ESPN’s Ryan McGee to Deliver CCI’s Spring Commencement Address
Ryan McGee (’93) was all set to attend the University of Georgia until the moment he went to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus to attend a game with his father, whose second job was as a college sports official.
“I took the tour and I loved it, I mean loved it!” McGee exclaimed.
Now, three decades after he graduated, the ESPN senior writer and broadcaster gets to share the passion he has for his alma mater by delivering the commencement speech for the College of Communication and Information’s class of 2023. As co-host of the SEC Network’s Marty and McGee television show, which also airs on ESPN Radio, McGee is no stranger to holding an audience’s attention.
A Sports Journalist is Born
McGee’s history with journalism dates back to when he had a unique opportunity to attend ninth grade in Raleigh, North Carolina, at one of the very first high schools in the country outfitted with a television production program.
“I always knew I wanted to major in broadcasting and communications, I’ve been really fortunate. Literally the second I walked into the classroom for ninth grade orientation, I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living,” he said. “I had the same feeling when I met Dr. Sam Swan that day I visited Tennessee, and then my very first college class was Dr. Swan’s introduction to broadcasting and I loved it. And Dr. Swan kept talking about the future of the business.”
As for the sports part of his career, that’s in his blood. His father officiated sports on the side, but his career was in college administration. Between the two, McGee received a lot of exposure to the behind-the-scenes workings of college athletics. By the time he began dipping his toes into broadcasting at his high school, he already had a good idea that his dream career would be sports journalism. He quickly realized he could volunteer to help keep stats for games, cut up film for coaches, and more as a way to continue learning the machinery of college sports.
He kept that up once he became a student at UT, constantly finding ways to work with sports journalists from ABC, CBS, or whatever network was on campus. He’d simply walk up to directors and ask them if they had a job for him, and took it, even if it was as menial as holding a microphone.
“Years later I ended up working with some of the directors I worked with when I walked into Neyland and said, ‘Give me a job.’,” he recounted. “All that stuff I did in middle school and high school at the different schools my dad worked at led to me doing things at a bigger level at Tennessee.”
McGee continued to cut his teeth with hands-on experience in the field by working with Tennessee Athletics, which afforded him the opportunity to work with that department’s top-of-the-line equipment, and to use their editing room. It also gave him a portfolio of work he could show to potential employers, which was good, because had his eyes set on ESPN.
Finding a Home at ESPN
Graduating in the recession of 1993 wasn’t ideal for a fresh-faced aspiring sports journalist on the hunt for a job. He did get a job working with the minor league baseball team the Asheville Tourists, earning $100 week doing anything they asked him to do. While it wasn’t in the vein of work he was aiming for, it did supply him with enough amusing anecdotes to write his most recent book, “Welcome to the Circus of Baseball: A Story of the Perfect Summer at the Perfect Ballpark at the Perfect Time.”
He did eventually land an interview with ESPN to be a production assistant, but a lot of hardball questions about hockey were lobbed at him by the legendary Al Jaffe, who was unimpressed. McGee asked Jack when he might hear back, and the interviewer said if he didn’t call back in a year, McGee didn’t have a job; 362 days later, he got the call. It remained, to the day Jaffe retired, the record for how long it took to give a job offer to an interviewee.
Once he had his in at the company, McGee faced his next challenge: the effect his southern drawl had on all the northeastern sports journalists. At that time, everyone in the Connecticut-based ESPN headquarters sported a more traditional accent, making McGee’s North Carolina cadence an anomaly. It also, incorrectly, convinced them he must be in the know about NASCAR.
“They were going to start a nightly NASCAR show and I knew more about NASCAR than they all did, but there’s no way I knew as much as they thought I did. There was no one saying, hey, I want to work on NASCAR, so they asked me,” he said.
That beat brought him a little closer to home as the NASCAR show he’d be working on, RPM2night, would be covered by the new Charlotte, North Carolina-based ESPN2. It was a tiny production at that time, and McGee and his fellow employees had to set the whole office up, down to going to Office Depot and buying chairs that they put together.
Besides setting up the nascent ESPN2 offices, McGee wore many hats in those early years, but his favorite hat has always been writer.
“I started traveling to all these racetracks, Daytona and Indianapolis, and then they started the ESPN magazine. A writer from the magazine called our office because he wanted to write an Indy car story and finally he said, ‘Do you want to just write it?’ So I wrote a little 200-word story for the first issue of ESPN the magazine, and then I wrote from the time it started to the time it folded,” he said.
Where McGee is Today
Variety of sports and media remains a defining characteristic of McGee’s job. He has continued to cover football, baseball, motorsports, and more for a combination of different writing and broadcasting platforms.
He is one of the long-timers at ESPN, even if there was a short stint a few years ago where he left for another job but quickly went back. It’s like a home to the veteran sports journalists, and it’s allowed him to do things such as cover his 30th Daytona 500, and to follow the journeys of sports legends from start to finish.
“I was there at the beginning of Jeff Gordon’s career. When he retired from driving I said, ‘You cannot retire because, when you retire, I become the old guy in the office.’,” McGee said with a chuckle.
He’s also enjoyed seeing the changing landscape of sports journalism. No longer is he the only person at ESPN sporting a Southern accent, and he’s delighted in watching the channel diversify both its broadcasters and content.
“Everyone was from the northeast and there were no women or minorities, but now you go on campus and it looks like the world. There’s people from every corner of the country and from different backgrounds and regions, it’s very representative of the country as opposed to back in the day,” he said.
Throughout the decades of his career, McGee has carried what he learned while he was at UT. He thinks back to how retired JEM Professor Sam Swan would talk about journalists needing to be “future proof” by adapting to new ways of reporting, new technology, and trends. On the flipside, McGee said Swan told students some things are immutable, such as telling a good story.
“My bosses always complimented me on my ability to understand where things should go in a story or a book, how to stack something, and that came from a broadcast journalism class; what should lead a show, what should be at the end of a show, there’s a rise and a fall to it. That’s something I learned in school that I use every single day,” he said.
Another steadfast truth is that there’s no substitute for just getting out into the field and doing the work.
“You can take all the theory and classes you want but reps are the key— the more you do it, the better you’re going to get. The radio station and the projects we worked on at CCI and at Tennessee Athletics, the internships, all those things added up and by the time I got out of school, I had done a lot of real work,” he said. “When I got to ESPN, I was stunned at how much more experience I had than a lot of people there because of what the school had taught me.”
While McGee credits CCI for helping him gain the knowledge and experience he needed to be where he is today, there is one aspect of his affection for UT that has nothing to do with education or career: it is where he met his wife of many years, Erica Allen, who he describes as “as East Tennessee as she could possibly be.”
They have a daughter, Tara, who is currently in the process of picking where she will go to college so she can also enter the world of broadcasting and film—though her interests lie behind the camera, in production. UT is on the table, but it’s not a sure thing, much to McGee’s somewhat real, but somewhat humorous, chagrin. Not to mention that, regardless of where she ends up going, her name will always carry a bit of Volunteer legacy.
“Tara is Irish for rocky hill, so we joke that we named her for Rocky Top,” McGee said.