Two surprises accompanied the news this past week that ace college sports reporter Pete Thamel is leaving Yahoo! Sports for ESPN in a multiplatform role.
1. Thamel didn’t break the news himself, since he breaks pretty much every story of significance that involves college football, including the recent mega-scoop that coach Brian Kelly was leaving Notre Dame for Louisiana State.
2. That ESPN didn’t figure out a way to bring him aboard much sooner.
Thamel’s hiring — his first day in the new gig is Saturday — is a classic ESPN case of, “If we can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em,” reminiscent of when it brought perpetual NBA newsbreaker Adrian Wojnarowski over from Yahoo! Sports in June 2017.
Thamel joins a deep roster of accomplished, deeply sourced reporters at ESPN, including Wojnarowski, Adam Schefter on the NFL, and Jeff Passan on major league baseball.
Thamel’s official title is college football senior writer, but he will also cover some college basketball, and the multiplatform role will include frequent television and radio duties, including contributions to the legendary studio show “College GameDay.”
“ESPN, as they say in their promos, is the home for college football,” said Thamel, who grew up in Ware and lives in South Boston. “It has such a power and such a reach. And no place is more invested in the sport.
“They’ve got billions in television contracts. College football really matters there, more than anywhere else, a great reach, and an awesome roster of people who tell the stories in so many different ways.”
In a sense, Thamel’s achievements as a newsbreaker are more impressive than those of reporters who cover a specific professional sport, since college football is so sprawling, requiring a sprawling network of connections for a national reporter.
“College football is this bizarre world,” said Thamel. ‘’[Yahoo! Sports columnist] Dan Wetzel used to say on the podcast that we used to do that if somebody showed up from Mars, or even from Switzerland or someplace, and you had to explain college football to them, it would take you 45 minutes.
“It’s like, ‘Well, he can go here, and he can sign there, but you can get an NIL deal, and that guy’s in the transfer portal, and he’ll have to sit out a year, but maybe he won’t have to sit out a year.’
“It’s just this beautiful mess that’s woven through the fabric of so many different communities and different places.”
Growing up in Ware, Thamel followed sports through the familiar prism for Boston, dedicating the vast majority of fandom to the professional teams.
“The Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots, Larry Bird, Roger Clemens, that parochial world,” he said. “My joke now is when you meet people in Boston in social situations and they ask what you do, when you say you cover college football, they say, ‘Do you think they’ll let you cover the NFL someday?’ The grand paradox is that Boston is the best college town in America, and one of the most apathetic college sports towns.”
Thamel’s eyes and mind were opened to the appeal of college athletics when he got to see it up close as a student at Syracuse. His four years overlapped with Donovan McNabb’s four seasons as the Orange’s quarterback, while Jim Boeheim’s men’s basketball team reached the national championship game in 1996.
“And I got kind of this view of this wacky world and knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Thamel said. “College football and covering it as a reporter is just so unlike anything else. You’re in Eugene, Ore., one week, and you’re in Coral Gables, Fla., the next week, and then you’re in Morgantown, W.Va., and Austin, Texas. You’re in El Paso one week and federal court the next. And Rutgers is in the same league as Iowa. It’s this wonderful world for all of its complications and unwieldiness every Saturday, I don’t think there’s anything better.”
It’s apparent to anyone familiar with his work — and work ethic — that Thamel will thrive in his new job, much of which is practically tailored for his long-proven skill set. Being on television so often will take some getting used to, he said, but that challenge is part of the appeal after 19 years of covering national college football.
“I’ve been to the places, I’ve written a lot of stories, and they’re always new and fresh. I’m not bored by that by any means,” he said. “But now I have another vehicle to tell stories. Energizing is the right word. I have to learn this new way to convey the stories. I’m looking forward to getting going and getting acclimated.
“My wife, upon hearing the news that I’ll be on television, immediately bought me a nose hair trimmer,” Thamel said with a laugh. “So that’s a major difference already.”