Why Marquette alumni find success in sports journalism
It was June 1998, and all eyes in the sports world were watching the NBA Finals: Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls vs. Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz. Jordan’s last-second jump shot in Game 6 — with hand extended at the free-throw — helped the Bulls clinch their sixth championship. It cemented their dynasty.
Working behind the scenes, Marquette journalism alumni captured the iconic moment.
“Showing up with six people who went to your school in one room at the center of the sports world — it was pretty cool,” remembers Nancy Armour, Comm ‘91, who covered the series for the Associated Press. “It just reinforced what a great education we had at Marquette because we had done pretty well for ourselves.”
Steve Aschburner, Journ ’78, who then wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and now writes for nba.com, put it another way.
“We had a mafia from Marquette,” he says. Joining Aschburner and Armour were Mary Schmitt Boyer, Journ ’77, Mike Nadel, Journ ’82, Chris Sheridan, Journ ’87, and Don Burke, Journ ‘78.
The “mafia from Marquette” | Photo via Mary Schmitt Boyer
The Bulls weren’t the only dynasty on that stage.
Marquette journalism alumni then and now have a legacy in the sports world, from broadcast to print to online, and are being celebrated with the 20th anniversary of Marquette’s Pete and Bonnie Axthelm Lecture.
The annual lecture, established to acknowledge and recognize the life of reporter Pete Axthelm and his sister Bonnie, rewards student sports reporters with scholarships and brings in big-name sports journalists to speak on campus, including Dick Enberg, Adam Schefter and Chris Broussard.
The success of Marquette’s sports journalists is no accident. Alumni report that the combination of Marquette’s basketball legacy, influential professors, liberal arts curriculum, and hands-on experience through internships and student media have a profound influence.
Often, students who want to enter the sports field learn about Marquette from the school’s rich basketball tradition. Sports Illustrated contributor Steve Rushin, Journ ’88, Hon ‘07, was no exception.
Rushin, who was raised in Bloomington, Minn., says his decision to come to Marquette “had frighteningly a lot to do with basketball,” and the school appeared on his radar when a local basketball player signed a letter of intent for Marquette. Rushin also remembers the fact that Milwaukee had an NBA team, meaning he could watch his beloved Celtics play the Bucks, influencing his decision.
“I liked that it was in a city, it had a journalism school, it was Catholic — and all of those things were important,” he says. “But basketball played a role not just in the background.”
Things were similar for Aschburner.
“It sounds superficial when you have such high academic standards to say that you would be shaped by a sports program,” he says. “But I don’t think I would have ended up going to Marquette if not for the awareness of the school, largely from Al McGuire. My school experience would have been entirely different if not for that.”
Once on campus, these students assimilated into another world. A Marquette sports journalist’s journey often begins behind the camera, microphone or reporter’s notebook in student media. With access to a high-profile basketball program, the experience quickly gives budding journalists a taste of the professional world.
Brad Galli, Comm ’11, realized his freshman year that as a broadcast major, he could get involved with Marquette University Television and prove himself right away. “If you had an idea, people listened,” he says. “And they actually implemented it.”
He, along with with student colleagues Jodi Bank, Todd Warner and Chris Gaulke wanted to start a series called Marquette Basketball Weekly. The innovative format incorporated social media promotion, and each episode was posted on YouTube.
The group started off with a bang, proposing taping in Los Angeles, where former Marquette standouts Dwyane Wade, Steve Novak and Travis Diener were playing in the NBA the same weekend. “That’s something that college students don’t normally get to do,” Galli says.
But the college flew them to L.A., where the student crew started to build experience and relationships. For the series’ 24 episodes, the reporters interviewed players and coaches, worked all-nighters, and traveled with the team to big games and the Sweet 16.
“Not every college sports reporter gets to do one-on-one interviews with (men’s basketball coach) Buzz Williams,” Galli says. “You don’t just get that because you ask. You have to earn it. And I got the chance to earn it at Marquette.”
Galli helped others learn the same thing, including senior Tess Quinlan. Quinlan reached out to Galli and the MUTV staff before arriving on campus. And she was put to work almost immediately.
“I was the biggest nag ever. I wanted to know everything,” she says. “If there was an opportunity and no one else wanted it, I would say: ‘Send me. I’ll do it.’”
Her persistence paid off. She became MUTV sports editor her sophomore year. Last summer, she interned for NBC at the Olympics.
Galli and Quinlan follow a long line of journalists experiencing what Galli called Marquette’s “playground of opportunity.” Schmitt Boyer, who today covers sports for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, recalls that one of her first student assignments was making a phone call about a basketball story. Unexpectedly, Al McGuire answered.
“There was no mistaking his voice,” she remembers. “I wasn’t prepared for that, and I stumbled around. I knew right from that moment that anything could happen.”
And it did.
After starting out on the wrestling and rugby beats, Schmitt Boyer eventually began covering basketball for The Marquette Tribune and developed a bond with the legendary coach.
“Had Al McGuire not been there, maybe I wouldn’t have been a sports journalist,” she reflects. “If everyone had not been so supportive, I don’t know what I would have done. I’ve never regretted following my heart and doing what I’m doing.”
During her senior year, she worked closely with the basketball program as a staff member of the sports information department. That was 1977, the year Marquette won the NCAA championship.
“It was a magical time at Marquette, much like the Dwyane Wade years,” says Schmitt Boyer.
Al McGuire photo via Marquette University Archives
Aschburner also counts that time as one of the most influential periods of his career. He was Marquette Tribune sports editor for 1976–77, his junior year. When the basketball season began, it didn’t seem like the team was going to be as good as the previous year. At one point, in fact, it looked like it might miss postseason play. The rest is history.
“Then the whole thing took off,” Aschburner said. “That took me to another level of being up to my elbows in sports.”
It also took him to the editor-in-chief role at the Tribune. He continued to cover basketball for The Hilltop yearbook so he could go to games, an experience he calls “intoxicating.”
“Just the exposure to Al McGuire — he’s still the most fascinating person I’ve ever met,” he says. “I can’t second-guess my college decision one little bit.”
Neither can students who came after the McGuire years.
John Casper, Comm ’03, remembers then-men’s basketball coach Tom Crean calling him to disagree with something he had written. To Casper, this was excellent preparation for the professional world.
“I always felt like I was better prepared than someone who was treated with kid gloves”
“I always felt like I was better prepared than someone who was treated with kid gloves,” says Casper, now a sports writer for The La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune. “He held me to the same standard as the TV stations or The Chicago Tribune or any other journalist. He always respected me and answered my calls and treated me as a regular member of the media. That taught me a lot about dealing with coaches in the real world. It made me stand up for myself and say why I did what I did.”
Casper was Marquette Tribune sports editor his senior year, when the men’s basketball team made its Final Four run. He remembers rubbing elbows with and learning from reporters from major media outlets like The New York Times. “We were just trying to do the best to soak it all in,” he remembers. “It taught me a lot about big event coverage.”
Speaking of big events, sports journalism students have benefitted from — and continue to benefit from — Marquette’s location in Milwaukee.
Len Kasper, CJPA ’93, the voice of the Chicago Cubs, landed an internship with the Bucks’ PR department his freshman year. It was a prestigious internship normally reserved for upperclassmen, but his adviser, Bill Baxter, encouraged him to pursue it.
“I was an 18-year-old freshman, being around the NBA greats of the time,” Kasper says. “That was a huge experience for me.”
That’s one advantage of being located in Milwaukee, said Trenni Kusnierik, Comm ’99, New England anchor for Comcast Sports and NBC curling reporter for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
While on campus, Kusnierik interned for 2 ½ years in Marquette’s backyard at WISN Channel 12.
“It’s in the heart of a city where you can do really great internships,” she says.
Part of that training can be attributed to a liberal arts curriculum that provides deeper context and teaches students how to think, not what to think.
Armour, for instance, says the public affairs class taught by Paul Salsini, Jour ’58, Grad ’85, — a lecturer in the Diederich College — was the most important course she took at Marquette, even though it had nothing to do with sports.
“You’re 21 or 22, and it’s somewhat daunting to go to the courthouse and ask for public records,” she says. “I learned so much from that one class: where to look for things, how to look for things. That class translated across everything I’ve ever done. That gave me the confidence to go and ask for things.”
Kasper says he still draws on his Marquette history and public relations background for topics to discuss during a Cubs game.
“You want to reach out to as many people as you can, even the casual fan,” he says. “Everyone finds other things besides sports interesting, too.”
Galli says the moral theology class taught by Rev. Bryan N. Massingale taught him “how to be a person,” which he called the most influential experience of his Marquette career. It also made him a better journalist.
“there is much more than my walk of life”
“He opened my mind completely to knowing that there is much more than my walk of life,” Galli says. “He taught me to celebrate everyone for their differences and uniqueness. You can’t look at everyone the same. Everyone has their own story to tell.”
For Rushin, Marquette conjures up memories of the legendary Western Civ class taught by Rev. John Patrick Donnelly, S.J., in the Varsity Theater. Those stories of history, culture and government inform his writing to this day.
“You’ve been raised too well and are — it’s official now — too well-educated,” he told Marquette students in his 2007 Commencement address.
“I use this broad base of an education all the time in my work, even though that work is covering ballgames,” he says. “It gives you a great knowledge that you can bring to bear and a curiosity about the world and people that is the essence of journalism.”
Even if it started with basketball.
“Had I gone somewhere else, it’s unlikely I would have had the same path,” Rushin adds. “And I’m glad I’m on this one.”
This article is an updated version of the 2012 Comm Magazine cover story