When ESPN sent a press release back in May to announce that Laura Rutledge (pictured) has been selected as the new host for the popular SEC Nation program, it called her the rising star of the SEC Network.
Very true and Rutledge has the background along with her previous experience to do her television job really well. The ESPN/SEC reporter graduated with a degree in broadcasting journalism at the University of Florida where she also won the 2011 Red Barber Award for Excellence in Broadcasting.
In a recent interview with this columnist, Rutledge discusses her early days and she nearly didn’t go into the communications-related field for a possible career.
The sportscaster grew up as a Braves baseball fan since she lived in Atlanta until she was 10 years old before moving to Florida. She also liked Clemson and Georgia Tech because her mother went to Clemson and father to Tech. Besides sports, she enjoyed ballet and music.
“I started ballet dancing at age 3, but didn’t really take it seriously until I was about 13,” said Rutledge, who in 2014 joined ESPN’s coverage of the SEC as a reporter on SEC Network after stints at CNN and Fox Sports. “My parents found it very important to expose my brothers and me to the arts and I’m extremely grateful for that. I spent more time on my music than ballet for a while playing piano, violin, dulcimer and drums. But once I reached middle school, I got more serious about ballet.
“I studied in Shanghai, China at the Shanghai Theater Academy when I was 16 and 17, and then went to a ballet boarding school in (Washington) D.C. called the Kirov Academy of Ballet when I got back from China. I had a couple opportunities to be in professional ballet companies but also had full academic scholarship for UF and FSU (Florida State) so decided to go to college instead much to my parents’ delight.”
While she enjoyed ballet dancing, Rutledge also loved listening to popular radio programs such as “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Car Talk.” Naturally, she branched out and became interested in radio work during her college days.
“I knew I wanted to do something in communications once my ballet dreams were over and someone told me about the on campus radio station WRUF at Florida,” recalled Rutledge. “I had always loved NPR (National Public Radio). I loved those shows so I thought maybe radio would be fun. They said they had an internship opening but it was in sports. I said, ‘I’ll take it’ thinking I love sports and this won’t be hard. Boy, was I wrong! It was an incredible challenge and I loved every second of it. In college I did mostly radio work and wasn’t very interested in television.”
On capturing the Red Barber Award, named after the legendary baseball announcer who attended UF, Rutledge said it “was an amazing honor. As I mentioned, I was pretty new to the sports media world at the time but I had poured every hour I could into it and the hard work started to pay off. I credit Steve Russell who’s still the sports director there for giving me a chance and working with me. After my first semester as an intern there at WRUF, I started co-hosting a two-hour talk show called “The Cheap Seats” and that’s what really allowed me to develop and get countless reps.”
After reading her brief biography, I asked her about entering beauty pageants while in college.
“I entered the Miss Florida pageant accidentally,” said 29-year-old Rutledge. “My friends at Florida entered me into the Miss UF pageant in 2010 as a joke. Miss UF is a preliminary to Miss Florida. I was going to back out but then realized it benefited Children’s Miracle Network so I figured compared to what those children were going through a pageant was a minor punishment.
“I ended up having fun doing it and won scholarship money so I kept competing in preliminary pageants until I won one so I could advance to Miss Florida. It took me three years to win Miss Florida (in 2012) but it was a wonderful experience that allowed me to be a community servant to a state I love.”
Rutledge also talked about the most trying interview she’s had so far.
“The most difficult interview I’ve had was a sit-down interview with a woman named Aren Almon,” she commented. “If you remember the Oklahoma City bombings (in 1995), her child Baylee was the little girl who passed away in the firefighter’s arms. It’s an iconic (widely-published) photo heavy with indescribable pain.
“When I was in Oklahoma City last summer for the Women’s College World Series, we realized there was an incredible connection with an LSU softball player who was named after Baylee after her parents saw that photo. Interviewing Aren about the death of her one-year-old child was one of the most difficult interviews I’ve had to do. I think about her and her family often.”
Remarkably, the TV journalist also has a passion for the Miracle League, a charity organization that provides opportunities for children with disabilities to play baseball. She is an ambassador for the league.
“I got involved with the Miracle League when I was living in St. Petersburg as the (Tampa Bay) Rays reporter,” added Rutledge, who now lives in Atlanta with her husband, Josh Rutledge, a current free agent baseball player. “There was a young man named Matt who was in the press box with us for baseball games because he did his own broadcast. Matt is confined to a wheelchair but that never has defined who he is and he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve met. He asked me to come to his baseball game one week and not knowing what to expect. I went and I was in tears watching these children get a chance to play the game so many people without disabilities take for granted and have supported the Miracle League ever since.”
Does Rutledge prefer working on the field as a sideline reporter or in the studio? It doesn’t matter, she said.
“Choosing between sideline and studio is like choosing between children,” she said. “I can’t (pick one over the other). I love both and think it’s important to stay well rounded and do it all.”
She spends some time on The Paul Finebaum Show in studio several days a week.
Said Finebaum, “I have never worked with anyone quite like Laura. She is wickedly smart, incredibly talented and shockingly funny.”
With the football regular season now over, Rutledge will be covering basketball games.
As you may recall at the Kentucky-at-Missouri game last season, Rutledge had a mini-controversy in a halftime interview when she asked UK coach John Calipari about the Missouri student section who were heckling the Wildcat boss nearby. When she quizzed the coach about the rowdy students, Coach Cal slowly walked away without giving his response.
“Cal and I talked about it right after and he laughed. Did not think it was a big deal at all,” said Rutledge. “He had been telling us the crowd would be a factor all day and we didn’t believe him.
“I never go into interviews with planned out canned questions as I feel it’s best to react in the moment and bring fans the best information possible even if it means putting myself in positions to take risks. I love Kentucky fans and their passion. Even though I got tons of hate from them, I’ll never hold a fan base responsible for thinking they’re doing the right thing defending their coach.”
By the way, Rutledge will be joining Joe Tessitore and Sean Farnham on ESPN’s Super Tuesday basketball broadcasts.
“I will be basically living in Lexington this winter. Can’t wait!” she said.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Phil Ellsworth, ESPN Images
(Submitted by Laura Rutledge)