and chatted about everything from his favorite restaurants in Pullman/Moscow, to vacationing in Europe and WWII. That was pretty interesting. But I think my favorite Leachism of the year was the soliloquy he delivered when Oregonian columnist and radio personality John Canzano got him talking about gun violence and what we can do about it in this country. His response was thoughtful and practical from a public policy standpoint. I don’t know if Leach has the personality for it — because politicians actually have to care what their constituents think — but wouldn’t it be interesting to visualize him running for public office?

5. CFC: Aside from the two clear choices, Jack Thompson and Mel Hein, who would you consider the greatest Cougar footballer of all time?

Hmmm, considering that I am not entirely steeped in the nuances of Cougar football history yet, that’s a tough question. I’ll table this one for next offseason, after I’ve had the chance to study up. But my interim answer is this: Didn’t Jason Gesser quarterback some of the most successful Cougar football teams in program history?

6. CFC: With social media, beat writers don't have to guess what fans think of them. Talk about the dynamics of your relationship with Cougar fans and whether you've been surprised by how they view your coverage specifically and the sports world generally.

For the most part, Cougar fans have been very nice! And very supportive. I think the only time I was surprised about fan reaction was when I called out the fans for not selling out the WSU-Stanford game, and ignited something of a firestorm on Twitter.

Look, there’s no mistaking that West Coast football fans, in general, are less crazed than their SEC counterparts. But that’s a double-edged sword ... Pac-12 fans have a sense of perspective and understand that there’s life outside of football, and that when it comes down to it, this sport that we all follow so religiously is really just a game. There are greater problems in the world that need our attention, we have families and life issues and things of that nature, and when you put everything in perspective, football is nowhere near the top of the totem pole. So I like that Coug fans, and Pac-12 fans and West Coast football fans are more cognizant of that than some fans I’ve encountered in other parts of the country, but because of that sense of perspective, football tickets are also, generally, a tougher sell on the Left Coast than in some of the other Power Conferences. And I’m not making this up. It’s fact. The numbers support that. Period.

7. CFC: You were covering Penn State when the Sandusky sex abuse case broke and Joe Paterno was dismissed. What are your most enduring impressions of that tumultuous first couple weeks?

The circus of it all, and the way every media outlet in the country jumped on the story and converged on State College, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere — much like Pullman. We competed with everyone for stories — ESPN, the NYT, CNN. And it was my job, and our job as a reporting team from the Patriot-News, to try to always stay one step ahead and think of a next-day story that we could write “today” that no one else would have for tomorrow. The one enduring image for me was of standing in the freezing cold for hours outside Joe Paterno’s house next to Lisa Salters and the ESPN crew and just waiting for movement, for anyone to come out or come to the door, and thinking to myself, “This poor family. They can’t go outside because there is a horde of reporters camped on their street.” I felt both ashamed to be part of that horde, while also a little excited to be part of the story. It was a weird mix of emotions.

8. CFC: Apple Cup Week can be pretty entertaining because of split allegiances among families, friends, coworkers and neighbors. What all do you know about the rivalry and how do you think it compares with others you've been around, like Oregon-Oregon State and Penn State-Pitt?

Oregon-Oregon State was always a lot of fun when I was at school, but I think covering the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry when I was the WVU beat writing for a small West Virgina newspaper during the RichRod era in Morgantown, was what truly helped me understand the intensity of rivalry week. Pitt and WVU fans absolutely HATE each other, and I vividly remember how intensely that hate manifested itself when WVU kicker Pat McAfee — who’s now a punter with the Colts — missed a pair of field goals in the WVU-Pitt game at the end of the 2007 season that ultimately prevented the Mountaineers from getting to the national championship. Pitt went crazy with joy. And McAfee had his car vandalized and got death threats from WVU “fans." And I remember thinking, “What is wrong with these people? It’s a game. Get over yourselves and leave the poor kid alone.” See? Lacking in perspective.

9. CFC: Back in the '60s and '70s, the S-R's Cougar beat writer was a wily veteran named Harry Missildine. He was straight from central casting -- a beautiful writer, a cigar smoker and an occasional whiskey drinker.  With the assumption being you’re not chomping on a cigar at an old typewriter on Saturdays in the fall, how would you characterize yourself?

Ha! What makes you think I don’t gnaw on cigars in front of a typewriter hmm? I think I would characterize myself as a writer, reporter and athlete first, and a sportswriter second. I got into this not to get to go to games for free, but because I believe sports is a microcosm of society and a crucible of human emotion. I love talking to people and hearing their stories, finding out what makes them tick, and how they got to where they are. I love playing sports, and on any given day I’d much rather be out doing something active than sitting on my butt on the couch being some armchair QB. Snooze.

10. The Seattle Times seems to have an obsession with a phrase that shall not be named, be it headlines or tweets by columnists.  Is that due to a Husky bias or just knee-jerk laziness?

I HATE THIS QUESTION. Because I hate that fans seem to always jump to this ridiculous conclusion that if you read something you perceive as negative about the Cougs, it’s because the writer/copy editor/editor who put it out there has some bias against the Cougs. Stop it. Now. Guys, we don’t care who wins… as long as the game ends before deadline! We report the news. No one is trying to slight your team. If you’re bad, you’re bad. That’s how we’ll call it. If you’re good, you’re good and we’ll say so. Plus said phrase in question has been thrown about by Coug fans so much over the years in relation to how the Cougs have lost games that I don’t think you can fairly say it’s the ST has an “obsession” with it. I mean, you all use it. Why can’t we? Oh and while we’re on the subject, another pet peeve of mine is the perception that the beat writer is supposed to write only positive things about a team. That’s ridiculous too. My job is to tell you what’s happening. Period. 

(Editor's note: We hate that answer. We didn't ask about standard pro and con reporting, just about a tired, Husky-driven phrase of nonsense that for whatever reason continues to diminish the Seattle Times' coverage of the Cougars and undermine the paper's credibility.)

11. CFC:  How difficult is it to cover a team 300 miles away? What’s the one thing, in-season or off-season, you most wish you were “in town” for?

There are definitely challenges — for instance I don’t get to watch practices (though, lately, no one does!), I don’t get to go to speaking events the coaches might do, or charity events the team might be at. However, to be honest, Leach’s media policy really evens the geographical playing field because he doesn’t let anyone talk to players outside of the weekly press conference. So from that standpoint, it’s not too bad. The travel takes a toll during the season because basically very game is an ‘away’ game for yours truly. But I’m eternally grateful to my bosses for letting me fly to games because making that drive every week would be rough.

12. CFC: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received since taking on the Seattle Times’ WSU beat and who was it from?  Did you know your predecessor, Bud Withers, and were you able to talk to him around the time you started

Yes, I did talk to Bud when I started. I’d known of him because he’s the Dean of Pac-12 Sportswriters. But I’d only had passing acquaintance with him until I moved here. So we met before the season and he was really awesome and let me pick his brain about the team and the coach, and his eons of WSU football institutional knowledge. I still lean on him for that stuff sometimes — putting things in historical perspective, etc. I don’t know if I’d say that theres one piece of advice that I’ve gotten since I’ve been here that stands out though. Still, lots of people have been very helpful in getting me acquainted with Coug lore. Contrary to popular belief, we have a lot of Coug grads on the ST sports staff, so all those guys have helped me feel my way around. Plus WSU SIDs Bill Stevens and Bobby Alworth have been very accommodating, and that always helps a new beat writer get on his or her feet quickly. Those two are some of the best I’ve encountered in the business. They’re very helpful. And that’s not always the case with SIDs.

13: CFC: What’s your favorite sport to cover – football or basketball, and why?

Football. It’s the modern day equivalent of the Roman Gladiator era in history. There are so few games that each one is so significant. There are so many personalities on every team that you’re never going to have a problem finding stories, and it’s the quintessential team sport. As Luke Falk likes to say, everyone has to do their job. Otherwise, the bus doesn’t move. I love this brutal, beautiful game that’s captivated an entire country like nothing else ever has before.

14. CFC: You’re going to be pulling double duty in covering both Gonzaga and WSU hoops this season, how will you divide your time and will you get more than five hours sleep a night when conference play starts?

We’re going to focus on WSU football until the season ends — whenever that might be. Then I’ll hop on Gonzaga. So I don’t think there’ll be too much overlap. Thankfully, I’m not a hoops beat writer in the traditional sense of the term, where you travel with the team to all the games, etc. We’re going to be doing a little more parachute journalism because it’s more difficult to cover a basketball team from five hours away than it is to cover a football team, since there are so many more games.

15. CFC: What’s been the best thing about covering WSU so far, what’s the one thing you wish wasn’t the case?

The best thing: Covering an underdog team that’s been one of the best surprises of the Pac-12 this year. It’s been so fun to watch the season unfold. The worst thing: Trying to book hotel rooms in Pullman/Moscow in August (when I first started this job.) That’s a nightmare!

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