written by R.L. Bynum
From Chapel Hill to Bristol: Harris takes unconventional path to ESPN
When ESPN offers broadcasters the chance to be a “SportsCenter” anchor for the iconic channel, few say no. Most say yes and don’t hesitate.
Not only did Jay Harris say no. He did it three times. Consider, though, that he was a news anchor at Pittsburgh Fox affiliate WPGH and never had worked in sports. That’s a rare path to ESPN.
“After I said I’m not going a couple of times too many, my wife looked at me with that look that men get when they’re about to mess up, but they don’t know it — but their wives or significant others do,” said Harris, who grew up in Chapel Hill and is a Chapel Hill High School alum. “So, it was decided, not by me. But it was decided.”
She listed pros and cons on a legal pad, showing that the Disney benefits alone made it a “no-brainer.” He was off to ESPN after a week of saying no.
He has no regrets.
“I’m thankful to be here. I enjoy every day like it’s my first day,” said Harris, who studied communication at Old Dominion, where he was honored in 2003 with a distinguished alumni award. “And I tried never to take the four letters for granted because I see how it affects people when they come on campus. Or when you meet somebody in an airport or are in a different city and they watch you. You can see how ‘SportsCenter,’ how ESPN, still is a cultural phenomenon. I don’t take that lightly. I really appreciate that, and I try to do right by it.”
Just like many in the newspaper industry and elsewhere in the media world, he’s seen many of his colleagues laid off, including more than 150 in 2017. He’s thankful to be one of the anchors who avoided that fate and can’t really explain it.
“I have no idea,” Harris said. “But for the grace of God go I. I don’t know. Maybe I was at the right number. I don’t know.”
With some exceptions, there has been more of a back-to-basics approach since that 2017 purge, with ESPN counting on veterans such as Harris and Hannah Storm, his co-anchor most days, to give viewers more of the classic “SportsCenter” presentation.
“I think there was a conscious effort to kind of move back to where our roots are — news, information and highlights — and leave a lot of the opinion to either opinion shows or make sure we’re doing a better job of bringing things out of our analysts,” Harris said. “And letting the anchors be more of the traditional type anchor. Teeing up, asking a question, following up. That kind of thing.”
During that transitional year in 2017 at ESPN, Harris shifted to the 7 a.m. “SportsCenter: AM.”
He first did weekend “SportsCenter” shifts, then the 6 p.m. show for many years and the 11 p.m. show for a couple of years. These days, he works with Storm, who was a weekend sports anchor in Charlotte in the late 1980s, doing the noon Friday show, as well as the Saturday morning and Sunday morning shows.
He’s off on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Monday and Tuesdays “on-call” days when he could work at a different time from week-to-week. Sometimes his regular shifts change. This week, for example, he is a host for the 6 p.m. Friday “SportsCenter” instead of the noon show.
For early-morning “SportsCenter,” there are no production meetings, although there are post-show meetings. He arrives at ESPN about three hours ahead of when he goes on the air, so when he does the 10 a.m. show, he gets there at 7 a.m. That’s certainly less challenging than needing to arrive at 4 a.m. for “SportsCenter: AM.”
“I come by my desk, change my clothes into my suit and whatnot, roll through the cafeteria, get some breakfast,” Harris said. “And then over to where we work, log in and get my shot sheets and start writing the show, looking for wherever the producers plug my name into the rundown and I just go on and handle my stuff.”
Harris, who also has filled in as “Outside the Lines” host, has been called ESPN’s Swiss Army knife.
“I just try to be adaptable,” Harris said. “We’re storytellers. And that’s what I try to do, whatever my assignment is. I’m a journalist at heart. I’m curious. I’m trying to tell a story. That story could be a minute, 15. That story could be 20 seconds. A story could be mixed into a highlight. Whatever my assignment is, that’s my job: to communicate something to the viewer that will make them want to come back. That’s what I try to do. It sounds old fashioned but that’s at the heart of what we need to be doing.”
You can associate distinctive “catchphrases” with some “SportsCenter” anchors, particularly in past years, but that doesn’t happen as often now.
“I think a lot of that has curtailed since I’ve been here. A lot of folks were trying to out-catchphrase each other back in the day,” Harris said. “The time that I’ve been here, it was really, ‘let’s just do a good show and whatever happens happens.’ ”
Much like another anchor who grew up in North Carolina, the late Stuart Scott (a UNC alum and former WRAL news reporter who grew up in Winston-Salem), Harris just tries to be himself on the air. Scott resonated with many viewers with his style but got pushback from others, including management.
“He was challenging and upsetting the status quo and people don’t like that when you do that,” Harris said. “People didn’t like Stuart when he brought his sensibilities to the desk. The folks who could relate — ‘Yeah, man, I’m down with this’ — and the other folks said, ‘This is not my thing.’ It doesn’t have to be your thing. Because no one’s thing is everything. That’s the beauty of us as human beings. We all bring different things to the table.”
He says that the short-lived “SC6,” the 6 o’clock “SportsCenter” with hosts Michael Smith and News & Observer alum Jemele Hill, got unfair criticism.
“I think ‘SC6’ got a real bad rap for a lot of the wrong reasons because there were two very, very talented journalists on that show who really tried to put on a great show every day and to do something a little different,” Harris said. “It’s interesting to me how folks will say — inside the building and outside the building — ‘OK, let’s be different. Let’s push the envelope. Let’s do something. Let’s try to create something we haven’t seen before, doing it in a different way.’ And then when you do that, folks go, ‘Yeah, no, stop,’ as opposed to, ‘you know, let’s just see how this works.’ ”
Harris has avoided controversy and he hasn’t faced criticism of his style, unlike other “SportsCenter” anchors such as veteran Chris Berman.
“I don’t even know if I have a style,” he said. “I just react to whatever happens and probably a lot of that is me coming from hard news and having to be Joe objective newsman and that kind of thing. I try to take things as they come. And if there’s an opportunity for something that fits a part of my personality or a reference that I hear in a song or a movie or whatnot, then I’ll do that. I don’t necessarily look for it. But if it hits me, then I’ll do it.”
Other than the updated studio sets, Harris says social media may have led to the most noticeable “SportsCenter” changes.
“There’s more content because I think there are more outlets for content, and we’re more conscious of preshow or post-show content or in-show social media tweeting or Facebook or Snapchat, or what have you, from the set,” Harris said.
Although “SportsCenter” certainly isn’t like it’s portrayed in the popular “This is SportsCenter” ads, the commercials have shown another side of Harris. He says he’s appeared in more than 30 of those ads over the years. He hasn’t been in as many ads as Scott Van Pelt, John Anderson, Steve Levy, John Buccigross or Kenny Mayne, but all of them have been with ESPN longer.
“Those are great. I love doing those things,” said Harris, who said picking his favorite would be like picking his favorite child. “Everyone always defaults to the New Jersey Devil in the elevator one. I like when I was sitting next to Michael Phelps and I use a medal as a coaster. There are so many, we could be on the phone for the next three hours. There are so many.”
There have been other fun ventures such as the “Co-Anchorman” spoof in which Jeremy Schaap appears to cut off Harris’ arm. (Not to worry, that was a fake arm that was cut off.)
You aren’t likely to see him in a play-by-play role at a game. He did it one time for a postseason NIT game and says he was “horrible” at it.
“There were parts of it that were good and parts of it that were not good,” Harris said. “I kind of shied away from pursuing things like that early on because the kids were younger, and I didn’t want to do a bunch of traveling. So now, I don’t know if it happens. If it doesn’t, I have outside interests in things that keep me busy. So, I’m good.”
As a news anchor, Harris never sought out ESPN
He signed a long-term contract extension in October that runs through 2023, and he’ll mark 17 years at ESPN next month. It was only because he was nearing the end of his WPGH contract that the ESPN opportunity — which he didn’t seek — came up in 2003.
He sent a tape for a friend (and former coworker who was working in talent and contract negotiations) to critique. The friend shared the tape with some ESPN people who liked it and asked if Harris would come for an audition.
“And my wife said, ‘Why don’t you go because you watch ESPN all the time? You always watch ‘SportsCenter.’ ’ So, I did,” Harris said. “Someone made a conscious decision that ESPN needed to be a little bit more brown on the air, which they did. And they brought in five guys and I was the third person.
“I wrote my audition with my stories, did my highlight and I just reacted to it and had some fun and interviewed with a bunch of people and went back to Pittsburgh,” Harris said. “And my buddy called me up and said, ‘Hey, they really liked what you did, and they want to hire you.’ ”
He admits that he had a bit of “tunnel vision” as a hard-news anchor and didn’t even think about trying sports until ESPN came calling. He came to the realization that ESPN would be a terrific platform for him to continue writing scripts, be a storyteller and a journalist.
“I’m still a journalist, and this is a really great place for journalism,” Harris said. “I’m on at six o’clock for many years, essentially the evening news of sports, and doing the morning show is just like the ‘GMA’ or the ‘Today Show’ for sports. What I quickly realized was that you can smile and have a personality and laugh and be more of yourself because they don’t particularly like you to smile when you’re talking about a crash on the interstate or stuff like that, or a shooting last night. This really fits my personality.”
Sports were big for a Chapel Hill kid
The Norfolk, Va., native lived in Portsmouth, Va., until his parents divorced, and he moved to his mom’s hometown of Chapel Hill with her at age 8. He’s loved sports as far back as he can remember, playing in backyards and on recreation teams.
He was horrible at baseball and decent at football but abandoned the latter once he realized everybody was a lot bigger than him. “I’m like, nope. No thank you!”
He played basketball at Culbreth Junior High School and was on the JV team in his sophomore year at Chapel Hill High. He opted for a job at Golden Skillet instead of basketball his junior year, and he and a buddy were team managers his senior year after trying out and not making the team. The below photo is from his senior year.
He hadn’t thought much about broadcasting or journalism until he took a career aptitude test on interpersonal skills in 11th grade. The third job on the list that fit his skill set was journalist.“That’s it,” Harris said of his reaction to the result. “That’s what I’ll be. Because I like to write. I was on the yearbook staff at the time and it just seemed like a good fit. That’s when I decided that’s what I would do.”
He wasn’t even part of the school newspaper’s staff. That sort of career hadn’t even occurred to him before that.
“Heck no. I just thought about what’s for lunch the next day. I was a kid. I was in 11th grade. I was thinking ‘why don’t girls like me. I like her, why doesn’t she like me back?’ That’s what I was thinking,” Harris said.
After Harris graduated from ODU, his journalism career didn’t start right away. He worked for MCI for a time before getting an unpaid radio internship in Norfolk. He went on to get a job with WOWI-FM in Norfolk, then worked as a news anchor in Pittsburgh at WOWO-FM and American Urban Radio Networks before working in TV at WPGH.
Dynamics shift quickly going from local TV to ESPN
The first time he fully realized the reach of ESPN was while anchoring on ESPN News four months after starting in Bristol. While he was on the air, the Sammy Sosa corked-bat story broke and he suddenly was broadcasting to all the ESPN channels.
“Scared to death,” Harris recalls. “Because there’s one thing to be on television in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; it’s another thing to be on TV all around the freaking world, essentially. I was sitting on the set with Tim Kurkjian, who sees that I’m a little nervous. He’s like, ‘Don’t be nervous. Ask me anything.’ ‘I got you.’ And we have a good chat. This is a nice little teamwork thing we got going here, right?”
If Harris ever forgets the influence of ESPN, he’s reminded in ways that often surprise him, such as when Manny Ramirez was on the campus to record a “This is SportsCenter” commercial with Harris and Steve Levy.
“Before we were shooting the commercial, we’re talking to Manny. Manny wants to take a picture with us. And we’re like, ‘excuse me? Don’t you know who you are? Why do you want to take a picture with us?’ He’s like, ‘No, I watch you guys on TV. I’ll take a picture.’ And you forget that that camera in the studio actually really goes out to people and they watch and including in that are the people that we cover. They watch the show.”
There aren’t many workplaces where you just happen to encounter a major star athlete or national figure on any given day.
“You kind of learn to expect it,” Harris said. “I remember maybe the most surreal experience for me: I was in the newsroom and I looked up and Rachel Robinson was walking down to one of our executives’ offices and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Jackie Robinson’s widow.’ And she’s like right there. I can touch her. But the history and the experiences the things that she knows? Oh, my goodness. You just kind of expect it and you try to play it cool. Sometimes it’s difficult but you try to play it cool.”
And then there was the day when Bill Walton, live on the air, showed up in the studio with a cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to Harris. Walton called him “Doctor Jay Harris” because Harris shares his Feb. 22 birthday with Julius Erving.
Just as he didn’t see a new chapter in his career coming when he was a news anchor in Pittsburgh, he has no plans for big changes now.
“I really enjoy my gig,” Harris said. “But you know this business: You’re always keeping your ear to the ground because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Repeat winners for state NSMA awards
For the fourth time, Ed Hardin, the columnist for the News & Record of Greensboro, is the National Sports Media Association’s North Carolina sports writer of the year for 2019. He also won it in 2018, 2016 (sharing it with The N&O’s Luke DeCock) and 2014.
Carolina Hurricanes play-by-play voice John Forslund shares the state sportscaster of the year award with David Glenn, the host of the syndicated weekday statewide “David Glenn Show” from noon-2 p.m. Forslund won it last year and Glenn shared in 2013 with East Carolina play-by-play voice Jeff Charles.
The 2019 award winners will be honored at the 61st NSMA awards banquet June 29 in Winston-Salem. Kevin Harlan of CBS, Turner Sports and Westwood One is the national sportscaster of the year and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is the national sports writer of the year.
That night, sportscaster Dan Patrick, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci and former sportscaster and current ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon will be inducted into the NSMA Hall of Fame. Entering the Hall posthumously will be former Atlanta Braves TV play-by-play voice Skip Carey, former Kentucky play-by-play voice Cawood Ledford and former New York Daily News sports writer Dick Young.
Winners in other states with N.C. ties are Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star (Indiana sports writer of the year and former Charlotte Observer sports writer), Steve Politi of NJ Advanced Media in Newark (New Jersey sports writer of the year and former N&O sports writer), Manie Robinson of the Greenville News (co-South Carolina sports writer of the year and Wake Forest graduate) and David Teel of the Daily Press of Newport News (Virginia sports writer of the year and former Fayetteville Observer sports writer)
Stevens, Antonelli headed to the N.C. Sports Hall
Retired high school sports writer Tim Stevens and basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli are part of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame’s 12-member 2020 class that will be inducted April 30.
Stevens, who is also in the National High School Hall of Fame and the NCHSAA Hall of Fame, covered prep sports for 48 years, first for The Raleigh Times and then The N&O. Stevens retired in 2015.
In 2017, Antonelli, a former N.C. State basketball player, became the first woman in 22 years to be a color analyst for the NCAA men’s tournament. She is in her 30th year as a full-time analyst for ESPN, calling men’s and women’s college basketball. She also calls WNBA games.
Observer hires NASCAR/MLS beat writer
The Charlotte Observer has hired Alex Andrejev to cover NASCAR and MLS, and her work will obviously also appear in The N&O and Herald-Sun. In December, Charlotte was awarded an MLS team, which will begin play in 2021. Her first day was Tuesday.
A 2018 Columbia University graduate, she earned a master’s in journalism from Southern Cal in 2019, then interned with The Washington Post sports department. She mostly covered high school sports for the Post. She is proficient in Spanish, which could come in handy while covering soccer.
Matt Stephens, McClatchy’s senior sports editor for North Carolina, says that he is working to hire a second Carolina Panthers beat writer, and is interviewing people for a real-time sports reporting position that will serve the Carolinas. That writer would handle breaking news.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The Washington Post, John Feinstein remembered legendary DeMatha High School boys’ basketball coach Morgan Wootten, who died Tuesday at age 88. There are a few storylines of North Carolina interest. Chief among them: He said no when N.C. State’s offered him its head coach. Wootten turned down nearly three times the money State paid the guy who ended up with the job: Jim Valvano.
In The Athletic, David Ubben wrote about an app two UNC alums — one a former walk-on on the basketball team (Sasha Seymore) and the other a former student body president (Andrew Powell) — created that helps coaches teach players plays and how to react during games. Chick-fil-A and the Air Force are also using the app. Larry Fedora used it at UNC and his son used it last season at Texas.
In The Ringer, Bryan Curtis wrote a lengthy, well-done oral history of Stuart Scott. With quotes from numerous people he worked with and were touched by him (including Harris), it documents his rise and the clashes he had at ESPN trying to anchor “SportsCenter” in his own style. It also painfully goes through his courageous battle with cancer.
In The Undefeated, David Steele wrote about the debate that followed N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton’s scholarship offer to LeBron James’ son Bronny. Some of the pushback surprised Moton. Would a blue-chip player pick an HBCU over a blue-blood program? As Mike Davis, a former coach at Texas Southern, said, that would be “the Jackie Robinson for us.”
In the Observer, N&O and Herald-Sun, Andrew Carter wrote about the career rise of Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule.
In the Observer, Rick Bonnell wrote about how Charlotte Hornets forward Nic Batum dealt with the death of his father and his own fear of dying young.