Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tribute to the Guru

Guru's Note: Two can play the revealing secrets game. Kate won't tell you, but word has arrived from the Banks of the Raritan that she received an "A" for making yours truly her class project in the work she shares below. -- Mel.

(Updated Thurs, April. 27, to reflect a few quotes that were significant, but arrived after my class deadline, and to clarify the chronological history somewhat in a few minor areas.)

Hey everybody... this is Kate... for my News Reporting class here at Rutgers I had to do a profile piece on anyone I chose, and I wrote about Mel. I spoke to several people and I feel like I put together a pretty good account of some of the things he has done. I know there are more and I obviously could have gone on forever, but here's what I came up with.

Mel Greenberg Profile

By Kate Burkholder

At the 2006 women’s basketball Final Four at the beginning of April in Boston, Mel Greenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer smiled and shook hands with everyone around him.

That may be because Greenberg knows just about everyone there is to know in the women’s college basketball world, and everyone knows him. This year – the 25th anniversary of the women’s NCAA tournament – was the 25th tournament Greenberg had covered, and he is believed to be the only media member to have seen them all.

As the founder of the Associated Press women’s poll, he is, according to many, the Women’s Basketball Guru.

Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia on a street mostly inhabited by females, the early years of Mel Greenberg’s life were not so focused on talking sports or playing in the street all hours of the day like many city kids.

Instead, Greenberg recalls trips to the movies and hanging out with the neighborhood girls as early childhood memories, while still developing a sense of obligation to love all the Philadelphia sports teams.

But with a passion for journalism and a handful of twists and turns along the way, Greenberg’s media coverage of women’s basketball has – in the last three decades – made him the sport’s biggest contributor, as he has built the women’s Associated Press Top-25 poll from the ground up and made it possible for decades of women to compete.

“People said I was nuts,” Greenberg said. “But this was just the game I knew, although it was being played by women, and I wanted to make it easier (to cover and follow) for everybody who came after me.”

As a student at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Greenberg took a journalism course and became interested in the different style of writing, and soon enrolled in the journalism program at nearby Temple University.

With his moderate interest in local sports, Greenberg and some friends decided to start a booster club to cheer for the Owls, and in his junior year at Temple Greenberg became a team manager for the men’s basketball team to “provide a connection between the team and the club.”

In 1969, Greenberg’s senior year of college, the Temple Owls men’s team found its way into the newspapers by winning the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) against Boston College.

Though Greenberg didn’t know it at the time, it was the same day that the local West Chester women’s basketball team was in the process of winning the first all-collegiate women’s tournament, and while the soon-to-be graduate was spending the day cheering for his victorious Temple team and planning to embark on a life devoid of basketball upon his upcoming graduation, his future life was unfolding about 30 miles away.

The summer after college, Greenberg waited patiently for a journalism job to appear. When he saw an ad for a copy boy at the Philadelphia Inquirer in September 1969, he took the job and the very next day became an editorial assistant on the business page section at the paper in what he called “the fastest promotion in history.”

Still a regular at Temple men’s games in the early 1970s, the Owls Sports Information Director asked Greenberg to drive cheerleaders to games, what he jokingly considers his first introduction to women’s sports.

When the then-sports editor of the Inquirer asked Greenberg to bring a typewriter to games the newspaper wasn’t staffing, he slowly found his way into high school basketball coverage and then into the women’s college game with the uprising of local Imamculata University as a women’s basketball powerhouse in the early days.

Greenberg's early work was under the anonymous byline "Special to The Inquirer," although enough veterans at the paper will tell you that now as the second highest newsroom writer ranking in seniority, he really has been special, but that's a story for another day.

His first Inquirer byline with his name appeared in 1975 in the preseason baseball guide.

With the passage of Title IX in 1972, newspapers became more interested in covering the women’s game and when Greenberg covered his earliest games he recalled, “I certainly could follow the action, and the team was loaded with personality.”

In the Fall of 1975, Greenberg became formally involved covering the the women's game when Jay Searcy arrived from the New York Times to become the Inquirer's sports editor. (Ironically, Searcy is now retired and living in Knoxville where he frequently attends Tennessee women's games).

Having written a women's sports column at the Times, Searcy thought the young, boyish-looking Greenberg was the perfect foil to continue his own work in the Inquirer. In fact, Greenberg always says, the concept of starting a poll was Searcy's idea.

"Intially, I told him he was nuts because there was no source material to do one with any credibility," Greenberg recalled. "But he was insistent, and for a bunch of reasons, the following spring (1976), I decided, `Why not.' "

Greenberg worked all summer selecting coaches, setting up information streams, to produce the first poll -- initially a Top 20 ranking -- on November 25, 1976. The Inquirer headline over the rankings read: "Move Over Guys, Here Comes Another Poll." The weekly listings expanded to a Top 25 ranking for the 1989-90 season.

Two years after Greenberg's first rankings, The Associated Press approached him about using his work and soon thereafter the organization's name officially went on top of Greenberg's poll.

Meanwhile, other than inside the sports department, staffers in the newsroom had little idea that Greenberg was in the formative stages of making an important historical impact on the sport. However, when a story on Greenberg appeared in Editor & Publisher magazine at the end of the poll’s first season in existence, the young writer’s claim to fame began.

Before the advent of the internet, putting together the ranking system as he envisioned it was exhausting.

“Nothing about it was x’s and o’s,” Greenberg said. “I knew that good journalism was going to make this work, and not because I’m just some basketball fanatic.”

It was a process that required hours on the telephone with coaches all over the country, trying to get his hands on scores, schedules, and any other piece of information that would help put together a fair team ranking system while working with a voting board of coaches.

It was a way for the collegiate athletes to measure their success against others, and gave them something to play for. There was no internet and no one specific place all the information could be found.

That’s where Greenberg came in.

“Every Sunday night, we looked forward to the phone calls and the reports from Radio Free Mel,” said current Penn State head coach Rene Portland, a member of the voting board in the late-1970s.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Greenberg’s poll had grown into a nationally recognized publication at the same time that better athletes were making their way onto the scene. The poll made it easier for newspapers to cover the sport as it began to grow.

Greenberg’s work called for the hiring of more and more Sports Information Directors on the women’s side, as the need for more expansive coverage was taking shape. He frequently appeared on radio shows and was the go-to guy for anyone with a women’s basketball question.

As technology advanced, compiling the weekly poll went from “a two-day to a two-hour” process, giving him more time for his writing.

In the summer of 1994, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) made a deal with USA Today to create another poll. According to Greenberg, the move made it impossible to continue in what had been an 18-year labor of love because he felt duplicate coaches polls would foul the waters.

At the same time, however, the Associated Press was ready to operate the poll in-house with writers. Greenberg helped the transition, became a voting member, and continued to remain in cahoots with AP because of his wealth of history, compiling weekly women’s basketball round-ups along the way.

“Actually, my groupies were more bent out of shape than I [was], because I was actually going to be free to go out and write on Sundays,” Greenberg said. “Besides, by then my reputation was established and I didn’t need to be known as a ballot-counter to maintain it. The SID’s were always going to be with me, whatever I did.”

All the while through the years, Greenberg was holding other jobs at the Inquirer in the sports department and in the features section. In the 1990s, his main task was filing Inquirer stories to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. (Knight Ridder, whose chain of newspapers, including the Inquirer, was recently sold, had been the parent firm. At this writing the new Inquirer owner is unknown.).

"Of course, one perk in working with the KRT wire was I was also able to send my own stuff to the world, even when the Inquirer was chopping the same copy here," Greenberg said with a laugh. "It also made me popular among my colleagues since I was the main gateway to get their work distributed around the country."

Because of the attention the rise of Connecticut brought to the sport in the mid-1990s, Inquirer newsroom management realized the women's beat had to be its own animal for many reasons.

The WNBA was starting in the summer of 1997. The American Basketball League team in Richmond, which featured Dawn Staley, was being transferred to Philadelphia.

Most importantly, Philadelphia was going to host the Women's Final Four in 2000, so the advance tracking of the event in the Inquirer sports section had to have a full-time person paying attention to everything.

Besides, technology was such that editors felt Greenberg could now drop his 20 or so other jobs without fear of the paper going under. One of those jobs, incidentally, was driving the Inquirer's Pulitzer Prize entries at the last second every Feb. 1 to Columbia University in New York.

"I had more notoriety in-house for the Pulitzer dash than the poll," Greenberg laughed.

When the city hosted the Women's Final Four in 2000, it became known as The Mel Greenberg Tournament, accompanying the namesake Mel Greenberg Award (formerly the WBCA Media Award) that came about in 1991.

The award annually honors “a member of the media who has best displayed a commitment to women’s basketball and to advancing the role of the media in the women’s game,” according to WBCA.org. Greenberg was the first recipient.

Mechelle Voepel, staff writer for the Kansas City Star and regular contributor to ESPN.com, won the Greenberg Award in 2003, and is one of the many people who considers Greenberg a role model for what he has given to the sport and to people like herself.

“I can remember reading things Mel wrote when I was in junior high,” Voepel said. “He was such an influential figure because he was, for a while, the only one. His name was ingrained in my head from the first time I thought about the idea of coverage in women’s sports.”

Voepel said she read Greenberg’s work all throughout college and when she made the decision to become a sportswriter she knew there was one thing she had to do.

“In 1995 I finally went up to Mel and said, ‘I have to tell you how important your work was to me,’” Voepel said. “I told him I knew who he was all this time and when there was nothing else out there. Some people in this business aren’t very friendly to younger reporters starting out, but he was the opposite. He was always willing to help out, and that’s just indicative of who he is and how much he wants to promote this sport.”

In addition to his national reputation on the collegiate and pro women's beat, Greenberg is also locally reponsible for women’s basketball programs such as Temple, Villanova, and Rutgers during their seasons.

He has also been seen covering Drexel men's games. "My gender-equity training for the paper," Greenberg smiled.

In the summer, Greenberg travels along the WNBA seaboard cities, covering the New York Liberty, Washington Mystics, and Connecticut Sun, where he is more likely to be found in one of the casino's mega number of restaurants instead of at the slot machines and roulette tables.

“Mel was always armed with a smile and a great deal of passion for the game,” said Donna Orender, current president of the WNBA and former collegiate athlete at Queens College. “He derived personal joy from being the one in the know, and the one all of us players felt comfortable around.”

In addition, he has contributed to the coverage of USA Basketball – the national and Olympic teams at all levels – promoting women’s basketball internationally as well in the United States.

Former WNBA president Val Ackerman, now president of USA Basketball, recognized Greenberg's contributions to the wide spectrum of the game.

"He's almost sacred," Ackerman said. "He's our historian and almost an institution in this game because he has seen it evolve. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge."

"Nowadays there are many polls out there but at that time it was one, it was the Mel Greenberg women's basketball poll. If you were reading the sports pages no matter where you were, that was Mel's poll."

Ackerman's current USA Basketball colleague has known Greenberg for a shorter period of time, but has taken notice of his work at all levels.

“Aside from the poll and bringing a driving force behind the sport, he has promoted women’s basketball on the national level,” said Caroline Williams, Communications Director for USA Basketball and former member of the Sports Information Department at George Mason University. “He has helped keep the national teams at the forefront and in the spotlight at times when I have had to beg and plead to get things.”

As for his original claim to women’s hoops stardom, the Associated Press poll and others such as USA-Today and ESPN polls are still integral parts of the women’s game and its coverage.

The Inquirer’s current deputy sports editor, John Quinn, has only worked with Greenberg for the last couple of years, but as a long-time women’s basketball fan and media contributor, Quinn knows all about Greenberg’s impact.

“This is a guy who’s kind of just always there, he rubs elbows with the rich and famous and drives people like [Tennessee head coach] Pat Summitt to the airport and goes to parties with these people,” Quinn said. “He really leads two lives, because in this life he is a normal person putting out a newspaper every day, and in that other life he is a renowned hero to a lot of people who have a lot to thank him for.

“It’s not necessarily a given that today there are women’s basketball players and women’s basketball writers. There is a lot that we take for granted.”

Greenberg continues to work as a staff writer in his 36th year at the Inquirer, where he also appears at the paper's Philly.com internet site.

His work continues to be carried by the KRT News Service, and he now has his own blog ("Whether I like it or not," he laughs), appropriately titled Womhoops Guru and can be found at womhoops.blogspot.com, showcasing his awareness of the importance of the internet as an information source.

In the journey of encouraging the growth of the game itself as well as the media coverage that has fueled it, to be involved in women’s basketball today is to know Mel Greenberg for what he has done: building a sport and a family of those who love it, from what was once nothing at all.

“Sometimes I walk outside and think, ‘Wow, that was a really good story,’” Greenberg said of the simple day-to-day newspaper business. “When I started and looked at the years ahead, I just figured at some point I would do something else. When I asked my friend [New York Daily News writer] Dick Weiss if he thought I would be doing this 20 years later, he said yes.

“And here we are 30-something years later.”


Anonymous Carol Anne said...

Now that Penn State has (finally!) reprimanded Rene Portland for her discriminatory practices, it's high time Mel Greenberg commented.

7:44 AM  
Blogger VP19 said...

I was sports editor of the Diamondback (University of Maryland student paper) in 1976-77, and we were one of the first outlets carrying Mel's poll -- although many on campus wondered what the fuss was all about. It was a strange mix in those days, as big-name colleges such as Maryland, N.C. State, LSU and UCLA were considered the interlopers against the elite of Montclair State, Wayland Baptist, Immaculata and Delta State. Heck, the ACC didn't have an official women's tournament until 1977-78, and regular-season conference play only occurred a few years later. Boy, things have changed.

3:19 AM  
Blogger Kris Gardner said...

Great article, Kate! We spoke a few tiimes in Boston while working on stories.

I've admired Mel for quite a while for all the time, energy, and passion he's expended to cover and promote women's basketball.

I'm hoping to follow in his footsteps and promote women's hoops here in Houston, TX -- besides just the Houston Comets, of course.

I look forward to working with you and Mel in the near future. Take care and continue the great work.

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