It was a call out of the blue from someone I respected but had rarely interacted with outside of the occasional email.
John Saunders, the longtime ESPN anchor, wanted to talk.
It was April 2014 and Saunders had heard I was working as an adjunct at Columbia University’s journalism school. He said he was interested in seeing the school and learning about teaching. I’m not an expert teacher, but I did have a key card to get into the j-school, so Saunders and I spent a day together touring Columbia and talking to some professors. Along with his family (he boasted of his daughters, Aleah and Jenna), we discussed our shared love of Canada (he was born in Toronto; I’m just a fan), how I’d try to keep watching The Sports Reporters despite Mike Lupica appearing as a panelist (I failed him here but I did continue to watch Saunders on college football), and how to stay current in businesses that were super-competitive. We also talked about mentoring, which was something very important to Saunders, as you’ll learn later in this piece. We had another coffee at the school a year later, and he popped into our sports journalism class to say hello to the students. I found him to be, at least in the brief times we interacted, thoughtful and decent.
On Wednesday, through tears, ESPN’s Hannah Storm announced on air that Saunders had died at the age of 61. He passed away in Wednesday’s early hours, and ESPN learned the news from Saunders’s brother. No cause of death is known at this time.
“No one, absolutely no one in our industry, was more skilled at communicating his thoughts with intelligence, grace and humor, and no one was more comfortable or natural on camera,” ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap said in an email to SI.com. Saunders replaced Schapp’s father, Dick, as the host of The Sports Reporters. “But in addition to all that talent, and his preternatural unflappability, there was so much heart. He was generous—which isn’t always the case with the big shots in the big chairs. I think most of that was simply John’s nature, but it was also because he was so secure. When you know you’re that good, as John surely did, you don’t feel threatened by everybody else doing the same job—and you give more freely than everyone who is insecure and threatened. John was that guy—always encouraging, always full of praise for his colleagues, always rooting for them. In that way, he was just like my father, and I think for that reason, and others, he was the perfect choice to succeed my father as the host of The Sports Reporters. John could steer the conversation and own the host’s seat, never losing his voice and perspective, while creating opportunities for the panelists to shine. He did so many things so well and The Sports Reporters is only a small part of his legacy, but when I think of John I think of the grace with which he handled the transition, taking over from my father, and the way he always welcomed me to the show, and that tremendous generosity of spirit. I always looked forward to seeing John, talking hockey with him, talking the state of the sports world, hearing that big laugh.”
Saunders joined ESPN in 1986, and his versatility was remarkable. He morphed between studio hosting and play-by-play effortlessly, a rare skill. Among his many assignments: The Sports Reporters, ABC’s Saturday studio coverage of college football and select editions of ESPN’s College Football Live and NFL Primetime; ESPN’s college basketball studio coverage; NHL Stanley Cup playoffs; Baseball Tonight; and SportsCenter’s coverage of the Final Four and World Series. He also did play-by-play for college basketball (since 1990) as well as the WNBA from 1999–2001. Saunders also served as the television play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Raptors from 1995 to ‘01.
As a younger man, Saunders played hockey at Western Michigan and later Ryerson University in Toronto. (He was inducted into Ryerson’s Hall of Fame in 2013.) He started his professional broadcasting career in 1978 as the news director for CKNS Radio in Espanola, Ontario and worked at ATV News in New Brunswick, CKNY-TV and CITY-TV in Toronto. He came to ESPN from WMAR-TV in Baltimore, where he had worked since 1982 as an anchor of three daily sports reports. He also hosted the Baltimore Orioles pregame program Orioles on Deck and provided analysis for Baltimore Colts preseason games.
Now back to mentoring. In 2011, when Saunders was negotiating a contract, he and ESPN executive Norby Williamson were talking about ESPN’s talent office when Saunders asked a question: Why didn’t ESPN have someone coaching on-air talent to improve? Williamson had a response for Saunders: Would you do it?
So Saunders, along with then senior coordinating producer for on-air talent development Gerry Matalon and then senior vice president, talent development and planning, Laurie Orlando, set up a mentoring program that was informally referred to in Bristol as “Sessions with Saunders.” Most of these sessions ran between 90 minutes and two hours, with follow-up texts and phone calls. “The meetings are pretty much whatever the individual wants to get out of them,” Saunders told me a couple of years ago. “But they’ve in most cases progressed into a road map for a fulfilling career. It’s strange because most young sportscasters target ESPN as a career goal, but when they get here,there are so many other goals within the company. So we start with where do you see yourself in five, 10, 20 years? Who are some of the people you look up to? But most importantly, what would make you happy?”
Among Saunders success stories: ESPN anchors Sage Steele and Adnan Virk.
“I’m not taking credit for anyone’s success, but Sage Steele and I talked about the NBA host role a few months before it happened, and she has been terrific,” said Saunders, who was a founding member of the board of directors for The V Foundation for Cancer Research and was very close to Dick Vitale. “Adnan Virk is a great example of someone who just needed to know which doors to knock on and now he’s shown he’s capable of doing anything.”
Steele posted on her Instagram account Wednesday photos of Saunders over the years.
Virk, who is working this afternoon on ESPN Radio, texted that Saunders “was good friend to me and so generous. Seems [too] cruel and unfair.” Bob Ley, who worked with Saunders for three decades, offered some poignant thoughts about his former colleague on Outside The Lines.
Last Friday, Saunders was on a panel at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention in Washington D.C., with fellow ESPN personalities Jemele Hill, Bomani Jones, Marcellus Wiley and Jay Harris. The focus was on one’s career journey and the media’s role in provoking deeper broader conversations. To the end, Saunders was paying it forward. He will be missed, a generous and decent man.