Award-Winning Sports Writer and Broadcast Journalist Gene Wojciechowski Joins CCI Faculty
Award-winning sports writer and broadcast journalist Gene Wojciechowski (’79) has returned to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, numerous times during his nearly 26-year career at ESPN. He typically makes time to stop at the College of Communication and Information—where he developed the foundational skills that propelled his career in journalism—to offer students career advice and perspective, as well as reflect on his own career experiences. But the next time he visits CCI, it’ll be as a faculty member in the School of Journalism and Media. Wojciechowski has accepted a position as a full-time professor of practice as the Edward J. Meeman Distinguished Professor, starting August 2024.
“The appointment of Gene Wojciechowski to the School of Journalism and Media marks a significant milestone for the college as it solidifies its strength in sports communication teaching and scholarship,” said Joseph Mazer, dean of the College of Communication and Information. “Gene brings to the classroom a wealth of industry experience and unwavering dedication to the industry, making him an invaluable addition to our faculty.”
Wojciechowski hadn’t considered teaching until a 2022 visit to a CCI class. Afterward, Mazer approached him to gauge his future interest in academia. At that time, he was entrenched in his ESPN position—but fate had other plans, and he left the company in June of this year. That’s when the offer to join CCI resurfaced and ignited his desire to pay it forward as others had done with him over the decades.
“People held my hand throughout my entire career, beginning with the faculty at Tennessee during my time as a student,’’ Wojciechowski said. “And once I began working, some of the best sports writers, copy editors, sports editor, TV producers and TV reporters in the business took the time to help me. So, if I have the chance to do the same in whatever small way I can offer my help, why wouldn’t I do that? I have this unbelievable opportunity to work with world-class professors, instructors and staff at Tennessee. And during my past visits to UT, I’ve always been struck by the quality, curiosity, and commitment of the students.”
In his role as a professor of practice, Wojciechowski will teach a variety of topics that align with the School of Journalism and Media curriculum, including sports reporting, feature writing, and video production. His insights and expertise will enrich the classroom experience, providing students with invaluable real-world perspectives and preparing them for successful industry careers.
A Full-Circle Moment
While teaching at his alma mater is special in its own right, the Edward J. Meeman Distinguished Professorship holds special significance for Wojciechowski. As an undergraduate in the School of Journalism and Media, he was given a scholarship with the exact same name, and it was pivotal to his success at the university.
Edward J. Meeman established the Knoxville News in 1921, and after the Scripps-Howard newspaper acquired its afternoon competitor The Sentinel, he served as the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s first editor until he moved to Memphis in 1931 to be editor of the Press-Scimitar. In addition to his leadership in Tennessee journalism, Meeman was integral in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His legacy continued when, in 1949, he established the Edward J. Meeman Foundation, dedicated to supporting endeavors like Wojciechowski’s professorship.
As an undergraduate, Wojciechowski had journalism in mind for his major, though he’d always thought he’d be covering politics and government, or perhaps go another route entirely and attend law school. His foray into sports journalism was, as he calls it, a “happy accident” that occurred after he graduated. In fact, his career grew out of a combination of talent, dedication, and more than one of those happy accidents. Even his choice of university was a bit arbitrary, as he followed his high school sweetheart to UT from their hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I never knew I’d make. I loved the campus, I loved the College of Communications (what it was called at that time) and lucked out into being taught by a core of professors at that college who were just extraordinary,” he said. “I didn’t realize it at the time—you never do in the moment, you think you know everything at that age—but in retrospect I understand how little I knew and how much they helped me,” he said.
“Without that scholarship, more than likely I was going to have to drop out of school because of financial difficulties. It is jaw-dropping to me that it has come full circle like this. I owe the Meeman family continual thanks from the beginning of my career to the start of a new career. It’s amazing that the Meeman name is connected to both ends of that. They’ll never know how much that meant to me,” he said.
Among those instructors who left a lasting impact on him were Professors James Crook, June Adamson, Paul Ashdown, Kelly Leiter, and Dean Donald Hileman, among others. In addition to their excellent teaching, Wojciechowski also credits the hands-on practical experiences at the college with giving him the opportunity to try and fail and succeed early on as a journalist. He worked at both The Daily Beacon and the then-UT yearbook. During his first year with the Beacon, he worked in the sports department and his editor was Paul Finebaum, who would go on to become a successful newspaper columnist, sports-talk radio host, and now a prominent national voice in college athletics for ESPN.
As the pages of Wojciechowski’s time as a UT student turned, so did his role at the Beacon. A culminating moment occurred when he was named the student-run newspaper’s editor-in-chief. Now, in the role of professor of practice, he is committed to fostering students’ growth and development. Wojciechowski will dedicate a portion of his time by working directly with students at the Beacon and The Volunteer Channel, UT’s student-run television program. His journey, from navigating the Beacon newsroom to shaping the next generation of journalists, exemplifies the full-circle trajectory of his career.
Student Ellie Millikan interviews Gene Wojciechowski during one of his visits to the UT campus as part of ESPN’s College Gameday.
Hitting a Career Home Run
Upon graduating, Wojciechowski had already lined up a job with the help of one of the CCI faculty, Leiter, covering the circuit court in Mississippi for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. But, in one of those twists of fate, while he was visiting his family in Florida, he received a call from his hometown Fort Lauderdale News offering him a job covering a suburban city council. He chose to stay home and accepted the position to cover local politics. When he reported for work, a member of the sports department made an unusual request: could they switch jobs for a week? Wojciechowski agreed, and never spent a day covering city council.
“It was what every aspiring journalist should do: start at the bottom and learn to do the little things. You get to do a lot of different things at a smaller paper,” Wojciechowski said.
After three years of covering youth sports, high school and college athletics, he decided to attend law school. But an Associated Press Sports Editors writing award brought Wojciechowski a job offer from the Denver Post and his plans of law school disappeared. From Denver, Wojciechowski worked at the Dallas Morning News, Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, where he worked until the end of 1997.
“What I liked about sports journalism was it required you to do everything: report, interview, write on deadline, write news stories, game stories, sidebars, columns and features, become fluent in contracts and salary caps. You traveled. You could cover anything from a high school game to the Super Bowl or Olympics. You competed against other reporters, other newspapers, other networks. I liked being challenged that way,” Wojciechowski said. “And the best part about it was, you never knew how something was going to turn out because, every game was a different experience. Every player, every coach, every manager was his or her own puzzle. I liked having to learn all those things. It made you a better writer, it made you a better reporter, and I thought it was the coolest job at the paper.”
While he loved working for newspapers, Wojciechowski saw a new opportunity on the horizon in the nascent ESPN The Magazine. He started as a senior writer there in 1998, which led to a national columnist position with ESPN.com, and eventually a full transition to the broadcast side of ESPN. In all, Wojciechowski spent nearly 26 years at the sports media conglomerate.
The move in 2011 from writing to television wasn’t seamless. But Wojciechowski credits the people he worked with for their patience and mentoring him as he grew into his new role.
“Thanks to my colleagues and unbelievable producers, I slowly learned how to do television, so I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. You don’t always get those kinds of opportunities. Usually, you get thrown into the deep end of the pool. You don’t get floaties, so you either swim or they find another person to do it. So, I was lucky I had some other people who helped me learn how to swim,” he said.
Wojciechowski spent 11 years on ESPN’s College GameDay, college football’s premier pre-game television show, and more than a dozen years as part of the network’s golf coverage.
This latest chapter of Wojciechowski’s career was unexpected, but welcome. He’s excited to move to Knoxville and to dive in, once again, to the deep end of a new role.
“It’s very strange, but it’s also very wonderful. Never in 10,000 years would I have imagined the symmetry of all this, and for that, I owe Dean Mazer a thousand thanks,” he said. “I’m beyond honored to have been asked to do this, and I’m still making sense of it all. I think it’s fantastic that UT is making a commitment to sports communications and journalism. Sports isn’t going anywhere, and it continues to be one of the industries that the valuations always increase. NFL franchises aren’t selling for less money, they’re selling for more. Neyland Stadium is filled to the brim because people want to watch the product. Broadcast rights continue to grow exponentially. Sports is a growth industry, so you need people to chronicle that. I think it’s a smart, strategic move by UT to commit resources to covering that industry.”
From left: Cheryl and Gene Wojciechowski look through archival issues of the Daily Beacon at a 2023 alumni reception for former Beacon students.