A visit with ESPN's Shelley Smith

Early on in a recent conversation with ESPN's Shelley Smith, the topic of Washington's mangled train wreck of a season was broached. I asked Smith if she had watched the Huskies much during this 1-9 campaign. In a tone of voice that was equal parts good-natured and sarcastic, she responded, "I have seen them two or three times, and I watch as long as I can until I can't take it anymore."

I asked Smith to give the current impression of the Washington program throughout the rest of the country.

"From the whole fallout of the Neuheisel situation, there has been a bit of an image problem," said Smith. "And I heard that Washington had something like eight offensive linemen on scholarship coming into fall camp this year? That's a very difficult situation. Neuheisel always had a cloud over his head. He was a guy who pushed the rules—and we all know the stories, like parking in the neighbor's driveway of a recruit and then calling the recruit and telling him to look out the window. In some ways, I like that creativity. But ultimately it was the whole gambling situation that caught up to him… And I think that firing him quickly helped Washington out a lot.

"Hopefully the situation at Washington can now improve," said Smith. "I think that the housecleaning has been done. I like Keith Gilbertson a lot, and none of this was his fault... It will be very interesting to see who Washington brings in as their next coach."

I then asked her to comment on the biggest surprise of this season in the Pac-10.

"The thing that has surprised me most is how competitive Cal has been. I didn't know that they were that good. They took USC to the wire. And coach Jeff Tedford has done a great job turning that program around. He took those kids who went 1-10, and made Kyle Boller a first round draft pick and brought the program recognition. In three seasons Tedford has Cal ranked in the top 5… I don't know how recruiting is going for Washington right now, but if they were to bring in Tedford, that would give Washington (a shot in the arm)."

While I spoke with Smith, she had just returned from the University of Georgia where she interviewed former Bulldog coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, in a segment that will air soon on ESPN. I asked her who has proven to be the most interesting interview she's had this season. She paused a moment to reflect.

"Well, since Kobe Bryant isn't talking to me anymore, it won't be him," said Smith. "I had asked him if he still had the respect of his teammates (after several incidents of inner-team conflict). He became upset and now refuses to talk to me. So it won't be Kobe who's the most interesting interview this year.

"But I would say that the interview that I just had with Vince Dooley was one of the more interesting interviews I have had this year," she said. "He had great stories, he's a gifted story teller, and still has a great memory. He IS Georgia football. He was their long-time football coach and then athletic director. It's a shame that they pushed him out the way they did."

A few years ago Shelley Smith collaborated with former USC Trojan and current Dallas Cowboy Keyshawn Johnson, to write Just Give me the Damn Ball. I had to ask her what it was like working with Johnson.

"Keyshawn was with the Jets and it was a horrible year, the Jets were 1-15," said Smith. "It was miserable trying to get him to talk, like pulling teeth. For material, at times I had to eavesdrop into his conversations, and in some twisted way I enjoyed that whole process of working with him despite the terrible season they were having. I love athletes who speak their mind. We all complain about athletes that are full of clichés, but when there is an athlete who says what he thinks and isn't worried about being politically correct, we in the media turn around and rip him for it.

"It was a lot better when Parcells was there the next year," continued Smith. "When the Jets got to the AFC Championship game, we were going to do one extra chapter for the book if they beat Denver to go to the Super Bowl. But they lost that game. It would have been better for the book to have it end on a more positive note like that, I think it would have also been better received."

Smith discussed the public's misperception of Keyshawn Johnson, starting from when he worked as a helper at practices for the USC Trojans at the age of 11.

"The guy hasn't done anything bad," she said. "He doesn't get into trouble and doesn't do drugs. A lot of people aren't aware of the upbringing that he had. There was a point where he and his mother lived in their car and slept at the cemetery because there were never any (shootings) there. And while he was (a helper) with USC at age 11, he would get a plate of food, and then bring an extra plate out to his Mom in the car in the parking lot so she could eat too… There is a lot more to his story than the perception that many people have of him."

Smith has just had another book published, this time collaborating with New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards. It is called You Play to Win the Game. It is published by McGrado-Hill and can be found on Amazon.com.

As our conversation reached its conclusion, I asked Smith whom she would favor to win, should Oklahoma and USC square off for the national championship in this year's Orange Bowl.

"You have to remember that I went to the University of Nebraska, and we HATE Oklahoma," said Smith with a laugh. "So I could never pick them… But in looking at the two teams, they are both so evenly matched, that it would come down to who slept well the night before, who ate well the night before, etc. USC probably has a bit more depth, and they have Reggie Bush, who is one of the most exciting players in the country. So I'd have to go with USC."
Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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