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A Q&A with ESPN’s Michael Wilbon as he approaches 60 and ‘PTI’ hits the road

CHICAGO – Michael Wilbon closed out Monday’s “Pardon the Interruption” with a salute to his alma mater. When Tony Kornheiser mentioned that Duke had ascended to No. 1 in the AP poll, Wilbon shot back: “That’s OK, but not the women. They got a beatdown at Northwestern.”

Then he mentioned the top scorer from the Wildcats’ 84-58 victory, a family friend from Maryland: “Shoutout to Lindsey Pulliam.”

Asked by phone whether people give him flak for all the Northwestern mentions, Wilbon replied: “Sure, yeah, but I don’t give a (crap). As Scott Van Pelt put it: ‘Everyone’s from somewhere.’ People want me to mention Notre Dame? Sorry. Michigan? Not going to happen. Northwestern, that’s where I’m from.”

And it’s where he’ll be Friday afternoon. “PTI” will be filmed at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston at about 3:15 p.m. Doors open to the public at 2:45, and admission is free. The show will air at 4:30.

The visit is tied to the 6 p.m. game between Northwestern and Binghamton, Kornheiser’s alma mater. Wilbon and Kornheiser will call it for ESPN, joining play-by-play man Dave Flemming. Poor guy.

“I told him, ‘Dude, you have no idea what you’re in for,’ ” Wilbon said. “We have no idea what we’re doing.”

Northwestern rates 50th on and Binghamton checks in at 292, so there’s probably not much chance of an upset. But if the game’s in doubt …

“I will run out onto the court and tackle somebody,” joked Wilbon, a Northwestern trustee.

More from Wilbon:


Q: What’s your plan for Indianapolis and the Big Ten championship game?

A: I’ve never been to that game. The last time I was in the stadium, it was still the Hoosier Dome. As you can imagine, this was not something where I looked at the calendar and planned for months in advance.

Q: Not even after NU lost to Akron?

A: Yeah, I planned like three things for that week. I’ve got a milestone (60th) birthday coming up (Monday), and I was gonna have a party in Arizona. I haven’t even told everybody that I’m bailing on it yet.

Q: Has this season been gratifying, shocking?

A: Both. I missed one home game, the Akron game. I checked the score. It was 21-3, so I said: I’m not checking it again.

Q: That game was like losing to Miami of Ohio in 1995 (the Rose Bowl season).

A: Yeah, same conference. It’s easy to say, well, if we had just beaten Akron. … You and I being sportswriters, we know what happens sometimes from losing, from disappointment. And from our side, we don’t play well with expectations. None of the programs do. It’s because we’re still transitioning into a place where there are legitimate expectations, so this is a different culture.

Q: You watched the win over Iowa on TV. How did you handle it?

A: I sat there terrified, gripping the chair. I’m back to being like I was as a teenager. I’ve been affiliated with Northwestern for 42 years. My freshman year was 1976. And growing up in Chicago, I kept up 10 years before that.

Q: Does it help that you’re no longer writing the column for the Washington Post, so you don’t have to think about objectivity?

A: I was doing it even when I was a Post columnist because I was never covering the team. It’s different when you’re living 700 miles away and you don’t have the day to day. It’s one of the reasons I never came back and why I didn’t come to the Tribune in ’97. My life is rooting for those (Chicago) teams. And you shouldn’t do it (as a columnist); you can’t do it. When I was writing a few columns for ESPN Chicago, I would not wear a Bears cap. So for 30 years I couldn’t do it. Now I can, proudly and happily. I’m a trustee of the university, I’m involved at a level in which there’s no hiding. I’m a cheerleader. I’m a booster. I’m fine with that.

Q: Plus I assume you’ve found that no one in the public cares about traditional journalism rules.

A: If you are honest enough to declare your baggage, people understand. Tony and I tease each other about what it is that we care about. People knew I was a Cubs fan years ago. People knew that I grew up rooting for the Bulls and I was covering the NBA and still do. I don’t trust people who say they don’t root for teams. Then why did you get into this? It means you can’t understand what your readers, what your listeners, are going through. Declare what it is you care about and be honest about it.

Q: Big-picture question for you: What happens first for Northwestern, the Final Four or the College Football Playoff?

A: It’s a great debate. Football is closer, but I think the Final Four is easier to get to. We had a shot at Gonzaga (in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament). And the other thing is, you’re one kid from it. Mark Aguirre showed that at DePaul. They’re actually both doable, and I didn’t feel that was six, seven years ago. (President) Morty (Schapiro) had a vision for intercollegiate sports at Northwestern.

Q: Northwestern has invested more than $400 million into facilities for football, the basketball programs, baseball …

A: An NBA GM a friend of mine who had been on campus to scout our old building said: “Look, if you guys give Chris (Collins) a building, the possibilities are much greater than you think.” … Northwestern once had obstructionists. We had people who did not want to even try to compete. And there were a few of us who kept pointing at Duke and Stanford. Morty and (athletic director) Jim Phillips and Pat Ryan and the coaches all get overlapping credit.

Q: Who came up with the “PTI”-Northwestern idea?

A: Kornheiser. He says: “Look, you guys are gonna beat up on somebody, some smaller school has to take a paycheck. So why can’t it be Binghamton?” I said this to Jim (Phillips) in a text. I’m gonna tell this story on television because as far as I’m concerned, that’s where it came from. Nobody in Evanston was thinking about Binghamton. Tony loves Doug Collins. We are fan boys, pure and simple, of Doug Collins. That Collins magic is paramount.

Q: Then someone at ESPN gets credit for saying you and Tony should call the game?

A: It would have to be, right? I met Dave Flemming today. Nice guy. Stanford guy. I said: “Dude, you have no idea what you’re in for, we have no idea what we are doing.” I’ve been in the booth for Redskins preseason games. Hubie Brown once suggested that I could do this and it was the greatest compliment of my life. But the suggestion of it terrified me.

Q: Really? You think it’s a lot harder than it looks?

A: When I’m listening to Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels, Cris is telling stories about locker rooms and what people have said, their influences and what’s happened on a Saturday walkthrough. I do believe you need to have played the game to consistently do it. In this case, people aren’t going to tune in like this is a Final Four game. It ought to be entertaining, and Tony and I ought to be able to do this.

Too many guys now are just calling plays. They’re dragging the weak-side linebacker. Or they’re talking about the Double-A gap. Of the 12 million people watching the show, how many understand that? It’s unbelievably self-indulgent and being unaware of the audience.

Q: If the unthinkable occurs and Northwestern is on the verge of losing Friday’s game …

A: I will run out onto the court and tackle somebody.

Q: What do you want for your 60th birthday?

A: I want to beat Michigan in a rematch on Dec. 1. One thing, one gift, that’s all if I could ask for. And if it happens, I might just expire right there. Just end me, just sprinkle the ashes.

Michael Wilbon, shown in a file image, is helping bring ESPN's

Michael Wilbon, shown in a file image, is helping bring ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” to Evanston’s renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena on Nov. 16. (Cheriss May/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

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