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June 2012

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Reporting Amongst the Fervor

Southeastern Conference
SEC schools are largely located in a region without many professional sports teams. University athletics get the spotlight in the southeast. Graphic by David Law.

J-School Alumni Set to Cover Mizzou's Transition to the Southeastern Conference

By Caleb Barron
Strategic Communication Student

LEX 18 Sports Anchor Mary Jo Perino, BJ '99, has received more than 1,000 emails from fans of the No. 1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats. Some are nasty, some playful, all demanding to know if she is truly "True Blue." As a sports reporter in basketball hotbed Lexington, Ky., she is expected to be a Wildcat enthusiast. The Missouri Tiger in her walks a fine line.

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Since early November, the University of Missouri has been preparing to join a conference that boasts a culture of extreme dedication to its sports teams. MU will officially become a member of the Southeastern Conference on July 1.

Throughout the Southeast, sports reporters covering the transition are faced with the task of educating fans on new opponents, cities, and in some cases, cultures. But for a few Missouri School of Journalism alums now working in SEC country, the learning curve will be short. Perino is one of several alumni who have planted their post-Columbia roots in the SEC. WBRZ Baton Rouge sports reporter/anchor Michael Kelly, BJ '09, and WSMV Nashville weekend sports anchor Chris Harris, BJ '01, also call the conference home, covering Louisiana State University and a combination of Vanderbilt and Tennessee, respectively.

The three television journalists have a lot in common. Besides their shared experience working at KOMU-TV while at MU, they also hold two common beliefs: Academically, there is only one Mizzou. Athletically, there is only one Southeastern Conference.

Perino didn't know she wanted to be a sportscaster right away; she spent her undergraduate years anchoring the weekend news at KOMU-TV. It wasn't until she became a hostess for potential football recruits that sports became her passion. Perino says her job with the team allowed her to learn the recruiting process and the intricacies of the sport. Even if her newfound love of football didn't signal a career change, it represented a heavy dose of foreshadowing.

Perino says she got her first job solely based on the experience she brought from the journalism school. With a resume tape of live shots from KOMU-TV, she was able to impress the news directors at WTHI-TV in Terre Haute, Ind., and begin her career as a news reporter. News coverage proved to be unfulfilling. Dealing with tragedy and other people's misfortunes, Perino says she went home depressed each day. A transition to a less chaotic, more light-hearted genre became the most viable alternative. Moving to sports, where the biggest issues usually stay on the playing field, was the answer.

"I said, 'Either someone is going to give me a job in sports or I'm going to figure out something else to do,'" Perino says.

Mary Jo Perino, BJ '99
Mary Jo Perino anchors LEX-18's "True Blue Coverage." It is acceptable for Perino to show favoritism to the hometown Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington television broadcasts. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Perino.

She asked for additional assignments, picking up weekend sports shifts while still manning the news reporting desk throughout the week. It was during these shifts that Perino perfected her sports reporting craft. She spent four years at LEX 18 changing the way she approached interviews as a weekend sports anchor, developing a rhythm and style she says is more conducive to sports. Perino moved to Atlanta to work for CNN Headline News to cover the national sports scene, before returning to LEX 18, as the station's main sports anchor.

The Only Game In Town

A singular love of college sports can make reporting in the SEC different than it is in other sports markets. In Perino's case, she is expected to balance objectivity with fandom. She openly cheers for the Wildcats on air during each newscast. Coined "True Blue Coverage," LEX-18's pro-Wildcat broadcasts resonate with the city. "Homerism," or a bias toward the hometown team, isn't frowned upon; it's encouraged. Such is life for journalists reporting to fans of the sports-crazed SEC.

The people of the southeast have little competing interest for their sports fandom: there are either no pro teams in the state (Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and South Carolina) or the franchises that have settled there haven't been in the region nearly as long (Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida). SEC fans invest all their fervor into college teams. They watch every time their favorite team has a game. They call into sports talk radio stations to express their opinions. They proudly fly a school flag outside their homes. This is the state of the Southeastern Conference.

The Missouri sports fan, for better or worse, has more options. In Missouri, college sports share the stage. There are five major pro sports teams (Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, Blues and Rams) within a couple hours drive from Columbia. One professional teams losing season is an opportunity for another team to take the spotlight. But there is no taking the spotlight from SEC schools when they are the only game in town.

Early Experience

Michael Kelly was a 19-year-old journalism student reporting on a national title contender as sports director for campus television station MU-TV. Early December 2007 brought exciting times to Missouri Tiger football fans. Quarterback Chase Daniel and the team were in the midst of one of the school's finest seasons. A late November win over arch-rival Kansas led to a No. 1 ranking, the cover of Sports Illustrated for the junior quarterback and had the team poised to play for the 2007 BCS National Championship. Just one more win over the Oklahoma Sooners would send the Tigers to Glendale, Ariz., to play for a title.

Michael Kelly, BJ '09
Michael Kelly, BJ '09, learned the art of storytelling at Mizzou. His coverage of the 2007 Heisman Trophy Ceremony and Big 12 athletics prepared him to work in Baton Rouge. Photo courtesy of Michael Kelly.

Against the backdrop of the teams' successes and accolades was a piece of insider knowledge Kelly held from an interview he conducted for MU-TV with ESPN Analyst Kirk Herbstreet.

"Herbstreet told me if Chase had a good game in the Big 12 Title game, he would win the Heisman Trophy over Florida's Tim Tebow," Kelly says.

Hebrstreet's prediction didn't come to pass. Oklahoma went on to defeat Missouri 38-17 in the Big 12 Championship Game, but Kelly and MU-TV still flew to New York to cover Daniel's experience as the third top 10 Heisman Trophy finalist in school history. Daniel did not win the award but his celebrated season gave Kelly the opportunity to cover college football's biggest award ceremony before his 20th birthday.

Kelly went on to parlay the experience he gained at MU-TV into a role as a weekend sports anchor at KOMU-TV and a summer internship as a production assistant for ESPN. During his final semester, he had his own segment on the KOMU Sports Show, dubbed "Kelly's Kings," in which he highlighted the top individual high school football performance in mid-Missouri each week.

Kelly says the work he put in at KOMU, and his ability to write for broadcast, learned from professor Greeley Kyle, put him in a position to get a job in a top 100 television market. Three months after graduation, he took a position anchoring and reporting on sports for WBRZ-TV Baton Rouge, the 94th ranked TV market in the country, becoming the youngest sports reporter in the capitol city by six years.

Learning By Doing

Kelly's day-to-day reporting largely focuses on the Louisiana State University football program. In 2011, he covered his second national title contender. LSU raced to an undefeated 13-0 start before falling to the University of Alabama, 21-0, in the championship game. Although he also covers the New Orleans Saints, all LSU varsity sports and high school athletics, it is LSU Tiger football that dominates the landscape. Still months away from the 2012 football season, Kelly says fans could not be more excited to watch the team try to avenge its Bowl Championship Series loss.

The fans' passion, an unbridled enthusiasm that Kelly says borders on religion, is what makes his job so invigorating. When factoring in website traffic and the fervor of the viewers, Kelly challenges that there aren't 50 better local television markets. The pressure of delivering coverage to such a plugged-in demographic could have made his job difficult, if not for Kelly's experience covering the Missouri Tigers.

"My opportunity to cover Mizzou's run to No. 1 in the country in '07 gave me a sense of what was to come," Kelly says. "I think I needed that season to prepare me for the season LSU just had."

Chris Harris, BJ '01
Chris Harris, BJ '01, (far right) has already reported on two BCS Champions (Alabama 2010, Auburn 2011). He is seated here outside of University of Phoenix Stadium before the broadcast of the 2011 BCS Championship Game for ABC 33/40. Photo courtesy of ABC 33/40.

Kelly's story of "learning by doing" with the Missouri Method is not unique. WSMV Nashville's Chris Harris used his Missouri journalism experience to prepare him for anchoring jobs throughout the South, covering high-profile college programs. With stops in Texas, Alabama and Tennessee, Harris has already delivered coverage of Baylor, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. In the process, he has reported on two national champion football teams and two Heisman Trophy winners. A young reporter could melt under all those bright lights if not for the J-School advantage.

"Anytime I did a sportscast at KOMU, I was being thrown out there," Harris says. "You are going to be nervous, but a lot of it is understanding confidence. Once you get on your first job, the nerves are gone."

A born and bred southeasterner from Franklin, Tenn., Harris admits he was initially concerned with Missouri's move to the SEC. He says he fell in line with the conference "elitists" who believe every other brand of football is a lesser product. Harris views the recent success of Missouri athletics as proof that the Tigers are ready to make the jump, too.

The Switch

Many positives have been linked with the switch: more money, facility upgrades and conference revenue sharing, to name a few. Kelly notes the improved stability as reason enough for MU to make the move to the SEC.

"I equate the Big 12 with the Titanic: It's a sinking ship," Kelly says. "If the SEC is your lifeboat, you jump on that."

Despite the numerous positives, the university will have to adjust to a lengthier and more expensive travel schedule. Student reporters, especially, could feel the effects. Columbia Missourian Sports Editor Greg Bowers notes the change could eliminate the means of transportation students used during Big 12 play.

"Most of the time my reporters drive to the game," Bowers says. "I'm not sure if that's going to be possible. We're going to have to throw some more money at travel than we did in the past."

Bowers knows his students will be eager to cover the games. With each new opponent comes an opportunity to educate and entertain readers.

"The fans have heard about Alabama, but do they know much about Alabama?" Bowers says. "They've heard about Bear Bryant, but do they know much about Bear Bryant? So maybe we'll do something to educate or remind them."

Bowers has considered dusting off an old column the Missourian used to run called "Ten Things You Don't Know About Nebraska." He says the column highlighted 10 oddball facts about upcoming opponents and would be perfect for introducing new schools, cities and the traditions that make SEC fans passionate.

School Spirit

Fans' passion is not limited to football. Although football easily draws the most attention and the most media coverage, the success of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team, and its seven national titles, ensures hoops get a share of the spotlight. In Lexington, basketball is king.

Alan Cutler and Mary Jo Perino
Basketball is top dog in Lexington, Ky. Mary Jo Perino poses with LEX-18 Sports Director Alan Cutler at the University of Kentucky's Midnight Madness event. Perino traveled with the national title team this past season. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Perino.

"I've seen people who have absolutely no money purchase tickets to watch Kentucky play in the SEC Tournament," Perino says. "I've seen grown men cry after losses more times than I can tell you."

So the emails flood her inbox. Dressed in her Kentucky-blue oxford shirt, Perino cycles through an electronic sea of similar messages.

"When Missouri comes to Lexington, who are you going to root for?" asks fan after fan.

A hurrah for Old Mizzou would nearly be treason even if the fans know Perino is a Missouri alumna.

As Perino notes, reporting in the SEC is different. It's OK for her to openly cheer for the Wildcats on air. It's OK for football to be the focal point 365 days a year. And it's OK for fans to question their local-TV anchor's on-air persona. Thankfully for Perino, a tough-love professor taught her to embrace her television personality.

"Greeley Kyle single-handedly prepared me for rejection," she says. "I'll never forget a conversation I had with him about my image. He said, 'You don't look the part, you don't dress the part.'"

That conversation occurred 15 years ago, but Perino says she remembers it as if it was yesterday.

"The on-air persona has been almost more important than what I do on a day-to-day basis," Perino says.

Just like any high-stress, high-reward job, reporting and anchoring in the SEC can be difficult. Harris notes the lack of professional sports teams in many areas of the South as reason why college athletics is the unchallenged king. Anytime a story galvanizes a region, the reporting has to be top-notch. As Kelly points out, the Missouri School of Journalism prepared him for the task.

"It's not me; it's Mizzou," Kelly says. "Mizzou made me. It turned me into what I am."

Mizzou prepared Perino to be the face of a television sports department that serves a seven-time national champion basketball program. Since John Calipari became Kentucky's head coach, the program has realistically set its eyes on winning more championships. Frank Haith's Missouri Tigers are looking for their first. If the two were to ever meet in the NCAA Tournament, Perino's "True Blue" audience would greatly test her.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about this," Perino says. "If either achieve great success, I'll be happy."

Amongst the religious fervor of the SEC, a non-committal answer might be the only sensible option.


Tips for Covering the SEC

Many reporters will be covering the Southeastern Conference for the first time. Although much will stay the same - a touchdown is still worth six points in the SEC - reporters should be prepared for some traditions and behaviors. Here are tips from those already reporting from the fervor.

  • Know the Football Culture: Fans are very knowledgeable about the conference as a whole. Perino notes this isn't just limited to the playing field. SEC reporters might want to become familiar with a lot of cool tailgating traditions.
  • Get to the Game Early: Network TV will almost always be covering the game, so you should get to press row early to avoid the monster traffic on game days.
  • Come Hungry: SEC schools always have press food, Harris says, adding, "There'd be some blowback from the old school media folk in the South if they showed up to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and there was nothing to eat."
  • Be Aware of the Eyeballs: In 2011, Big 12 football games attracted 2.3 million viewers per telecast. SEC games attracted 4.5 million viewers each game. Kelly says sports coverage led the entire WBRZ newscast 11 of the 31 days this past January. Even though football season is in its offseason, fans are locked into the recruiting process and spring practices. Getting viewers in the SEC is never a problem.
  • Be Passionate: Sports journalist Pat Forde, BJ '87, wrote a story about a couple who arrived 35 hours early for Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban's radio show! Kelly notes no other conference has that fan passion and journalists must have that same passion to report on a conference of this magnitude.

Caleb Barron Caleb Barron of Desloge, Mo., is a recent strategic communication graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. A lifelong interest in sports led him to internships with the MU Athletic Department and the Springfield Cardinals (Double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals). Barron now serves as a communications intern for the American Junior Golf Association.


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