DALLAS — Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated has been named the 2020 Steve Ellis Beat Writer of the Year (for the 2019) season by the Football Writers Association of America.
In the most recently completed FWAA Best Writing Contest, Dellenger picked up a first place in Game Story and a second place for Feature Story, both stories dealing with LSU’s national championship season. He is the 10th annual winner of the award which goes to an FWAA member who has displayed excellence in college football writing during a season.
“I am humbled beyond words,” Dellenger said of winning the FWAA Award. “I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more fortunate and proud. I pride myself in my work and this helps justify all the long hours on the road, in the press box and behind lit computer screens pounding on keys in the middle of the night.”
The award is given in the memory of the late Steve Ellis, the Florida State beat writer for the Tallahassee Democrat. Current FWAA President Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com, then of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was the first recipient in 2011. Other recipients have been Mark Blaudschun of the Boston Globe and Steve Wieberg of USA Today (2012), Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News (2013), Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch (2014), Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times (2015), Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman (2016), Mike Griffith of SEC Country (2017), Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com and Chris Vannini of The Athletic (2018), Brett McMurphy of Stadium (2019).
“Ross is certainly an outstanding talent, combining excellent writing with detailed and thorough reporting,” said FWAA Executive Director Steve Richardson. “When LSU’s football team ascended to the national championship level in 2019, he showcased those abilities in covering most of the Tigers’ top moments with a flair. Overall, his breaking coverage of college football has been top-notch for a while now.”
A native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and a Mississippi State graduate, Dellenger has spent the last 15 years as a sports writer, specifically reporting on SEC football. He’s covered programs such as Mississippi State, Auburn, Missouri and LSU before landing at Sports Illustrated in May of 2018 as national college football writer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Elizabeth, a fellow journalist. She is the lead White House correspondent for Newsweek.
Getting to Know Ross Dellenger
Question: What was your first interest in sports/journalism and any good stories about how you got your start?
Dellenger: “My career started with an interest in sports before journalism came along. My father was and still is a high school football coach in Biloxi, Miss. I grew up around the sport as a kid — riding on team busses, running through locker rooms and playing around on blocking dummies. But I wasn’t athletic at all, couldn’t catch much and was rail thin. I played football for two years as a 6-foot, 160-pound offensive guard (spoiler alert: that didn’t turn out well). But I did develop a love for watching the game from the sidelines, and I began stringing for a local newspaper as a senior in high school.”
Q: Who were your mentors and what did they contribute to your career?
Dellenger: “I think the best sports editor I ever had was Rusty Hampton at The Clarion-Ledger. I’ve had plenty of other great bosses — and do now at SI — but Rusty really broke me in as a sports writer, teaching me more about reporting than actual writing. He was hard on us, and I’m thankful for that to this day.
“Ian Rapoport, now famously working as an NFL news-breaker for NFL Network, was once a small-town college beat writer in Mississippi, and he mentored me there, while covering Mississippi State for The Clarion-Ledger (I was a student at State then). I learned a lot about writing from Ian, a noted wordsmith who sadly doesn’t use that skill much longer (aside from Twitter of course!).
“There are plenty more people I idolized (and still do) in the industry, those I read closely and have watched their work ethic and reporting up close, including Kyle Veazey, Rick Cleveland, Pat Forde, David Brandt and, maybe most importantly, Elizabeth Crisp, my wife, whose vocabulary, concise writing and intellect I envy every day.”
Q: What are some of the stories you have done that have been the most rewarding to you?
Dellenger: “I think breaking news — whether through short bursts on social media or woven into a deep investigative feature or enterprise story — is essential to journalism. To that end, some big news stories over the years stick out over everything else, including reporting Les Miles’ firing from LSU in 2016 and Ed Orgeron’s hire there as the full-time coach. Those were significant news-breakers for a young college beat writer and without them, I’m not sure I am in my current position at SI.
“But more specific to the ‘rewarding’ portion of the question. I pride myself in digging deep on issues, writing long, detailed stories on interesting people or topics. In a way, that’s a lost art in sports journalism these days. The world is so caught up in catching clicks and driving traffic that we’ve forgotten a cornerstone of our industry: explanatory writing that sheds light and reveals information never previously explored. As a beat writer, I tried to write one of those stories once a week, which could be very difficult during the season given other daily beat writing duties, but my boss at The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Joe Schiefelbein, gave me the time and resources to do this. My current bosses at SI, namely Ryan Hunt, has done the same.”
Q: Best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
Dellenger: ” ‘Write like you talk.’ That’s from Ian Rapoport. ‘Don’t try to be cute with your writing. Put down the thesaurus. Put away the dictionary. And write in simple terms. Your reader will appreciate it.’”
Q: Best interview you ever had and why?
Dellenger: “Talk about a difficult question. … I don’t know where to start. I have recency bias with this of course, but LSU coach Ed Orgeron’s mother, Coco, provided an incredible two-hour interview in December that triggered me to explore the coach’s Cajun heritage. She cried, laughed and even grew slightly perturbed during the sitdown — all signs of a great interview!
“But there have been plenty of others. Again, recency bias here, but I spent a full day two years ago with Dana Holgorsen. The day and night included boozing at the bar, watching a Houston Astros game and a sitdown in his office. A word of advice: You can understand a person more when experiencing them outside of their work arenas. That was the case with Holgorsen.
One more recent interview that sticks out took place last fall with former Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who revealed during a 20-minute talk with me that he’d been rushed to the hospital earlier that year with a heart condition — the true reason for his retirement. You don’t forget those talks.”
Dellenger: “A former colleague of mine, who I won’t name (ah what the hell, it was Scott Rabalais at The Advocate), once told me, “Ross,” he said, “you work hard and you play hard.” That’s pretty much me in a nutshell. I like to have a good time — bars, restaurants, the beach, the club — but there’s a time to work and a time to play. My life is split between the two.
“I don’t know that I truly have many passions. I do enjoy my job, which explains why I do find myself working quite a bit. I’m growing more and more passionate with traveling (for both work and play), though the pandemic has thrown a wrench into that. I think an impending passion of mine is traveling the world, as soon as the pandemic subsides. And though I no longer live on the Gulf Coast, I do have a passion for boiling and consuming seafood, specifically crawfish, crab and shrimp. Some would say I have a passion for flip flops, which is probably quite true.
“My hobbies are pretty limited. I enjoy a good weight-lifting session, a bike ride and fun night out on the town. I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go to a beach or, while back home, hop around the islands with family and friends.”
Q: Do you have any sports mementos in your house? Such as the press pass from the first game you covered, an old glove?
Dellenger: “In all honesty, I do not believe I have any of that. It may come as a surprise, but I’m not the biggest sports fan. I watch college football and do enjoy it. I watch some golf and the NFL. But that’s about it. As I grow older, it interests me less and less. I’ve come to realize that sports is such a small part of our world — a great and wonderful part, full of incredible people and awesome stories — but a very small part nonetheless.”
Q: What has been the most difficult aspect of the last few months and COVID-19 in terms of covering sports?
Dellenger: “I usually spend the spring and summer visiting college campuses, building relationships with coaches and administrators, exploring potential story ideas, etc. But that didn’t happen much this year. I felt like I was back working for the Associated Press as a news intern. The virus had me springing into action. It really felt like I was a daily news reporter, each week chasing a new wrinkle regarding the virus and its impacts on a college football season.”
Q: What has the FWAA meant to you over the years?
Dellenger: “If you’re a college football writer, there is no better place to establish relationships than the FWAA. It’s a fantastic way to network, which we all know is the best way to ascend in the industry. Everyone mostly works hard. Plenty of people are good writers. Plenty more are good reporters. But who do you know and what do they think of you as a person? The FWAA is a great way to answer the latter question.”