In January, the 30-year-old journalist sent shock waves through the Chiefs’ front office when he exposed the team’s culture of secrecy and intimidation. His Star story, slugged “Arrowhead Anxiety,” made national headlines with its tales of micromanagement and sourced allegations of phone tapping. The Pitch caught up with Babb last week as he prepared to take off for Washington, D.C.
The Pitch: Who picked up the phone first, you or The Washington Post?
Babb: There was no phone-picking-up at all. I went to the Associated Press Sports Editors Association convention in late June. I was talking to Matt Vita, the sports editor at The Washington Post. I have family in the D.C. area and I talked about moving to the D.C. area someday. That was on a Saturday. The following Monday, I got a call from him asking if I’d be interested in moving to D.C. sooner than later. With the mystique of The Washington Post, it’s very hard not to listen. It was a chance meeting. [Star editor] Mike Fannin and I had met at the same convention six years earlier, and we just hit it off.
You’ve mentioned in other places that the Post job represents your dream job. What does the new gig entail?
It’s a four-person enterprise team of supremely talented writers. I’ll get to do a lot of things. The first things I’ll probably cover are the Nationals and the Orioles. They’re having the seasons of their lives out there. I’d be pretty surprised if I’m not involved in that. I’ll do more football stuff, college and NFL. But I think it will be a lot about the time of year. It’s perfect for me. I like to spread my interests around.
What’s the standard assignment for a beat writer in the offseason?
My job is a little bit different. Most of the time when you’re a beat writer, and an NFL beat writer in particular, you just keep working the beat. You’re covering free agency and the draft and workouts and combines. That was never really my thing. Mike Fannin tailored a cool job around my strengths. I’m not an especially strong beat writer. That’s not why I got into this.
What he sold me on was the chance to write takeouts in the offseason. Narrative journalism is why I got into this business. In my first year at the Star, literally the morning after the Chiefs had lost to the Jets, there was a text from Mike asking if I was ready to write some takeouts. And by the time the offseason was over, I was ready for the structure of the season again.
Were you given a reason when the sports desk moved you from reporter to columnist?
We needed a second columnist. We wanted to get back to where we had been with Jason [Whitlock] and Joe [Posnanski]. I’m not comparing what we did or do to those two guys, but that’s where you want to be.
One of my editors approached me back in February and asked if I would be interested in being a columnist. I’m not an idiot, so the answer was “of course.” I’m a pretty opinionated guy on Twitter.
I was ready for a change, and it was a heck of a change. I loved the idea of it and the reality of it. One of the challenges in my job was that I had to be an expert in every sport and every team, and I’m not your huge, hardcore sports fan. I like to write. I like sports. I think Sam [Mellinger] really gets into the stats and games, where I’m more of a what’s-going-on-behind-the-scenes guy. I care more about people. Sports fans dream of a weekend that’s nothing but sports. That’s never been my thing. I’m a huge college-football fan. I absolutely go crazy over college football. I’m a fish out of water here where college basketball is such a big deal.
How did you feel about the move at the time, and how do you feel now that you’ve had a few months with the position?
It gave me an idea of “do I want to be a columnist.” I’m 30, and I don’t know what I want to do long term. I think I’d like to be a long-form writer and write for magazines, websites and newspapers. As for columns, I liked it. If somebody offered me a column in the future, this wouldn’t stop me from considering that.
Did the move to columnist have an impact on your decision to accept a position elsewhere?
It was a promotion. It was a better job. I got bites from other publications from time to time, and if I was just a beat writer, I probably would have listened. Because I was a columnist, it would have taken something extraordinary. Being 30 and a major metro columnist is not that easy to give up. It would have taken something outstanding to leave this situation. I’m not sure that I’m not leaving a perfect job for me. This could be the job that was tailored for me. I think I’m making the right move.
This past week’s column on Pioli, there was nothing personal about that. I was just pulling out the claws after a particularly embarrassing Chiefs loss.
You saw a very different side of Todd Haley in “Arrowhead Anxiety.” Do you believe Haley was actually scared?
I always liked Todd. He’s one of the most regular guys that I’ve covered. And one of the most unfortunate things about the Todd Haley era is that nobody else really saw that. I think he is a lot like you and me — he’s just a regular guy to have a beer with. He’d laugh at the same things. He just happened to be a football coach. Smart people can do anything they want to do. I don’t think he came out of the womb wanting to be a football coach, but he decided that was an avenue for success.
One of the saddest things, and the reason he got fired, is that he had to be a robot. He had to be this bland, boring, completely colorless person during press conferences, and that wasn’t Todd Haley. I do think he went overboard last season trying to be himself. That beard and nasty hat were his way of saying, “I’m not your robot anymore.”
There’s some level of revisionist thinking, but they kept talking about Pioli and Haley as this perfect marriage. These guys are enormously different people. It was funny for a while. There’s this fastidious, careful guy with his initials embroidered on his cuffs. And then the guy who, honest to God, had to borrow a necktie for his opening-day press conference.
I think Haley got some juice and got tired of being their puppet. A lot of luck led to the 2010 playoffs, and he misinterpreted it as some level of destiny. And he decided he wouldn’t follow the Chiefs’ insane rules. Professionally, and for sure personally, I’ve never seen anybody spit in the face of a set of rules like that.
I remember I was stunned when he approached me in the public-relations office. It wasn’t in an interview setting. I was thinking like I have to think in my job. Seconds after he talked to me, I went straight back to my computer. I wrote the lead, basically what was in the paper. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen as a reporter. I’ll probably go the rest of my career and not have such a candid moment, a moment like that, especially with an NFL head coach. It exemplified just how far he’d been pushed, that rare moment of being completely naked.
On Twitter during games, you express plenty of real-time frustration. Has it been frustrating covering pro sports in Kansas City the past several years?
I have a lot of fun on Twitter. It’s a lot of joking. Twitter lets me channel the frustration of the Kansas City fan. I went to South Carolina. I’m a huge Gamecocks fan. It’s probably one of the more pathetic college-football programs in the universe. I always think they’re going to lose.
Kansas City is justifiably a very frustrated sports market. They want somebody to share that, explain why these crazy things happen and what can maybe fix it. They want people to understand. I’m not a Chiefs, Royals or Sporting fan. It’s not my job to be a fan or poke them with a stick. But you also tend not to give in to hyperbole when making a guest appearance on sports-radio shows.
Do you separate the Kent Babb of the Star and the Kent Babb who’s just watching the game?
When I’m on the radio, I make it very clear that I’m a representative of the Star and a reporter. Part of my personality has to be that the sky is not falling. One of the radio guys asked me basically to rip [Chiefs offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll after the first game. It’s the guy’s first year and first regular-season game. I think he should get the benefit of the doubt for a little while.
I don’t respond to the reactionary side of journalism. If you fire Ned Yost or Romeo Crennel in the paper, what happens if they turn it around? You only get one silver bullet. You only get one chance to fire each person in the paper. If you write it all the time and then you want to take it back, nobody will have any trust in you. You can’t unfire the silver bullet. I thought about writing that [September 17] Pioli column for a while. I was just waiting for the perfect moment.
Which story are you most proud of in your time at the Star?
The “Arrowhead Anxiety” piece is way up there for me. Even then, I had no idea it would have the reach and legs it has had. It’s unbelievable how many people have read that story and know what it’s about. “Arrowhead Anxiety” is my gold medalist from my time at the Star. I still feel unbelievably comfortable with the facts of that story. It was a really unique look into what amounts to a $1 billion private company.
I’m proud of a lot of stories, mostly the longer things that I’ve written. With Dave Bliss, the former Baylor coach, I felt like I really captured who he is. There was the story of Uche Okafor, a Nigerian soccer player, back in May. That was certainly not a story for everybody [Okafor’s family refused to accept his death as a suicide], but it was about so many different things and parts of life. It took me, like, a year to report that whole thing.
Are there stories that you wish you had more time to write or uncover while you were in Kansas City?
I really wish I wasn’t getting out of the Chiefs’ hair. I think they would have given me a lot of material this year. Scott Pioli is the gift that keeps on giving. He can’t not listen. He can’t not read. He can’t not care. I’ve never covered anybody who cares more about what is written about him. Frank Martin is number two. The louder and more often you say you don’t care, the more a lie it is.
What will you miss most about Kansas City?
The food, Boulevard beer, my friends, my house — and not necessarily in that order. I certainly won’t miss Sam Mellinger. I’m just kidding. I’m a South Carolina guy who moved to Kansas City, of all places, and found myself at home. My wife and I wouldn’t have seen that happening. And now, I’m not even going to be able to visit nearly as much as I want to. Washington, D.C., certainly has all kinds of crazy, cool things, but this place has been too cool.