Dan Verdun is a 1988 Eastern Illinois University graduate and holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Northern Illinois University. Dan Verdun and his writing partner Barry Bottino are two people who can honestly claim that they were present for the final EIU games of Sean Payton, Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo (all playoff losses). Even better he says… “I can claim a friendship with Clint Bays that dates back to student days at EIU.” We talked to Dan today.
CCS: Tell us about your writing experience and memories at EIU with the Daily Eastern News.
Verdun: If it weren’t for the journalism classes I took at Eastern and especially the experience I gained working at the Daily Eastern News, none of what I have accomplished in my writing career would have been possible. I have incredible memories of EIU, the Charleston and Mattoon communities. College was a vital turning point in my life, a time that I grew in ways I never could have imagined. Getting back to the DEN, it’s amazing to see where the people I worked with on a daily basis landed in journalism and in life.
CCS: What was your favorite story when writing for the DEN, and why?
Verdun: Not sure I can pick a favorite, but I always enjoyed writing feature stories. To me, that’s where you move beyond the headline and really get to the human aspect of the games and events. It was also a joy to cover a regular beat and really get to know the coaches and players on a given team. I’m also grateful that I covered a variety of sports and teams because it’s not just all about the “revenue” sports like football and basketball.
CCS: Talk about your career once you graduated EIU.
Verdun: After graduation I began a teaching career. Actually my student teaching and coaching experience at Casey-Westfield Junior-Senior High School led to my first job at Martinsville. From there I taught a year at a Catholic grade school (where I did everything including eating lunch with the kids); I taught and coached for nine years in Earlville, which is north of Ottawa. Since 1999, I have taught social studies and language arts in Indian Prairie District 204 in Naperville. During all that time I continued to write in a variety of forms, mainly occasional newspaper or online stories and then with my books on college football program histories in Illinois.
CCS: What athlete have you covered that was the most accessible and best interview?
Verdun: This is tough question because nearly every athlete that I covered has given freely of his or her time. During my time at Eastern there were always those “go-to” players when you needed a quote or some insight. Looking back over 30 years, one of the best was Kevin Duckworth, who went to have a lengthy career in the NBA. He was always open and honest and friendly, even after a tough loss. I also remember that he predicted Cleveland State’s upset over Indiana in the 1986 NCAA Tournament by the exact margin just days before it happened! I will also say that covering women’s sports was a real pleasure because the players usually gave you some very thoughtful responses to questions. Oftentimes, their answers were much better than what male athletes offered.
With my books, I really enjoyed the guys who had been away from their playing days for decades and had established lives in other walks of life. They seemed to have great perspectives on things and I always seemed to learn something from them that hopefully I passed on to readers. Bob Spoo and Joe Novak were two of the absolute best. Tim Carver was terrific.
CCS: What athlete was not great to interview
Verdun: With my books, no one was difficult because they all were excited about the project. When I did my first book on Northern Illinois I managed to track down longtime NFL defensive lineman Hollis Thomas. I got him on the phone, but he told me he was watching the NBA playoffs and that he’d call me back later. He never did, and my follow-up calls went unanswered so I figured Hollis must have better things to do than talk to me.
Back in my Eastern News days covering men’s basketball, Jon Collins was an incredible scorer (and later Denver Nuggets’ draft pick), but he didn’t talk to anyone. It wasn’t anything malicious, Jon just didn’t talk. That made the beat a bit difficult, but guys like Kevin Duckworth and Doug Crook made up for it.
CCS: You have written 4 books – talk about your writing process?
Verdun: My writing always started with the interviews. I’d start with some research about each coach or athlete or team and prepare my questions accordingly. Then I’d be prepared to listen. The best interviews were conversations that were free-flowing. It didn’t always stick to a script. From there, I’d review everything and verify it (and then double-check). Then, I’d start the actual writing. I’d always have someone else take a look at it as well. Barry Bottino, my good friend from EIU days, was always perfect for this. He and I do the Prairie State Pigskin blog together. Barry is a gifted writer and a very thorough editor. I must say that the sports information directors were invaluable. They went out of their way to help me with my book projects, whether it was getting me photos or tracking down former players or just offering insight or advice. Eastern has been very blessed with the likes of Dave Kidwell and Rich Moser.
CCS: What did you learn while writing books about college football in Illinois?
Verdun: I learned plenty. Wasn’t it John Wooden who said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”?
CCS: Is Western Illinois next?
Verdun: Yes, it’s basically written. Macomb native and former WIU legend Red Miller wrote a foreword for me prior to his death a few years ago. The problem has been the financial hardships that the university presses I have used for my previous books are facing. I’ve considered self-publishing, but with two kids on the verge of college that may not be feasible.
CCS: Journalism is taking a lot of heat right now – your thoughts?
Verdun: It certainly has. I’ll quote Thomas Jefferson here, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” That’s certainly true at our national and state levels, but also vital at our local levels.
CCS: Advice to up and coming journalists?
Verdun: My advice is to jump in and gain as much experience as you can. Listen to those who offer advice. Gain as much knowledge as you can as well. Cover a variety of things. There’s no such things as just covering games. You’ve got to know about finances and budgets, the courts, politics, and history–you name it. Read as much as you can. Work to develop your weaknesses and work your behind off. Yes, make what you do stand out, but just as important, gain that consistent experience any way that you can. You won’t start out on top, and if you’re fortunate to get there, it’s not a given that you will remain there.
CCS: When do you think we will have sports again?
Verdun: It’s going to be awhile. No one can give a definitive answer because there are so many factors. First and foremost is the safety of all. I love sports, but it pales in comparison to what’s going on in the world. Sports will return and we will rejoice, but there are far bigger factors at play here.
CCS: Dream team that you would love to cover.
Verdun: I know it’s a daily grind, but it would be fun to cover a Major League Baseball team through an entire season. If time travel truly existed, it would be a blast to go back and cover and up-and-coming team as it developed. All that said, I much prefer college sports to the pros.
CCS: Prairie State pigskin is your football blog, talk about it.
Verdun: It’s available for free simply by doing a Google search. It’s done through Chicago Now. Barry Bottino and I cover the four FCS programs in the state–EIU, ISU, SIU and WIU. There are so many great stories. During the season, we produce copy virtually every day and as often as we can in the offseason. Our strengths are our feature stories. Barry wrote two of our best last season: one on Brady Davis, the ISU quarterback who is married to a very supportive wife and the other was about some WIU players in the school’s nursing program. There are archives of our previous stories available on the website. With all due respect, not all football revolves around the U of I and Northwestern.
CCS: How often do you get back to EIU?
Verdun: A few times a year. Normally I’d be down for the spring game and usually come in the summer or for fall camp. We also try to cover an FCS game in person every other week in the fall, which usually brings us to O’Brien Field a couple of times. There’s nothing better than a stroll through campus to rekindle memories of those wonderful days from the past.
CCS: Who would you love to interview in the sports world?
Verdun: That’s a great question. For me it’s probably someone from my youth . . . someone like Dick Allen, Brooks Robinson, Dale Murphy, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Westphal or Ronnie Lott. I would have loved to have interviewed John Wooden before he passed. From an Eastern standpoint I was never able to get in touch with Tony Romo because he was still playing with the Cowboys when I was working on the book. Would love to interview him for the blog.
CCS: Can sports exist for long without fans in the stands?
Verdun: Yes, but it definitely won’t be the same. Financially, TV money really supports sports, but there’s nothing like that game-day experience. I also really feel for the stadium staff who depend on that income to support themselves and their families.
CCS: Who are your mentors in the journalism world?
Verdun: Indirectly it’s anyone that I read either growing up or read now. Directly, my professors and fellow student journalists at Eastern were instrumental in my development.
CCS: What was your favorite late night spot while attending EIU?
Verdun: Living in Douglas Hall for three years, it’s hard to top Marty’s. Add to the fact that a number of athletes worked there during my EIU days. Then there were the trips uptown to places like Roc’s and Mother’s. I was sad to hear that Mom’s burned down a couple of years ago.
Here is a link to Dan Verdun’s pigskin link: http://www.chicagonow.com/prairie-state-pigskin/about/