Wieberg, 57, has taken a job teaching high-school English and journalism near his home in Lawson, Mo. This is his last week at the paper.
The move comes amid a major restructuring of USA Today’s sports staff. Last month, 15 writers and editors there lost their jobs as the paper’s parent company adapts to changes in the industry. Wieberg, who has covered 29 consecutive Final Fours and hasn’t missed an NCAA Convention since 1983, was not a part of those layoffs. He had decided months ago to pursue a different path.
“I’ve been wanting to normalize my life, and that’s just harder do in this profession now,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re in a full-charge mode, which is what we have to do. I just had to decide whether it was the way I wanted to continue to live.”
In addition to covering college football and basketball, Wieberg made his mark examining the issues around the game. He was among the first to investigate the rapid rise in spending in college sports, in the 1980s, and has helped lead USA Today‘s wide-ranging coverage of NCAA finances.
He has also had many memorable scoops over the years. His latest came just weeks ago, when he broke news that college presidents were set to approve a four-team playoff in major-college football.
A member of the original start-up staff at USA Today, Wieberg had his first byline on September, 16, 1982. After spending seven years in the Washington, D.C., area, where the newspaper is based, he and his wife wanted to return to their small-town roots.
They landed in Lawson, a tiny town north of Kansas City, not far from where the NCAA had its headquarters at the time. Wieberg rented a small office in the center of town (pop. 2,400), two doors down from the local grocery. It was there, in a space adorned with family photos and an ever-growing collection of sportswriting awards, that he went about his work.
Part of his charm was in his old-school approach. He wore a tie to work every day (“my kids have given me trouble for that”), and sometimes relied on technology from another era (he bought an answering machine in 1989 that he used up until the end).
Until recently, he resisted using Twitter and social media, instead relying on person-to-person visits for as much of his reporting as possible.
It is those visits, he says, that he will miss most. “I don’t think it will bother me to watch a BCS Championship game or the Final Four from home. But the people part—not only the close friends who are writers, but people in college athletics, from coaches to AD’s to conference officials to SID’s—that part I’ll miss,” he says. “I wouldn’t call writing a necessary evil, but the joy in what I’ve done is always the people—getting to know people, first to get the story, and then to tell the story.”
Years ago, over dinner with a group of fellow writers at the Final Four, Wieberg described himself as a “grinder,” someone willing to put in long hours and hustle for stories to make up for any perceived lack of flair in his writing. His Final Four coverage typified that hustle. He would keep two game stories going simultaneously during the men’s championship every year, careful not to assume victory from either team.
Many people consider his attention to detail to be his greatest strength. In a media environment that often favors speed over everything, his careful nature may be one reason Wieberg got so many people to open up to him.
“He might be writing a really difficult piece or doing a tough investigation,” Joseph R. Castiglione, athletic director at the University of Oklahoma, said about Wieberg in a 2007 Chronicle article, “but he does it the right way.”
“I was always cognizant of the fact that more than two million people read our paper,” Wieberg says. “The fact is you’re not in some corner of the country where a certain segment of the population knew you screwed up—the entire country was going to know. That was always in the back of my mind—probably in the front of my mind.”
Interestingly, of the many sporting events he covered over the years—including the Olympics, the World Series, and multiple BCS Championships—his most memorable story had nothing to do with sports.
Because of his location near Tornado Alley, he was the first USA Today reporter who could make it to Joplin, Mo., when a massive tornado struck there in May 2011. He wrote about the scope of the damage that week (“I had covered the aftermath of tornadoes before, but had never seen anything like this one,” he says), and returned last fall to report on the town’s recovery.
His August 2011 story, about a boy whose parents were killed in the storm, and who himself had gone missing for three days in the wreckage before being airlifted to the hospital, stirred powerful emotions in readers.
“He was really ripped up,” Wieberg says of the boy. “He had a fractured skull, a broken back, a fractured eye socket, one of his legs was mangled.
“And not only was the school opening on time, but this kid was walking through the doors for the start of his senior year on time,” he adds. “He was an amazing kid.”
Wieberg will miss telling stories like that, but hopes to still contribute freelance pieces to the paper from time to time. As for regrets, he is too busy dealing with the angst of his new job to have any yet.
“I know I’ll have pangs,” he says. “But I feel good about what I’m doing.”
(Photo courtesy of Steve Wieberg, shown at the 2011 Final Four with one of his twin sons, Eric)