5 Questions with...Shannon Ryan

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5 Questions with...Shannon Ryan

CSN Chicago Senior Director of Communications
CSNChicago.com Contributor

Want to know more about your favorite Chicago media celebrities? CSNChicago.com has your fix as we put the citys most popular personalities on the spot with everyones favorite local celeb feature entitled 5 Questions with...

On Wednesdays, exclusively on CSNChicago.com, its our turn to grill the local media and other local VIPs with five random sports and non-sports related questions that will definitely be of interest to old and new fans alike.

This weeks guestone of the best college sports reporters around who has had the interesting task of following the Fighting Illinis roller coaster football season this yearif shes not covering an event (which is ALWAYS by the way!), you can catch her running in marathons, working out and enjoying the sights of our fine cityoh, and you can also catch her on Comcast SportsNets Chicago Tribune Livewhat are we waiting for, its "5 Questions withSHANNON RYAN!

BIO: Shannon Ryan arrived at the Chicago Tribune in 2007, after working the previous seven years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Beginning in 2000 at The Inquirer, she covered preps before moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles, Villanova basketball, and enterprise and general assignment reporting in Philly. Her time with the Eagles included the Terrell Owens era (yes, during the situps-in-the-driveway saga) and their run to the Super Bowl. She also covered the start of Villanovas reemergence under coach Jay Wright, where his four-guard lineup advanced to the Elite Eight. Her first time writing about the Phillies filling in for the main beat reporter she covered a no-hitter. (She takes no credit for the feat. Just there and excited to write about the rare occurrence that some lifelong baseball beat reporters never witness.)

At the Tribune, she covered the local, Big Ten and national college basketball scenes, covering the NCAA tournament nearly every season. She also assisted in the Tribunes coverage of the NHL Finals when the Blackhawks won the Cup.

As an Ohio native, she grew up in BrownsCavsIndians territory, so she is amazed she still loves watching sports.

1) CSNChicago.com: Shannon, as the beat reporter for the Fighting Illini, youve been there for all the highs and lows this season. They started off so strong start at the beginning of the season (6-0 no less)to the point where now they might be looking for a new coach next year. In your opinion, what would you say was THE defining moment of their recent tailspin and what bowl game do you anticipate theyll be playing in this season?

Ryan: The complete turnaround has been astounding.

There was a glimpse of trouble when Illinois fell behind 10-0 early to Indiana before pulling away for a 41-20 victory, which made the Illini bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons. The lead to my game story the next day was the image of coach Ron Zook running off the field with six fingers thrust into the air to signify the 6-0 start.

But that hiccup early in the game carried over. Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State were all beatable teams. Some would argue Michigan was as well. But the Illinis once potent offense has lost its spark. Theyve failed to score in the first half in four out of their last five games (they did score 17 pts. in the second quarter in their last game vs. Wisconsin, but ultimately lost 28-17). While players say they dont have a here-we-go-again attitude, coaches have said they tense up early in games, which is a problematic reaction when teams fall behind. It disrupts the plan of getting their run game going, which has been a major struggle lately.

The bowl game, of course, may largely hinge on whether Illinois beats Minnesota and what other Big Ten teams do. The conference has eight bowl tie-ins but more than eight Big Ten teams may become eligible. Illinois has traveled well in the past, but if they enter the post-season trending downward and only have one sellout on record in Champaign that isnt too appealing to bowl representatives. The last three Big Ten bowls are the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, the TicketCity in Dallas and the Little Caesars in Detroit, so dont be surprised to see Illinois in one of those. Some experts have Illinois in New Orleans, playing Louisiana-Lafayette.

2) CSNChicago.com: Naturally, as a college sports journalist, youre fully aware of the horrific details about what went on at Penn State. Going forward, from a recruiting standpoint, how difficult will it be for this once dominant football institution to acquire the same high-level, athletic talent that would actually want to be associated with this now-marred program?

Ryan: I think it will be difficult for the university as a whole to move forward and it will be a serious undertaking to remove this stain permanently. Penn State was Joe Paterno and what people believed he stood for. That perception has changed for many.

With the NCAA and FBI now both investigating, this will scare away not only big-name coaches, but big-time recruits. Without a high profile coach, the recruits will look elsewhere, unsure how Penn State will be able to rebuild its image and its winning ways.

3) CSNChicago.com: Lets shift to some college hoops for this next one. From a Big Ten standpoint, Thad Matta has put together a pretty darn good Ohio State team this year led by super-sophomore forward Jared Sullinger. Does this team have ANY challengers in the Big Ten this season and, if so, who?

Ryan: Youre absolutely right that Ohio State is the class of the Big Ten and has a legitimate chance to be the best in the nation by March Madness. Sullinger surprised many people, except for coach Thad Matta, by making good on his promise and returning for a sophomore season. Along with Sullinger, sharp-shooter William Buford, skilled point guard Aaron Craft and big-bodied forward Deshaun Thomas, Matta brought in some promising freshmen who should contribute. If the Buckeyes have a weak point, its their depth. This team cant afford a serious injury or two.

But I would not count out Wisconsin. Jordan Taylor is probably one of the most overlooked guards in the country. He has a terrific assist-to-turnover ratio and is a savvy veteran. I saw him drop 27 points on Ohio State last season at a wild game in Madison. Somehow everyone always overlooks Bo Ryans teams but they still manage to usually surprise us.

Michigan State slumped last season but theres no denying Tom Izzo is an excellent coach with a proven track record. Despite their loss to North Carolina on the aircraft carrier, I wouldnt be surprised to see the Spartans improve as the season progresses.

4) CSNChicago.com: Name your Top 3 favorite sports-themed books (fiction or non-fiction) of all time.

Ryan:

1) Unforgivable Blackness. The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, By Geoffrey C. Ward.

Boxer Jack Johnson was far ahead of his time. In the early 20th century, he confronted harsh racism head on literally in the boxing ring and figuratively in the way he lived his life with no apologies. He knew he was so good that white fighters would eventually have to fight him if they wanted to claim they were the best (because obviously Johnson was the best and refused to stop challenging the best fighters regardless of race). He later won the heavyweight championship, but it is a shame that through much of his early career and some of his prime he was denied being named the champion or given the access to fight for the belt. I would love to see him receive a pardon for his unjust and racist conviction. He lived much of his life in Chicago and is actually buried in Graceland Cemetery under a very simple plot, which I visited after reading this biography.

2) To the Edge, by Kirk Johnson.

I read this non-fiction story about the 135-mile footrace from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney before I ran my first marathon in 2001. I just kept thinking to myself that 26.2 miles through Cleveland was nothing compared to what I read in this book. It was actually written by a New York Times reporter who was a neophyte at ultra-marathons. It would be great to try something like this and write about it, but Im afraid it would be a bit of an embarrassing tale given my slow marathon pace.

3) Friday Night Lights, A Town, A Team and A Dream, by H.G. Bissinger.

While most kids today know the title as a T.V. show, I urge anyone growing up in a high school football-crazed town or state like much of my native Ohio to read this. It seems clich now but this behind the scenes look at the season of a Texas high school team and its football-obsessed town sparked a genre of sports books. To me, this remains a classic.

5) CSNChicago.com: If you werent a sports writer, what alternate career path would you have loved to have been associated with?and how do you think you would have realistically fared in that role?

Ryan: Everything! The best part of being a journalist is meeting people of various backgrounds and with an array of skills and experiences. Usually, I think, Wow, I would have loved to have .. lived there or tried that or do whatever it is my interview subject is telling me about. But I absolutely love traveling and learning about new people and places. Im also very intrigues by various social justice issues. So I feel like in another life or maybe my future one I would be traveling and trying to help through some type of charitable organization. I have a bit of an adventurer spirit and have enjoyed volunteering so I think I would do well and enjoy it. But for now, sports writing is my gig. And I love it.

Ryan LINKS:

Chicago Tribune sports home page

Shannon Ryan on Facebook

Shannon Ryan on Twitter

Notre Dame players react to the firing of Brian VanGorder

Notre Dame players react to the firing of Brian VanGorder

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — James Onwualu and Brian VanGorder came to the Irish defense at the same time back in 2014, when Onwualu was moved from wide receiver to (briefly) safety right around when the now-former defensive coordinator was hired. 

Under VanGorder’s watch, Onwualu developed into a reliable outside linebacker and ultimately a senior captain. So when Notre Dame fired VanGorder on Sunday — a day after the school’s student section chanted “Fire Van-Gord-Er” during that brutal loss to Duke — it wasn’t necessarily an easy piece of news to digest for Onwualu and some of his teammates. 

“Obviously everybody was talking about it, even our student section seemed to have a strong stance on that,” Onwualu said. “It was shocking to me. Obviously this is the only defensive experience I've ever had. He's really all I knew defensively. So it's difficult for some older guys, you know, and me included to put that aside and just take the next step into something new.”

But that’s what Notre Dame has to do with VanGorder’s rocky tenure in the rearview mirror and Greg Hudson taking over as defensive coordinator, with coach Brian Kelly taking an increased role in his team’s leaky defense. 

Players understood why the move — which came in the wake of Kelly’s postgame comments saying everyone’s job wasn’t safe — was made, turning to the “it’s a business” line more frequently seen in a level of the sport in which the players are paid (which isn’t to say they’re wrong for viewing college football that way). 

“It was a bit surprising,” junior linebacker Nyles Morgan said. “I knew him personally obviously playing defense, but it’s a business. And so we’ve really bought into what coach (Greg) Hudson’s been saying, and we have to move forward. We can’t linger in the past.”

It’s not like Notre Dame players were blind to the problem, though. The team’s first sack of the season came when Morgan dropped Duke quarterback Daniel Jones on Saturday, and the defense allowed 50, 36 and 38 points in Notre Dame’s three losses. 

“The whole defense knows that we need to play better ball, and obviously if we were playing better ball, that maybe not would have happened,” Onwualu said. 

Safety Drue Tranquill said he felt some guilt about the firing of VanGorder and had sympathy for his now-former coach. 

“It wasn’t just coach VanGorder’s fault, the entire defense was struggling as a whole,” Tranquill said. “And he happens to be the leader of that. This is a really cutthroat business and I personally feel a sort of responsibility on my end. I can’t just watch the leader of the defense walk out and lose his job. It’s a really hard situation and it’s just real life. 

“It’s just this industry and it’s really cutthroat. So part of me really felt for him. But a part of me realized he probably wants me to rally around the guys in the locker room and he probably wants me out there giving it my all each and every day and not worrying about him, because it’s about Notre Dame. It’s about Notre Dame winning football games, so we just have to come in, positive mentality, and move forward.” 

On the offensive side of the ball, both quarterback DeShone Kizer and left tackle Mike McGlinchey said they fully trust Kelly to do what’s right for the team. And in this case, that meant making a change at defensive coordinator. 

“We lost a great coach, but things needed to happen for us to move forward,” Kizer said. “Coach Kelly makes the decision. We trust in whatever he has to say, and moving forward we'll make the adjustments that need to be made on the offensive side of the ball to pick up our defense and to start playing games and getting W’s.”

“The reaction from us is that football is the way it is and coach Kelly felt that there needed to be a change, and so we made it,” McGlinchey added. “And obviously it's tough when it's a mid-season change and guys are connected to coach VanGorder, and have a guy on our team that is his son (reserve quarterback and holder Montgomery VanGorder). But at the same time everybody understands that changes needed to be made, and that's the decision that coach Kelly made. So we all are behind it.”

Notre Dame players talked quite a bit about how enjoyable practice was on Tuesday and Wednesday, which would seem to fly in the face of the team’s 1-3 record and uncertain chances of becoming bowl eligible this year. Kelly said he fired VanGorder as part of an effort to bring more passion and fun to a team in need of a spark, but knew the decision wouldn’t sit well with everyone on his team. 

Regardless of how the move was received, it’s the one that was made. And Notre Dame needs its defense to play better going forward, otherwise a season that’s teetering on the brink of disaster could go careening over the edge. 

“He was really the one that gave me the opportunity and spent the time and invested in me to be able to play defense and to be able to be where I'm at today,” Onwualu said in describing the conversation he had with VanGorder after his firing. “So just a quick thanks for the opportunity and the time that you spent with me. I don't think it's a huge good-bye. It's like anybody you work with, right? It's a business, you know. Stay in contact and I hope your next step is a good one.”

Theo Epstein keeps the band together with Cubs extending Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

Theo Epstein keeps the band together with Cubs extending Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

PITTSBURGH — Theo Epstein namedropped Eddie Vedder in the middle of last year’s champagne-soaked celebration at Wrigley Field, comparing a Cubs team that won 97 games and bounced the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs to a band that bursts onto the scene and blows up with an amazing first album. It would only get more complicated, with expectations changing and the Cubs now having to deal with success, the egos and the backlash.

Whatever happens in October — either the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908 or a massive disappointment — Epstein will get to keep the band together and have his friends around for future Pearl Jam concerts at Wrigley Field.

General manager Jed Hoyer will also get a five-year contract extension to match the timeline of the team president’s new deal, which chairman Tom Ricketts announced before Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development already under contract for two more years, will also be extended through the 2021 season.

“When you have great leadership at the top, it normally filters into the rest of the group,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Every successful organization has that. We have that.

“It doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s not like this everywhere, the way it’s been built, the attention to detail. It’s not just numbers. There’s a very human side to all this. It’s a great balance.”

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Management’s 2021 timeframe matches up with All-Star talents Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, who all remain under club control through that year, along with Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez, part of a 20-something cast that now also includes Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr.

Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod had all won World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and saw how New England responded to the 2004 team that ended an 86-year drought. They decided to reunite in the fall of 2011, with Hoyer taking on some of Epstein’s out-front, day-to-day responsibilities and dealing with the executives and agents he knew better. McLeod — who recently interviewed for a top job with the Minnesota Twins that will reportedly go to Cleveland Indians executive Derek Falvey — should continue to be linked to just about every GM job that opens.

“I see this contract, this show of faith from the Ricketts (family) in me as a validation of everybody,” Epstein said. “The contract is really a product of all the hard work that literally hundreds of people have performed to make this a healthier and better baseball operation, from Jed and Jason and Randy (Bush) and Shiraz (Rehman) and Scott (Harris) to all the guys in scouting and player development and the R&D team, the guys behind the scenes.

“Of course, (it’s) Joe and his staff and the players doing a remarkable job on the field at the big-league level the last couple years. So this is a product of everybody’s hard work, and I accept it kind of on their behalf. The strength and stability that we have now is a reflection of what happens when there’s trust, teamwork, transparency from a lot of talented people working together, starting from the very top with the Ricketts family.”