It’s a Friday morning and Gregg Doyel is in the middle of a drive back to Cincinnati to spend the day with his son for his birthday. It’s different than the trip he’s grown accustomed to. That trip consisted of a 5 a.m. alarm followed by a two-hour drive to Cincinnati to pick his son up for school. It takes 15 minutes to get him there, and it’s two hours back to Indianapolis.
Once a week, that’s how he sees his youngest son, a junior in high school. He sees his other son–the one celebrating his 20th birthday on that Friday–even less. He’s a sophomore at Bowling Green in Ohio. Those are the difficulties that divorce brings.
It wasn’t always like that for Doyel. A year ago he was a national columnist for CBS Sports and the author of two books. That’s the pinnacle sports writers strive for–a national columnist position for a national market on the internet.
But it wasn’t Doyel’s pinnacle. At least not this Gregg Doyel.
Yes, there have been a few along the way. Boxing Gregg. Ego Maniac Gregg. Angry Gregg. They each play a big part in unearthing who we’re reading today, a guy who’s always been there, even if he hasn’t always shown it.
Who we’re reading is almost as important as what we’re reading. And there was an itch that had to be scratched to find out who Gregg Doyel is and why he was the right person to do what everyone else is afraid of: leaving the comforts of national coverage for the question mark that is a newspaper.
Meet Ego Maniac Gregg. He was created at the age of 20 at the University of Florida, but the process began well before that.
He learned how to read in Norman, OK. where his dad had him find the subtle mistakes in the sports section. Gregg was finding misplaced modifiers in the Daily Oklahoman in first grade, so it’s hard to be totally surprised that he developed an ego somewhere along the way.
It was Ms. Connor, Gregg’s ninth grade English teacher, who turned the light bulb on for him by simply asking, “You like sports, you’re a pretty good writer, have you ever thought about being a sportswriter?”
Say no more. From that point on, Doyel knew exactly what he’d be doing.
He first saw the power that writing could have in high school. Doyel, or ‘Ducky’ as he was called back then, was both a member of the baseball team that was coming off of a state championship and a staff writer on the school newspaper. While writing the season preview for the baseball team, Doyel wrote that it was head coach Bubber Adams’ job to “orchestrate another state championship team.”
When the team showed up to practice the next day, the team ran foul pole to foul pole. And foul pole to foul pole. And then wind sprints. Followed by some more wind sprints.
“Don’t blame me, we’re just orchestrating.”
“I don’t use the word ‘orchestrate’ anymore,” Doyel said. “It was the first impactful story I wrote, but it wasn’t impactful in a good way. I’m still tired from all those wind sprints.”
At Florida, Doyel traded in his baseball bat for a pen and a notebook. His ego took off.
“I was surprised in college when people would tell me how good I was,” he said. “The first couple of times I had no idea. Once I figured out ‘oh I am good,’ I became an ego maniac. I still have old college friends and professionals that cover the Gators that make fun of me for stuff I said at 20.”
The only surprise from this section may be that he admits it. We’re talking about a writer featured in Deadspin’s ‘scientific look at the most pompous sports pundit.’ At CBS, his ego could be felt in his columns and mannerisms. In this business, you probably need an ego of some kind, anyway.
But that doesn’t explain Doyel answering every question for Deadspin in this interview where the interviewer refers to his writing as “columnist assholery.” It doesn’t explain Doyel providing a response to a 22-year-old writer looking for any kind of advice he can get. It doesn’t explain agreeing to do this interview with that same writer two years later who might not be qualified to tell this story.
It certainly doesn’t explain why Doyel would want off the top of the mountain at CBS Sports. Instead, it shows that there must be more to this story.
If you’ve read at least five Gregg Doyel stories in your life, then you know he’s 4-0 in amateur boxing–with three knockouts! Proud, yes. Ego, hardly. But it’s fitting because Ego Maniac Gregg, who was still around during Doyel’s boxing days, never pulled a punch.
As a radio host in Cincinnati–not a very good one, he says–he became a spokesman for local laser eye surgery in return for free surgery. Now that he could see, it was time to give boxing a try. At 36 years old, Doyel always thought he’d be good at it. He fell in love with the UFC and picked up boxing after a year of conditioning classes. His gym was the same one former UFC champion Rich Franklin frequented.
The workout turned more serious when Doyel began going to the gym four or five days per week and cutting weight. He fought at 170 pounds, and he was actually good. Good enough that by the age of 40 he wanted to turn pro. But why?
That’s what the locals asked when he tried turning pro. The local fight cards wouldn’t let him.
“Spots on fight cards are precious,” he said. “There are people with less advantages than me that need boxing as a way of life. I just wanted to prove something, and that’s not good enough. I completely understand it. I was not good enough anyway.”
He didn’t give it all up for good, though. Boxing turned into sparring, and not with the next door neighbor for fun. He went to UFC gyms and sparred with professionals who tell you not to try it at home. Dustin Hazelett and Marcus Davis are just two names, two former UFC fighters.
The people he threw punches at in columns couldn’t punch back. They punch back here. Two broken noses, two concussions and a lot more bumps and bruises that he couldn’t keep track of. He lost every time.
For all of the punches he threw, none hit harder or louder than the one to LeBron James. There are a few to choose from, but they don’t stick out like this one.
“I don’t care how I come across asking questions,” Doyel said. “The question to LeBron, there was no ego involved. It wasn’t about me at all. That was my story, and I was right. People look back at the NBA Finals and I was right. I wasn’t being a jerk. It’s not my fault no one saw it then.
“I was working on deadline and LeBron shrinking in the fourth quarter was my story. I’ll be damned if I don’t ask my subject that question. You can’t buddy up to your subjects. You can’t be liked and be taken seriously, at least not always.”
LeBron James, Tim Floyd, Jim Boeheim, it didn’t matter. Doyel was a fighter in every sense of the word. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t right or didn’t have a point. But he could come off as a “troll” because there weren’t many bright spots showing up in his columns. It was what people weren’t doing rather than what they were doing. That was Boxing Gregg.
When you’re as angry as he was, sometimes you can’t help yourself.
Anger was prevalent during a large part of Doyel’s time at CBS. The ego, the punches and the anger. That’s what was often seen.
“Look, what I think we do, especially column writing, it’s art,” Doyel explains. “It might not be good art, it might be bad art. But it’s an expression of who you are.”
There was more to Doyel than anger, you’d just have to find it somewhere other than in his column. In this story calling LeBron James a coward? That’s anger, a lot of it. He’ll admit fault if you bring up what was said about Les Miles some eight years ago. Where did it all come from?
“I’m just very feisty and fiery in general,” he said. “I go too far sometimes.
“I wasn’t ashamed of what I was doing, but it never really occurred to me. I’m not ashamed of most of it, wish I hadn’t done some of it, but every story came from me. Anger was fueling my art.”
The anger, the ego and the boxer didn’t go anywhere without each other. The anger was the root where the words were coming from.
How could he ever shake the three of them? People don’t just wake up and change. This story is no different. Doyel didn’t change, but that’s because the anger, ego and boxer didn’t define who he was. They were parts of him. They still are. But the light is shining elsewhere now.
On October 20, he just couldn’t do it anymore. It was gone. With his life turning upside down, there was no room for anger. He took the job with the Indianapolis Star.
On Friday, October 17, his 22-year marriage officially ended with divorce. He went from being a married father of two to moving his youngest son in with his now ex-wife. His oldest son was entering his freshman year of college. He was moving out of state to Indianapolis and taking a new job.
A new home, a new job, a new life.
“It all hit me at once,” he said. “I miss the days I could tap into my anger. I don’t have that luxury. Anger is not on my list anymore.”
Doyel’s been approached by other outlets in the past, but he never fully considered leaving CBS because he refused to move his family. They’d been in Cincinnati since his youngest son was in first grade–moving him in 11th grade was something he wouldn’t do. The move to the IndyStar and his divorce didn’t go hand in hand, but it made him more mobile.
There was no eagerness to leave CBS. He was successful there, and a move wasn’t necessary. But the IndyStar had never been an option. And when it became one, it was almost too good to be true.
“I wasn’t looking for something else, but this fell into my lap,” he said. “I heard on Twitter that (Bob) Kravitz was leaving the Star. My first thought was ‘I hope they call me.’ Two hours later they emailed me.
“I’d been to Indy for a ton of Pacers and Colts games, the Final Four and the Super Bowl. To me–and everybody is different–Indy has always been a magical place. I’ve always loved it. I didn’t know much about the paper, but I always dreamed of working in Indy. When it opened up I thought, ‘Damn, that’s perfect.'”
That’s great, but there is still the issue of the newspaper industry. The negative connotation may never go away about the newspaper industry compared to online media. Don’t forget, we’re talking about a national columnist at CBS Sports, the cushy, high-profiled job. If the newspaper industry, or specifically the IndyStar, was all that great, Kravitz would’ve never left in the first place.
The newspaper itself couldn’t actually believe Doyel’s interest.
“During the interview, the Star themselves were asking me if my motives were right, asking me why I was there,” Doyel said. “It was unusual. The Star was confused. Am I missing something?”
To be sure, Doyel reached out to friend and Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel for advice.
“I forget exactly what Dan said, but he told me that the job would fit me, and I’d be perfect for it. He didn’t think it was a risk.
“Newspapers are downsizing, and that can be a little bit scary, but certain jobs, if done right, ought to be safe. If done right, the sports columnist at the newspaper should be safe. So I’m going to try to do it right.”
And do it right he has.
His tone has changed even if his voice hasn’t. Your voice is what it is, that can’t be changed. Doyel even tells the story of Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel making note that the way Doyel texts is the same way he talks, which is the same way he writes. But what he’s saying, and how he’s saying it, aren’t the same.
It’s a trend continuing off his last few years at CBS, when Ego Maniac Gregg came to fruition.
“Twenty-year-old Ego Maniac Gregg certainly was around a lot longer than 20,” he said. “I would say I started dropping that in my late 30’s. I just said ‘shut up, it doesn’t matter how good anybody is. It’s just how hard are you trying.’ Effort does more than natural ability.
“The confidence that fueled me is still there. I don’t see anything wrong with that. All I think about now is working as hard as possible. People aren’t going to love everything you write. Occasionally, hopefully you write something they do like.”
Now he’s writing about Joshua Jones, the local Indy man who holds the sign outside Cash for Gold. He’s telling Matt Runyon’s story, a high school football player who went from brain surgery to football practice in four months. He’s introducing the Colts, and the world, to Officer Marty Dulworth.
With the IndyStar, Doyel’s put his gloves away. Well, except for that one time.
That one time was at Rock Steady Boxing where he boxed former UFC fighter Chris Lytle, the same Lytle who’s defeated familiar names such as Dan Hardy, Matt Serra and Matt Brown in the octagon. Doyel didn’t do it because of his ego or because he was angry. He did it to raise $20,000 for a gym that aids Parkinson’s patients.
He doesn’t spar anymore. He’s worried about his brain right now and in the future from the hits tallying up. But to box Lytle for that cause? He couldn’t say no.
Just because he isn’t trying to figuratively box each of his subjects in his columns doesn’t mean he’s hopped over to the side of being buddies with them either. But taking a shot at someone is much different. As Doyel explains, if he rips Chris Petersen in Boise State, it doesn’t matter because he’s gone the next day and there are 49 other states that will read him. He’s in Texas one day, Philadelphia the next. There is no hiding in Indianapolis now.
“Yeah, but I like that,” he says about seeing his topics the next day. “I hated ripping someone and not seeing them for six months. I don’t want people to think I’m a coward. If I rip Reggie Wayne, Tom Crean, Paul George, one of those people, there aren’t 49 other states that will read me.
“You’ve got to be careful with how you do it, and I’m still figuring that one out. Before I didn’t really realize the dangers until it was too late. I can’t pull out a flame shooter anymore. Readers will not forget that, and I don’t really blame them. Go after someone with decency and class.”
He’s taken his shots. Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball coach Tom Crean, Indianapolis Colts GM Ryan Grigson, Matt Hasselbeck, the Colts offensive line. He’s taken on all of them. But it’s night and day from how Angry Gregg wrote it.
“The last couple of years I’ve been shifting away from anger,” Doyel said. “I still have it and write from it sometimes, but it doesn’t define me anymore. I’ve got a new readership that can get to know me and can go along for the ride with me.”
What a ride it’s been. He walked into Indianapolis during the middle of Deflategate, yet that isn’t where you’ll find most of his bylines. There’s been Deflategate, Andrew Luck and Frank Vogel. But there’s been much more Bryan Fisher and David Priestley than Chuck Pagano’s job status.
“It’s not about writing 1000 words for me,” explains Doyel. “Once I post them, in about 24 hours they’re gone. The people that I’m writing about are still there.”
Doyel, now 45, isn’t a new person, but he’s showing off the dimensions we’ve been missing. He’s being recognized for it as well. He won the Associated Press Sports Editors award for column writing for his work with the Star.
He’s both “really really soft, but also really really hard,” he says. He’s the dad that has all of the voices when reading Dr. Seuss to his kids, including the Lorax and his lisp. Each dog has a different voice they speak. He baby-talked his kids.
“I just didn’t write that way.”
Until a few years ago and especially now.
“Several years ago I decided to start showing more sides, that I don’t have to always be the jerk,” he said. “I compare it to a pitcher who paints the corner and the umpire calls a strike. Then he paints the black and it’s a strike. Pretty soon it’s a foot outside and the umpire is giving me a strike.
“I was crossing the line. CBS was letting me get away with an inch and another inch and another inch. Pretty soon I’m a foot outside and I think it’s a strike. I’m beaning people in the head and CBS tells me to stop, but I don’t know how because I’m not thinking it. What I’m doing is who I am, how do I stop?”
He stopped by changing his anti-anxiety medication and taking a full dose rather than just half. He no longer boxes. He looks for more volunteering opportunities, such as hospice.
“I had to get outside of my own head,” he confessed. “There’s more than you, dummy, go find it. Once you see things like that and see there’s more to life than my own stupid anger about Chip Kelly, it changes who you are.”
If it doesn’t change who you are, it certainly reveals it. Doyel’s revealed plenty of himself throughout his career through his writing. Whether he’s more IndyStar Gregg Doyel or CBS Sports 2005 Gregg Doyel is up to you to decide. But IndyStar Gregg Doyel has given his readers plenty in the last 10 months to earn a few “Smooches” of his own.
Because if there is such thing as a perfect fit to leave the national columnist scene for the newspaper industry, Gregg Doyel is proving that it’s him.