Proving Des Moines is NOT boring

10 or so questions from Ben Gran: Interview with Keith Murphy, WHO-TV Sports

OK…I am so starstruck to be doing this interview, seriously. Keith Murphy is one of my childhood heroes. I’ve been watching his sports broadcasting and weekly Sports Soundoff show for many years, and he’s one of the most talented, creative, most good-natured and best-informed sports journalists I’ve ever seen.

Keith Murphy is the Conan O’Brien of Iowa sports – he’s a really smart, funny guy who always elevates the conversation and treats his audience and the subjects of his stories with respect.

So I was thrilled when Keith agreed to do this “10 questions” interview for Des Moines is Not Boring. I talked with him about baffling foreign sports, most-hated sports clichés, and why he would make a lousy MMA fighter.

3845_490982884286397_761123641_n1. What is the thing you’ve learned from covering sports that most sports fans would be really surprised to hear? 

That sometimes players don’t care as much as the fans. Especially at the professional level. Most fans love the same team their entire lives. Players are hired guns. Patriot fans couldn’t understand how Gronk could go clubbing the night the Pats lost the Super Bowl. Gronk understands. Understands he’s in his twenties, and he wants to drink, dance, and party. So he did. You can love a team, but the team won’t always love you back. (You can also insert wherever you work into that sentence. Just ask anyone who ever left carrying a cardboard box after an unexpected layoff.)

2. What sports that are popular in other countries are most baffling to you? (For example: One time I was up late flipping channels, and I happened to come across the championship game of Australian Rules Football, broadcasting live from Melbourne, Australia. There were 100,000 people in the stands and it seemed like almost that many on the field. The game was a bizarre blend of soccer, rugby and American football. They seemed to be able to advance the ball by throwing or kicking or bouncing, and they scored points by kicking the ball through some very tall uprights. In 20 minutes, I saw one broken nose and one shoulder dislocation, and both injured players almost immediately got back on the field. The team names were “the Magpies” and “the Cats.” Fans in the stands were holding signs that said things like, “Hot Pies” and “Fair Dinkum Unbelievable.” Even though I technically spoke the same language as the announcers, I had absolutely no idea what was going on.)  

Cricket. What the crap?! Here’s a description from Wikipedia: Cricket is a bat-and-ball game played between two teams of 11 players on a field, at the centre of which is a rectangular 22-yard long pitch. One team bats, trying to score as many runs as possible while the other team bowls and fields, trying to dismiss the batsmen and thus limit the runs scored by the batting team. A run is scored by the striking batsman hitting the ball with his bat, running to the opposite end of the pitch and touching the crease there without being dismissed. The teams switch between batting and fielding at the end of an innings. In professional cricket the length of a game ranges from 20 overs of six bowling deliveries per side to Test cricket played over five days.

20 overs? Bowling? Five days? I have no idea what’s going on in this game.

3. What are your most-hated sports clichés? (Mine is when there is a surprising upset, and the announcer says, “This is why they play the games!” What does that even mean? Of course they play the games, that’s the whole point! Has there ever been a time where a sports league said, “Gosh, you know what? We’ve gotten so precise at predicting a team’s performance based purely on preseason practices and last season’s stats, let’s just not play the games this year.” Well, maybe the NHL.)

Anytime anyone “gives 110%”, I do a face palm. No one can give more than 100%. It’s mathematically impossible. I also can’t take much more of, “We need to play within ourselves.” Well, if you do, I don’t want to watch.

4. I remember reading a few years ago that you had attracted some interest from ESPN. What are some of the things about Des Moines that made you want to stay here, rather than set out for some place like ESPN or bigger TV markets? 

Best thing about Des Moines is the people. I know that’s a cliché candidate, but it’s 110% true. Make it 100%. People just care about each other, and look out for each other more here than any place I’ve known. I have made the best kinds of friends here, and my sons were born here. I can’t imagine raising them anywhere else. Meantime, Des Moines, especially downtown, has become a cool place where there’s always something fun to do, if you just keep an open mind.

5. What do you think is the toughest job in sports? NFL offensive lineman? NHL goalie? MLB catcher? 

Hockey goaltender. It’s tough for many physical reasons, but the constant pressure and tension, especially in a 0-0 game, has to provide unthinkable stress.

6. Which pro sports league would you most like to play in – at your current age and physical fitness level? Which pro sports league would you LEAST want to play in? 

At my age, MLB closer seems like good work. Come in, pitch an inning, done for the day. With my current fastball, it’s likely I’d only throw one pitch. I think I’d enjoy being an MMA fighter the least. It would be nice to get in shape, maybe add a tat or too, but sooner or later, I’m on my back, and someone is just throwing elbows across my face. I’d need a new nose and a fresh set of boxers. I’m not the kind who fights.

7. Do you think soccer will ever become as popular in the U.S. as it is in Europe? And if it does become more popular, wouldn’t it have to do so at the expense of some other American sport that is currently more popular, i.e. football? 

No way. I’ve been hearing for most of my life that soccer is about to become a big spectator sport in the U.S. It never does. It’s growing slightly, partly because people who move here from other countries already love it, and partly because it is a great sport for kids to play, but we’re Americans. We love scoring. And violence. The Beautiful Game often leaves us longing.

8. What do you see as the relative advantages of being a sports fan in Des Moines, even though we don’t have big-league sports? (My take: I think being a pro sports fan is increasingly overrated. The leagues are always having lockouts. The ticket prices are through the roof. The in-game fan experience is less compelling compared to sitting at home watching on a big screen TV while talking smack with your friends on Twitter. It’s tough to beat the live, in-person fan experience of college football game day or a really rockin’ college basketball arena. I don’t think we’re missing much by not having pro sports in Iowa.)

We’re in one of the best markets for sports. In high schools and colleges, the players and coaches really care, not just about the games, but about their schools and communities. (Well, most coaches. But let’s leave Gene Chizik and Steve Alford out of this.) It’s not that way in the pros (see answer 1). We have the Big Ten, Big 12, and MVC all nearby. We have boys and girls playing youth and high school sports at a per capita rate to rival any state in the union. We have minor league sports, which are high level, but not high cost (I-Cubs, Barnstormers, Energy, to name a few). We’ve got it all. I love us. Aren’t we great?

9. What do you think is the most underrated sports experience? Something that deserves a wider audience – something that Des Moines sports fans (or just sports fans in general) might not have thought of as a “must see” sports event, but something that you’ve experienced that was better than you expected? (For example: I’ve never been to see live horse racing at Prairie Meadows, but I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun. I think it would be lots of fun to see a big horse race someday, in person, like the Kentucky Derby…”here they come down the stretch!”) 

I think we have many hidden gems here in Iowa. If you like racing, nearby Knoxville Raceway doesn’t get the attention of the Iowa Speedway, but if you’re into dirt track, it’s the balls. The Iowa Energy plays the best basketball in the state, and it’s not even close. The Energy is just a step below the NBA, and the dudes can really play. If you like hockey, the Des Moines Buccaneers provide a tailgate party all around the ice. Beer, Black Velvet, and Bucs. It’s a fun night.

10. What is the biggest change in the sports journalism business since you started your career, for better or for worse? What makes your job easier/more fun than it used to be, and what makes your job more difficult/more aggravating than it used to be? 

The best and worst evolution of journalism is social media. The speed which news travels tempts reporters to rush before confirming, and makes being first seem more important than being right. It’s not. People don’t really remember who was first. They do remember who was wrong. Conversely, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have allowed fans faster and more diversified access to their teams. It also allows fans to interact with each other, which is part of the fun.

11. Who are some of your favorite personalities in Iowa sports? Favorite people to interview, surprisingly gracious/generous/funny people behind the scenes, people that a lot of Iowans might not know of or might be surprised to hear about? (Go ahead…”dish” a little! But in a good way.)

Jim Zabel is a legend. He’s always energetic, and he doesn’t let negativity get to him. He doesn’t seem to even notice it. Andy Fales is really smart. He challenges my thinking on subjects all the time, which I appreciate. Chris Hassel is more talented than he even realizes, but battles shyness. He’s not comfortable around people, but keeps working at it. John Walters is one of the nicest people I’ve come across. He’s the Stan Musial of Iowa broadcasting: no one has a bad thing to say about him. The Des Moines Register’s Bryce Miller is one of the most considerate people I’ve ever known. He’s also a fun conversationalist over beers, as are the others on this list. I could go on, but I’d still leave out someone. There are a lot of good people in Iowa sports.

12. How worried should football fans be about the concussion crisis and everything that we’ve been learning about the long-term impact of football-related brain injuries? Could football potentially become the new boxing – i.e. a once-massively-popular spectator sport that gets relegated to the fringes? (I will say this from my circle of friends: almost no parents I know want to have their kids grow up to play football, because they’re worried about brain injuries.)

I had a few concussions playing football, and I think parents should be worried. The ox is slow, but the earth is patient. Macaroni and cheese. Dust. What was the question? Seriously, we’re learning something we already know in our logical minds: slamming your head into a moving object over-and-over is not a good idea. I think it will be like smoking in that not everyone who smokes gets cancer, but some do. Not everyone who plays football will have Parkinson’s, or depression, or Alzheimer’s, but some will.

13. What do you think is at the root of being a sports fan? Why do people identify with certain teams, certain jerseys, certain college programs or fan bases more than others? It’s really kind of ridiculous, when you think about it, right? And yet it gives people so much meaning and connectedness in their lives. 

I think we’re all looking to be a part of something, and being a fan of a team brings us together. It’s like a gang, but without the symbols and drive-by shootings. Nothing elevates the mood of a community like a championship run.

Follow Keith Murphy’s musings on sports, life and juice cleanses on Twitter. You can also listen to him and his co-host Andy Fales on 1460 KXNO Sports Radio on weekdays from 2-4 p.m.

Ben Gran is a Des Moines writer and comedian. He has never suffered a concussion or skillfully played a team sport. Follow Ben on Twitter and Facebook