College Sports' Unsung Heroes? #ThankYourSID
By Bill Roth
You may not know their names, but you’ve read their stories and media releases.
And you’ve heard their distant, off-mic voices saying “one more question” in the background at a press conference.
And you’ve caught a glimpse of them, standing behind a head coach, next to a police officer following your favorite team’s game.
America’s unsung, and relatively unknown Sports Information Directors are incredibly valuable to writers and broadcasters who cover teams, and even more so to coaches who rely on these in-house pros to navigate them through the ever-changing media world.
They’re talented, resourceful, patient and friendly. Oh, and they have a bunch of code words you probably don’t know. Never heard of the Code? More on that later.
This week we are celebrating athletic communications professionals around the country and the groups’ national body, College Sports Information Directors of America, is sponsoring a national recognition week.
“I have the best job in the world,” long-term Florida State SID Chuck Walsh said this past Sunday afternoon as he toiled away in front of his computer.
Working Sundays? That’s common for SID’s.
“It’s Sunday, of course we’re all in here. And we’ll be at practice later. We’re there for our teams. And for the writers and broadcasters who cover our teams.”
Walsh is in his 18th season as the primary contact for Seminoles’ basketball. He spent 12 seasons at Maryland working with the Terrapins and Gary Williams before moving to Tallahassee.
“The best part is the relationship with players,” Walsh said. “Those who are here now, and former players too.”
One of the giants in the athletic communications field is Shelly Poe, who handles the media relations for Auburn football. Her Hall of Fame career has included stops at West Virginia (her alma mater) and Ohio State.
“Best job ever. We help kids. A lot of these kids can run or jump the day they step on campus, but they’ve never been in front of a reporter or a microphone before. That’s scary for ‘em. But by the time they’re seniors, they’re poised in front of a group. In front of a camera. They may not all play in the NFL, but they’ll be speaking to a group. Or to shareholders, Or making a presentation. They get that confidence here.”
Poe has been in the business long enough to know.
“I got my first job because I could type fast,” she said. “I could type the play-by-play in a typewriter. And I could type the stats on a sheet of paper that we’d mail out every Monday. That was before computers. Before automated stats. All done by hand.”
Like all fields, technology has affected the SID business in a big way.
“Now, it’s all about twitter and Snapchat and Instagram. It’s a visual world,” said former Virginia Tech and current Georgia Southern football media relations director Bryan Johnston who is in his 21st year in the field.
“We do game notes. And we press releases. But we do stuff that nobody else would even think about.” Such as?
“When I was at Virginia Tech, Michael Vick won the ESPY for College Player of the Year. He didn’t have a tux. So who had to take him to get fitted? I did, of course. And we got to Las Vegas, it didn’t fit. So we had to get it tailored there at the last minute.”
“Sometimes, you feel like a wedding planner,” Poe said. “You’re planning for a football game and you get a phone call from the caterer asking how much food you need for the media. How much chicken should I order? How many rolls do we need? My first football game at West Virginia, the elevator was out of order and my staff is helping carry 500-pounds of fried chicken through the stands into the press box before the game.”
When they’re not ordering food or getting players fitted for a tux, they’re dealing with the media and their respective coaches. It’s not always a smooth deal there.
“The media is under pressure to get stories done. The coaches are under pressure to win. We’re there to help both sides,” Poe said.
“There’s not an SID in the country who hasn’t been cussed-out by a writer. And there’s not one who hasn’t been cussed-out by a coach,” Walsh said. “That’s part of the business.”
“But look, I get paid to be around the most competitive people in the world. That’s awesome. And I get paid to fly to ACC basketball games. And I get to work at a great school like Florida State.”
Now, what about that secret code?
“Oh, there are certain thing we write to be on the positive side,” Poe said with a chuckle.
For example, when you see a line in a press release or media guide of your favorite team that says “We have a young team,” that usually means “We’re not very good”
And when you see “We play a tough schedule,” that’s also coaches’ speak for “We’re not very good.”
And what happens when a school has “A young team” AND “faces a tough schedule?”
“That’s code for you’re going to lose a lot of games,” Johnston said.
Most fans and media members understand how it works. They know the codes.
When your team loses by 21? "We were just a few plays away,” Johnston said.
And when you lose by 50? "But they fought hard,” Johnston said instinctively.
Poe recalled that a few years ago, the legendary SID Al Shrier at Temple sent out a list of about 65 things to say about players who, well, might not be stars. In fact, they might be very average athletes. “But you want to include them in the media guide, right?” Poe said.
“They practice hard. They play hard. They might not be great, but they’re good kids and maybe their uncle is a big donor. Some coaches might not care if they’re in the media guide, but I always do.”
“So Al sent out a list of positive attributes.”
-He’s a hard worker
-He’s a good team player
-He understands the system.
-He provides valuable depth
-He bring a great attitude to the locker room.
But while these masters of publicity are incredibly invaluable to the players on their teams, they remain remarkably anonymous to most fans.
“Our job is to get publicity for our student athletes and our schools,” Poe said. “We’re supposed to be in the background. We’re not the people on-camera.”
But this week, it’s time to turn the spotlight on the 3,000 hard working members of CoSIDA who provide all those notes and stats and nuggets and anecdotes we use on the air.
What they do for college athletes may go unnoticed by many. But the players know.
They know someone has their back in a locker room after a brutal loss when the media is asking tough questions.
And they know who to ask when the tux doesn’t fit quite right.
So this week, #ThankYourSID. These are terrific people. And some of them are covering … um … “young teams that are playing a tough schedule.”