Marty Smith is an anomaly on ESPN, from a reporting style that reminds one of a human energy drink to as he calls it, “a full-blown Appalachian Southern accent.” He is impossible to miss on ESPN, from gelled-up hair that rises to the sky to a unique lexicon and interviewing style far different from the network’s norm. Smith is also the rare on-air person at ESPN who has morphed from a single-sport specialist (NASCAR) into a general assignment reporter and interviewer. That is not an easy path to navigate at a major sports network. On Wednesday he lands something most talent at ESPN will never get: His own interview show.
The monthly SportsCenter Presents: Marty Smith’s America debuts on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2, a one-hour program featuring Smith interviewing Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, USC quarterback Sam Darnold and Maverick Carter, the business manager of LeBron James. As part of the show, Tim Tebow, a longtime friend of Smith and an ESPN college football colleague, will be interviewed about his minor league experience and also comment on the features.
“I can’t tell you how many people write to me and appreciate having someone who sounds like them on the air,” said Smith, who hails from Pearisburg, Va., about 24 miles north of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “I had a conversation with [head football coach] Lovie Smith at Illinois that just stopped me in my tracks. I think there are 13 African-American coaches in college football [Football Bowl Subdivision] and I said to him, “How does it impact your young men to have a leader of color?” He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Marty, I want to tell you something. It matters deeply that they can look over to that sideline and see somebody who looks like them. And you know how I know that. Because it happened for me with Tony Dungy. When I saw Tony Dungy on the sideline I said there is nothing I can’t do.”
“I tell you that story because I think we all feel that way no matter what region you may be from, no matter your religion, creed or race, it is impactful when you see or engage with somebody who reminds you of you. I hear it all the time: If you can get out, I can get out and do that. And they can.”
After working as a print reporter in Southwest Virginia and stops at the SPEED Channel and Fox Sports Net, Smith became ESPN’s lead NASCAR reporter for both SportsCenter and the former NASCAR Now program in 2007. That assignment lasted until 2014 when NBC Sports replaced ESPN as a NASCAR TV rightsholders. At that time there was clearly interest in Smith at other networks airing NASCAR—including one scenario where Fox reportedly requested Smith be part of a talent swap that included Katie Nolan and Ian Darke—but Smith opted to re-sign with ESPN and become a bureau reporter for SportsCenter.
What game-changed his career was an unexpected entry into ESPN’s college football coverage. Smith said former ESPN executive producer John Wildhack, now the athletic director at Syracuse, told him and his agent, Matt Kramer of CAA, that Smith’s reporting passion in NASCAR would translate to college football. That helped get Smith an initial assignment of serving as an embed reporter for the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014. By the luck of the draw, Smith drew Ohio State, which defeated Oregon in the national championship game. “They went on a magical three-game run and I got to live it,” Smith said.
Smith has since gained a reputation in-house as delivering interesting reports no matter the assignment. (He also co-hosts a national ESPN Radio show (Marty & McGee) with ESPN the Magazine senior writer Ryan McGee every Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. ET and is a frequent guest on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz.) His new interview show is a direct result of the immersion reporting that he and his longtime producer, Jonathan Whyley, have done on high profile college football programs such as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Michigan, the latter where they traveled to Rome with Jim Harbaugh and crew. But the specific assignment that convinced ESPN executives that Smith could front a travelogue show came last year when he and Whyley traveled to Iceland following the Iceland national team’s remarkable showing in the 2016 Euros. “We tried to immerse ourselves in the culture and report what we see,” Smith said. “Ultimately after a few days, we realized it was resonating. I’d get a text from Tom Rinaldi saying, ‘Dude, this is bad ass.’”
Smith said after he and Whyley traveled to Rome with Michigan in April, he got a call from Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news and information. Recalled Smith, “Rob said, ‘I don’t know what the hell y’all are but it’s fun and different and unique and you guys have a very unique way interacting with people and engaging with people. So let’s make it a thing.’”
The official greenlight for Marty Smith’s America only came a month ago. Smith lives in Charlotte and said he has been working on doing a long sit-down with Newton for several years. (They ended up playing kickball together for Newton’s charity prior to a long interview.) “I know the what,” Smith said of Newton. “I want to know the who and the why. He is an unapologetic subject about who he is and wants to be.”
Given Whyley is a longtime College GameDay producer, a football-centric story seemed like a natural fit, which is why they flew to L.A. to interview Darnold on the USC campus. The Ronaldo interviews were part of following the global soccer star over three days in China. Carter was interviewed in Miami about the business of James.
Smith said management has given him no ratings expectations and there is no set date for a second episode, though Smith and Whyley have plans to do a story on the return of UAB Football.
“‘Go do you’ has basically been my marching orders,” Smith said.
So far that professional ethos that has worked well for him.
The Noise Report
(SI.com focuses on some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. On Sunday E:60 ran a tragic story on Schuye LaRue, a former All-ACC basketball player for Virginia who now lives on the streets of Washington D.C. following a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The piece was reported by Shelley Smith and producer Russell Dinallo and threaded the very difficult line of reporting a tough story on mental illness without being exploitive of the subject. I emailed Dinallo with some follow-ups about the reporting process.
Richard Deitsch: How did you approach using footage of Schuye LaRue, with a specific focus on the line between journalism and being exploitive to the subject?
Russell Dinallo: This is a great question. Sensitivity was something that was on our mind from the outset with this story. We wanted to illustrate the challenges of Schuye’s life today and her illness, but we also wanted to capture her personality and her spirit. We thought the best way to do this was keep it really simple in edit—leaning on real-speed video and natural sound, as opposed to a lot of music or slo-mo video. It really started with how Shelley connected with Schuye in the field. Her questions were respectful and open-ended, and Schuye responded to that. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from colleagues and from viewers that the story was told with sensitivity, which has been really encouraging.
RD:How convinced are you that she understood she was being profiled by ESPN?
Dinallo: This was another concern we had going in, but Schuye actually put us at ease during our first visit. There were a few times we encountered someone while filming who asked what we were doing. More than once it was Schuye who would say “this is for my ESPN story.” We also made it a point to ask her if she was okay with us filming each time we got ready to shoot something.
RD: How much will you advocate to do a follow-up?
Dinallo: We follow all of our stories after their initial airing, but I think this is one that we need to keep an especially close eye on because so much could change. If something does, we’ll definitely be interested in a follow-up. This was the most challenging piece I’ve done for E:60. There was a lot to think about in the field. I can remember one especially cold night when I wanted to bring Schuye a blanket. I called our management in Bristol, and their message was ‘be a human being first.’ That really guided our approached throughout the process.
2. Episode 129 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi. In this podcast, Rinaldi defines what makes a good interview question; his writing process for a sports television feature; how he prepares for interviewing athletes and coaches; whether his questions for Tiger Woods have been challenging; how the stories he works on are found; how to find the right tone so his scripts are not too overwrought or melodramatic; how he was influenced by teaching high school English prior to ESPN; why he declined Jim Miller’s request for an interview for These Guys Have All The Fun; whether he is a fan of violins, harps or the piano; what makes Roger Federer a great interview; how often he has cried during the course of reporting; why the story of Welles Crowther, the man in the red bandana during 9/11, stayed with you most; whether college football coaches are full of malarkey when being interviewed, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3. Here are some pieces over the last 10 days that stood out for me:
• From Joe Ward, Josh Williams and Sam Manchester of The New York Times: A neuropathologist has examined the brains of 111 N.F.L. players—and 110 were found to have C.T.E., the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.
• From SI’s S.L. Price: The Fairy Tale and the Nightmare.
• Via The Cut: Michiko Kakutani’s All-Time Best Burns.
• From Kevin D. Williamson of National Review: Death of a F***ing Salesman.
• Via Buzzfeed’s Jim DeRogatis: R. Kelly Is Holding Women Against Their Will In A “Cult,” Parents Told Police.
• Anthony Scaramucci called The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. Here’s what happened.
• The NYT’s John Leland on gossip columnist Liz Smith.
• From CJR: What I learned about journalism at the New York Post.
• Ryan Goldberg on the plight of the world's greatest runners, the Tarahumara, for Texas Monthly.
• From The New York Review of Books: The making of a tabloid President.
• Remarkable video here: Foreign Agents Registration Act Financier and former Russia investor William Browder testified at a recent hearing on the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
4. The longtime sports journalist King Kaufman is launching a new narrative nonfiction sports podcast, Can't Win 4 Losing, that focuses on losing in sports. The show will launch this fall— here is the website—and one of the early episodes will focus on Michael Porter, a star running back whose high school team (Davis High in Houston) was in the middle of an 80-game losing streak, the longest in prep football history. Porter then played in college at Prairie View, where his team was also in the middle of an 80-game losing streak, the longest in NCAA history. “I covered my first election, an important local ballot measure, as a college radio reporter in 1986, and on Election Night I found that all of the best sound I was getting was at the headquarters of the losing side,” Kaufman said. “I've been fascinated ever since with the idea that, while we hear a lot more from the winners, the losers are more interesting. Didn't Tolstoy say that every champion is the same, but every loser is a loser in their own way? There are more losers than winners, and we can all relate. We've all lost plenty—at all sorts of things, not just sports.”
5. The St. Louis Cardinals denied Outsports a credential for its Christian Day event, the first time the LGBT-focused sports blog had been denied a professional sports credential in its 17 years.
5a. Beginning Aug. 1, Robert Littal, the founder and editor of Black Sports Online (BSO), will host a daily one-hour show on the FNTSY Sports Radio Network. The show will air at noon ET/9:00 a.m. PT.
5b. I asked Smith what it was like being part of a potential broadcasting trade. He said it never got to the point where management called him directly about it. “It was a little bit different,” Smith said. “But I’m glad I am here. I did read about it, and discussed it with my agent. I voiced to him I was very happy at ESPN.”