DALLAS — Veteran sports reporter Brett McMurphy of Stadium Network has been named the ninth annual Steve Ellis/FWAA Beat Writer of the Year for his work covering college football.
McMurphy, 57, broke a huge sports story in 2018, concerning Courtney Smith and domestic violations against now ex-husband, ex-Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith. His reporting also revealed that Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s head coach at the time, knew of the domestic violence despite his public denial of any knowledge.
After those disclosures, an Ohio State investigation confirmed McMurphy’s reporting, resulting in suspensions of Meyer and Athletic Director Gene Smith. McMurphy was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in the Investigative Category for the second time in his career, but he was not named a Pulitzer nominee finalist.
During the contest time period, McMurphy broke numerous news items (coaching and athletic director hiring/firings, new bowl affiliations/lineups, bowl bids, College Football Playoff news, etc.) From April 2017 to Aug. 13, 2018, McMurphy did all his reporting on Facebook/Twitter after being laid off by ESPN and bound by non-compete. He has been reporting for Stadium Network since Aug. 13, 2018.
McMurphy will be honored at the FWAA’s Annual Awards Breakfast on Jan. 13 in New Orleans at the Sheraton New Orleans, the Media Hotel in conjunction with the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. The late Ellis, for whom the award is named, was a longtime sports reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat who covered the Seminoles for three decades with tenacity.
Here’s an up-close-and-personal interview with Brett McMurphy:
PERSONAL: I am married to Susan, and we have a daughter, Chesney, a 15-year old high school sophomore. Susan and Chesney love traveling with me on my work assignments — especially if it’s Los Angeles, Pasadena, Destin or New York City.
I am an Oklahoma State graduate and this spring, OSU’s media and strategic communications department recognized me as the Paul Miller Journalism Lecturer of the Year. I have also won 10 FWAA Best Writing Contest Awards and twice have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
MENTORS: Look, if you’ve worked — and have been laid off — at as many places as I have, you have crossed paths with many great mentors and even better friends. Here are a few that have truly impacted my career and life: Tom Kensler, Steve Schoenfeld, Tim Allen, Chris Harry, Joey Johnston, Martin Fennelly, Andy Staples, David Whitley, Dennis Dodd, Bruce Feldman, Tony Barnhart, Mike Epstein, Jeff Goodman, Mike Harris and Matt Hayes.
In addition, when I was laid off at ESPN, my wife was incredible throughout that time, in providing support and encouragement for me to continue to break news, even it was only on Twitter/Facebook and without a media outlet.
Kim Postlick, my high school journalism teacher, also deserves a great deal of credit — or blame — for my career. My senior year, she forced me to apply for a journalism scholarship at Oklahoma State, which I received. That was extremely fortunate since my only other college option was a partial scholarship to play small college football at East Central University in Ada, Okla., where I undoubtedly would have torn my ACL at least twice and majored in “undecided.”
BEST STORIES: The biggest was my reporting about the domestic violence past of Ohio State assistant Zach Smith and then Urban Meyer’s mishandling of it throughout their time together and what Meyer knew about it. There are other “best stories” I could include, but this one had the biggest impact.
Based on my reports, Ohio State launched an investigation, which cost the school $1 million, verifying my reporting and ultimately leading to a three-game suspension of one of college football’s most powerful and successful coaches. What’s ironic is this would not have reached this magnitude if Meyer didn’t lie when initially asked about my reports at Big Ten Media Days. “I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said. Of course, none of my reporting would have seen the light of day without the incredible courage and tenacity of Courtney Smith. I am forever grateful for her trust and confiding in me during the entire process.
BEST ADVICE: The best advice I have received is that when a source tells you something is off-the-record, you may never — under any circumstance — use that information. If so, start pursuing a new profession, because you won’t be a journalist for long. Something else I stress to younger reporters is that “it’s better to get beat on a hundred stories, than to be wrong on one story.” It doesn’t matter if you’re first if you’re wrong.
BIGGEST CHANGE IN THE PROFESSION: You don’t have to work at a giant media company to make a real impact and be a credible, trusted and relevant reporter. Because of the non-compete clause in my ESPN contract after I was laid off, the biggest story of my life I broke on my Facebook page. With social media, podcasts and other outlets, if you consistently can provide legitimate news and information and/or entertaining content, people will find you. It may take a while but eventually, they will find you.
BEST INTERVIEW: Long before he was hawking grills, George Foreman visited Odessa, Texas, where I was a reporter for the Odessa American, only a year out of college. Foreman was incredibly open, patient and gracious with his time. He was unbelievable, especially recounting the Rumble in the Jungle fight with Muhammad Ali. Runner-up: perhaps my shortest — and most memorable — nterview was my freshman year at Oklahoma State, working in the school’s sports information office. OSU hosted defending national champ Louisville and I was required to get visiting players’ quotes. With 4 seconds left, UL, up one, missed a free throw and OSU’s Eddie Hannon hit a game-winning 40-footer at the buzzer for the 72-71 upset in which OSU may have benefited from a friendly home court clock operator. (No instant replay in the old days). I entered the UL locker room (yes, you could go in the locker room back then), and asked UL guard Jerry Eaves about the controversial ending. Eaves said: “Four seconds on the clock. Our guy misses the free throw and the ball bounces in the corner — click. Their little guy goes and grabs it and turns up court — click. He dribbles through traffic — click — and then you tell me he gets all the way past half-court and shoots before another second clicks off? Kiss my ass: Flash Gordon isn’t that fast!” I said, “thank you, Mr. Eaves” and quickly exited the locker room and wrote the best game story of my life.