Two surprises accompanied the news last week that college sportswriter Pete Thamel is leaving Yahoo! Sports for ESPN in a cross-platform role.
1. Thamel didn’t break the news himself, as he tells just about every major story that involves college football, including the recent mega-scoop that coach Brian Kelly was leaving Notre Dame for the State of Louisiana.
2. That ESPN couldn’t find a way to bring him in much sooner.
Hiring Thamel – his first day in the new gig is Saturday – is a classic ESPN case of “If we can’t beat ’em, hire ’em”, reminiscent of when he brought in the perpetual reporter from the NBA Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports in June 2017.
Thamel joins a full roster of accomplished and deeply sourced reporters at ESPN, including Wojnarowski, NFL’s Adam Schefter and Major League Baseball’s Jeff Passan.
Thamel’s official title is senior college football writer, but he’ll also cover college basketball, and the cross-platform role will include frequent television and radio assignments, including contributions to the legendary studio show “College GameDay”.
“ESPN, as they say in their promos, is the home of college football,” said Thamel, who grew up in Ware and lives in South Boston. “He has such power and such reach. And no place is more invested in sport.
“They have billions in TV deals. College football really matters there, more than anywhere else, a huge reach and an impressive roster of people who tell the stories in so many different ways.
In a sense, Thamel’s accomplishments as a news anchor are more impressive than those of reporters covering a specific professional sport, because college football is so sprawling, requiring a vast network of connections for a national reporter.
“College football is this weird world,” Thamel said. ”[Yahoo! Sports columnist] Dan Wetzel used to say on the podcast that we used to do that if somebody showed up from Mars, or even from Switzerland or wherever, and you had to explain college football to them, that would would take 45 minutes.
“It’s like, ‘Well, he can go here, and he can sign there, but you can get a NIL deal, and this guy is in the transfer gate, and he’ll have to go away for a year, but maybe he won’t have to sit a year.
“It’s just this beautiful mess that’s woven through the fabric of so many different communities and different places.”
Growing up in Ware, Thamel followed the sport through the familiar lens of Boston, devoting the vast majority of his fans to professional teams.
“The Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots, Larry Bird, Roger Clemens, this parochial world,” he said. “My joke now is when you meet people in Boston in social situations and they ask you what you do, when you say you cover college football, they say, ‘Do you think they will let you cover the NFL one day?’ The great paradox is that Boston is the best college town in America and one of the most apathetic college sports towns.
Thamel’s eyes and mind were opened to the lure of college athletics when he got to see it up close while a student at Syracuse. His four years overlapped with Donovan McNabb’s four seasons as an Orange quarterback, while Jim Boeheim’s men’s basketball team reached the national championship game in 1996.
“And I kind of had a vision of this wacky world and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Thamel said. “College football and its coverage as a journalist is like nothing else. You’re in Eugene, Oregon, one week, and you’re in Coral Gables, Florida, the next week, then you’re in Morgantown, W. Va., and Austin, Texas. You’re in El Paso one week and in federal court the next. And Rutgers is in the same league as Iowa. It’s this wonderful world with all its complications and heaviness every Saturday. , I do not think there is better.
It’s obvious to anyone who knows his job — and his work ethic — that Thamel will thrive in his new job, much of which is practically suited to his long-time proven skills. Being on TV so often will take some getting used to, he said, but that challenge is part of the appeal after 19 years of covering national college football.
“I’ve been around, I’ve written a lot of stories, and they’re always new and fresh. I’m not bored at all,” he said. “But now I have another vehicle to tell stories. Energizing is the right word. I have to learn this new way of telling stories. I can’t wait to get started and get acclimated.
“My wife, upon learning that I would be on TV, immediately bought me a nose hair trimmer,” Thamel said with a laugh. “So that’s already a major difference.”
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