Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

A True Pro

For 25 years, currently at the Tribune, sports columnist Dan Pompei has been worked his way to being one of the hardest working— and best— football writers in the business.

Dan Pompei spent part of one day last fall waiting for a phone call. Pompei, the pro football columnist for the Chicago Tribune, had an appointment to interview the brilliant and often boorish head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick. As phone calls go, this one promised to be worth the wait.

A chat with Belichick is the sort of thing for which sportswriters will clear their schedules. Belichick, who has won the Super Bowl three times, can be as elusive as he has been successful. He is famously determined not to let petty interruptions like questions from reporters distract him from his meticulous pre-game preparation. Pompei’s interview was scheduled just days before Belichick’s team was to play one of the most-hyped regular season games in National Football League history, against their rivals, the Indianapolis Colts. At the time, most football writers in the country were waiting in packs to pounce on even the most mundane comments from the coach. Pompei, in short, had landed one desirable exclusive.

It was no accident that, of all the sportswriters nationwide covering football in these days of sports media saturation, Belichick chose to talk with Pompei. Having covered the game for more than a quarter-century—first for the Chicago Sun-Times, then for The Sporting News, and now for the Tribune—Pompei could bank on an impressive reservoir of trust and respect. “I’ve always taken a lot of pride in cultivating relationships,” Pompei says. He has built the kind of reputation that pays off in coups like exclusive interviews at perfect moments.

 “Dan’s columns are always based on hard work and thorough reporting, not just gut opinion,” says Mike Nahrstedt of The Sporting News. “People respect that. Just look at his Belichick interview. You don’t get that unless you’ve earned the respect of people around the league.”

A couple of days later, Pompei’s exclusive on the controversial, sweatshirt-wearing coach was on prominent display in the Tribune’s sports section. In his “lede” or opening paragraph, the writer gave his take on Belichick. “Depending on your perspective, he is either the best coach in NFL history, or Darth Vader in a hoodie.”

The ensuing interview provided an uncommon view into the ways a dexterous coach keeps his team at or near the league’s summit season after season.

The column was the sort of thing his bosses at the Tribune had in mind when they hired Pompei last summer to replace the legendary sports columnist Don Pierson. At the time, the paper’s associate managing editor for sports, Dan McGrath, explained the succession in NFL quarterback terms. “We view it as Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana,” he said. “One Hall of Famer for another.”

Pompei’s readers could close that day’s sports section feeling a little more football-savvy than they had the day before. It’s a Pompei hallmark. “When you read something Dan wrote,” Nahrstedt says, “you usually learn something you didn’t know.”

More than a quarter-century after he started covering sports for a living, Dan Pompei still likes to recall the first time he interviewed a professional athlete. He was a college kid then, writing a sports column for The Leader, Elmhurst College’s student newspaper, when he decided he wanted to do a profile of Doug Plank, the star safety of the Chicago Bears and a player renowned for his ferocious tackling and intimidating presence. Pompei was motivated less by the spirit of journalistic inquiry than by the enthusiasms of a fan. “He was my favorite player,” Pompei explains.

He phoned the Bears’ offices, informed them that he was Pompei of The Leader, and blithely asked for an interview with Plank. The Bears and their star safety did the unexpected: they agreed.

When the big moment came, Pompei was nervous but relieved to find that Plank’s off-field demeanor was quite different from his playing style. “He couldn’t have been more kind and gracious, a real gentleman,” Pompei recalls. “Since then, I can tell you, I’ve encountered many other athletes who weren’t so kind.”

Since then, Pompei has encountered and written about nearly everyone who matters in the football world. He has attended twenty Super Bowls, won a fistful of journalism awards, and now holds down one of the better posts in sports journalism, as a top football writer on a big daily in a huge sports town. But nothing is a better indicator of the attributes that have made Pompei a standout sports journalist than that first audacious interview with Plank. What made a college kid think that he belonged in the big leagues, interviewing and writing about the stars of the game? “Young people have to realize that if they have a dream, they have to go out and get it,” he explains. “You can’t wait for it to happen for you.”

Pompei grew up playing sixteen-inch softball and other sandlot games in Berwyn. He also, at an early age, developed a serious newspaper habit. Fresh papers appeared at the Pompei house every morning (the Tribune) and every evening (the Daily News). One of the bylines he remembers turning to as he grew up was Don Pierson’s in the Trib.

After graduating from Morton West High School, Pompei enrolled at Elmhurst College, attracted among other things by its liberal arts curriculum. He began writing for The Leader and considering a career in journalism. The idea did not meet with much enthusiasm at home. “My father tried to talk me out of it,” he remembers. “He said there would be way too much competition.”

Pompei would not be dissuaded, however, and at Elmhurst he found the mentors he needed. Tom Beck, the head football coach at the time and now a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, gave the aspiring journalist a tutorial in the game’s nuances.
After further study in journalism at Columbia College, Pompei returned to Elmhurst to serve as sports information director. He calls Ken Bartels, the vice president for college relations, “one of the best bosses I’ve ever had.” The job provided him with a hands-on education in the arts of interviewing, reporting, and writing.

He soon landed at the Sun-Times sports desk, where he was responsible for what staffers called “doing agates.” He fielded phone calls from harried reporters, formatted box scores, updated statistics—all of the thankless, precise, fine-print work that is all too easy to mess up under deadline pressure. The job holds few fond memories for Pompei. “You’re under pressure, it’s late at night, and if you mess up…it’s a job that will humble you.”

Pompei was ready to give up the gig and take a less stressful one at a suburban weekly when his bosses at the Sun-Times called with an offer. They were ready to make him a full-fledged sportswriter. It was 1985, and the timing was ideal. Pompei started out covering Loyola University basketball, but it was not long before his editors began assigning him to help cover one of the biggest sports stories Chicago had ever seen. The 1985 Chicago Bears had begun their relentless, much-hyped march to the Super Bowl, and the city’s newspapers, trying to cover every angle, couldn’t throw enough reporters at the story. “There was no team like it before or since,” Pompei says. “It was a very special thing to be a part of.”

At times, local interest in the Bears seemed to verge on hysteria. The rookie reporter found his stories popping up on the front page. “There certainly was no shortage of material to write about. Every press conference was an event.”

Of all the characters connected with the team (remember the Fridge? Danimal? The Punky QB?) none was more colorful than the head coach, Mike Ditka. Famously intense, Ditka’s confrontations with reporters became legendary. “He liked to challenge you sometimes on something you’d written,” Pompei remembers. “The thing was, TV news loved it when he’d go off on somebody. So if he challenged you in a press conference, it would end up on TV that night.”

For many young reporters, facing off with Ditka would have been an intimidating experience, but Pompei took the coach in stride. “If you explained yourself and stood your ground, he would respect you,” he says.

Pompei covered the Bears for the Sun-Times all the way through their Super Bowl romp in New Orleans and has been writing about football ever since. In 1997 he moved on to The Sporting News, the storied national sports weekly. Two years later, with his career in swift ascent, Pompei was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He missed six weeks of work and endured radiation. “For the first few days I did nothing but puke,” he recalls.

Even after he had begun to recover, the memory of the ordeal would cause him to become nauseous every time he passed the hospital where he had received treatment. The well-hidden compensations of the experience emerged only much later. “It all makes me appreciate life even more now,” he says.

Last August, the Tribune hired Pompei away from The Sporting News to replace the retiring Don Pierson, a legend among football writers who had been a fixture on the Tribune’s sports pages for forty years. “I grew up reading him,” Pompei says. “He’s the gold standard in the industry.”

Pompei’s beat at the Tribune now includes all of professional football. Like more and more print journalists, his professional obligations extend to frequent appearances on TV and radio. He appears regularly on ESPN’s First Take and Comcast SportsNet’s Chicago Tribune Live. He also is a frequent guest on The Score, the sports talk radio station. The multimedia moonlighting is just one way the print journalist’s job has changed in recent years. The influence of talk radio and especially of the Internet has forced reporters to adapt, and many have lost their jobs to deep cuts in newsrooms across the country. “It’s not the same business
I came into,” Pompei says. “That model no longer exists.”

By the time the morning paper arrives at the front door, he explains, sports fans already know the score, have seen the highlights on TV, heard the fans sounding off on the radio, and read their favorite players’ blog entry on the game. “We’ve got to give them some extra value,” he says.

Pompei seems equipped for his profession’s challenging new era. His reputation for hard work is well established. Nahrstedt, his editor at The Sporting News, remembers him regularly scrutinizing the same game films that coaches study, looking for insights into the teams and players he writes about.

If Pompei’s friends in the sporting world are quick to praise him, his three children, all in grade school, are harder to impress. When it was the sportswriter’s turn to give a presentation for career day at his children’s school, the Pompei kids were surprised to see their classmates making a fuss over their father. “To me I’m just their dad,” he explains.

His colleagues, and even his competitors, are a good deal less blasé about him. “He’s the consummate professional,” says Mike Mulligan, a football writer at the Sun-Times and a former Pompei colleague who is now a rival. “He’s as good as anybody in the country at what he does.”

Photo by Roark Johnson

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