Nov. 15, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - To Justin Polk, Oklahoma was the team Michigan State beat in the regional semifinal of the 1999 NCAA Tournament en route to the first of Coach Tom Izzo's six Final Four appearances.
And even though the Internet, with social media and search engines, has shrunk the universe to the point that just about everything in it is as close as the smartphone tucked in Polk's pocket, the Sooner Nation still seemed like some exotic far-off place with a formidable football team.
Then, this fall Mark Hollis and Joe Castiglione made Polk's world even smaller.
Hollis is MSU's outside-of-the-box-thinking athletic director and Castiglione is his innovative counterpart at the University of Oklahoma. The longtime friends bridged the expanse between the two schools electronically while addressing each other's classrooms.
A co-instructor in the sports media course taught by Michigan State journalism professor Sue Carter, Hollis met with Castiglione's graduate-level leadership issues in athletic administration class via video-conference.
Although technical problems prevented the students in MSU's JRN 492 class from seeing Castiglione, he reciprocated by covering everything from the way sports news is disseminated instantaneously on Twitter.com to sporadic student-fan attendance at football games to NCAA regulations.
Polk, a junior journalism major and one of the 16 undergrads in Carter's class, said the interactive session debunked his provincial view of college athletics, which he hopes to cover someday as a broadcast or print sports reporter.
"There definitely was a very different feel to it," Polk said. "While (Castiglione) wasn't directly in the class, many of the things he talked about were similar to what MSU does under Mr. Hollis because of the size of the two universities and, in a way, the size of their followings. It opened up my eyes to how the universities are more alike than they are different even though they may be thousands of miles apart and members of different conferences.
"They're pretty much very similar in the end with regard to their main goals, cultures, fans and student-athletes. Even though they're in Oklahoma, they do many of the same things we do here."
Furthermore, they're subject to the same positive and negative social media influences, such as Facebook.com, that have burgeoned over the past five years. Like Hollis, Castiglione stressed the need for credibility and accountability in today's freewheeling, Internet-based media environment.
"Usually, when you're a student, you hear people talk to you about journalism concepts and their experiences," Polk said. "This was more about how a journalist can help the industry he's in and can sometimes hurt it. In a way, everyone is held accountable and journalists can either be your best friend or your worst friend."
In February, Hollis joined Castiglione on the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. While comparing notes during a summer meeting, the ADs agreed to lecture each other's upcoming classes.
"You see collaboration take place all the time in higher education but to see two athletic directors do it in a classroom setting is rather unique," Hollis said. "For me, it was an opportunity to stay connected with young people and talk about things that are impacting the world of sports journalism.
"The opportunity to have Joe come in and let the students hear from somebody other than the person they're most familiar with in that role was very positive. He hit on many of the same issues that we discussed previously about the threats and challenges facing athletic departments today, and how you try to stick to your mission and values as you make decisions. It was good for me to hear it from him as well as the class."
Hollis and Castiglione didn't lose sight of the adversarial relationship journalists are necessarily required to have with tax-supported institutions such as MSU and OU, and the watchdog role they play.
"In its purest form, it was a great conversation to try to connect those of us in this business with those who are learning to become journalists in very turbulent times for sports media," Hollis said. "It was about how you deliver credibility over a sustained period of time in order to keep the journalistic approach a part of our world.
"We spent time talking about how the media has changed in the last five to 10 years and the impact it's had with the drive for being the first to provide information versus true journalism, and getting to the bottom of the story and trying to understand it. The folks in my business have much more confidence and trust and connection with those who try to establish relationships versus those who just write stories off the top of their heads and don't really know who they're writing about in many respects."
Institutions like Michigan State and Oklahoma have more to gain from aggressive, but fair, reporting than to lose.
"Good journalism is important to us not only from a P.R. standpoint, but from the point of view of how do you get your message out, how do you make sure it's accurate, how do you tell the story of what's going on off the field?" Hollis said. "The unfortunate part is people who don't go through that process don't know what kids are doing off the field and we're losing more and more of those stories, which hopefully, these kind of courses can position reporters of the future to look for."
While covering a wide range of topics with Michigan State's student-athletes, Castiglione lamented the way various media outlets place being out in front with a story ahead of making sure it's verifiably factual.
"People get too caught up in what they perceive as their right to be first regardless of its accuracy," he said. "What I tried to say to the Michigan State students is how important it is, regardless if you're first, to make sure you're right.
"We all have an opportunity for free expression, but be responsible and recognize that the use of improper or inaccurate information can create more problems than what you think when you just put it out there. The way of the world is understanding the various technologies as they quickly emerge, but be thoughtful and wise about how you use it. It can be a great thing if it's used responsibly."
Hollis is known for staging a hockey game in a football stadium and a basketball game on an aircraft carrier along with coming up with numerous other marketing coups that have raised MSU's national profile. His message was tailored for Castiglione's master's and doctoral students who are looking forward to running their own sports operation some day.
"They really felt like they were able to get some very special time with one of the leaders of the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics," Castiglione said. "I tell my students to not go thinking that I have all of the answers. Sometimes there are different ways to do something and still end up at the right place. By getting several different perspectives students can triangulate the information and determine how it coincides with their beliefs, or perhaps forces them to modify their beliefs, because they now have more real-time information.
"Or, they can disagree with both of us, and that's OK, too. What we're trying to do in the classroom is push people to think critically, to analyze, to compare and fully understand various opportunities, challenges and threats we may have in the business we run."
It's instructive for journalism students to have a broader perception of the lay of the land - in this case intercollegiate athletics - and to become familiar with the types of sources they may end up relying on for stories some day, according to Carter.
"It helps the students to understand that the issues faced by sports administration here at Michigan State aren't unique to Michigan State," she said. "One is never a prophet in one's own land, so it was awfully nice to see Mark through a colleague's eyes.
"The students understood they were in a privileged setting and that allowed candor to be part of Mark's discussion. I think they also appreciated that in exchange, they got a huge backgrounding in college administration because of that collaborative agreement - you can't use it right now, but here's what you need to know when you become professional sports journalists."
Nevertheless, Hollis lifted the off-the-record constraints on some of the information, which led to a handful of student-produced stories.
"They got a deeper understanding of what's going on, and that makes a huge difference," Carter said. "My view as a journalist is, as much background information I can get on how a particular agency or an individual operates the better journalist I am on the other side.
"It helps to step beyond where one is."