When it comes to journalism, colleges such as Northwestern, Missouri and Syracuse usually are regarded as some of the premier schools for producing sportswriters. Because it lacks a journalism program, Vanderbilt never will be mentioned among the top "J schools" in the country, but maybe it should.
The lack of offering a journalism degree hasn't prevented Vanderbilt from having a Mt. Rushmore of current sportswriters that would stack up to almost any other university.
There are Buster Olney and Skip Bayless with ESPN; Mark Bechtel, Lee Jenkins and Bill Trocchi with Sports Illustrated; Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post; Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tyler Kepner of The New York Times just to name a few.
Without a journalism program and an enrollment of fewer than 8,000, the number of successful sportswriters to graduate from Vanderbilt is staggering. There are many factors to why Vanderbilt has produced the number of sportswriters that it has, but the main reasons are Vanderbilt's student newspaper, The Hustler, and the Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Sports Writing Scholarship, which is awarded annually to one high school senior.
"I believe there are two reasons Vanderbilt has produced so many sportswriters," said Mitch Light, an editor for Athlon Sports and a 1993 graduate. "The Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship is a big reason. You are automatically getting a pool of capable writers there that have an interest in doing it as a profession, but I always thought Vanderbilt was a great opportunity because The Hustler is a small enough (student newsper) paper that if you show some initiative and have a little bit of talent, you will have the opportunity to cover big-time sporting events."
Among those who won the scholarship and are now sportswriters are Bayless (1970), Sheinin (1987), Light (1989), Kepner (1993), Jenkins (1995) and Dan Wolken (1997) of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. Writers such as Jenkins point to Russell's influence beyond just the scholarship for his reason for attending Vanderbilt.
"I was deciding between a couple of places, and on my visit to Vanderbilt, (Russell) gave me his book. He wrote in it an inscription to me that I should come here, and at that moment, I told him I'd come to Vanderbilt," said Jenkins, who graduated in 1999 and covered the New Jersey Nets and New York Mets for the New York Times before joining SI in 2007.
"For people, especially Buster (Olney), he was a big part of branding Vanderbilt as a place for sportswriters. The way he rubbed off on people and made them want to get in the business was huge. For my generation, we knew Mr. Russell, but it wasn't the same relationship that Buster had with him."
While the scholarship certainly is a large factor in having so many sports writers, a handful of writers such as Olney came to Vanderbilt without winning the scholarship, while others such as Josh Cooper, who covers Alabama for the Decatur (Ala.) Daily, didn't become interested in the field until arriving at Vanderbilt.
"I think a lot of the success has to do with that it is a really good school and it attracts a lot of bright people and a lot of people that are really passionate about what they want to do," said Cooper, who as a 2005 graduate is the most recent Vanderbilt graduate to move into sports writing. "I think that is what kind of brings people in and once you get there, The Hustler has always been really good at fostering creativity and passion. You already have a bunch of bright people to begin with, and then you take that level of intelligence and mold it and it grows."
Not every sportswriter who has come out of Vanderbilt won the scholarship, but one thing each one of has in common is their experience of working at The Hustler.
"The best thing for me was getting to work for The Hustler," Jenkins said. "The Hustler wasn't a very big operation when I was in school, and we were really able to do it all. We were able to learn all facets of working at a newspaper. I was writing football game stories just a couple of weeks in. It was just such a great opportunity early on, a bunch of us had just to write."
By coming to Vanderbilt, the writers were all able to immerse themselves in the paper and cover big-time sporting events from the start, which is something the majority of writers wouldn't have been able to do if they had attended a school with a renowned journalism program.
"I covered an SEC football game my third week on campus as a freshman, where if you go somewhere else, there is so much competition to cover events that at Syracuse you'd be lucky to be covering a lacrosse match by yourself by your junior year," Light said. "The opportunity is there to cover big-time sporting events. It gives you a lot of exposure early in your career."
Another thing the writers can attest to is the long hours and nights they dedicated to The Hustler. To some, their time spent at The Hustler was greater than their time spent in the classroom.
"I remember when Vanderbilt went to the 1997 NCAA Tournament, and we were just sitting around when they got their bid and decided to put together a second section," Jenkins said. "We went down that night and cranked out a special NCAA Tournament section. I remember it till this day."
That commitment to The Hustler also affected how writers, such as Olney, performed in the classroom.
"If you knew my college GPA, then you would understand that I spent a whole lot of time at The Hustler," Olney said. "I spent a lot more time at The Hustler than I did actually at class."
In a large part due to their experience writing for The Hustler, the writers have had little resistance ascending to the top of their profession despite not having journalism degrees.
"If you are good, then you are good, and if you know what you are doing, people will notice you," said Wolken, who covers the Memphis men's basketball team. "Journalism is a career where real-world experience counts way more than education. Almost any paper in the country is going to look at what you've done when they look at hiring you."
Another key to Vanderbilt's success at having sportswriters land some of the most prominent jobs has been the network that has been established between the writers.
Kepner, who has covered the New York Yankees for the New York Times since 2000, made his first connection to the network of Vanderbilt writers through Tony Gwynn--yes, the hall of famer.
"In the summer of 1994, I was interviewing Tony Gwynn for my baseball magazine, and I was wearing a Vanderbilt shirt the day I interviewed him. He noticed that and he asked if I went to Vanderbilt and I told him I did and he said, `our beat writer went to Vanderbilt, his name is Buster Olney.'
"A little while later, I heard Tony coming up the ramp from the clubhouse to the dugout and he's talking to Buster and telling Buster he's got to meet me, so Tony was like a match maker."
The two became friends, and Olney eventually helped Kepner land his job at the New York Times after Olney had left his post as Yankees beat writer at the Times to work for ESPN.
Kepner later helped return the favor when he vouched for Jenkins when the Times was looking to hire him to cover the New Jersey Nets. Jenkins got the job and later covered the New York Mets. Kepner had known Jenkins since their days at Vanderbilt together.
"Tyler Kepner was my sports editor and then he was the editor in chief (at The Hustler)," Jenkins said. "He was kind of pushing me to do better stories. I was constantly trying to follow his footsteps in a way."
With Kepner covering the Yankees and Jenkins covering the Mets at one time, Vanderbilt had a monopoly on both of New York's baseball teams for the Times. Vanderbilt's ties as baseball writers don't end there. Shienin is the national baseball writer for the Washington Post, while Olney is a national baseball writer for ESPN and Jenkins now covers baseball for Sports Illustrated.
"The New York Times and the Washington Post are probably the two best papers in the country, so for us to kind of have a monopoly on the baseball coverage in those two papers at one time was pretty outstanding," Shienen said.
Having writers from Vanderbilt go on and succeed at a high level in the profession also has made the career path more attractive to others. Cooper is one person who was drawn to the profession, in part, because of the number of Vanderbilt sportswriters in the industry.
"It was definitely a draw," Cooper said. "Part of the thing with being a Vanderbilt sportswriter is you contact these people in the industry, and they are always willing to speak with you and tell you what they think of the business and how much they enjoy doing it. When you talk to these people and they really have so much passion for it and you sort of share how much they enjoy doing it, and it makes you want to do it as well."
Those connections helped Cooper get advice from Olney when he was beginning his job at the Decatur Daily.
"I talked to Buster a few times, and he gave me some really good advice before I came down here to cover the Alabama beat," Cooper said. "He told me how hard the beat was and what a great opportunity it was, and what you can get out of it."
Although the writers are all different ages, the group maintains a common bond that has brought them together.
"It is a large group and a great group of guys," Jenkins said. "When we are in press boxes and we see each other on the road, we always go out and there is definitely a real bond there that probably exists for the Northwestern crew, Syracuse crew and Missouri crew. It is not like our numbers are bigger than anybody else's, but for a private school that doesn't have a journalism program, the number is pretty large."
Even though the writers are objective journalists for the sports and teams they cover, it doesn't stop them from being avid followers of their alma mater.
"When Vanderbilt was playing Auburn, Kepner and I were covering the National League Divisional Series and we watched that game from the press box," Jenkins said. "The phone tree when Vanderbilt plays is pretty extensive."
Sheinin and Jenkins shared a similar experience in 2006 when Vanderbilt won at Georgia in football.
"I distinctly remember being in a press box in Anaheim at a baseball playoff game and sneaking back to the dining room where they had TVs with Lee Jenkins because we were watching Vanderbilt pull up a huge upset over Georgia in football," Sheinin said.
Sports writing may not be mentioned among the many things Vanderbilt is renowned for, but with a list of successful writers that could match almost any other university, maybe it should be.
"I would be surprised if there is another school without a journalism school that has as many people in such prominent roles," Light said. "It's not just that people have gotten out there, it is the prominent roles that all these guys have in the industry."