Father’s Day Q&A on mentorship

By Barbara Wiedemann

Father-and-son duo Scott and Chapel Fowler found themselves exchanging “attaboys” in March when the sportswriters were singled out by the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) with seven Top 10 awards between them — Scott in Breaking News, Event Coverage (with a team of colleagues) and Long Feature categories; Chapel in Beat Writing, Event Coverage (with a team), Short Feature and Projects (with a team).

Chapel is a 2020 UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media graduate. He just announced a career move to sports reporter with the State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, primarily covering Clemson football. He has been reporting on statewide high school recruiting and ACC sports for the Fayetteville Observer and other newspapers in the Gannett/USA TODAY North Carolina Sports Network. He started his career as a one-man sports desk for the Chatham News + Record.

Scott, a Carolina j-school graduate of another vintage (1987), has been covering sports for the Charlotte Observer since four years before Chapel was born. Prior to the Observer, Scott wrote about sports for the Miami Herald (1990–94) and the Louisville Courier-Journal (198790). The elder Fowler has authored or co-authored eight books on sports, including three about UNC basketball history. He hosted the Observer’s sports-related true crime series “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”

We caught up with the Fowlers in honor of Father’s Day 2022 to talk about who is mentoring whom and other thoughts on how to be an award-winning sportswriter and even more importantly, a good father. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Q

Let’s start with (maybe) the most obvious question. Scott, I know you and your wife Elise are 1987 UNC-Chapel Hill graduates, and that Chapel is the oldest of your four children. What’s the story behind his name? Was that a secret way for a “nondenominational” sportswriter based in Charlotte to root for UNC?!

SCOTT: Well, Elise named all the kids. Which seems only fair since she was the one having the children. Yes, it was some of that and also — we’re Christians so “chapel” for church — and yes, we had such fond memories of Chapel Hill. All four kids have place names: Chapel, Salem, London and Georgia. Only one went to UNC. The middle two are at App State. Georgia we’re hoping will carry on the Chapel Hill tradition.

CHAPEL: Georgia’s already taking community college classes in high school. She’s strait-laced and on track. She is far more mature than I was at that age.

SCOTT: None of the others are interested in sportswriting. They will all do different things, and that’s good. You don’t want to put all your eggs in the journalism basket.

 

Q

Scott, longtime instructor and political reporter Paul O’Connor wanted me to ask you: What replaces sports as your escape from the world’s messes if you can’t be a fan?

SCOTT: That’s a good question. How do I escape, since I have to be so objective about sports that I can’t be a fan? Well, I’m a big reader. I like novels. And I do play a lot of tennis — that’s my escape. I can’t be a fan of anybody, unfortunately. So I coach a high school tennis team and have done that for 10 years. Chapel played on it. His younger brother played on it. I liked it enough to keep going. It’s a good way to keep current with teenagers. If I didn’t do this, I probably would’ve been a teacher or a coach. So coaching scratches that itch.

 

Q

Which brings me to the second most obvious question: with a name like Chapel, did you HAVE to root for Chapel Hill teams growing up?!

CHAPEL: Growing up, I had the usual blind fandom.

One of the cooler things about growing up the kid of a sportswriter is that it was an early lesson by proxy about the technical aspects of the job. You wouldn’t believe the number of times people would ask me, “Can your dad get me” a ticket to a game, or an autograph. You don’t want to roll your eyes. They’re asking because sports are exciting and interesting.  But I learned that’s not how it works behind the scenes.

Yes, I grew up a huge Carolina fan. Once I got locked on sportswriting midway through junior year of high school — after I realized I wasn’t going to be a fine artist — I had a nice framework to work under, and a bit of a head start. I knew about his work schedule and how our family worked around his schedule. Sunday is a fun day to sit in a stadium, but it’s hard to file that Sunday night story, or to work late and travel on weekends, for example. So I saw both sides. The fun, happy side, and the harder job aspects.

Chapel and Scott Fowler covering a 2017 high school championship game at the Smith Center

Q

Was 2017 your second year on campus? Did it feel like destiny when the Tar Heels won the NCAA championship game against Gonzaga?

CHAPEL: That was my freshman year. Right before my pivot into full-on objectivity! I went to that game as a fan, with a few suitemates. Student tickets were dirt cheap, so we paid maybe $20 or $24 each and just had to figure out how to cover the flight. And Dad was there covering it. What a good game!

SCOTT: That was a great last hurrah. If you could be a “fan” not a sportswriter for any one game, that was a good way to go out.

CHAPEL: Yes! Because I was the sports editor at the Daily Tar Heel by proxy later that summer. Which I was more than happy to be! But that’s when the fandom ended. I still enjoy watching highlights of that game.

 

Q

Here’s a related question from Steve Kirschner, senior associate director of athletics for communications at UNC Athletics. He would like to know if you’ve compared notes about interviewing Roy Williams versus Dean Smith [Carolina men’s basketball coaches prior to Coach Hubert Davis]?

CHAPEL: I wish I had the clout to get a one-on-one interview with Roy Williams. Writing for a student paper means you only get one or two instances a semester where you ask for something like that. I never really had this great idea or huge moment worth throwing our one or two lifelines into the water for a one-on-one with Coach Williams. But I did learn a lot from Dad about navigating University Athletics. Where to go. How to walk. What not to do in the bowels of the Smith Center. Access-wise it was different in my day than it was in his. We had more group settings with the coach — which you can get plenty out of, too. And yes, I’ve heard a few Dean Smith stories.

SCOTT: Like Chapel, I got into working with the Daily Tar Heel it must’ve been around the end of freshman/beginning of sophomore year at Chapel Hill. Mike Persinger [a 1985 alumnus of the school] would later become my boss at the Charlotte Observer. He was two years older and helped me get onto the staff. I really admired him.

Back then, they had try-outs. Maybe 20 students applied, and the paper kept three or four of us. I remember the quiz said, “Why do you want to be a DTH sportswriter?” And, “Have you ever met God?” Then it said, “Because his office is in Carmichael Auditorium.” This was at a time when Coach Smith’s reputation was at such a height. It loomed over the campus, really.

It took me a year or two to understand that he was just a person, not a god.

But absolutely both Dean Smith and Roy Williams really cared about student journalists. They made sure to answer even dumb questions. I had to call Dean Smith once at his house to check a fact. I was nervous. He couldn’t have been more gracious — after pointedly asking where I got that phone number.

Roy Williams was the same way. He treated student sports journalists very well. I think he understood, having gone to UNC and working his way up from the bottom of the totem pole, so to speak. I think they both genuinely tried to help student journalists, to not talk only to the Sports Illustrated reporters. They cared about the grassroots.

Speaking of the DTH: they have a really cool program right now that we are both a part of. It’s a bunch of former UNC sportswriter alums who critique DTH sportswriters. We didn’t start it, a guy named Aaron Beard [a 1999 alumnus of the school], an AP sportswriter, did.

CHAPEL: Aaron is a great journalist, and the skills transfer. I think we call it the “DTH Sports Critique Slack Channel.” Aaron and some alums wanted to find a way to give back in a targeted way. Over the last three years, the DTH sports editor will send in three stories from the staff on a weekly basis through fall and spring semesters. All topics and types of stories, from basketball to field hockey to a sidebar profile. And writers on the Slack channel get personal edits and coaching from an alumnus. Technically I think I’m the first person to go from getting advice to offering it. I’m sure I won’t be the last.

It’s not easy to get the feedback, but taking critiques well is a learning process. And I’m still learning, on the other side of the equation, how to give constructive criticism. This year, summer sports editor Shelby Swanson [a UNC Hussman rising sophomore] reached out to us so there’s a small six-person summer group volunteering to look at two stories a week.

SCOTT: How many alums are involved, all together?

CHAPEL: Something like 20 or 25. Enough to parse it out. No one has too much on their plate.

SCOTT: When I wrote for the DTH, I got feedback on an ad-hoc basis. Larry Keith [a 1969 alumnus of the school] is a big supporter of the school. He was working at Sports Illustrated at the time. He had been a writer and at that point he was an editor. He’d come to meet with a group of us on campus and he said, “If you want me to look at something, I will do it.”

So I mailed him a typewritten story. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. He couldn’t have been nicer. But he returned it just brimming with red marks. Which was invaluable! It showed me a path of how much better I had to get, in a gentle way. We kept in touch off and on.

Curry Kirkpatrick [a 1965 alumnus of the school] also wrote for Sports Illustrated. He was such a clever writer, and I was very enamored of his writing style.

At the Miami Herald there was a former DTH sports editor named Linda Robertson [a 1983 alumna of the school]. She is a super-talented person. She’s now writing for the Herald. We talked a lot of Tar Heel stuff back then. Turns out there are Tar Heel alums all over the place.

 

Q

Speaking of great editors: Chapel, does that make you think of any UNC Hussman faculty from your student days?

CHAPEL: [Adjunct Coordinator and Stembler Professional in Residence] John Robinson is a wonderful editor. [Adjunct Instructor] Tim Crothers — man, he’s the best. The most I learned writing-wise was in Tim’s sportswriting class and John’s feature writing class. JR enjoys concise, smart writing that is not too flowery. “Get to the point and do it creatively.” He’s really good for those types of edits. Tim is so humble, but he’s a stupid good writer. He’s so good on the larger, conceptual stuff. I think about him now because I am working on ending stories on a better note. I tend to work so hard on the lede. I am learning to expand that. Tim likes subheads. He says it gives him the opportunity to write more ledes and more kickers. “Ledes and kickers. Ledes and kickers.” He talked about that a lot in class!

 

Q

Who were some other professors at the j-school who encouraged you?

SCOTT: Jim Shumaker was fantastic and I took every class he taught. Raleigh Mann was a master of copy editing. Val Lauder was a great feature writing teacher. And both Dean Richard Cole and Tom Bowers, the associate dean during my years there in the 1980s, made it a point to encourage me as a student and afterward as a graduate, too. They asked me to come back a few times for various reasons and I remember thinking: “Man, I sure wish one of my kids ends up here on this campus one day.”

CHAPEL: “MEJO 153: Writing & Reporting” Adjunct Instructor Christa Gala [a 1994 graduate of the school] easily instilled rules of commas and apostrophes and such, was really effective at teaching the basics. Non-essential clauses, what gets set off. [Associate Professor] Victoria “Tori” Ekstrand taught me media law, and she’s brilliant. I learned a ton from her. Media ethics I learned from Ph.D. student Farnosh Mazandarani [who earned her Ph.D. in 2022], a unique and awesome teacher. That was a class like no other, because of her previous career in TV censorship.

Chapel and Scott Fowler before covering a 2020 UNC vs. Duke basketball game.

Q

Chapel, you spent all four undergraduate years on the sports desk at the DTH. Your farewell column says you wrote 239 stories there. I take it you knew from an early age that you wanted to follow in your dad’s footsteps as a sportswriter. Did you ever want to throw a curveball and write about politics or business instead?
 

CHAPEL: It’s a frequent sportswriting refrain that you never work a day in your life. That may be true for journalists as a whole. I’m sure there are political writers out there who feel the same way. Or business writers. But for me, it was always sports.

In the fall of 2016, I was shadowing two random reporters at a UNC mens soccer game at Fetzer Field. I thought it was cool. They’d sit, watch and then be responsible for documenting this game. I still get that rush when I’m leaving a game or event with a good story. I want to get out there. That’s still fun. I guess the reason is that I love sports so much on their own. I can’t be a fan of any one team, but I’m a fan of good college basketball, for example. Good sports is fun to watch. Some people have this idea that sportswriters are crabby, miserable people who are not a fan of anything. I think we relish good competition.

That UNC vs. Duke game in 2020 for example — that may be the most memorable game I ever covered. Regardless of the result. It was so extreme, so crazy, so improbable. One in a million! And I was there to write about it. What an awesome privilege.

SCOTT: That was one of the few times we overlapped. That was the game where Tre Jones intentionally missed a free throw by throwing it off the front rim, then got his own rebound and scored. I’d never seen that before.

We sportswriters are fans of OT. Sudden death. The dramatics of it. That’s what you root for: something that transcends the normal. I still get that even now. I’ve covered some terrible Panthers games, but I walk into the press box each time and think, “Wow, something really magical could happen today, and I’m lucky to do this and be here for it.”

I still love all sports. A high school game, for example. Some of the best journalism around is written about high school sports. I am proud of Chapel’s work at the Fayetteville Observer, that he found so many good stories covering high school kids before he took this new college job.

The stories are out there, you just have to find them. They’re everywhere! I’m super proud of the way he’s handled that.

He never asks me for anything, but now we do read each other’s work. I have long understood that he’s way better at 24 than I was at 24. He is a peer now. I’ll get him to read the stories that really matter. Read them as a journalist. He does that sometimes with me. We critique each other.

 

Q

Chapel, you did a summer internship at the Charlotte Observer in 2018. Did you and your dad cross paths? Did the experience shed a light on his job that you maybe didn’t fully grasp as a kid when he was heading off to work at weird hours or with late-night deadlines?

CHAPEL: We shared a front page or two, separate stories but both on the front page of the sports section, which was fun. That was my first experience in a professional newsroom. Mike Persinger, who we talked about earlier, was a direct editor of mine. He’s another wonderful mentor and a genius editor. He taught me the difference between “like” and “such as” for example, when to use “less” and when to say “fewer” — “fewer” for tangibles. “Less” for love or loss or anger. It was a fun summer. 

SCOTT: I never supervised nor hired Chapel obviously, and I tried to stay out of recommending him. That would be awkward in a lot of ways — if he got it or if he didn’t. I’ve watched his career blossom from a distance. Proudly!

I do remember that summer when he wrote for Persinger. You always think your own kids are good but don’t know how objective you are. That summer, some colleagues I respected were editing Chapel and they’d say, “Your son turned in a masterpiece,” and encourage me to read it in the system before it ran in the paper. I’d smile and say, “That is really something.” For example, his story on that guy who lived on a billboard for five weeks waiting for the Charlotte Hornets to win consecutive games. It’s crazy how well that story came out. I don’t think I could have done it quite so well.
 

Q

Chapel, we talked about alumnus Larry Keith a while back. You were the recipient of a number of alumni scholarships and awards at UNC Hussman, things like the Don & Barbara Curtis Fund for Extracurricular Activities, the Ann Sawyer Cleland Scholarship and the Larry & Carolyn Keith Awards. How does that kind of support affect your college career?
 

CHAPEL: Above all else, it made me feel flattered and honored. It’s a cool concept: specific alumni set up specific scholarships and awards to help specific people. I remember I used the funding from one to finance a trip to Los Angeles for the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation [a California-based journalism essay contest], where I attended their 20-year reunion and made contacts in the field.

I’ve met Larry and Carolyn Keith at a dinner. They’re awesome.

Giving back is important to me and will continue to be. I’m where I am today not because I’m a genius or whiz kid but because of so many people like them who support students. I could go down a list and never stop on this topic. Internship editors. UNC faculty. DTH colleges editors. So many people helped along the way. So it seems only fair that I do the same.

 

Q

Scott, we talked in the intro about this year’s APSE awards. I know you have won a bushelbasket of national writing awards in your day — 18 APSEs at last count? But this must have been an extremely special year. Can you describe finding out that you’d won three to Chapel’s four APSE awards?

SCOTT: They come out scattershot in a rolling way. Every two hours you’ll see another one. I was keeping count as it went along. There is no one I would rather lose to in terms of overall awards. I worked for three years at the Courier-Journal and four at the Miami Herald and didn’t get a single APSE. I was in my 30s at the Charlotte Observer before I got that kind of recognition. Chapel is way ahead on that count for sure. I was very happy for him. That’s a big deal! In our industry, you know those are difficult to get.

 

Q

Chapel, everyone has that story about how as a kid, they pictured themselves as Mia Hamm scoring the Olympic goal or Michael Jordan sinking a NCAA-winning basket. Did you ever pretend you were Scott Fowler, stepping up to accept an APSE award?

CHAPEL: Literally follow in his footsteps? No, I was too interested in comic books and my failed artist career to understand what APSE really meant. And I have to note that I won just two individual awards. The other two were group awards with lots of colleagues’ help. I have a colleague who won six APSEs at the Fayetteville Observer. But it is really awesome to get the editors’ recognition. It’s a niche, specific industry award where you’re judged by accomplished sports editors. The message you’re receiving is that you’re on the right track. You’re doing the type of work that editors see as important. Which is a good gauge for what an audience wants. We don’t write for the awards. But it is flattering to anybody in any industry to be recognized by your peers.

SCOTT: I have to add that an even bigger moment, even more than APSE Day, was the day that Chapel got into Chapel Hill. That moment I do remember. He wanted to go there so badly. You know how hard it is to get in, and how they let you know by email. He went upstairs to look on his own. That day I felt: he’s smart enough to get into Chapel Hill. It’s probably going to work out okay. He’s our oldest child, and I knew how badly he wanted it. We’d been there many times as a family. That was a super important day.

UNC Hussman alumni Chapel and Scott Fowler

Q

Chapel, in what ways did your dad mentor you as a human and as a sportswriter?

CHAPEL: As a sportswriter, he’s steady. He's been churning out great stuff for years and still finding ways to improve and stay sharp. For me, the best example is the Rae Carruth series you mentioned — not just the podcast but the stories that came with it and the stories that came before it. You could teach a class on that, honestly. It's ethical and empathetic and victim-focused — sometimes those things can get lost in true crime media — but it allows space for everyone else's voice, too. It's a masterclass, really. Smooth, balanced. Same for his Tony Suarez feature. Obviously he can write a scorched-earth column with the best of them, too ... And he’s a great sportswriter because he’s a great human. Really patient, which is something I try to model. He does a really good job of separating work from home, and he’s good at being available, being present. I can remember being really fired up back in the day at some DTH drama that feels stupid now and him listening to me rant for a while and then giving me the very cliche advice to just slow down a bit and not make any rash decisions and realize where this stood in the grand scheme of things — which wasn’t that high. I probably didn’t want to hear it at the time, but he was right. I learn stuff from him and my mom all the time, even more now that I’m a bit older — if you’re allowed to claim hindsight at age 24. That's the long-winded way of saying yes, he’s been a great mentor in sportswriting and in life. Lucky to have him.

 

Q

Scott, Father’s Day is just a few days away. What’s the secret to being a good dad? Any commonalities with being a good sportswriter?

SCOTT: I don’t think anyone knows the secret, but I do know being a Dad is the most important job I’ll ever have and I try to treat it that way.


It helped that my own late Dad, who had a doctorate in statistics and interests very different from mine, was a wonderful father. He was a terrific listener and had this generous laugh that made you feel like you were Jerry Seinfeld performing stand-up every time you told him anything remotely funny. His greatest gift was making everyone around him feel good.


My Mom is still alive and similarly supportive — I always knew my parents were on my side.


So that’s what I mostly try to do with our kids, with varying success. I’ve taught three Fowler kids to drive already and am teaching the fourth one now, and that’s never gotten any easier. But I’ve also coached all four of our kids in either basketball, tennis or soccer, and I’ve loved doing that. It helps me understand them.


As for commonalities with sportswriting, I’ve thought of three:

• Show up when you say you’re going to show up.

• Don’t ask any question that can be answered only with a “yes” or a “no” response.

• Try not to get mad at the other people on your “team,” whether it’s your spouse or your editor. They’re doing their best. Life’s hard enough. You need them.

 

Photos courtesy Chapel and Scott Fowler.