Volunteering: Women’s Final Four

Jeremy Rosenthal with the Women's Final Four trophy
Jeremy Rosenthal with the Women’s Final Four trophy (used with permission)

You know how I’m always talking about how you have to start at the bottom in sports? That doesn’t always have to mean interning. Another valuable way to get experience is by volunteering at events. Maybe you weren’t able to land an internship, or maybe you already work full-time in another profession and can’t take on that type of obligation. Volunteering is a great way to network and get some experience with very little time commitment.

I’ve had Illinois State professor Nels Popp on the blog previously to discuss the value of volunteer opportunities in sports. Today I want to share with you a guest post by Jeremy Rosenthal, Assistant Director of Athletic Communication at College of Charleston, who recently volunteered at the Women’s Final Four in Denver.

I’ll warn you that this is a long post, so be sure to set aside some time. It’s worth it because Jeremy takes you through his experience day-by-day. Just count the number of people he met during this experience – incredible! He also does a great job of showing you how to plan for a conference, something I’ve walked you through before.

Guest Author: Jeremy Rosenthal, Assistant Director of Athletic Communications, College of Charleston

Hi, my name is Jeremy Rosenthal and I’m the Assistant Director of Athletics Communications at the College of Charleston. I graduated two years ago from Indiana University with a degree in sport communication. After graduation I interned for the Indiana Fever, the WNBA team in Indianapolis for the summer and then got the job in Charleston. I’m going to share my experience volunteering for the 2012 Women’s Final Four in Denver. If you have any questions or comments feel free to email me.

Taking advantage of opportunities to volunteer for events is very important on the path to putting yourself in a position to get jobs. It is also a lot of fun and you can meet a lot of great people in the process. My experience volunteering for the NCAA for the 2012 Women’s Final Four in Denver is an experience I will never forget.  I’m going to start by explaining how I found this opportunity and some advice and strategy I had going into the event and then follow with my day-by-day experience and final advice at the Final Four.

How I came about this experience

While working with the Indiana Fever in media relations under the supervision of Kevin Messenger, the Fever’s Director of Media Relations I met Rick Nixon, who works for the NCAA as Associate Director for Championships & Alliances – Media Services. Having worked with women’s basketball in college and with the Fever and now at the College of Charleston I was interested in volunteering for the women’s Final Four. I told Kevin about my desire to volunteer and he contacted Rick and put in a good word for me. A few minutes later I got an e-mail back from Rick that said he would be glad to add me to his media relations team in Denver.

As I’m writing this I’m reminded of Kristi Dosh’s three guidelines for breaking into sports: Be willing to start at the bottom, be willing to work for free, and be willing to work harder than everyone else. I will cover these with my experience.

Strategy going into the final four

A few days before flying out to Denver I got a document from Rick Nixon with the names and contact information for all the media relations volunteers as well as volunteer assignments. When I looked at it all it had me doing was being a locker room steward, meaning I would just be standing outside of the locker room and monitor when it was opened and closed to media. Going back to the guidelines, be willing to start at the bottom. I couldn’t expect to be escorting players and being on press row for my first final four.

What I did first was go through the list and look to see if I knew anyone. On first glance there were a few people I knew from my time at IU. I made a note to get in touch with those people so I could meet up with them in Denver. My boss, Marlene Navor also knows a lot of people who works in sports from time spent at Washington State, Connecticut, Kansas State, UNLV and Texas A&M as well as working prior Final Fours. She told me people she knew that I should get in touch with.

I also spent this past season working with women’s basketball head coach Nancy Wilson at the College of Charleston. Coach Wilson retired after 30 years in coaching and over 500 wins. I knew there will be several volunteers and coaches that knew her, so I made a note to get in contact with those people as well. I had made a retirement video for Coach Wilson that I got videos from several of her friends in coaching for the video.

I had also met several coaches, staff and media when we hosted UConn in December, so I made a note to get in touch with those people, such as radio voice for the Huskies, Bob Joyce and Hartford Courant beat writer John Altavilla. In summary, my strategy in terms of networking was to connect with people I knew, use people I had worked with to meet new people and meet people I might have no prior connection to as well.

Final Four Experience: Day 1

On March 29 I flew almost 2,000 miles (not the most direct route) from Charleston, S.C. to Denver, Colo. After I checked into my hotel I went over to the Pepsi Center (where the Denver Nuggets play and site of women’s Final Four games) for our first meeting. Going back to the guidelines for breaking into sports, number two, be willing to work for free. The NCAA did not pay any of my travel or hotel expenses for this trip. Fortunately my women’s basketball coach helped out a little, but it’s one of those things where paying a little bit for an experience like this could pay big dividends in the future.

Right away I met one of the producers from ESPN just standing out on the court as I made my way to the media room for our meeting. One thing I have learned in this business is that most people who work in sports are very friendly and easy to approach and talk to. As we had our meeting and took a tour of the facility I met other volunteers, some who had been to many Final Fours, like Patrick Auerbach, Executive Director for Alumni Relations at the University of Southern California, who had been to 18 Final Fours.

I took a picture on center court with the logo and headed back to the hotel to rest up for the first day with the teams (Baylor, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Stanford).

Final Four Experience: Day 2

The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) always has their convention during the women’s Final Four. I knew I wouldn’t have time to do make most of their events, but I tried to go to some in order to meet some of the coaches I wanted to meet. First thing in the morning they had organized for a member of the Colorado running club to lead a run around Denver. I like to run and also what better way to meet people than start the day off with a run.  It turned out only one coach came for the run, but I got to talking to him and he was an Indiana University graduate, so we had an immediate connection.

Kristi’s third guideline for breaking into sports is: be willing to work harder than everyone else. This is a guideline I take to heart for my entire life and career. I am always one of the first in the office and last to leave and try to always help out extra and go above and beyond. Judy Wilson, one of the media coordinators, asked for help putting up signage in the morning at our meeting last night. After she got done speaking I asked her what time I could come in and help and came early to help her. During the day players were escorted to interviews with ESPN, NCAA.com and BSN (the group that puts the material on the video board during the game). I stood outside one of the interview rooms and helped coordinate who was needed to do interviews.

During the day I kept an eye out for opportunities to meet people. I introduced myself to Stanford’s women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer. I knew Tara had played at IU and her sister played at the College of Charleston. I said hi to Geno Auriemma, who I had met when we played them in December. Geno remembered me and asked how I was doing. I talked to his center Stephanie Dolson as well. Stephanie’s basketball coach in high school is the mom of our ticket manager at College of Charleston, so I put her on the phone with our ticket manager while she waited to be interviewed by NCAA.com and she loved it.

I was standing around and recognized the person doing the interviews for NCAA.com, LaChina Robinson. I had never met her, but I follow her on twitter and said to her “You tweet a lot, don’t you?” She laughed and we started talking about women’s basketball. I learned she played at Wake Forest and is friends with Natasha Adair, who coached at Wake Forest, but just got the job as our new coach at the College of Charleston. I tweeted at her about meeting her, which is another great way to engage with people and she tweeted back to me. LaChina currently is starting a career in broadcasting and is the color analyst for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.

I met all the sports information directors for the schools in the Final Four, one of which I already knew, Pat McKenna from UConn. I also met Notre Dame’s SID Christ Masters, who I had I connection with being that I grew up in Indiana. I also talked to Briann January, who plays for the Indiana Fever and remembered me. She was helping coach for the WBCA High School All-America Game. I talked to Carolyn Peck, who now works with ESPN and broadcasts the Indiana Fever TV games. I grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., and she was the coach in 1999 when Purdue won the women’s basketball national title. I also met ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe, who is friends with my boss Marlene from when Marlene worked at Texas A&M.

Back in the media work room, we were beginning process of putting labels on place cards for press row. Javan Hedlund, one of the media coordinators asked who wanted to volunteer to put the first labels on. Immediately my hand shot up and although everyone laughed at me, it was great to send the message that I would volunteer for anything.

I got back to my hotel and had dinner with my roommate, coach Josh Keys, who was the assistant coach at College of Charleston last year until he took a new job at Stetson. I then went to another WBCA event, Shootaround with Beth and Debbie. This is a podcast normally done by Debbie Antonelli (one of the premiere broadcaster in women’s basketball, who I met as she does broadcasting for Indiana Fever and lives ride outside of Charleston) and ESPN broadcaster Elizabeth Mowins. The podcast is traditionally done live on Final Four weekend.

There were a lot of coaches in the room I wanted to meet. I met Curt Miller, who coached at Bowling Green and is the new head coach at IU. I met Sylvia Hatchell, coach at North Carolina and good friend of Nancy Wilson. I met some of the interns for the WBCA, a girl in particular Stephanie Dittmer, who works in communications and who got her undergraduate degree from Iowa and I have a friend in common with her I met at a convention last year. I also saw Beth Bass, president of the WBCA who is a friend of Coach Wilson and came for our game vs. UConn in December. Debbie Antonelli invited me to one of her parties, where she introduced me to media legend Mel Greenburg, who covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 40 plus years and is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Final Four Experience: Day 3

Day 3 was the day for the teams to have open practices, autograph sessions and news conferences with the media. My job for the day was a runner, which meant I did whatever was needed. After we copied quotes from the news conferences I distributed them throughout the media work room. I also was on the court for the practices making sure the photographers stayed where they were supposed to. I kept a look out for people I knew such as Mike Koon who works at Illinois and I knew from being at Indiana. I also saw Dan Mihalik, who works at the Big Ten and I know from volunteering for the women’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. One of the highlights of my day was meeting Pat Summitt, who I introduced myself to, as she is a good friend of Nancy Wilson and filmed a segment for the video I made.

After we finished up our duties at the Pepsi Center, there was a media party at Sports Authority Field at Mile High (the Denver Broncos stadium). I hung out with a lot of the volunteers. Patrick Auerbach introduced me to a delightful lady, Nan Elrod, who worked at Tennessee. Nan is the official scorer and this is her 23rd Final Four. Patrick also told me he was very impressed how I just went up to Pat Summitt earlier in the day.  Another piece of advice: don’t hesitate to be outgoing and a little different. Make an impression on people. I did just that as I teamed up with Michael Coyne, Assistant Director of Communications at the Big East and did Karaoke dressed in cowboy outfits to the song Sweet Home Alabama. We also got a tour of Broncos stadium which was pretty awesome.

I went back to hotel and hung out in lobby with our director of basketball operations, Ashley Melson. Patrick labeled me as the guy who knows everyone from how I just went up to Pat Summitt, so I tried to improve upon that. I went to talk to Sophia Young, who plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars and Briann had introduced me to her. Ashley loves her so I took a picture of the two of them. I talked to Ukari Figgs, Assistant Athletics Director for Women’s Basketball at Kentucky, who I had never met, but was on the 1999 Purdue National Championship team. I also introduced myself to Gary Blair, head coach at Texas A&M, who my boss Marlene worked for. Gary told me that I needed to find Marlene a good southern gentleman to marry her.

Final Four Experience: Day 4

After lots of preparation, it was finally game day. The national semi-finals featured Notre Dame vs. Connecticut and Stanford vs. Baylor. I started the day having breakfast with our new women’s basketball coach Natasha Adair, which was fun.

My job for the day was setting up press row with place cards, game programs and starting lineup cards. I also passed out stats in the media room and helped out on press row with Christopher Brooks, who works at Alaska Fairbanks, as we directed people to their seats. Heisman winner Robert Griffin III was there supporting Baylor and Stanford graduate and former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was there to support the Cardinal. Notre Dame won the final game in overtime and Baylor won the second game. I was pretty tired after the games and went back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.

Final Four Experience: Day 5

I started Day 5 with a run on my own downtown, where I ran into my friend Chelsea Einerwold, another volunteer, who works at New Mexico, who was also running. I then went over to the Pepsi Center where we had our daily meeting. The day involved news conferences for the winning teams, interviews with ESPN and NCAA.com as well as closed practices and media availability. My job was to pass out notes and quotes to media after the news conferences.

I had some free time so I ventured out to the court and saw the ESPN crew was shooting hoops. I decided to come over and start rebounding for them. They were starting a three-point shootout, so I helped rebound for that as well. Julie Kimmons, who works for the NCAA in broadcasting, primarily with ESPN was on fire and won. She played in college at St. Mary’s.

After the work for the day was done I went back to the hotel rested and went to the WBCA awards show hosted by Debbie Antonelli and Nell Fortner.  This is another event that I didn’t have to attend to work, but was another chance to meet people and enjoy the experience. One of the honorees, who I met after the show, was one the coach of the year winners, Sue Ramsey, who coaches at Ashland. Sue is a friend of Nancy Wilson. My friend, Paul Carmany, who I met at a convention last summer went to Ashland and was Sue Ramsey’s manager and SID for five years.

After the awards show, I met up with a friend I went to school with that works in Denver to watch the men’s national championship game. We had a media hospitality viewing party at the hotel so I also went to that. At that event I met William Ewhart, who is a photographer for Tennessee and has been to many Final Fours, and is a good friend of Mel Greenburg. William shared many stories including when Notre Dame women’s coach Muffett McGraw first started working at Notre Dame and the phone rang. Her husband said it was Sport Illustrated and Muffett exclaimed, “Wow, I must have a great Sports Information Director.” She picked up the phone and the voice on the other end said, “Would you like to buy a subscription to Sports Illustrated.”

My Final Four Experience: Day 6

On Championship day I woke up and looked out the window and there was snow on the ground. We went from 80s and sunny to 40s and snow. I went to lunch and then over to the Pepsi Center. I decided to get there two hours earlier than my call time, so I could watch the media coordination committee (special staff of people who NCAA pays for them to come to Final Four each year) go over pregame and post-game rehearsal. I also wanted to be there early in case there was something I could help with. Again, remember, be willing to work harder than everyone else.

I was called upon to take off all the place cards since we were making new ones. I then helped put down the new cards. Since I did well helping on press row for semi-finals, I was put on press row duty again for national championship, which meant I got to sit behind the Baylor bench, right off press row for the game. I was sitting right by Robert Griffin III and saw him interact with the fans as he is a great people person and was so willing to take pictures with people. He even did a little dancing. At halftime Tamika Catchings, who plays for Indiana Fever, was honored as part of group for Title IX 40th Anniversary. I saw her as she left court and said hi and she came over and gave me a big hug, which is just the type of person she is.

It was neat to be by the court as the final buzzer sounded and Baylor won the national championship. I watched the trophy presentation and some of the news conferences then went back to hotel for NCAA/WBCA Coaches Trophy Presentation and media hospitality event. At the presentation, Kim Mulkey, Baylor head coach had a surprise involving Trey Wingo, ESPN anchor and Baylor alumnus. Mulkey said Wingo promised to put on one of her high heels if the Lady Bears won and so Trey put on one of Mulkey’s high heels, much to the delight of the audience of Baylor fans. Back at the media hospitality event,  I had one last time to hang out with friend I had met, make some new friends and say thank you to Rick Nixon for giving me an incredible opportunity.

Final Advice

I highly encourage people starting out and with years of experience to volunteer for events, even smaller events that aren’t the Super Bowl or Final Four. These events are great for networking and gaining experience which is crucial to landing a job and advancing in the profession. They are also a lot of fun. Working this Final Four made me realize why I love working in sports so much. I get to work with great people and student-athletes on a daily basis and every day I look forward to coming to work.

My advice on networking: meet and reach out to lots of people and also use the people you know to start conversations with others, as this builds your network even more. Also, even if you don’t have any connections with people go up and start a conversation as most people are willing to talk and very friendly and you might realize you do have a connection with someone that you never knew.

One final note, I know I have talked a lot about what a great experience this was for me and how much fun I had, but don’t forget about giving rather than receiving. A person at my brother’s graduation speech at Northwestern last summer said the glass is half empty when drinking because it’s all about you, but half full when pouring because you are sharing with others.

Some of the things I did for others were getting Final Four pins for everyone in my athletics communications office I work with at the College of Charleston.  I also took a picture of one of the media coordination committee members in action pointing to a media member, as she directed a press conference, which she really liked. Another thing I did was for one of our broadcasters at the College of Charleston, Everett German. He is the number one fan and he says future husband of ESPN sideline reporter, Holly Rowe. I had Holly sign and personalize a message to him, written on her place card from press row. Holly was happy to do it as she is good friends with Everett. When I gave it to Everett the next day his eyes lit up and said he was going to frame it on his wall.

In summary thanks for reading, feel free to email me with any questions or comments. I will close with saying I had a phenomenal experience at the 2012 Women’s Final Four in Denver and hope to go to many more in the future and hopefully I will see you at one as well.

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