SAN FRANCISCO – A few years ago I spoke at a high school journalism seminar, and afterward one of the students in the session approached me and said I had the best job in the world.
At the time I was covering the Kansas Jayhawks for The Kansas City Star, and this 15-year-old freshman – a KU fan, no doubt – couldn't imagine how neat it must be to see the action up close.
"You get to talk to all the players and coaches," he said, "and you're on the front row at every game. Is that the best part?"
I couldn't help but chuckle.
"Well," I said, "there's that – and then there's the custard."
Any writer who's covered a game at Allen Fieldhouse knows that, at halftime, frozen custard is served to the scribes who didn't completely fill up on the free Chipotle burritos provided beforehand. So, yeah, maybe I do have the best gig in the world.
Either that or Guy Fieri does.
Fieri is the host of my favorite TV show: "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." Each week on the Food Network, Fieri takes viewers into some of the top greasy spoons across America and gives insight on how some of the country's best-blue collar grub makes its way from the kitchen to the table.
I don't carry a camera, and I'm not exactly a culinary expert. But I do have a keyboard and some pretty nimble fingers – and I know what tastes good.
Considering I've been on the road almost constantly since becoming Yahoo! Sports' college football and basketball writer a few months ago, I figure it would be selfish not to offer my impressions of some of the restaurants I visit across the country as well as telling stories about the folks I meet along the way.
So almost every week – notice I said almost; I reserve the right to diet – I'll be using this space to share some of my experiences as a sportswriter.
A few things you should know: I grew up in Texas, and am not hoity-toity. I like burgers, brats, barbecue and beer, not sushi, salmon, broccoli and wine. I'll offer a restaurant review each week in "May I Suggest" and, because I'm a certified connoisseur, I'll discuss some of my favorite wing haunts in "Lord of the Wings."
We won't just talk about food, either. This is a sports web site so there will be plenty of college football and hoops woven in to each column. My travels also allow me to meet plenty of other great writers and reporters, and they often tell some funny stories over postgame brews – stories that rarely make it onto the Internet or into the newspaper. I'll bring some of those conversations to life in "Riding Shotgun."
Finally, we'll give some of our female college sports fans a voice in "This Week's Spicy Dish," which is kicked off today by Playboy model and Dallas restaurant heiress Amber Campisi.
With that, I hope you enjoy traveling with the King of the Road. This column is for you, so feedback and suggestions are not only welcomed but encouraged. Feel free to let me know if I'm steering off course. I can always change directions.
• Jerryd Bayless – With an 18.5-point scoring average against a tough schedule, Arizona's point guard has been the top freshman in this highly touted class. Bayless is shooting 81.8 percent from the foul stripe and 47.6 percent from three-point range.
• Connie Britton – Seriously, is there a sexier TV mom than "Friday Night Lights"' Tami Taylor?
• Aussies – Andrew Ogilvy (Vanderbilt), Patrick Mills (St. Mary's), Aaron Bruce (Baylor), Aron Baynes (Washington State) and Aleks Maric (Nebraska). The boys from Down Under are taking over.
• Brunette Flight Attendant – To the stewardess working Southwest Flight 318 from San Diego to Kansas City on Dec. 21: Thank you so much for booting the spoiled, drunk, annoying punk – who claimed to be a Penn State alum from K.C.'s Pembroke Hill High School – off the plane. Christmas came early for about 150 passengers.
• Kanye West – Name a rap album released in 2007 that was better than "Graduation" and I'll buy it.
• Darnell Jackson – Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers might be the headliners for No. 3 Kansas. But with 10.8 points and 6.7 rebounds, Jackson has been the unsung hero. His numbers are even more impressive considering he's averaging just 22 minutes a game.
• Ian McCaw – Baylor's athletic director deserves his own "Sic 'em" chant for ignoring public pressure and hiring football coach Art Briles instead of Mike Singletary. If anyone can get it done at my alma mater – and I'm not sure anyone can – it's Briles.
• Trading Places – Forgot how much I loved this Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd classic until the missus bought me the DVD a few weeks ago. "I'm a ka-RA-te man! A ka-RA-te man bruise on the IN-side! " Long pause. "YEAH! "
• Oregon – Four returning starters from an Elite Eight team, and the Ducks already are toting losses to St. Mary's, Oakland and Nebraska. Amazing what happens when Ernie Kent goes up against a savvy coach (i.e. Randy Bennett and Doc Sadler).
• Fans at press conferences – Not that they had any choice because of deadlines, but it would have been great if Arkansas' beat writers walked out in the middle of Bobby Petrino's embarrassment of an introductory presser. Unbelievable.
• Billy Gillispie – Think someone's wishing they were back at Texas A&M right now?
• Moving walkway etiquette – Is there anything lazier than a person who hops onto a moving walkway at an airport and just stands there, right in the middle, so no one can get around them? "Sorry, sir. that hip-check wasn't intentional. Really."
• Mike Gundy – First he embarrasses himself and his school with his now infamous tirade against a newspaper columnist. Now the Oklahoma State football coach is telling the media that, if he were quarterback Bobby Reid, he wouldn't return to the team next season. "That's just me," Gundy said. "That's what may be going though my mind (if I were Reid)." And this guy gets a contract extension? Gundy has as much polish as my dad's old army boots.
• C.J. Giles – Nineteen fouls in four games has limited the transfer to just 12.5 minutes per contest. Not the best debut month for Oregon State's touted center.
• Microbreweries – Always hate the nasty look I receive when I walk into one of these places and order a Miller Lite. If their beer was that good, they wouldn't have to open a restaurant and coerce people into buying it. They'd sell it in the stores.
• Coaching "commitments" – Rich Rodriguez bolting for Michigan a year after signing a new contract at West Virginia reminded me that statements regarding loyalty are about as genuine as the Louis Vuitton purse I bought my sister for Christmas (shhh – she doesn't know).
Amber Campisi was a little pouty when the KOTR reached her by cell phone two Sundays ago. Her Dallas Cowboys had just dropped a 10-6 gut-wrencher to the Philadelphia Eagles thanks to three Tony Romo picks.
"Three interceptions – it was terrible," Playboy's Miss February 2005 said. "Plus, the cameras were more focused on Jessica Simpson and her pink Romo jersey than they were the field."
Campisi, who occasionally pops up on the hit TV show "The Girls Next Door," has been a sports fan her entire life thanks to her father, Corky, who owns one of the more legendary restaurants in Dallas. Take it from the KOTR, a Dallas native: If you haven't eaten a pizza at Campisi's Restaurant on Mockingbird Lane, you haven't experienced Big D. And you certainly won't find a hostess or bartender as easy on the eyes as the 26-year-old Amber, who couldn't have been more engaging during our Sunday sports chat.
KOTR: How closely did you follow sports growing up in Dallas?
AMBER: My dad is a huge sports fan, and he has no sons, so he drug his oldest daughter along to all the sporting events. We were always going to Cowboys games and Mavericks basketball games. I've been to an All-Star game, and I went to the Super Bowl last year in Miami.
KOTR: Tell me about the memorabilia room at your father's house.
AMBER: Ridiculous – it's eBay heaven. I'd probably be able to sell anything in there. He's been a sports fan forever, so he has a lot of friends who are coaches and umpires and players. Steve Palermo is one of his closest friends. Houston Nutt is a good friend of his. He comes and eats at the restaurant a lot. He's got signed baseballs and footballs and programs from different World Series – all kinds of stuff.
KOTR: What about college sports?
AMBER: He was always a big SMU fan. That's why I ended up going to SMU (from 1999 to 2003). He's always been supportive of SMU, even during their shady days with the death penalty and stuff. Eric Dickerson is a good friend of the family. We just got a Christmas card from him. I grew up around a bunch of athletes who are friends of his.
I had a lot of friends who went to Texas, too, so I've been to a lot of Texas games. I've been to the Texas-Oklahoma game ever since I was in high school. That's a huge Dallas tradition.
KOTR: Plus, when you were at SMU, the team wasn't exactly a national title contender.
AMBER: Not only was our team not very good, but we didn't even have a stadium. We played all of our games in the Cotton Bowl. It's a lot better now that we have a place to play. They have tailgating on campus, which draws a lot more students out to games. Now we're going to get a new coach, so maybe it will get even better.
I want SMU to do well. My family's restaurant is right down the street. People can go to the game and then come and eat.
KOTR: What have you been up to since appearing in Playboy in February 2005?
AMBER: I'm still working for Playboy. I've been traveling a lot the last couple of years, appearing at promotions and different parties and things. Now it's slowing down a little bit. My family's restaurant has always been a big part of my life. I want to take that over someday, so I'm probably going to stay in Dallas and start to pursue that full-time.
KOTR: So you're working there now?
AMBER: Oh yes. I've never stopped working there. I'm there on the weekends, and it always gets busier over the holidays, so I'll probably be there even more in the next few weeks. Sometimes I help hostess, sometimes I work behind the bar … I help out in any way I can. Eventually I'll be managing. I'll be the boss. Scary thought, huh? (Laughing).
KOTR: Back to sports: What have your experiences been like when it comes to dating athletes?
AMBER: The only athlete I dated was in high school, and I was pissed because he didn't get me a mum on Homecoming.
KOTR: Anyone you've got your eye on these days?
AMBER: Not really. I run into a lot of football players when I'm out in Dallas. Terence Newman is actually my neighbor.
KOTR: Reflect back on the day you did your Playboy shoot. Were you nervous at all, like an athlete before a big game?
AMBER: I was actually really comfortable. They made me feel great. Obviously they wanted me there, so I couldn't be embarrassed about that. I was excited to be there. I didn't want it be over.
KOTR: What parallels do you see between being an athlete and model such as yourself?
AMBER: A lot of traveling, for one thing. I've been able to do some really neat things like appearing at celebrity golf tournaments and all kinds of different parties. It's been a very fun experience. All the girls I met through Playboy have been so nice. That was shocking to me because girls can be really catty and really bitchy. But I've made some really, really good friends.
KOTR: From what it looks like on TV, one of those friends is Kendra Wilkinson from "The Girls Next Door." She may be an even bigger sports fan than you, right?
AMBER: She's a die-hard Chargers fan. I've been down to San Diego with her and hung out with a bunch of the Chargers players. She used to be a T.O. fan, but she's not anymore. I don't know what happened. She's a very cool girl, though. She's one of my closest friends.
KOTR: Close enough that you could convince her to do a Spicy Dish interview sometime down the line?
AMBER: Sure, maybe so. I'm going to Playboy's New Year's Eve Party. I'll definitely ask her about it then.
No one knows Texas A&M athletics better than Brent Zwerneman, who's in his eighth season as the Aggies beat writer for the San Antonio Express News. It's no surprise, then, that Zwerneman out-scooped the competition on the two biggest stories to come out of College Station in the last few years: The illegal VIP newsletter that cost football coach Dennis Franchione his job, and the decision of basketball coach Billy Gillispie to leave for Kentucky shortly after he had agreed to a new contract with the Aggies. The KOTR caught up with Zwerneman – who has authored two books about Texas A&M – for a brief Q&A session.
KOTR: How did the Franphony – oops, I mean Franchione – story unfold?
BRENT: I heard about it early in the season, but I never could get to him when the other reporters weren't around. I finally got him in private the Thursday before their conference opener. I told him I knew about it and he said, 'Is it really that big of a big deal?' I just said, 'I don't know. I guess we're going to find out.' I still can't figure out how he thought the whole newsletter thing was OK in the first place. His handler, Mike McKenzie, had the subscribers sign confidentiality agreements, but this thing was going out to a very zealous group of Aggie fans. How could they think they'd be able to keep everything under wraps? It was only a matter of time before someone found out.
KOTR: What was the media's reaction when he finally resigned? Was anyone sad to see him go?
BRENT: I can't say anyone really despised him. He was always helpful with us, or at least he tried to be. He wasn't always the most exciting quote. But he never went all "angry guy" on us, either. There wasn't a lot of bitterness toward him. Everyone was pretty much indifferent because we knew he was going to be out of here.
KOTR: What about Gillispie? He agreed to a new contract – but he never signed it because he knew the Kentucky job was still a possibility. How mad were the fans when he decided to bolt.
BRENT: It wasn't a very popular decision around here, but I also understood that, years ago, when Billy Gillispie was a high school coach in Texas, he was ordering Rick Pitino instructional videos from Kentucky and showing them to his teams. This was a dream come true for him.
KOTR: True, but he sure seemed to have things going well at Texas A&M.
BRENT: Yeah, but Billy saw things in black and white – not gray. He couldn't understand how he could build a top-10 basketball program for the first time in the school's history and still only have 6,000 or 7,000 people show up for a nonconference game in December. He knew that wouldn't be the case in Kentucky.
KOTR: Best football player you've ever covered?
BRENT: Dat Nguyen. He was probably the smartest player and the best player because he was able to combine those two attributes.
KOTR: Best player when it came to dealing with the media?
BRENT: Dante Hall was exceptional, and then there's a current guy that's off the charts: Martellus Bennett. The NFL beat writers who end up covering him are going to feel blessed.
KOTR: Same two questions for Texas A&M basketball.
BRENT: Acie Law is the best player, no contest. And best quote? Here's one for you: Brian Barone. He was a coach's son, so he knew his stuff. Honestly, since I've been on the beat, most everyone at Texas A&M has been great to deal with.
KOTR: Surely there was one sour apple.
BRENT: Yeah, there was this guy named Jaxson Appel, a safety for the Aggies. I guess he thought he was pretty cool because he was always real condescending. He led the team in tackles for a couple of years, but he played on some really bad defenses. My thought was always that if he played on a real Wrecking Crew defense, he'd have never touched the field except in scrub time. The media quit requesting him (for interviews) because he really wasn't that good. There were other guys on defense that we'd much rather have talked to. But the sports information department didn't get the hint because they kept bringing him to press conferences. We finally had to tell them, "Quit bringing him!"
Let's make one thing clear: There is no such thing as a bad hot wing. To me a subpar wing is a lot like a Yahoo! Sports column by Dan Wetzel. Even when it's bad, it's still really good. I've been a full-blown wingaholic ever since restaurant tycoon Sammy Citrano began serving them at George's Bar during my freshman year at Baylor – and after moving to Kansas City, I swore I'd never find a better bird than the one served at The Peanut.
Then I met Sean Callahan.
Sean – who runs Huskersillustrated.com at Nebraska – steered me to The Watering Hole on O Street a few months ago, and let's just say there's a little slice of heaven, right there in Lincoln. The key at The Watering Hole is to order the grilled wings – not the normal, run-of-the-mill, I-can-get-these-at-any-sports-bar wings. The chicken is as tender as a mother's love, and instead of slathering it on at the end, the sauce is cooked into the meat to give it even more flavor.
You'll never go to a chain wing joint again. There are far better wings to be sampled and devoured. Check back with me each week and I'll prove it.
Sean, by the way, sent me a text a few weeks ago after Bo Pelini's introductory press conference. "Guess where I am right now," it read.
That was cruel, Sean. Cruel.
I'm also a chili dog guy. Have been ever since the significant other and I stumbled out of Sloppy Joe's in Key West a few years ago and bought some street meat on the walk back to the hotel. Best dog I've ever had. Liked it so much that I went back the next day – sober – and ate two more.
The point is that, ever since then, I've been on a quest to find the perfect chili dog, one that will top the one I purchased from a guy named Dietrich that night on Duval Street. I'm not sure that dog exists – but if it does, it's certainly not at Pink's Hot Dogs in Los Angeles.
I know, I know. Pink's is legendary. Converted from a hot dog stand to a small building in 1946, Pink's has been a destination for celebrities and common folk for more than six decades. That's why – after hearing about Pink's on the Food Channel – I couldn't wait to drive down to Melrose and La Brea to try one of their famous 10-inch stretch chili dogs for myself.
My main beef with Pink's was that the wiener was too small. Stop that snickering, people! Stop it!
Anyway, the chili was delicious, and it tasted OK. But I honestly felt like I was eating a Slim Jim wrapped in a hot dog bun. A few times I even looked behind the counter to seek if Randy "Macho Man" Savage was manning the grill.
Feeling let down, I ordered another Pink's specialty: The bacon chili cheese dog, which featured three strips of bacon, tomatoes and cheese. Same problem: skinny, shriveled, Slim Jim-sized wiener.
Who knows? Maybe Pink's just had an off night. Or maybe the guy preparing my dog got offended when I said, "Nice hair net." But, hell, I meant it. Bottom line: I'm willing to give Pink's another shot. It's famous for a reason, and I will say that the onion rings were scrumptious.
Perhaps next time I'll try the Three Dog Night, which consists of three hot dogs wrapped in a giant tortilla with three slices of cheese, three strips of bacon, chili and onions. Dang, I just about got sick typing that. On second thought, bartender, I'll just have another Slim Jim.
• Chicken Fajita Pita – One of the country's most underrated fast food delicacies can be found at Jack in the Box. Only 280 calories and nine grams of fat in one of these bad boys – pretty healthy compared to the Ultimate Cheeseburger (1,010 and 71).
• Flamin' Hot Cheetos – A staple of any drive lasting longer than an hour. A bit messy, sure. But you can always wipe your fingers off under the seat of your rental car.
• Salsa at Chili's – If only they sold it in grocery stores.
• Uncle Vito's Pizza in San Francisco – I'm looking across the hotel room at the box and, folks, there ain't none left.
• Muscle Milk – I'll get back to you on the muscle part in, say, two years. But for a "healthy" drink, this stuff sure does taste good.
My Kansas City buddy, Derek Samson, offered up this one-liner a few days ago during a wing-eating session at The Peanut: What's the difference between Cheerios and the Alabama football team? Cheerios belong in a bowl.
I'm off to the treadmill. See you down the road.