Thursday, April 04, 2013

Interview With Neal Coolong of Behind The Steel Curtain

When I announced that there would not be a Best Pittsburgh Sports Blog Tournament this year, I wrote that I wanted to interview my favorite former and current Pittsburgh bloggers. Last week, I shared my interview with Cotter of One For The Other Thumb. Today, I'm proud to present my interview with Neal Coolong of the amazing Pittsburgh Steelers blog, Behind The Steel Curtain. Enjoy!

I believe that Behind The Steel Curtain precedes you. When and how did you start writing at BTSC?

Sort of a long, dumb story, but I got out of the newspaper business around 2005, but never lost the love of writing. Looking back on it, I think my real passion was reporting, which is why I think Behind The Steel Curtain has more of a news feel, but you don't really get much (read: no) access writing for a blog. I caught on with Steelers Fever, but it was more of a message board, which I didn't like. It didn't have that instant publishing ability I really wanted.

I moved to Philadelphia in 2007 for a job within the company I worked for in Minneapolis, and I couldn't get out of my lease, so I was paying rent in two places, and had maybe $100 to spare each month. Not that it was much of a change, but I basically spent my free time watching TV and movies, and wanted to do more writing. I got hooked up with a blog network that has since been shut down, along with it, a site called Die Hard Steel. I had no experience writing something that would be published immediately and without any kind of editorial oversight, and I absolutely loved it. I found myself writing four or five posts a day, and the reaction was pretty good. Steel City Insider publisher Jim Wexell reached out to me that summer, and I eventually would write a weekly match-ups column for him - something I still do.

For reasons that still haven't been explained to me to this day, the network's owner shut it down after the 2007 season (that asshole still owes me money too). I tried starting my own blog in 2008, but I didn't have the SEO knowledge or the design ability to make it look the way I wanted, or marketable at all, so I scrapped that idea. I had since moved back to Minneapolis for another job with the same company, and sort of a crisis situation with the job put me in Columbus, Ohio, for five weeks. I only had my work laptop as I lived in a Marriott Courtyard with a tube TV and basic cable.

I was pretty much going insane.

On a whim, I had come across a Request For Writers post on Behind The Steel Curtain from Founder Michael Bean. I responded, thinking "why the hell not?" Bean got back to me, said he remembered Die Hard Steel and brought me on board.

I wrote for the rest of the glorious season of 2008, and I've been there ever since.

Bean eventually was hired by the parent company of BTSC, SB Nation and Vox Media, as a network manager and video producer, so they gave me the editor job around February of 2012. I inherited a great staff and a great following, and I'm proud to say my main job is maintaining the most widely read Steelers site on the internet, and a phenomenally talented staff of writers. We produce lots of fresh and original content for a knowledgeable community with a sense of history.

How did you become a Steelers fan?

My family is all from Pittsburgh. I lived there as a young kid, but my parents were born and raised there. My mom's from Crafton (grew up down the street from Bill Cowher, and family rumor is my uncle, who's a few years older than Cowher, wouldn't let him play in the neighborhood pick-up football games because he was too small. Cowher also mowed my great aunt's lawn). My dad's from the North Side, and was coached by Dan Rooney in pee-wee football.

My dad's work transferred him to Texas and eventually Minnesota, where I spent my formative years. I started becoming "football aware" probably around 11 or 12, but my house was pretty baseball-oriented. I played a lot more baseball growing up than football, and the NFL was at a point where you really only could see teams outside your market on either Sunday Night or Monday Night football. The Steelers weren't all that great back then, so it was only a few times a year they'd be on nationally. It was a big deal in our house when they were, though, and I remember getting to stay up late to watch them.

My mom tells stories about how entrenched I'd get in watching a football game when I was an infant; the same thing my wife rips on me for a few decades later. But it wasn't until the creation of DirecTV and NFL Sunday Ticket around the early 90s that I really got into Steelers football. I followed the team in the newspapers and on ESPN, but I was more of a fan of individual players than teams. I loved "The Posse" in Washington (Gary Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders), and the K-Gun offense in Buffalo. I really loved Lawrence Taylor and Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, John Elway in Denver and of course, the Great Jerry Rice.

But I never really subscribed to a defense until we found a Steelers bar in St. Paul and aired every Steelers game.

EVERY Steelers game. I no longer had to wait for a primetime game. My naive affinity for offensive players shrunk hugely when I learned about Blitzburgh and saw Bill Cowher screaming at officials and cramming pictures confirming there was 11 men on the field into the pockets of officials. I saw Greg Lloyd and was absolutely terrified, but I soon learned the awesome feeling every die-hard fan has; he makes the bad guys scared. He's on MY team. Kevin Greene came in with his rock 'n roll hair outward personality, and Levon Kirkland who looked far too big to be as fast as he was.

I died a little when Dennis Gibson knocked that pass down. I died more when my name was forever ruined because of that moron O'Donnell. Then there was Bettis, Slash, Yancey Thigpen and the same swarming defense undone by Elway's 90 mph fastball that caught Shannon Sharpe on third and long.

For Steelers fans of my generation, we dealt only with heartbreak caused from multiple instances of being on the wrong end of playoff upsets.

None was worse than 2001, though. That loss to New England would probably be at the top of my all-time worst list. I still get a pang of sickness when I see replays of that. We saw lots of winning years after that, and I think of those years when we lose a bit like we are now, but more than anything, I'd say my fandom was forced in painful defeats, only to achieve the one true sign of success in sports.

The fans of every team in the NFL hate us. I love it.

Is it difficult being a fan while watching the game? Specifically, can you enjoy watching the game or are you constantly thinking about blog posts and topics for the day/week based on the game?

Interesting question. Haven't really thought of it that way, but to be honest, it's probably more like the other way around now - the writing comes first, fandom comes second. I probably have to take pause at least a few times each game to try to enjoy it. I'm constantly texting with my brother or emailing writers about different things to prepare for an article. In a perfect world, I'm watching the game as a fan; it feels almost like a reward for a long week of analysis of the previous game and previewing the coming game. It's nice to just let things happen and react instead of trying to produce content. But it's really hard to turn the reporter off, even if I haven't purely reported in close to a decade now.

Truth be told, though, the postgame analysis stuff is never really hard. There's always a bunch of storylines, and BTSC has such a great community, there are hundreds of comments on my postgame article (which I don't think anyone ever reads) and oftentimes you can pull story ideas from that.

Top to bottom, fan or reporter, the thing I've loved all these years about football is the fact there is so much that happens over 60 minutes of game time. Even people who dedicate 14 hours a day to watching one team can't fully tell everything. Much of this stuff writes itself if you know what to look for. I really enjoy the challenge of flipping between analyst and fan, though, and BTSC has always focused on hitting both of those markets. The things I set up with our analysis writers require a different interpretation of things than what I set up with my feature writers.

Long rant short, I guess the answer is I really can't be one and not the other anymore. Even when the Steelers aren't playing, and I watch Vikings games with my buddies, I'm analyzing Christian Ponder, but am shrieking like a little kid when Adrian Peterson gets to the second level. There's a balance, and I haven't perfected it, but I know each day I learn something new about this game, and that's always been the motivating factor behind what I do.

How you ever received any feedback on BTSC from the Steelers organization or any individual player?

Both on and off the record, yes. Most recently, I made some critical comments about OG Doug Legursky after the team's loss to Denver last year (I think it was Denver, maybe Tennessee?). He wasn't exactly pleased by those comments. He said I was stupid, which, of course, I am. I offered him an interview to clear the air. He declined, which is unfortunate. I have thick skin and by no means do I feel I'm an expert. I'm not patting myself on the back at all, because that exposure to the game has only taught me that I don't know anything about it. I'm always eager to learn and I would have loved to have heard why Mr. Legursky felt his performance in either of those games wasn't below standard as I felt it was.

There have been others, but I promised confidentiality. Some feedback has been good, but as any writer knows, they're always going to be ripped by those who are playing or coaching. And perhaps fairly so. If I rip them, I promise a full opportunity to air their side and rip me if they so choose. Readers deserve that. I don't want to hide behind the curtain, so to speak.

A few of them pointed out a few glaring misses I made. Again, more learning opportunities, and I try to remember (even though I often fail) humility when analyzing an extremely complicated game.

Do you ever get to travel for your work at BTSC or like the rest of us bloggers, are you stuck writing on your basement couch?

I've had opportunities, but to be honest, I've passed on them more times than not. The excitement of attending something live as part of a media source, and having that access is no doubt alluring, and something I would exploit perhaps more often than not if I had offers consistently. But it comes down to a general vision.

As a publication, where are we going? Where are we trying to go? We don't break news, we're not here to compete with the guys who's paychecks depend on getting those scoops. What is having that access going to do? It's good to have here and there for the sake of variety, but in the end, I don't think it gives us more than just a way to have what we hope is our pure, unfiltered opinion distracted by the subject.

A very Bill Simmons-esque mentality, which, ironically, is a good reminder I shouldn't take myself so seriously.

My overall point is the hardest thing for a blogger, or an internet writer, or whatever we're called nowadays, is to remember his/her place. That isn't meant to be negative, but it's safe to say no website-only publication can compete with the Mark Kabolys or the Ed Bouchettes or the Jim Wexells of the local media scene. The space we try to fill is simply in the analysis of the news. Opinion. Discussion. We can control our ability to react quickly and provide insightful analysis of news that breaks, but attempting to be on the front line of that news just doesn't fit. It's not who we are.

One might simply say I don't get paid enough to do that, but that's another argument for another day.

Consistency is the most crucial aspect of success of a writer in our space. You have to see the news, but you have to be committed to writing more than just headlines. Your copy has to be tight and interesting. It's hard enough to write out a high volume of content while focusing on quality without pretending to be Adam Schefter looking to "break" news about practice squad signings. One might argue your quality suffers if you don't focus on it, and none of us are credible enough to not focus on quality.

And I write on a chair in my living room, I'll have you know. Sometimes, I move onto the deck. The basement days are long gone, my friend. I've obviously moved up!

The time between the draft and start of training camp is probably the slowest of the year for you. Is it difficult to write during this time? Do you find that you'd like to write about some non-football topics (ex. Pittsburgh Pirates or some random TV show) during this time instead of having to write about football and the Steelers?

That stretch of time, maybe about two weeks after the draft until minicamp, then right after minicamps to training camp, yeah, there's usually nothing to write about. The front office and beat writers take vacations, players are nowhere to be found, and if anything, the news that breaks on the team isn't going to be good.

I think the idea surrounding "writing about football" can be fairly loosely interpreted, too. Last year, we did a running feature drafting an all-time 7-on-7 flag football team of Steelers players. Me and two other writers drafted teams of 10 based on the common rules of flag football.

There was no particular reason to run it, it had absolutely no news value and the picks themselves were even a little suspect, but we had fun doing it, the community interacted and we fit our basic goal of providing interesting insight with a sense of history.

Not gonna lie, there are plenty of times I feel like writing about something non-Steelers-related would be a nice change of pace, but those times are the most important to stay on task. Again, it's just about using some creativity and coming up with something fun. It's easy to sit back and make lists about everything, and it's even easier to continue to try to force "it could happen" news stories on your readers like some other sites do. We just try to find a middle ground between those two things, and take some creative chances with topics.

We have a very talented writing staff, and we brainstorm feature ideas frequently. We're not trying to pander to the audience and just run stuff because we can, but we're looking to get outside the box and try to showcase that talent in a broader spectrum of the team. We did a feature last year (I think it was last year) on the Pirates earning their place back into the Pittsburgh sports community. We based it around attending games in each stadium/venue, and how vastly different, yet very similar, those experiences are. It made for a good read, and while it's not directly associated with Steelers news, I think any site that's worth the time of an intelligent fan needs to focus on those kinds of stories. We don't want to be a site where our content is formulated solely from what's on Twitter, we want to actually create a compelling product.

Thanks to Neal for taking the time to provide really thorough responses to my questions. Make sure to read Behind The Steel Curtain daily, if not multiple times per day. You can also follow BTSC and Neal himself on Twitter.

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