If you are a sports fan who has watched many sporting events on ABC, ESPN and SEC television networks, you certainly will notice Allison Williams, a rising sideline reporter. And the personable Williams has been in Lexington several times, covering UK football and men’s basketball games as well as NCAA women’s hoops regional tournament.
I caught up with her at a basketball game last spring and she kindly agreed to an e-mail interview, which took place recently. She is one of several TV sports personalities that I have interviewed in recent years, including Dick Vitale at his Florida home, Tracy Wolfson, Paul Finebaum, Laura Rutledge and Maria Taylor.
Williams (pictured) enjoys working college football games and already has special memories. “Saturdays in the South certainly are special,” said Williams, who joined ESPN in 2011. “I primarily covered the SEC for a few years on CSS and for ESPNU so I have a few (memories) like Willie Taggart (now the head coach at Florida State) coming out in Death Valley and eating the grass as (then-LSU coach) Les Miles had done the week or so prior. Also my first time seeing the Grove (at Ole Miss) and covering the tailgating for the Iron Bowl, not even going to the (Auburn-Alabama) game, and thinking “wow” this is special.”
While Williams so far hasn’t covered UK football games this fall, she remembers seeing a wedding ceremony before a Kentucky game. “I’ll also never forget the Kentucky couple that got married in the parking/tailgating lot before the UGA game I was covering,” she said. “We saw the ceremony, shot some of it and then had them come on the sideline during the game to interview them. It was such a great example of how SEC fans take their football to heart.”
As for Kentucky Wildcats basketball, Williams said she “covered the NIT game they lost at Robert Morris (in 2013) which was pretty crazy although Kentucky fans probably don't want to be reminded of that.”
Williams added she will never forget a wild football game in 2012 when Louisiana Monroe stunned No. 8 Arkansas 34-31 in overtime at Little Rock.
“One of the craziest games I covered was the upset of Arkansas by UL-Monroe,” recalled Williams. “Arkansas was a Top 10 team, albeit with a lot of issues and an interim head coach but no one saw this coming. Moreover, they were up big in the second half, but ULM rallied to tie it up and win in OT by going for it on 4th and 1 instead of kicking the game-tying field goal. It was so completely insane. I just remember scrambling to get the interviews and ask smart questions because I was still in shock myself.”
Growing up in Michigan where her father was a police officer for 29 years, Williams has fond childhood memories involving sports. She lived in a small town called Chelsea, which is near Ann Arbor, the home of the Michigan Wolverines. However, she followed a rival team, the Michigan State Spartans. In addition, she loved Detroit’s professional teams such as the baseball Tigers, basketball Pistons and football Lions.
“Although my dad is from Ann Arbor, he went to Michigan State,” she said. “So I cheered for the Spartans growing up. But honestly, my best sports memories as a kid aren’t really about football but family. I remember playing two-hand touch (football) with my cousins in my grandma’s neighbors’ back yard for hours at Thanksgiving until it was too dark to see the ball and too cold to catch it. I remember playing football at my aunts and uncles and yelling ‘Blue 42, Blue 42, set hut’ like it was a play but really we all just ran around trying to get open.
“But more than anything (else) I remember my numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and parents yelling at the TV when the hapless (Detroit) Lions would lose yet another game despite the dazzling running of Barry Sanders. There was a comfort and consistency in those Sunday afternoon and Thanksgiving games. It was something we all shared, even if it was a bit miserable at times.
“I will also cherish memories of my first trip to the old Tigers Stadium, the sound of (legendary broadcaster) Ernie Harwell on my grandma’s radio, the ‘Bad Boys’ Pistons championship T-shirt that I wore to bed almost every night and going to the Silverdome for my first Lions game as a 16-year-old, which was a preseason (game) versus the Redskins. Deon Sanders (of Washington) pretended to conduct the crowd as they chanted ‘Deon sucks.’ I teared up when I walked inside. It was a meaningless game in a crap building but it was the Lions’ crap building and all I cared about was that I was in it….it meant everything to me!”
Williams did play sports in high school, but she also loved acting on the stage.
“I played sports but not very well,” she admitted. “I tried everything growing up. Stuck with softball and basketball in high school but didn’t play either past junior varsity. One coach told me I should have stuck with volleyball and track. He was probably right.
“I did act and I loved it. It was teamwork in a different way. And it was competitive as we did One Act Competitive Theatre where you had 60 minutes to set your stage, perform and strike. They had judges and you went to tournaments across the state so it suited me well.”
Then Williams went off to college in a warm-weather state, attending the University of Miami in Florida. It’s a long way from her home in Michigan -- nearly 1,400 miles. Why Florida?
“And as much as my mom hated it, I knew I needed to get away,” she remembered. “The great part was I wasn’t leaving a place I didn’t like, or fit in. I was leaving a place and people I truly loved but I needed to get away.
“Yes, the long, cold winters weren’t my favorite but I also knew I need to get out, and explore different places and cultures. Plus when you grow up (in a small-town atmosphere) where everyone knows everyone, I think it’s important to get out and sort of be whoever you want to be. It also helped there was 80-degree weather in January. I got a partial academic scholarship and Miami was coming off a national title in football in 2001."
Williams eventually enrolled in a communications class where she covered some public events, including football and baseball games as well as a feature on National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, as part of the course requirements. She also pointed out that her internship at Miami’s WTVJ was very helpful.
“What was really great was getting to cover the high school games of the week for my internship at WTVJ,” she said. “They eventually let me package highlights to air in the weekly recap show and even included my standups. Gaining that experience and confidence in college was so valuable. It also gave me the opportunity to interview (ex-NFL quarterback) Dan Marino in a media scrum at his bust unveiling at Sun Life (Stadium), his Hall of Fame induction. My hand was shaking so much holding the stick mic from being so nervous. I’m glad it wasn’t in the shot.”
Why did Williams -- who graduated from Miami in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in communications -- pick a career in broadcasting?
“Honestly, it was a culmination of things,” she commented. “The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to work around football. This was a product of my love for the game, especially the Detroit Lions. I went to an NFL Football 101 workshop for women in high school. We toured the facilities, learned about the organization and the game. I asked the woman showing us around what she did. She told me she was a coaches’ assistant and majored in sports management in college.
“So I thought that would be my best bet as a woman wanting to work in the NFL. As I explored my college options, I was convinced that Miami was the right fit for me. However, I thought I would go to college for a sports management degree, which at the time Miami did not offer. With my heart set on being a ‘Cane’ I decided to apply anyway and thought the communications school seemed most appealing, but knew I could always change my major. So I selected broadcasting on the application and figured I would keep my options open if I got in.
“I had always been comfortable in front of a camera or on stage but wasn’t set on being in television (field). Before I left for college, I went to a Lions game and I saw (sports reporter) Jennifer Hammon on the sidelines. I thought, ‘Well, there is another woman around the game!’ So when sports management wasn’t an option in the back of my mind, I thought about (working on the) sidelines but didn’t know if I would have the chops to pull it off.”
Before she came to ESPN, Williams spent some time covering the Florida (now Miami) Marlins when she was a sideline reporter and pregame host for Fox Sports Florida. She definitely enjoyed her time there and shared some of her favorite Marlins memories.
“I have so many (recollections),” she said. “I’m so thankful for those five seasons and the opportunity to be a part of a team on that level. You really do become like a family. I’m also really thankful for the relationships it provided me….professionally, personally and with the fans. So many (of them) continue to follow my career and wish me well and that means a lot. I truly feel such a special connection to Marlins and (NHL) Panthers fans.
“One of my favorite moments to cover was May 29, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium and (Phillies') Roy Halladay’s perfect game. It was my first year with the team. Everything was new and exciting. I worked so few games that year and the fact I was working that night.... I feel so blessed. The electricity was palpable and the buildup after the seventh inning was just incredible.
“What was crazy that I had said to my sister whom I lived with at the time, I hope one day in my career I get to witness a perfect game. There had been one (Dallas Braden of Oakland A’s) already that year and I thought how special and rare that would be to witness. I didn’t get to do a one-on-one interview or anything special but just knowing I saw history that night was rewarding. I still have my scorecard. I also feel so lucky to have known and covered Jose Fernandez his rookie year. He was as special a person and pitcher as you could ever ask for. His smile is one I will never forget.”
Sometimes folks will confuse Allison Williams with an actress with the same name. The actress is the daughter of NBC newsman Brian Williams. Does it bother this Allison Williams, the ESPN reporter?
“Not in the least….it’s pretty amusing especially when people get excited thinking I’m that Allison Williams only to see their disappointment it’s me,” she smiled. “Plus I’m a huge fan of her work. It has led to some confusing moments for people and interactions along the way, though.”
Well, there is no question the SEC and Kentucky fans definitely know this Allison Williams pretty well as the hard-working sports reporter, not the actress.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder 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 of Allison Williams by Jamie H. Vaught