Michael Holley has covered Boston sports from every angle—in print, on the radio and on television—and now he’s bringing those experiences to the COM classroom as a visiting professor. Photo by Conor Doherty
Boston’s journalist-of-all-trades discusses the sports media landscape, Brady and Belichick and what he’ll teach his COM students this fall
By Emma Guillén
Michael Holley has worked in journalism since he was 10—sort of. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, Holley delivered the daily paper every afternoon and would bring the extras home, tearing through the news, page by page. That same paper, the Akron Beacon Journal, hired him for his first journalism job in 1992. Five months in, he was asked to be part of a team investigating race relations. In 1994, that project received a Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service.
Holley credits his experience working on the series, “A Question of Color,” for teaching him how to dig deep as a reporter, but he always dreamed of writing about sports. In 1994, he made the leap from the small daily to the Boston Globe as a reporter and columnist, where he covered Boston sports for a decade—including the New England Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory. Other than a brief stint at the Chicago Tribune, Holley continued with the Globe until 2004, when he began his radio career on WEEI.
The best-selling author and NBC Sports Boston host now will be influencing the next generation of beat reporters as a visiting professor at COM. COMtalk sat down with Holley to learn more about his illustrious career, what he hopes to instill in his students and his passion for Boston sports.
COMtalk: When you look back over your career so far, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Michael Holley: I would say the biggest achievement is being in the business at all, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But what really stands out to me is being part of that Pulitzer Prize–winning team.
It was 12 reporters. Lots of photographers, assignment editors. The reason I liked that so much was because it was a collaborative effort. It wasn’t about the individual.
It helped me see the importance of reporting. And people don’t usually talk about it this way, but the creativity of reporting. Of just digging and digging and talking to people. We were able to mix the hard-core data with the anecdotes, and put it together into a project that really struck people. It got the whole community talking about race.
Is there a medium you prefer in sports journalism?
I think they’re all important, but I got my start as a writer. That’s what I always come back to. And I will always advocate for strong writing skills. Even if you just want to be on sports radio, you have to have good writing skills.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Talking to people and hearing people’s stories. When I was growing up, I always was drawn to storytellers. My grandmother would talk to her friends or talk to her sisters, and I would just sit there and listen. I knew I was becoming a better communicator when she would let me ask questions and listen to my stories.
“The sports fan in you gives you fuel. It stops you from wondering, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I awake at 2:30 working on this?’” Holley says. “But the irrational part of being a sports fan has to step to the side.” Photo by Conor Doherty
Least favorite part?
In journalism, we used to try to pretend there was such a thing as objectivity. There are many reporters who used to brag about not voting because they wanted to appear to be objective. I say you’re an American before you’re a journalist. I think it’s something that we should talk about; it will inform our reporting and make us all better.
Should politics be injected into sports reporting? Or should sports be seen only as an escape?
We should always follow the story. If you are writing or talking about LeBron James, and he has tweeted at the president, and he has talked about social justice, that’s the story. I think it’s reckless to leave it out in the name of escapism. Now, you bring your own political ideas into a story where it doesn’t belong, I think that’s strange.
“We should always follow the story. If you are writing or talking about LeBron James, and he has tweeted at the president, and he has talked about social justice, that’s the story.”
How did you handle the pressure of breaking stories?
It’s more challenging now than it was when I started. When I was covering teams, it was still pretty much a newspaper model. I was competing with a guy at the [Boston] Herald. The first edition of the Herald would come out around 11 o’clock at night. I’d turn to the back, see where the Celtics coverage was, and then, if there was nothing in there, I could go to sleep. Now, you’ve got to be on edge at all times.
Do you believe that there’s such a thing as work-life balance in your field?
It’s essential. The reason it’s controversial is because you’re not collecting every single dollar. That’s not really my focus. I have three children. I had no relationship with my dad, and that has kind of pushed me as a father. I pretty much do the opposite of what I had growing up.
In sports, you look at the news breakers like Adam Schefter in the NFL and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. I don’t know how they do it. I’m sure some of my students will say, “How do I become the next Woj? How do I become the next Schefter?” I can tell you how to do that. But now it’s on you. There was a big NBA story a few weeks ago: Kawhi Leonard was traded from the Spurs to the Raptors. Woj broke the story at 1:23 am. He probably doesn’t sleep. But that’s the expectation. Everybody looks to him.
What’s the biggest challenge students will face when entering the profession today?
Exclusive access is more challenging now in sports, especially if you’re interested in pro sports. Players are walking corporations. For example, when Tom Brady first started, he would do an interview at his locker and you could get some one-on-one time, and that was early 2000s. Now, Brady recently gave an exclusive interview with a site called the Religion of Sports, a Tom Brady business venture. You aren’t competing with another reporter now. You’re competing with him to get the information. But this is the great thing about reporters: we adjust.
If you were to recommend one area of journalism for newcomers to get their start in, what would it be? Print, radio, TV?
If the opportunity is there, I’d say take the opportunity. You never know the skills that you’ll develop there that will prepare you for the next job. It may not be exactly what you want, but once you start your career, these opportunities will open up for you when you’re not even looking for them.
Holley discusses his radio and writing careers with his former cohost Kirk Minihane on the WEEI “Enough About Me” podcast. WEEI.com
How do you strike the balance between being a sports fan and a sports writer?
The sports fan in you gives you fuel. It stops you from wondering, “Why am I doing this? Why am I awake at 2:30 working on this?” But the irrational part of being a sports fan has to step to the side. You have to repress that as best you can.
What’s something we can all learn about success from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick?
Preparation. And going outside of your comfort zone to bring in another wrinkle, something else that you don’t already have. Bill Belichick (Hon.’04) spends a lot of time on the phone talking to other coaches. Brady studies like crazy. When they beat Seattle in the  Super Bowl, he watched all of their games. I think preparation is something you can bring to any field. When I was working on my first book on the Patriots [Patriot Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches, and the Players Who Built a Champion], I spent a lot of time up close watching them. It took my preparation to another level, because I could see how much they put into it.
Holley discusses his book Belichick and Brady on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. Fox Sports
If you could interview a Boston athlete from any era, who would it be?
Bill Russell. Eleven championships in 13 years, so that speaks for itself. Bill Russell (Hon.’02) was saying and doing things in the ’50s and ’60s that a lot of athletes are still afraid to do. He would call out the city, he would call out racism. The league was probably at most 3 percent black. I would love to hear his perspective on the evolution of the game, the evolution of the city.
Boston has a dominant sports culture. How would you describe it?
It’s a part of the city. There’s no escape. I remember years ago, writing a column at Fenway Park. After the game, I went to the clubhouse to interview a couple of players. Jane Swift was the governor of Massachusetts at the time. “Hey, Michael! I want to talk to you about your column. I have a bone to pick with you.” The governor! That’s Boston. It’s not a city where people like sports. It’s a sports city.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.