June 26, 2002
By Mike Bradley
Ask a true-blue (or orange) Vol fan to rate the University of Tennessee's most hated football rivalries and the list might go something like this:
Florida, Alabama, ESPN, . . .
That's right. The sports network's references to "whiny" Vol fans, Peyton Manning's "happy feet," and his Heisman Trophy loss to Charles Woodson, plus an alleged penchant for picking the Vols to lose, have become annual fall fodder for talk radio, letters to the editor, sports bars, and tailgate parties around Knoxville.
To make matters worse, ESPN.com alleged inappropriate tutoring and grade changes for UT student-athletes. After investigating, the NCAA issued a letter June 29, 2001, ending its inquiry and effectively exonerating UT of all charges.
Gene Wojciechowski, a 1979 graduate of the College of Communications, is senior writer for ESPN magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN's Thursday night game of the week, SportsCenter, College GameDay, the Weekend Kickoff Show, ESPNEWS, and other programs.
He also is a bona fide Big Orange football fan who sees the UT-ESPN relationship from both sides now.
While staunchly denying that ESPN goes out of its way to treat UT unfairly, he does acknowledge the sometimes-adversarial relationship between Vol fans and the network.
"It does exist," Wojciechowski says. "I wouldn't even have to be from ESPN to know that. Having gone to school here you become an orange junkie. Everything revolves around Tennessee football, and you become very protective of it. It's like a child. So when someone from the outside says your child isn't as good as the other kids in class, you immediately get very sensitive.
"When I was at school here I was the same way: very protective. But being on the other side of it, sometimes you don't agree with what the hometown people want you to say. UT is not always the best team, not always the best program, and doesn't always have the best player, and it is the job of outside news organizations, including ESPN, to report what they uncover and in some cases give their opinion."
Still, Wojciechowski goes on record saying Peyton Manning should have won the Heisman over Michigan's Charles Woodson, who played both offense and defense.
"There's no doubt in my mind Peyton Manning was the best college football player that year," Wojciechowski said, "but it was one of those weird years where it was chic to go with someone who played both ways, and everyone got caught up in it."
Despite being in the middle of any potential UT-ESPN skirmishes, Wojciechowski has dodged the crossfire and seen an already impressive career flourish with his arrival at ESPN.
He also covered the Chicago Cubs and wrote a weekly sports column for the Chicago Tribune. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel during his 21-year sports-writing career.
He has written or co-authored six books, won four Associated Press Sports Editors national awards, and been honored by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the College Football Writers Association of America, the Pro Football Writers, and the Los Angeles Press Club.
Wojciechowski calls his career "a series of ridiculous happy accidents" and attributes at least part of his professional success to serendipity.
A self-proclaimed Air Force brat born in Salina, Kansas, he lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina; Homestead and Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin (he remains a Packers and Bucks fan), as a youth. He says the first of his career "happy accidents" was leaving Florida to attend UT and study journalism.
"My girlfriend from high school went to UT, and that was my sole reason for coming here," he said while in Knoxville last February. "It turned out great. I loved it.
"I was like thousands of other kids who got caught up in the whole Watergate thing. I was going to change the world like Woodward and Bernstein, and they would make a movie about me, and Robert Redford would play me. I'm sure journalism applications went way up after that, and I was just part of that wave. That's what got me into journalism."
At UT, his next accident was walking on to the UT football team.
"I walked on and limped off," he said. "[UT All-America free safety] Roland James hit me so hard once I cried."
Bone-breaking tackles weren't his only obstacles. As a walk-on, Wojciechowski couldn't eat at the athletes' training table, yet the cafeteria in his dorm, Morrill Hall, was closed by the time he returned from practice.
"I was missing meals every day, so I asked the trainer, the late Tim Kerin--a wonderful guy--if I could eat with the rest of the team and he set up an appointment with Coach Majors," Wojciechowski said.
"I talked to Coach Majors and he was very nice, but he said the rules wouldn't allow it. Then he said, `I appreciate you coming in. I always like to get to know all my walk-ons . . . Steve.' That's when I pretty much knew it was time to move on."
Though short-lived, the experience gave him insight into the college game that would one day become his writing forte. But it would take another bout with fate to launch his career as a sportswriter.
"Sports journalism was a complete accident. At UT, everything was news related. Communications Dean Kelly Leiter set up an internship for me at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. My first job was supposed to be covering circuit court in Mississippi, but instead I took a job in Ft. Lauderdale only because I could live at home and save money.
"I was supposed to cover city government. I had no intention of ever doing sports. My first day on the job a sports reporter told me he had always wanted to cover city hall and asked if I would switch beats just for a week.
"That was 22 years ago, and I never switched back."
Of course, it hasn't been all luck. Wojciechowski would be the first to tell you that it takes hard work and desire to make it as a sportswriter.
"Journalism is the noblest of professions and one of the hardest professions. It is time consuming and stressful, and you are on deadline all the time. You're covering a game at 9:30, deadline is at 10 p.m., and you're staring at an empty computer screen. Man, that's when you decide if you really want to do this job.
"I laugh when people say, `Gosh, you've got the greatest job in the world.' And I do have the greatest job in the world. But they don't see the plane flights, eating peanuts for dinner, being by yourself a lot of the time, the deadlines, and the hotel rooms.
"It is a great life and a terrible life at the same time. And I wouldn't trade it for anything, but people thinking about entering this business need to know that it's a lot of hard work. It's very competitive, and you've got to think twice about really wanting to get into it."
In addition to deadlines and red-eye flights, another discouraging job reality is the occasional surly player. Having a muscle-bound six-foot-five, 300-pound professional athlete mad about something you've written is no laughing matter.
Wojciechowski said one of his closest calls was with Reggie Jackson.
When the California Angel all-star muffed a line drive right, Wojciechowski wrote, "The only way Jackson could win a Gold Glove award is if he spray painted it himself."
"It was one of his own lines, but he was really upset about it," Wojciechowski said. "The next day one of the other players said, `Don't go near Reggie today because he's mad at you.' Well, Reggie Jackson yelled at me so much that players from both dugouts came out and watched. It was an amazing sight.
"He made me look like a fool that day around the batting cage. He was just killing the ball, knocking it 40 feet over the fence and getting madder with each swing and yelling at me the whole time.
"He yelled at me for a good 15 minutes and finally the manager for the California Angels came out and just stood there, and Reggie saw him and just let it go. That's the price you pay when you write something negative."
While his college coursework offered little guidance for fending off irate bat-wielding baseball stars, Wojciechowski does credit his UT experience for helping him make his mark in the field.
He remembers the late Communications Dean Don Hileman for one lesson in particular that has stuck with him to this day.
"Dean Hileman gave a test, and he said beforehand to make sure and write everything out.
"One question asked what was the oldest broadcast network. I wrote ABC instead of American Broadcasting Company, and he marked it wrong. So I went to him and said, `I got it right,' and he said, `But you didn't follow instructions.' That was a lesson I never forgot, that detail matters."
Other positive learning experiences included his work on the Daily Beacon and the Volunteer yearbook and classes with journalism professors June Adamson, Paul Ashdown, and Jim Crook.
"When you're a student all you want to know is `Do your teachers care about you?' At Tennessee they care about you. At least mine did, and they have a lot to do with what I've become."
Wojciechowski was on campus for a week in February as the Edward J. Meeman lecturer in journalism and public relations for the College of Communications. The lectureship, named for the late editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Memphis Press-Scimitar, is supported by a grant from the Edward J. Meeman Foundation.
"For five days I talked to more students than you can shake a Pell Grant at," Wojciechowski wrote of the experience in his February 25 "Movers and Shakers" column for ESPN magazine. "There were 13 classes, two Society of Professional Journalists gigs, two TV interviews, two radio interviews (Host: 'Preciate you calling. Caller: 'Preciate you 'preciating me.), one photo session, one session with the Daily Beacon hacks, one pitch from the UT development office, one hoarse voice.
"And I'd do it again in a second."
Though he now lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with his wife and two daughters, Wojciechowski admits that a piece of his heart will always remain in Knoxville.
"Yes, I still follow UT as a fan. I covered the SEC championship in December when they lost to LSU, and it hurt. I covered the 1998 national championship and I was ecstatic. It takes every bit of my professional integrity to not get upset or cheer sometimes.
"There is a part of your heart that is in that diploma, and no one can ever take it away."