Communicating collegiate sports
Steve Kirschner grew up as a bat boy for the Boston Red Sox and is now the sports information director at UNC and can’t imagine a career outside of sports.
by MATHIAS DURIE | Sports Reporter
Steve Kirschner is a 1988 graduate of the University of Connecticut. He grew up as a MLB bat boy for the Boston Red Sox before coming to University of Connecticut. During his four years in college, Kirschner was a sports information student assistant and after graduation landed an internship at the University of North Carolina in its sports information office.
Describe the Journey you took to get to your current position at UNC.
“I worked my way up the ranks at UNC from assistant sports information director to my current position of director of communications for the athletic department in which I oversee the entire department but am responsible for the day to day operations of men’s basketball and men’s golf.”
What does a typical day on the job look like for you?
“A typical day depends on the time of year. During basketball season, I may be updating information that is handed out to the media before games. That takes about six hours minimum for each game. That might be once every week or if we are in a tournament playing three games in three days, like we did in Maui, then I must do that every day. I may be updating game notes, player notes, Coach Williams’ statistical charts, setting up a press conference, talking to TV announcers and producers, giving them information about the team such as trends, who’s hot, who’s not stuff like that. If it’s a home game I might be setting up the press room, issuing credentials and assigning photography spaces. I may be working with the director of athletics on issues that aren’t specific to a sport but are at the general athletic department level such as press releases, stories, issues that are university-wide but have an athletic tie as well.
“During the offseason, I may be updating the record books for basketball, which takes about a month for all the information. I also must update information for the upcoming season, which takes about another month. Depending on the time of the offseason, I’m either wrapping up the previous season or getting ready for the next one. We have a basketball museum that I’m responsible for, so updating the information for the basketball museum takes up a big chunk of my time during the offseason. After the school year ends, I must do a summary of the year for the athletic department.”
“The best part of the job, it’s not even close, it is gameday. I love gameday.”
What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?
“My least favorite part is dealing with off-the-court, off-the-field issues that surround college athletics these days whether its NCAA investigations or coaches getting fired. The worst thing that you could possibly deal with is an accident where a player or coach gets killed. Things that go way beyond the sport. I think of the soccer team in Brazil that got killed in the plane crash. Things like that are my worst nightmare. From a more normal situation, coaches getting fired is probably the worst.
“The best part of the job, it’s not even close, it is gameday. I love gameday. I don’t mind spending six hours updating basketball notes because gameday makes it worth it. The only job I have ever held since I was 10 years old has been sports-related and I am very fortunate for that. When we’re playing Duke and it’s a packed house, every photo spot is taken and ESPN is here and were getting ready to play, I know that I’ve done everything I can do to get us to that point and now I can just sit back, enjoy the game and do my job. During the game, I just must be looking for story lines. Career highs, first time in this many years we’ve done this, break out performers, stuff like that.”
Do you find you can still enjoy the game even while you are on the clock doing your job?
“Sometimes it’s a little of both. You must keep your poise on gameday. Emotions are high and you are going to be judged by how you respond. Last year, when Villanova hit the shot to beat us, I knew I had to handle that a certain way. I still had to help people get interviews with the players. I would never want someone to think that I can’t do my job because he’s too upset that his team lost a game. I’m in the locker room when Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are just devastated and every guy in there is balling and Michael Jordan is telling them to keep their heads up but I’ve got to keep it together, do my job and remember I’m the adult so I’ve got to help the kids get through this. It’s the same thing when you win: You can be excited and happy but you still must keep your composure and do your job.”
What is your favorite sport to work with?
“Probably men’s basketball and women’s soccer. I was the women’s soccer SID from 1988–1995 and I worked with Mia Hamm and Kristine Lily, some of the greatest U.S. soccer players. I wouldn’t be in the position that I am now working with men’s basketball at UNC if I hadn’t worked with that group because it allowed me to do so much and work with world class players. It gave me the opportunity to show what I could do and it gave the university and opportunity to see if I could translate what I did there to men’s basketball.”
Do you have a mentor or someone who has impacted your career?
“Earlier in my career, a couple of people who had an impact on my career and development are Tim Tolekin, the Sports Information Director at UConn, and Rick Brewer, the Sports Information Director at UNC. Now that I’ve been in this business for 32 years, I don’t have a mentor but I have people that I will go to to bounce ideas off. Mainly, they are people in the same position as me at other schools, like Art Chase and John Jackson at Duke, Chuck Walsh at Florida State and Jim Daves at Virginia. I will often contact them if I have a situation that they have dealt with before or just get their opinion on how to handle something.”
What would you want to be doing if you weren’t at UNC?
“Well, I always wanted to be the commissioner of baseball but I don’t think they’re going to let me do that. That was my dream job as a kid. When I got into sports information I kind of just stayed in that. I don’t want to be an athletic director. A lot of people in my business strive for that but I never want to be an AD. I like what I do. I love where I do it at. I hope they want me to stay here because I have no plans of doing anything different at this point.”
“Sometimes the players and coaches forget that I’m not with the media. Sometimes you get caught in the middle.”
What is your relationship like with players and coaches?
“I think they know I’m looking out for their best interests. I have a fantastic relationship with Coach Williams because he knows I have a job to do. He doesn’t like to deal with the media all the time, players certainly don’t like dealing with the media all the time, but they know I have a job to do. I am a school employee.
“Sometimes the players and coaches forget that I’m not with the media. Sometimes you get caught in the middle. After a tough game, I still must get Coach Williams and the players to that interview. I always tell them it’s not enough just to do it when we win, we still must be available when we lose. By being the person who coordinates that interview, you sometimes get perceived as part of the media even though you work for the school. Any sports information person deals with that conflict to some extent. I sometimes help players with their interviews by helping them cut out fillers like “Uhm” and “I mean.” Every interview with the media, for them is a job interview. I think the kids know when I give them advice like that they know I’m looking out for their best interest so they’re receptive to it.”
What is your best sports memory at UNC?
“The 2009 national championship, Coach Williams’ second, was the most satisfying because Tyler Hansbrough was a guy that could have gone pro after his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons but came back because he wanted to win and I know how important that championship was to Coach Williams because of Tyler and the other seniors that came back that year. In 2000, when the basketball team went to the Final Four, we were the eighth seed. Bill Guthridge had just taken over for Dean Smith as head coach and the fans were getting on him because they had lost 14 games that season. For them to make it to the Final Four was completely unexpected and probably the most satisfying.”
What is the most memorable sports figure you have met during your career?
“Coach Dean Smith. I remember when I was an intern, we were playing NC State and we were walking off the court after losing and Dean Smith was on one side of me and Phil Ford was on the other side. I called my dad after and said, “Wow, that was pretty cool” and he said “But you lost?” and I said “But I was walking off the court with Dean Smith while all the State fans were yelling at him and Phil Ford and I were right there.” I have been incredibly fortunate to work WITH Coach Smith, Antawn Jamison, Tyler Hansbrough. Some great players. And also, Mia Hamm. She might be the greatest women’s soccer player of all time. Anson Dorrance, maybe the greatest soccer coach of all time. I’ve been incredibly lucky.”
“Editing is so key to what we do. If you’re going to work in athletic communications, you must have some knowledge of sports but it’s the written and spoken word are most important.”
How important is editing and can you tell me an editing success and horror story?
“Tons of editing. Editing is so key to what we do. If you’re going to work in athletic communications, you must have some knowledge of sports, but it’s the written and spoken word are most important. We’re storytellers. Whether it’s through press releases, game notes, tweets, media guides or player bios, there is tons of writing involved. You must be able to edit yourself to make it clear, concise and accurate so editing is extraordinarily important and is so underrated. When I was an intern, one of the assistant SIDs, Dave Lohse, assigned me to write a story on the women’s soccer team and I was one year out of college so I thought I was a good writer. I turned in this story, he edited it and gave it back to me and I swear to God I thought he had cut himself because there was so much red on the paper. Turns out, he had edited it. He made it better, he tightened it up, he found better phrasing and I learned at a very young age that it’s not enough to write something; you must edit it. Everyone must be open to being edited. I think the wrong way to go about editing is to edit something and give it back to them without explaining why you made those changes.”
What advice do you have for journalism students trying to find internships and experience?
“Just get some. It doesn’t matter where just get your foot in the door somewhere. If we have an entry level job and I have two resumes in front of me, one is a public relation major with no experience and the other is a theology major who spent two to three years as a student assistant, I’m probably going to hire the theology major. Ideally, I would have a public relation major with a ton of experience but that just goes to show you how valuable experience is. Go volunteer at a nonprofit who does press releases, runs events and must deal with the media. That kind of invaluable experience is what’s going to get you a job.”
Does UNC offer any internships in its athletic communication department?
“We have one to two internships each year. We have a master’s program in sports management that we must hire from first. We usually hire one of our former students.”
Based off Kirschner’s responses, I can see myself getting into sports information at the college level. Although this isn’t an editor position, editing is a big part of this career at any level. I would enjoy working closely with players and coaches and developing strong and positive relationships with them. I would also like working on social media, web stories, photos, videos as well as things like statistics and press releases that aren’t typical of other journalism jobs. Sports is something I am passionate about and combining that with communications and journalism experience, I can see myself enjoying this career and succeeding at it as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.