written by R.L. Bynum
Alexander’s plan to ascend to an NFL beat comes together quicker than he expected
Among the most coveted beats for any sports writer with North Carolina roots are Duke men’s basketball, North Carolina men’s basketball and the Carolina Panthers.
Some sports writers routinely cover all three teams. But no newspaper writer is believed to have, in separate seasons, worked full time on each of those beats. Until now.
Jonathan Alexander, 29, is completing that trio of beats, all in a little less than 2½ years, through his hard work, reporting and writing. He went from being The News & Observer’s recruiting writer to the Duke beat (never covering football) in December 2017 and to the UNC beat in March 2018 before starting Monday on the Carolina Panthers beat for The Charlotte Observer.
Charles Chandler (who left the newspaper in 2010) and Ron Green Jr. (who writes for Global Golf Post) were on the Observer’s Panthers beat after writing for its Raleigh bureau and covering UNC and Duke, but neither specifically covered one of those schools over a season.
Alexander is in pretty good journalism company.
Steve Wiseman, The N&O’s Duke beat writer who spent one basketball season on the N.C. State beat, covered the Panthers in 1996 and 1997 for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and the New Orleans Saints after that for The Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss.
Alexander, a 2013 North Carolina Central University graduate in mass communication/media studies, grew up in northeast Charlotte about 25 minutes away from the Panthers’ stadium. He’s followed the team for as long as he can remember and his dad took him to games as a kid.
“When I laid out my plan when I came out of college, that had been a desire of mine — covering the NFL,” Alexander said. “That’s where the most eyes are. I didn’t know if I would be able to reach that goal. But it’s always been a goal of mine.”
When he was covering recruiting for most of 2017, he didn’t expect to fulfill that goal this soon, even after taking the Duke beat.
“Definitely not. Absolutely not. I made a plan. My goal was a cover of a college beat for five years and, hopefully, if I had done good enough, get an NFL beat,” Alexander said. “Things happened a little sooner. I’m a believer in God. He has a plan for everything. But, you know, five years, four years ago? No, I didn’t see myself getting this.”
Like anybody else who grew up in North Carolina, he remembers watching ACC tournament games at school on a TV placed on a rolling cart. Even with ACC basketball a big part of his sports fandom growing up, he didn’t hesitate to give up an ACC beat.
“I think the hesitation was more so leaving coworkers I loved and having only been on a beat for two years and wanting to see how things continue to grow,” he said. “But, as far as this opportunity, this opportunity doesn’t come often. And that’s one of the premier beats in the country. And I felt like I was ready and I went for it.”
Alexander’s move is somewhat the opposite of Brendan Marks’ move, which created the opening Alexander has filled. Marks was on the Panthers beat for the Observer before leaving in November to cover UNC and Duke men’s basketball for The Athletic.
Part of the lure for Marks was to live near his mother. Alexander returns to his hometown full time for the first time since he graduated from Mallard Creek High School and is happy to be closer to his family.
“It’s good to be closer, especially during these tough times,” said Alexander, referring to the pandemic. “You just never know what’s going on, as these cases continue to rise. So, to be closer to them? It is very nice. And to be able to see them and see them continue to be healthy is definitely important to me.”
Marks’ departure left Alaina Getzenberg, who joined the newspaper in early November, as the Observer’s only full-time Panthers’ beat writer for the latter part of the 2019 season and over an active offseason.
Matt Stephens, McClatchy’s senior sports editor for North Carolina, said that Getzenberg — with experience on the beat and established sources — will be the lead Panthers writer.
“They’ll both have a role in doing everything, though, including features, analysis and more digital content, such as podcasts,” Stephens said via text. “Having two people on the beat will give us the flexibility to spend more time on deeper enterprise this NFL season that we weren’t able to dedicate as much time to in the fall of 2019.”
Alexander grew up loving sports, playing outfield and second base for two baseball seasons at Harding University High School before transferring to Mallard Creek. He was interested in writing in high school but didn’t really act on it until his sophomore year at NCCU.
“I met a wonderful person — Bruce dePyssler,” Alexander said of an NCCU professor who also is the advisor for Campus Echo, the student newspaper. “He asked me why I wasn’t writing for a newspaper if that’s what I want to do, and that’s how I got started in it. I couldn’t say anything more. I had to do it. I kind of fell in love with it.”
Alexander mentions former Washington Post writer Brandon Parker, now a communications manager for the NFL Players Association, and veteran college basketball writer C.L. Brown, who runs clbrownhoops.com, as mentors who helped him in his career. Both are UNC alums. Parker’s parents and Alexander’s parents attend the same church.
Shortly after graduation, Alexander worked part time with The Durham News, one of the 10 N&O twice-a-week community newspapers (all that no longer publish), covering public schools and public safety while also freelancing for sports.
During that time, in August 2013, the first story he wrote for The N&O was an emotional and well-written one about N.C. Central kicker Oleg Parent, who lived in a Russian orphanage for years and endured plenty of pain growing up.
Alexander wrote a chilling account of how Parent’s biological father stabbed his biological mother to death in their St. Petersburg, Russia, home while he ate a meal in the kitchen. Eventually, a California couple adopted him. Parent dedicated his college career to his adoptive mother, who died of cancer.
In October 2014, he began reporting full time for two other N&O community newspapers, the Eastern Wake News and the Garner Cleveland Record, covering mostly news but also helping out in sports. When he shifted full time to sports in November 2016, recruiting was his main beat but he also pitched in on ACC beats.
Alexander made the jump from recruiting to covering Duke in December 2017 when Andrew Carter left the UNC beat to join the investigations team. John Drescher, the N&O’s executive editor at the time, shifted Wiseman from the Duke beat to the N.C. State beat and Joe Giglio from the Wolfpack beat to covering the Tar Heels. Both were veterans of the beats they left.
“That had been one of my goals as well, to cover a college sports team,” Alexander said. “Duke was one of the most well-known programs in the country. To do that and to have my own sports beat, something I have been working for, was definitely exciting.”
During that 2017–18 basketball season, Drescher left for The Washington Post and Robyn Tomlin took over as executive editor. By March 2018, Giglio was back on the State beat, Wiseman returned to the Duke beat and Alexander switched to UNC, a beat he covered for the last two school years.
One perk of covering ACC basketball in the Triangle is that there’s a decent chance that you’ll cover the Final Four. The closest he came was when the Blue Devils lost in overtime to Kansas in a 2018 Elite Eight game. With the 2020 event scheduled for Atlanta, the plan was for Alexander to go to the Final Four, regardless if there was a local team, to write stories of local interest. That didn’t happen.
“I’m sure it definitely would have been nice,” Alexander said. “I’m a person who relies on faith and know God has a plan for everything and this just was His plan. Maybe I wasn’t meant to cover a Final Four. And I’m fine with that. I didn’t have a super-strong desire to go to one. My goal was to cover a major team and do it to the best of my ability.”
He was busy during the basketball season because he also coached youth basketball.
“It was a tough juggling act,” Alexander said. “But I made sure I had practice on days that were the lightest when it came to availability for UNC. I found a way to make it work, but I always had somebody who could fill in for me when I couldn’t be there.”
As with any sports writer, Alexander enjoyed covering Duke and UNC and chronicling the big games. But covering college games doesn’t stand out as much as some of the storytelling he did in many features.
“I think my best memories are probably interviewing people and having people trust you with some of their most intimate stories,” Alexander said.
Standing out for him, much like the Parent story, were two Carolina football features during the last school year on wide receiver Rontavius “Toe” Groves and the autistic son of defensive coordinator Jay Bateman.
He wrote about how Groves overcame a difficult upbringing in the projects of Nashville, Tenn., and had to deal with his father going to prison.
“Just the fact that he felt comfortable enough to share a story with me, it meant a lot to me,” said Alexander, adding that he felt the same about Bateman and his family opening up. “He didn’t have to tell me about his son. He and his wife didn’t have to open up their home to me and allow me to meet their family.
“Those things made me emotional just to think about it. Somebody trusted me with their story,” said Alexander, who will also miss his N&O colleagues. “So, those are the things I want to take with me, the people and the people I work with, as well. I work with wonderful people and I’ll never forget them.”
He’ll still be a McClatchy colleague of the N&O staff, just working in Charlotte. There will be quite a contrast between the UNC beat and the Panthers beat, though.
Normally, a switch from a college to a pro beat would mean better access. The pandemic has changed that for at least this season, with the NFL allowing only limited in-person interviews during training camp. The four pool reporters allowed for camp practices will not be permitted to tweet or report live while there.
Even when covering the NFL returns to normal, Alexander knows there are plenty of contrasts.
“You’re dealing here with people who are doing this as their profession, this is how they make their money,” he said. “In college, you have these guys trying to reach this goal to make money doing it, but a lot of guys are doing it for fun. The professionals, this is how they’re making a living. So, you’re dealing with grown men. So, it’s a serious business.”
He notes that both have off-the-field storylines. For college athletes, it’s academics, public records and how schools spend public money. In the NFL, there are plenty of issues with contract disputes, trades and holdouts.
Covering that, and the ongoing social justice protest of players, will all be part of the next step of Alexander’s career.
Forslund may have called his last game for the Canes
In a story that has been widely covered in the Triangle on radio, TV, newspapers and in The Athletic and other websites, the contract for the Carolina Hurricanes’ longtime television play-by-play man John Forslund ran out and the prospects for a new contract don’t look good. His longtime broadcast partner, color analyst Tripp Tracy, agreed to a contract extension.
Forslund is expected to continue to call national NHL games for NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a solid candidate to be the top national NHL play-by-play voice whenever Mike Emrick (who turns 74 in August) retires.
Should he not reach a deal with the Canes among other possibilities would be to call games for the expansion team in Seattle (which begins play in 2021–22 and has Ron Francis as its general manager) or for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The current delayed season is the last for veteran Lightning announcer Rick Peckham.
Now two N&O sports openings
The N&O already was looking for a writer to fill the N.C. State beat writer opening left when Giglio left for Capitol Broadcasting Company in March and now must find a UNC beat writer to fill the opening Alexander’s departure created.
It’s the first time in years that the newspaper will enter a school year with UNC and N.C. State beat writers new to the beat (assuming Carter doesn’t return to the UNC beat).
There has been a good bit of turnover in the UNC beat the last 25 years, with writers moving on to good jobs.
Among the writers to fill that spot:
* Steve Elling — The beat writer when Dean Smith retired in 1997, he has now also retired after stops at the Los Angeles Times, the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and The National in the UAE.
* Jeff Shelman — On the beat from 1998 to 1999, he is the head of enterprise external communication at U.S. Bank. Shelman wrote for ESPN.com and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis after leaving The N&O.
* Barry Svrluga — The Duke graduate left The N&O for The Washington Post after 4½ years in 2003. He spent time on the Redskins, Nationals and Maryland beats before becoming a sports columnist late in 2016.
* Robbi Pickeral Evans — She was on the beat until leaving to cover UNC men’s basketball for ESPN.com in October 2011. She has worked for UNC since May 2013 and, in February 2017, became associate athletic director for strategic communications
* Carter (November 2011-November 2017), Giglio (December 2017-March 2018) and Alexander (March 2018 until last week).
ESPN signs Bomani Jones to a contract extension
In the spring, Bomani Jones’ ESPN contract ran out and his “High Noon” TV show with Pablo Torre was canceled. Last week, though, ESPN and Jones — who got his sports radio start in the Triangle — agreed to a multi-year contract extension.
Jones, who appears on WCMC’s “The OG” each Friday, is expected to have a prominent role on the “Highly Questionable” TV show, appearing multiple times each week, and on “Get Up,” “Outside the Lines,” “Around the Horn” and “SportsCenter,” according to ESPN.
Jones will continue to host “The Right Time with Bomani Jones” podcast each Tuesday and Thursday. May downloads of the podcast increased 60% over the previous year.
Torre also signed a contract extension, and will replace Mina Kimes as the host of the “ESPN Daily” podcast. Kimes is joining “NFL Live” and will be host for a football podcast.
Today is my last day at WRAL. I am leaving the TV business to start a new journey. Thank you so much for watching and for letting me tell your stories over the past 9 years. It's been a privilege!
— Mandy Cline (@919Mandy) July 2, 2020
Mandy Mitchell leaves WRAL
Mandy Mitchell, who in 2011 became the second woman sports reporter at WRAL, has left the station to become an account manager at 919 Marketing. Her last day at WRAL was Thursday. On her Twitter account and her LinkedIn page where she announced her new job Monday, she is going by Mandy Cline.
Mitchell was a sports anchor/reporter at WPDE in Myrtle Beach, S.C., from 2004–07 and at WIS in Columbia, S.C., from 2007–11 before taking the same role at WRAL. She became a WRAL news reporter in 2017.
She did some excellent investigative and documentary reporting. While in sports, she hosted and produced “Basketball Town,” a July 2016 documentary about Kinston’s basketball legacy. It also looked at the downturn of the Kinston economy. That decline led the population to fall and Kinston High School to go from Class 4-A when Jerry Stackhouse played there to Class 2-A when Brandon Ingram played for the Vikings.
During her time as a sports reporter at WRAL, she covered multiple Final Fours, the Super Bowl and the “Carrier Classic,” which featured UNC playing Michigan State in men’s basketball on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego.
In a WRAL interview that aired Sunday, Mitchell talked about her time covering sports at the station.
The first woman to cover sports at the station was Jane Chastain, who worked alongside Ray Reeve and Nick Pond. She was at WRAL briefly in 1968, introduced by this oddly worded newsletter that didn’t even mention her name, before moving on to WJVJ in Miami. Chastain became the first female NFL announcer in 1974, when she also worked UNC’s 26–24 Sun Bowl loss to Mississippi.
Jhabvala, a writer with N.C. ties, to cover Redskins for The Washington Post
After more than four years covering the Denver Broncos, Nicki Jhabvala will cover the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. Her first day at the Post is July 13. She is a 2007 UNC journalism and mass communications graduate who grew up in Cary.
After graduation, she was an editor/producer at Sports Illustrated for nearly five years, a senior producer at Sports on Earth for six months and a senior staff editor at The New York Times for 19 months.
In April 2014, she moved to The Denver Post as the senior digital sports editor. She shifted to covering the Broncos in April 2015 and has been covering the team for The Athletic since April 2018.
Adams’ year as APSE president concludes
Todd Adams, who became The N&O’s sports editor last fall, concluded his year as Associated Press Sports Editor president last month. Taking over is trailblazer Lisa Wilson, who becomes the first Black woman president in the organization’s 46-year history. The first African American woman to be sports editor at the Buffalo News, she is NFL editor at The Athletic.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
The N&O’s Luke DeCock, who wrote early in the shortened ACC Tournament that the league shouldn’t be playing those games because of COVID-19, wrote his view that college football games also shouldn’t be played.
In The Athletic, Stewart Mandel wrote about the changes that could be ahead in college football with the changes in leadership, including the retirement next year of ACC commissioner John Swofford.
Ed Hardin, in the News & Record of Greensboro, wrote that Cam Newton has another chance to make the Carolina Panthers look bad by signing with the New England Patriots.
Newton’s former teammates told The Athletic’s Joseph Person that they think he can do well with the Patriots.
Paul Finebaum built his career in SEC territory but now lives in Charlotte because he works for the SEC Network. He had plenty of interesting opinions on football, his job, the progression of his career and his view of Newton’s departure in an interview with The Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler.
In the Coeur d’Alene Press in Idaho, Steve Cameron wrote about Thomas Hill Sr., the father of Thomas Hill, a two-time NCAA champion at Duke. Hall Sr. was denied a world record in the 120-yard high hurdles at the 1970 U.S. Track and Field Federation meet in Wichita, Kansas. His time of 13.2 seconds should have been a world record but it wasn’t an official record because the wind gauge wasn’t working.