Sports columnist Scott Fowler has been an institution in Charlotte since joining the Charlotte Observer in 1994 to cover the Carolina Panthers in their initial season, then becoming a sports columnist with the paper in 1999. His previous work included stints at the Louisville Courier-Journal and Miami Herald.
In late November, Fowler released his ninth book, Sports Legends of the Carolinas, which began as a multimedia project with the Observer but was so popular that they turned it into a coffee-table book.
Alongside photography from Jeff Siner, the book features interviews with a slew of Carolina sports legends ranging from Dawn Staley to Jeff Gordon.
On Dec. 2, Fowler joined Siner as well as former Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop and former Charlotte 49ers athletic director Judy Rose — both of whom were featured in the book — for a book signing event. Judging by the turnout that day, the book is likely to make a popular gift for Carolina sports fans this season.
We caught up with Fowler after the event to discuss the book, his past work and the current Charlotte sports scene among other topics.
Queen City Nerve: Has writing been a lifelong passion for you?
Scott Fowler: I always liked writing. I was one of those kids who made up stories and tried to write stories when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. I would occasionally sit in front of a TV on a Sunday afternoon watching the NFL, and I would write a game report on it and I did that several times when I was growing up. In a way, I haven’t progressed much in the last 40-some-odd years. Other than going to the games, it’s still pretty much what I was doing.
Did you ever aspire to play sports rather than report on them?
Scott Fowler: Aspired, yes. I guess when I was 12-years old, I would have liked to be an NFL quarterback, but when I realized there were millions of people better than me, I quickly pivoted and thought I would write about sports. I didn’t realize there were sportswriters, but I knew there were newspapers and I knew there were books, so I knew there were ways to make it as a writer. So by the time I got into college, that was what I started to pursue. I got on the student newspaper staff at UNC, which was called The Daily Tar Heel, and that was where I really caught the bug in terms of wanting to do this for a living.
How did the idea for this latest book come about?
Scott Fowler: First of all, [Jeff Siner and I] were so sick of COVID and the way it kept us away from people because we both are extroverts and we like to go out and see people. Our favorite interviews over the years generally involved seeing people in person. We both have been here 30 years or more, so we’ve seen a lot of sports. One time I had the idea to do a longform interview sort of thing, so I asked Jeff if he would be interested and he was, so I said, “Let’s go to everybody we have interviewed over the past 30 years that we think we can get — high-profile [people] and [people] that we really enjoy being around.” That was kind of the start of it. We began the series, Sports Legends of the Carolinas and our first ones were March of 2022, so we’ve been on that path for 18 months now.
After the series got very popular, we got a publisher interested and they thought it could make a good book. [They said,] “We’ll give the newspaper some money if you let us publish these interviews and some photos and we ultimately said yes. For us, it was really a labor of love. I knew it would be fun. I knew we could get some great people because I know a lot of great people and they’re kind enough to take the time to do this.
They were recorded from the beginning and they were all podcast episodes. We did 33 of them and Jeff took beautiful photos. The book part was just an add-on. The publishers got into it for a coffee-table type book.
How did you decide on which Carolina sports legends to feature?
Scott Fowler: People often ask me, “What about Dean Smith? I can’t believe you left out Dean Smith,” or, “What about Dale Earnhardt Sr.? Why wouldn’t he be in a book like this?” One of our restrictions and we made it ourselves is these are all living legends because we wanted to be able to interview them and to have photos and to have a podcast. If you went into it with deceased legends, that would open the door to hundreds of more people, but we weren’t interested in writing a history book as much as we were interested in talking and kind of doing a real time thing.
Is there anyone you didn’t interview for this book you would have liked to have included?
Scott Fowler: Yes, my batting average for the book was about 90% in terms of asking. We didn’t get everybody and the number one we didn’t get was Michael Jordan. Michael is arguably the biggest sports legend of the Carolinas. Michael Jordan turned it down. Not a surprise. Michael Jordan has turned down countless interview requests from the Charlotte Observer and others over the years, but every now and then he’ll do one, so you never know. I’m going to try him again. Another one who turned us down was Dabo Swinney. I think I’m going to ask him again too because you never know unless you knock on the door a couple of times.
Do you have personal relationships with any of the people featured in the book?
Scott Fowler: Many, yes. Nobody I would say I would go and have a beer with but many of the people in the book or maybe most are people I have dealt with for many years in my regular job as a sports columnist, so I was able to go through my contact list and a lot of times just ask people directly because I have a lot of cellphone numbers. It’s simpler not going through the layers of media and PR that most celebrities have; it certainly cuts through some of the red tape. I would say a large majority in this group I knew because I have been here since 1994.
What’s a story from the series that sticks out to you?
Scott Fowler: The ones I enjoyed the most were ones where we got real deep into people’s lives. Roy Williams, when he was talking about Dean Smith, his mentor, he started to tear up and get emotional all these years later. That was touching to me. He still thinks so much of Coach Smith. He never called him Dean. That was a memorable one.
How do you think this business has changed from when you started?
Scott Fowler: The main part of course being the internet. When I started, we ran a story that ran in the next day’s paper and that was it. It couldn’t be seen by anyone unless they happened to get a copy of that paper. Our stuff now is read by more people than ever. It’s a much faster business these days. If you had a scoop, you had to sit on it for 12-14 hours sometimes until the next day’s paper came out and hope no one else found out anything in the meantime. Now, the first time if I find out anything, you have to put it on Twitter either simultaneously or right when you’re releasing the first version of your story.
People bemoan that the glory days of journalism are long past. I don’t think so. I think journalism is still a thriving enterprise. It’s just changed so dramatically the way we get out information.
How has your access to players changed from when you started?
Scott Fowler: There’s not as much of it. Thirty years ago, because the internet didn’t exist, because players didn’t have their own social media accounts or blogs and websites, they really counted on the media to get their stories across. There were not many other options. Maybe because of that, it was easier to ask and maybe get an hour of their time outside of the locker room or at their homes. It’s difficult nowadays to get that sort of access with current players because they’re just as prone to put their thoughts on Twitter or their own website. Access is definitely more of a challenge than it was.
As a columnist for so many years, how do you to continue to find interesting ideas for columns?
Scott Fowler: Over the years I guess I have struck out a bunch of times and hit a few homers, and a few singles and doubles and you just figure out along the way what you’re really writing for is sports fans. You’re kind of their voice. Over the years, I have figured out what works and now we get all these metrics, page views, social media interaction, and how many emails I get about my stories.
Once I figure out what kind of worked, maybe I should do more of x and less of y. I find a lot of people still read about the Panthers, whether they are any good or not. I will never not do a Panthers column, because whether they are 1-11 or 1-12, in our market, they are still number one in the metrics.
What is the best column you’ve written, in your opinion?
Scott Fowler: In terms of just a single column, something that was really fast and has to be done in a day, I think a couple of the ones I had written about [Panthers owner David] Tepper seemed to have struck a nerve — a Queen City nerve, quite literally. One when he fired Matt Rhule and we had an interaction outwardly at a press conference. He said he read my columns all the time and I should know the answer because he read my columns.
In another column, I just wanted him to field a better team and to make life more interesting for Charlotte sports fans. And the most recent one after Tepper didn’t call on me in the last press conference, okay, you didn’t call on me, but here’s the question I would have asked you if I had been called on. I think the best column ideas honestly are simple and can be explained in one or two sentences. Those were a few of my more well-read columns over the last year.
What are you most proud of in all your years of reporting here locally?
Scott Fowler: I’m big into doing deep dives and my favorite one of all-time being the long series I did on the Rae Carruth [case and the] murder of Cherica Adams. It ran about five years ago and that was a story of a
lifetime for me writing about that family that was victimized by that murder — conspiracy. Carruth was also a podcast and that was where I got interested in podcasting. It was also a print series. The Carruth one was more like a Netflix series where one episode led to the next. [The podcast won Sports Illustrated’s Podcast of the Year in 2018 as well as other national sports awards.]
How did the fans react to having an NFL team here when the Panthers got a franchise?
Scott Fowler: It was a honeymoon period completely for about two years. They made the NFC Championship Game in their second year. It just seemed like a fairy tale. People couldn’t believe it. “Oh gosh, Charlotte has an NFL team.” It was the same way with the Hornets from what I understand, but I wasn’t here. Charlotte’s always had a little bit of an inferiority complex, so the fact that we had two big-time pro sports teams and the NFL is the biggest one in America. It made Charlotte feel more world-class and Charlotte has always wanted to be world-class. Now they’re used to the Panthers being here, so now you have to win some games to get people back in that stadium.
What do you think of the state of the Carolina Panthers under David Tepper?
Scott Fowler: They just haven’t been nearly good enough. I think Tepper would tell you as the financial wizard that he is that it all comes down to the bottom line — with hedge funds the bottom line being money and with these guys, the bottom line being wins. Right now they’re 30-64 since he has taken over and six straight losing seasons. They have been a mess. It’s been chaotic. They’ve been too reactive I believe, like reacting to things that happen to them and they’re getting another coach as opposed to being proactive.
There have been some things that have been better under David Tepper. I don’t want to paint a completely dark picture of it. The stadium was way underutilized under Jerry Richardson. Now they have concerts and they have other events. They had high school football games there this year which were great. They have more college football games. The off-the-field stuff is better, but the on-the-field stuff is worse.
Do you think he’s too involved with the decisions?
Scott Fowler: I think he is too heavily involved. I understand, I get it, it’s his team, his money and he can do it the way he wants to, but I would like to see him concentrate on the wizardry he has on the business side of the Panthers and figure out how to make sure to keep this team in Charlotte and renovate the stadium when it needs to be renovated. I think that’s what they’ll end up doing as opposed to building a brand new stadium.
I wish he would let the football people run the football operation and get the next coaching hire right. Of course he’s got to be involved in that, and then take a step back. Just try it for one year and see what it looks like. Sign the checks and stay out of the way.
You were peeved following a recent press conference about the firing of Frank Reich in that you not able to ask a question. Has that ever happened to you before here covering sports in Charlotte?
Scott Fowler: I think I wrote, and I believe it’s true, never in my memory has it ever happened. In 29 years being here, I have probably been at every significant Panthers press conference. Talking about local sports teams, normally I’ll get called on at any press conferences here because there’s not that many media people covering it and I’ve done it for close to 30 years.
I was upset about it. Of course he only answered eight questions at the press conference, but I thought I should have been one of the eight people or that he should have taken 15 or 20 questions. It made for a decent column anyway. I didn’t like it and I’ll be interested to see what happens next time, which I think will be when they hire the next head coach. I think David Tepper will probably be available to the media and I’ll be interested to see if I can get a question in that time.
What were your thoughts on the team’s trade to land Bryce Young in the most recent draft?
Scott Fowler: At the moment, we didn’t know who they were going to pick. I thought it was a bold move and a risk well worth taking because they obviously needed a quarterback. They were at 9 and I didn’t think they would get one of the top three quarterbacks, so I liked them moving up. At that time, I wasn’t really sure who I thought they should take.
When they picked Bryce in late April, I was at the draft in Kansas City and I did some brief interviews with Bryce and C.J. Stroud there so I was standing next to them and they’re two different looking guys. [Stroud] is five inches taller and bigger. I thought and I still think Bryce is going to be okay. C. J. Stroud, I didn’t know he’s going to be that good and I don’t think the Panthers did either or they might have reconsidered that choice. I didn’t know he was going to light the world on fire like he has and he’s guaranteed Rookie of the Year I think already.
And Bryce I think we still don’t know yet. I haven’t given up on him. I think he can still be a good NFL quarterback. I don’t know if he’ll be a great one or not. Right now they have surrounded him with such poor talent that I think the situation is set up for him to fail.
What were your thoughts on Michael Jordan as owner of the Hornets?
Scott Fowler: I like Michael personally, and I have had a number of dealings with him over the years and he’s funny and pleasant, obviously charismatic. I thought he was the greatest player of all time. All that said, he was a failure of an owner and there’s no doubt about that. With Michael, like David Tepper, you have to judge it by wins and losses and what the franchise record was and his was not good enough. This is a team that has never made it to even the Eastern Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals — one of I think only two NBA teams never to have made it to a Final.
They have been in existence in Charlotte on and off for almost 35 years now. Michael’s incredible sports talent didn’t translate to player evaluations and they made some real misfires here on draft day like Adam Morrison was a No. 3 pick and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at No. 2. He was a great player but he was far, far from a great owner.
Why do you think Charlotte teams in general haven’t had more success over the years?
Scott Fowler: I think some of it is bad luck and I think some of it is bad management. With bad luck being the year the Hornets were by far the worst team in the NBA and they did not get the number one pick. If they had, they would have had Anthony Davis and he’s a game-changer and would have been for this franchise. So they ended up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead.
But some of it is just bad management. They have evaluated poorly, poor draft choices, or poor decisions on who to hire as the head coach and those sorts of things. Charlotte will win a championship at some point. It just stands to reason if you play enough years at some point luck will turn and they’ll have a magical season.
How big of an issue is it that Charlotte is too small of a town to attract big-time free-agents to want to play here?
Scott Fowler: Sometimes I think that happens. They haven’t been able to get the LeBrons of the world when they’re in free agency. In the NBA I think it’s a little more problematic because the NBA players seem to have a little more power and form these super teams and they’re often formed on the coasts in Los Angeles with either the Clippers or the Lakers or in New York or Miami.
In the NFL, I don’t think it’s as big of an issue because you need so many players on a team and everybody has the same amount of money. In the NBA, I think that’s more of an issue. I think Michael probably hoped, sort of because of his clout in the NBA and all of those players watching him growing up, that maybe he would be able to lure some on the strength of his name, but that really didn’t happen.
In the NFL, I don’t think that’s quite the same. They have had rosters that I think were super talented. The first Super Bowl team they had here really should have won the Super Bowl that year, [they came] so close to beating New England. They had two possible Hall of Famers on there in Julius Peppers and Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme playing as well as he did. They had some teams here that were really, really talented on the NFL side. Just not enough of them but they got close to that peak a couple of times.
I think even though you need more players in football, that might be an easier road to success ultimately because you just have to put the pieces together and you don’t have free agents creating super teams. It’s a little bit more management based, so you’re on a little more equal footing on that.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.