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The Buffalo Rumblings interview: Buffalo News sports reporter Jay Skurski

The Buffalo News beat reporter on the state of the Bills, his favorite interviews, and recent changes at BN sports.

The first eight months of 2018 have been a tumultuous time at The Buffalo News. A number of longtime bylines have either quit, taken a buyout, or been reassigned to new roles at the paper. The recent expansion of The Athletic into the Buffalo market has given the sports department its first serious competitor since the Courier-Express closed its doors in 1982, and that competitor arrives at a time when The News is struggling to create successful subscription-based content models of its own.

As the dust created by all this change has started to settle, Jay Skurski has emerged as one of the most valuable assets currently walking around One News Plaza. Skurski’s ability to handle a heavy workload has been invaluable to The News as it works through a transitional period— there have been several days this year when it appeared as though he was writing the entire sports section all by himself. No writer at the paper makes the switch between beat reporting and commentary more deftly than Skurski, and his public relationship with his readers demonstrates that it’s actually possible for a sportswriter to maintain a respectful and fun relationship with fans on social media.

Recently, Skurski generously took time away from covering the team to reflect on the eight men who have passed through the head coach turnstile on his watch, his biggest concerns with the current Buffalo Bills roster, and what it was like to watch several friends and colleagues leave The News earlier this year.

Your wife, Melissa, anchors the Daybreak newscast on Channel 2 and you’re on call 24/7 as the Bills beat reporter for The Buffalo News. What are the biggest challenges associated with balancing two demanding careers and raising a family?

We’re lucky to have our parents around as babysitters, because there are times Melissa has to shoot a story and I have to be out in Orchard Park, or I’m traveling and we need Elliott to sleep over at his grandparents.

Melissa’s alarm goes off at 2:15 a.m. – no matter how long a person is on that schedule, they never totally get used to it – so she consistently amazes me with how she can go to work in the dead of night, and come home and be a great mom. The benefit to going into work so early is that she is usually out by about noon. That’s great because she gets to spend so much time with our son. If there was one key word to make it all work, it’s … naps! When she’s able to get one, it makes the rest of the day easier.

Our challenges aren’t unlike any other couple with children – namely finding enough time in the day to get everything done outside of work that needs to get done. We are both so fortunate to be able to raise our son surrounded by family and friends, working our dream jobs in our hometown. We don’t take that for granted.

This is a Buffalo Bills site, but I think I’m allowed to ask a mushy question once in a while. How did you guys meet and fall in love?

In a bar! R.I.P. to the old Cozumel on Elmwood— what a romantic, right?

It was totally random. Melissa’s best friend and one of my friends went to high school together, and they happened to bump into each other. That led to our groups talking. On the way home that night, I told my friend that he should invite Missy (that’s what she goes by outside TV) and her friend to a party he was throwing the next week. He did, they came, and we spent the night talking. I asked for her number and we went on our first date not long after that.

When we got engaged, I took her back to the spot where we had our first date, which was along the Niagara River at Niawanda Park after ice cream at Mississippi Mudd’s .

Your ascent up the sports media food chain seems like a fairly quick one— a little over a dozen years ago, you were assembling the police blotter for The Tonawanda News. How much of your career success can be attributed to hard work and how much is just pure, unadulterated good luck?

I would hope my bosses would say it’s a lot of the former, and certainly the latter helped, too. I knew former Buffalo News managing editor Howard Smith’s son, so when I was just out of college and working at Greater Niagara Newspapers, I would send him some clips from time to time for his feedback.

Howard called me one day in December 2008 and offered me a part-time job at The News as a clerk. That involved taking high school calls and putting together box scores. I’d be leaving a full-time job with benefits, vacation, etc., but figured that if I was ever going to make it to The News, I had a better chance with one foot inside the building. I told Missy my plan – to her credit she didn’t panic even after I had just asked her to marry me a couple months earlier – and accepted the job. I worked in that role for just a couple months before going full-time in March 2009.

I spent my early years at The News working primarily as a copy editor, but knew I wanted to get back to writing and reporting as soon as possible. Those opportunities started to come, and I like to think I’ve taken advantage of them. I owe a debt of gratitude to Howard Smith, former sports editors Steve Jones and Lisa Wilson, and our current leader, Josh Barnett, for their faith in me. I hope to continue to earn their trust, as well as the trust of our readership.

The impression from here is that you really enjoy putting together your Sunday mailbag column every week— that column is required reading in our home throughout the year. How would you contrast writing that sort of opinion piece to your work as a beat reporter?

First off, thank you. That’s just about the best compliment any writer can receive. You’re right that I really enjoy putting together the mailbag. Along with the report card I do after games, it might be my favorite thing that I write. There is definitely a correlation between the two, in that I’m able to express my opinion. The days of beat writers pretending like they don’t have opinions are long gone. Being able to express them, I think, is a positive development. Especially with the mailbag, it also allows me a chance to show some of my personality. Whether that’s talking about golf or ending each week with the most ridiculous question I get, hopefully that comes through.

If I’m reporting news, my goal is to objectively present the facts. If I’m writing a feature story, I try to provide people with a reason why they should care about the person featured. In everything I write, my hope is that the reader comes away feeling like they’ve learned something.

My goal with opinion-based articles like the mailbag or report card is to be fair. If a player, coach or the team is, in my opinion, deserving of criticism, then I’ll be critical. I know that I’ll be going into the locker room the very next day, so if I’m going to write something, I better be prepared to explain why. Similarly, if the team is deserving of praise, then I’ll write that, too. I believe that I’m able to differentiate between the two roles successfully.

By my count, seven different head coaches have passed through the turnstile at One Bills Drive since you first joined The News in 2009. Which of those coaches has impressed you the most?

*Gets out abacus* Let’s see, if we go back to my time at Greater Niagara Newspapers, I’ve covered Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell, Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan, Anthony Lynn and now Sean McDermott.

The easy answer is McDermott. Ending a 17-year playoff drought in his first season with a team I thought would win only six or seven games is impressive. I especially thought the way he handled that brutal three-game losing streak last year was a job well done. The season easily could have gotten away from the team then, but McDermott kept everyone together, owned his mistake in changing quarterbacks, and rallied the group for a huge win in Kansas City.

McDermott wasn’t perfect in his first season. I can’t say enough how much I hated the decision to try a field goal in the fourth quarter against New England when facing a fourth and 1 at the Patriots’ 32-yard line while trailing by a touchdown. Field goals simply don’t beat Tom Brady. We also crushed Rex Ryan for having 10 defenders on the field against Miami in 2016, and that happened for a key play against Atlanta last year.

That said, McDermott has to easily get a passing grade in his first season. He’s organized, professional and players respect his approach. I wish he’d be a little more open in his media sessions, but he’s far from the only head coach in the NFL to be scared to death of saying something in the media. If the Bills keep winning, fans won’t care about that.

Here are some of my thoughts on the other coaches:

Perhaps burned by his experience in New York, Ryan never seemed willing to develop any sort of a relationship with any of the reporters or columnists covering the team. That was his choice, but I don’t think it did him any favors. I should have been more critical of that hire when it was made – his Jets teams were truly awful at the end of his time in New York.

Marrone was interesting to cover. He would be ornery one day, then joking with you the next. The “St. Doug” stuff was hilarious. You can tell he thinks very highly of himself as a head coach. To his credit, he did a great job in Jacksonville last year.

Nice is the best way I can describe Chan Gailey. He came out and gave a statement after being fired that every reporter covering the team described as classy. He did some good things offensively with a rag-tag bunch and it would have been interesting to see him with more talented players. He’s a bright offensive mind, but it eventually reached a point where it was clear moving on would be both for best sides.

Dick Jauron was the vanilla ice cream of head coaches. Just utterly forgettable in every way.

A significant number of your colleagues have left the BN Sports Department this summer, and my guess is that many of those colleagues were your personal friends and professional mentors. How did it feel to see so many veteran writers walk out the door in such a short period of time?

Painful would be the best word to describe it. I will say, though, that every member of the staff who left did so of their own free will. They were given a choice to accept a voluntary buyout, which they did, with each of them having their own reasons for making the decision. I’ve been asked several times since they left why The News fired or laid off half its sports staff, and that’s simply not what happened. That said, their decisions to leave have been difficult to deal with on a personal level.

Probably the one question I got asked about working at The News more than any other was “Is Jerry Sullivan such a jerk in real life?” The truth is exactly the opposite. Jerry is one of the smartest people I know, and one of the kindest. I know that if I ever needed anything, he would be one phone call away.

Bucky Gleason probably doesn’t remember this, but very early in my career at The Buffalo News, he called into the office – I think from the Olympics. We talked about his column for a few minutes, and at the end of the conversation, he said “just so you know, you’re doing a great job.” He has no idea how much that meant to me. It made me so much more confident in what I was doing, and I will forever be appreciative of that.

Tim Graham is simply one of the best writers in the country. He is a mentor and friend not to just me, but any number of younger writers – always generous with his time and advice.

John Vogl’s Sabres coverage was basically a blueprint on how to be a beat writer.

Bob DiCesare excelled as a columnist, reporter and editor. I’m envious of his vocabulary, and how he always knew the right word to use (sometimes ones that would have me scrambling for a dictionary). All of them are missed.

How would you contrast the management of the Bills during the Wilson/Brandon/Berchtold era with the current administration?

The best thing I can say about the current front office is they have a plan. That didn’t always appear to be the case. The Sammy Watkins trade is a perfect example. The Bills moved up for Watkins in an effort to support EJ Manuel, but then benched Manuel four games into Watkins’ rookie season. What sense does that make? Clearly, Doug Marrone did not believe in Manuel to lead the franchise, so why give up two first-round picks to get a receiver for him? The Rex Ryan hire was also a disaster. He was a circus sideshow. Sure, he brought the Bills more national attention, but that should never be the reason for a move.

Now, that’s not to say that the current front office’s plan will work. Josh Allen could be a bust, and if that’s the case we’ll probably be talking about a new front office in a few years. But I can see the logic in the moves Brandon Beane and Co. have made. They’ll be out from under their messy salary cap situation this year, which will give them the opportunity to build up the offense around Allen. The defense should be improved, particularly if Star Lotulelei and Tremaine Edmunds provide stronger play up the middle. Again, though, it comes back to Allen. If he’s finally the answer at quarterback, the franchise will be headed in the right direction. Time will tell.

It seems like the relationship between the the media and the team became more respectful and open after the Pegulas purchased the team. Is that a fair characterization?

Not entirely. I think it came when the team hired Derek Boyko as the Vice President of Communications. He has been simply terrific to work with. He and his staff have assisted with every story I’ve pitched to them. It’s a shame they didn’t win the Pro Football Writer’s Association’s Rozelle Award, which goes to the top public-relations staff. I felt they were very deserving.

It’s also important to point out that Brandon Beane respects the job we have and does his best to answer our questions honestly. What a change he’s been from Doug Whaley in that regard. Sean McDermott is also always willing to make time for us. He’s pretty guarded in what he says in the media, but that’s not unusual for NFL coaches.

I think it’s well documented that Terry Pegula did not think much of The Buffalo News when he took over as the owner of the Sabres. I don’t know what he thought of other media organizations, and have no idea today whether he understands or respects what the media’s role in covering his teams is— or if he even cares. I’m glad that Kim Pegula sat down with The News at the recent NFL owners’ meetings. In her role as president of five professional sports franchises, she should be accessible from time to time.

I’ve never understood the fans who say they don’t need to hear from a team’s owners. Why wouldn’t you want to know what the people who make all the decisions think? Ultimately, the success of the Bills (and Sabres, Bandits, Americans and Beauts) starts with the Pegulas.

If you were able to take a peek into McBeane’s head space, what do you think is their greatest concern about the upcoming season?

A few weeks ago, I would have said the wide receivers. After watching AJ McCarron get hurt behind the starting offensive line against Cleveland, however, I’m changing my answer to up front. Does the team really want to put Josh Allen out there if the coaching staff isn’t confident the line can protect him?

I went into training camp thinking that the line might not be as much of a concern as people were thinking. Replacing Eric Wood and Richie Incognito was of course going to be a challenge, but whoever lines up in those jobs – be it Russell Bodine or Ryan Groy at center and Vlad Ducasse at left guard (with John Miller taking over at right guard) – has a ton of playing experience. Seeing just how badly the line struggled against the Browns and Bengals has to be a big concern for Beane and McDermott. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an easy fix. There aren’t starting-caliber offensive linemen out on the street right now. The Bills have to hope the line can start to form some cohesiveness, and quickly.

It’s no surprise Josh Allen has received a ton of coverage so far this year, but I’m wondering how you’d assess the team’s other first round pick. Is Tremaine Edmunds the real deal?

I think he will be, but Edmunds has, quite frankly, struggled a bit this summer. Perhaps that’s to be expected. He’s asked to do a lot as the middle linebacker. It’s somewhat unfair to him to expect him to be a star from Day One, even if he’s on the short list of candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. That said, he was drafted in the first round -- with the Bills trading up to do it -- for a reason. Similar to how last year’s first-round pick, Tre’Davious White, was a starter the moment he arrived, the Bills have the same plan for Edmunds. Physically, he’s got all the tools you could hope for. I do think he will be the real deal, but there will be some speed bumps along the way.

For better or worse, which player on the roster has been the biggest surprise to you this summer? [Note: this interview was conducted before final roster cutdowns.]

I’ll give you one of each. Running back Marcus Murphy has been really impressive all summer. In addition to what he’s done as a rusher, Murphy also looked good as a punt returner against the Browns. That job is still wide open, so if Murphy can carve out a role there, it almost has to guarantee him a spot on the 53-man roster.

On the flip side, offensive tackle Conor McDermott is going the wrong way on the depth chart. The Bills obviously saw something they liked in McDermott last year to keep him on the 53-man roster all season, but that hasn’t carried over to this summer. He’s been lined up with the third team during practices, which was a bad sign for his chances of making the team. I would have had McDermott on the short list of candidates to be the team’s swing tackle (the top backup to both left and right tackle who is typically active on game days) coming into training camp, but that is no longer the case.

You’ve been very generous with your time. Let’s wrap things up with a quick lightning round. We start with the greatest question in the history of questions: What’s the first, the worst, and the greatest concert you’ve ever attended?

The first that I can remember is the “Hard Knock Life” Tour in 1999. I was in high school. It was Jay-Z and DMX.

The worst, and I know people will disagree with me, was Pearl Jam at First Niagara Center. The seats were bad, and I just didn’t like it.

The most memorable concert, so I guess the greatest, is seeing The Tragically Hip in Hamilton in one of their final shows. I’ve seen the Hip probably 25 times all over the place, and their music is a bond I share with some of my best friends. It’s still hard to believe that Gord Downie is gone.

For your safety, I should warn you that my daughter may want to fight you over that Pearl Jam take, but let’s move on. Which hole on a WNY golf course is absolute kryptonite for you?

The par-3 seventh hole at Hickory Stick in Lewiston is brutal. It’s long, especially from the blue tees, and the green is atop a volcano. I’m not sure I’ve ever even made par on it.

Who is the greatest athlete you’ve ever seen that most people have never heard of?

Harry Rudolph III. He won the California Amateur in 1991, then was a starring member of Arizona’s 1992 NCAA championship team that included Jim Furyk, David Berganio Jr., David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard. Rudolph tried to make the PGA Tour after college, but wasn’t successful, and eventually gave up the game entirely. He moved home to La Jolla, Calif. (my favorite place on earth) and ran the family coffee shop. The golf bug bit Rudolph again, though, and he regained his amateur status. He contended at the Porter Cup a few years ago. I loved his story and his resilience.

What’s the first byline you can remember that inspired you to think about becoming a writer?

I used to love Jim Kelley’s “Inside the NHL” column when I was growing up. I was a huge Alexander Mogilny fan, so I followed the Sabres closely. That’s the first I can remember. Sully would probably be next. I’m sure he’ll love to hear that. It’ll remind him how old he is!

If a stoplight turns green and the car in front of you remains stopped, how much time should pass before it is socially acceptable to honk your horn?

It’s five seconds, and that’s probably being generous. If they’re not moving, clearly they’re distracted, so hopefully a honk gets them off their phone.

Who makes the best pizza in Buffalo?

My wife and I order from Muscarella’s on Main Street in Williamsville the most often. I’m also a big fan of Franco’s and La Nova. You can’t go wrong with most pizza places in Buffalo.

In seven words or less, please share the most egregious display of poor sportsmanship you have ever witnessed on a golf course.

Leaving the pin out on purpose. Jerk move. (Sorry, needed eight words).

As your own son approaches the age that he’s allowed to play in competitive youth sports leagues, have you given any thought to the best way to introduce him to full contact/full equipment football?

That’s something my wife and I have talked about frequently. Luckily, golf and baseball are his favorites right now. I say luckily because I’m honestly not sure right now if we would allow him to play football. If his interests change and he wants to play, my wife and I have a big decision to make.

It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the fact that the NFL is so wildly popular – and the way I make my living – with knowing the damage that players are potentially inflicting upon themselves.

To this date in your career, who stands out as the most entertaining person you’ve ever interviewed?

John Peterson. He’s spent some time on the PGA Tour. While he was at the Porter Cup one year, a couple reporters interviewed him after his round. In response to a question that had nothing to do about what he did the night before, Peterson went on to explain how he had spent way too much time at the casino and, uh, the Canadian ballet. He shot 65 the next day. Maybe he stayed in that night.

A bomb is set to go off in your house and your family and pets are safely outside. You have time to carry three items out of your home. What are they?

Our “red box” which has all of our important paperwork, passports, etc. Not exciting, but practical.

Probably my lap top – the job never stops, right?

My wife’s stuffed animals she’s had since she was a baby. Boom – husband of the year!

Many thanks to Jay Skurski for setting aside time during his busy season to answer our questions. Follow Jay on Twitter @JaySkurski. Follow Tim Hirschbeck at @TimHirschbeck.