Rooting for the story: Q&A with Stanford professor and Cal alumnus Gary Pomerantz

When communications professor Gary Pomerantz watches the Big Game, he does not root for the teams — he roots for the story.

As an accomplished sports writer who has covered the NFL for The Washington Post — in addition to multiple Super Bowls, World Series, Rose Bowls and Wimbledons — Pomerantz knows sports. 

The Stanford Daily’s Cate Peters spoke with Pomerantz for an expert sports writer’s take on the Big Game. With UC Berkeley as his alma mater and Stanford as his current school, Pomerantz provides insight into the Big Game, its history and how sports at Stanford are bigger than just any single game.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): The Big Game is approaching next weekend. As a Cal graduate, what was your favorite Big Game moment from your undergrad years?

Gary Pomerantz (GP): I was the sports editor of The Daily Californian, the school paper, in 1980. It was my sophomore year, and Cal had a poor football team. They finished 3-8 that year and played against Stanford and won … it was an upset.

I was swept up by this great rivalry. One of the great things about this rivalry is, oftentimes, it doesn’t really mean anything in terms of one of the teams or both teams going to a bowl game. It’s bragging rights in the Bay Area and, you know, that gives us a sense of fun to it.

TSD: Standing on the other side of the rivalry now as a professor at Stanford, how would you say the experience and your connection with the Big Game is different?

GP: When one of my students is on the field, I’m the biggest fan they’ve got in the stadium. I’ve had a few football players in my class through the years — Richard Sherman and Coby Fleener, who went on to have productive careers in the NFL, were in my class. When a student’s in my class, that trumps any connection to the alma mater.

TSD: Connections to players and the teams in general are key to what makes this game so meaningful. Can you elaborate on some of your personal ties to Big Game history?

GP: I remember when I was a young sports writer in 1982. I was at the Post, and … I said to my editor, “I got a feature story I’d like to pitch to you.” And he said, “Sure, what is it?” I said, “I want to write a feature on John Elway.” And he said, memorably, “Who’s that?”

Elway, Stanford’s star quarterback at the time, of course, lost the most famous, or infamous, Big Game in history. Everyone has to know at Stanford and Cal about The Play. I mean, The Play is just outrageous. You know, I’ve gotten to know Gary Terrell, the trombone player who got run over, a wonderful guy. I covered Kevin Moen a couple of years before that when he was playing for Cal — he scored the touchdown on the play. I was moderating a discussion about The Play last year at Stanford with Tyler Bridges, who wrote a book about The Play, “Five Laterals and a Trombone.” And that’s the beauty of the rivalry — a lot of unexpected things have happened.

TSD: The spectacle is certainly part of the fun — and Cal’s shocking comeback play in 1982 was definitely one of those memorable moments. Talking about football more generally, tell me about your experience publishing a book on the Steelers, “Their Life’s Work,” and taking a deeper dive into football culture and the health of players.

GP: The Steelers of the late ’70s won four Super Bowls in six seasons, and I went to La Trobe, Penn. as a summer intern in the summer of 1981 to write a feature story for the Post. And I remember thinking about football and the cost that the players who play it pay — and concussions front and center in that regard. The center of that team was Mike Webster, the first player diagnosed with CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

[Football has] tried to adjust, but there’s only so much adjusting that can be done. It’s a violent game. And if you ever stand down on the sidelines during a game, as I have, the physics of this sport are, well, they’re frightening. And when I’m at a game watching a student of mine play, whether the Big Game or otherwise, I’m not only cheering for them, I’m rooting for their health.

TSD: Indeed — player health is bigger than just one single game, and it’s important that the wellbeing of athletes on both sides is being prioritized over any rivalry. Speaking of your relationship with the athletes, being a professor at Stanford and having students who are on the football team in your class, what have you observed about the uniquely competitive academic environment our football players exist in? And how does that influence the players?

GP: I teach a seminar on specialized writing and reporting about sports. I want students to be able to think more quickly on their feet; I want them to be able to distill information and find the essence of a story; I want them to be able to improve in interviews, you know, regardless of which side of the table they’re sitting on in that interview. So, it’s a skill set that’s transportable to any field.

Sometimes players have different personalities off the field than they do on the field. I think that’s always been the case. One of the joys for me in teaching a writing course is that I can create an editor-to-writer rapport with my students. I work hard with them on their writing, and I get to know not only their writing, but who they are, and that’s the joy.

That’s the fun of it, and my students have made careers with these reporting skills. Coby Fleener did a couple of stories for Sports Illustrated, and Richard Sherman is now doing sports broadcasting with Skip Bayless on “Undisputed” on Fox Sports. I have students who weren’t athletes, but who wrote for The Stanford Daily or were on KZSU radio, and they’ve gone on to do sports or other things. The joy is bringing everyone together in the same room and taking on sports — its history over the last century, how sports writing has evolved and also creating a workshop for the students to become apprentice sports writers themselves.

TSD: It’s inspiring to see how impactful your class can be. Talking about Stanford athletics more broadly — how does sports journalism play a role in bringing athletes and fans together?

GP: I can tell you one of my favorite moments related to Stanford sports. It’s not the Big Game, but it’s when one of my former students, a sports writer named Chelsea James at the Post, interviewed a Washington Nationals pitcher named Drew Storen, who was a Stanford alum, and both of them had been in my class — interviewer and interviewee, both from my class at Stanford, representing both sides of the coin playing at the highest level in a personal way.

That was my Big Game. That was one of my biggest Big Games … I don’t think news reporters can create stories or emotions that aren’t there. They can only write about what is there. So what matters to me is that the games are covered — that they’re brought vividly to life on the page or on the computer screen.

Pomerantz says he is excited to see what captivating narrative unfolds at this year’s Big Game. “I’ll be rooting for a great story,” he said. “And beyond that, I’ll probably be wearing a neutral color.”