Jimmy Roberts ’79
By Pat Donohue
Life doesn’t always unfold exactly as we’ve planned; in fact, it usually doesn’t.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t turn out for the better.
Jimmy Roberts, 56, a 1979 graduate of the University of Maryland, would certainly agree, and has had an extremely rewarding career in journalism, most notably sports journalism, to prove it.
Roberts went to White Plains High School in New York, where he had written the occasional column for the school newspaper and had been a varsity lacrosse player. Upon graduation in 1975, he had aspirations of using his lacrosse skills to make the University of Maryland’s defending national championship team, as well as going to college close to his girlfriend of that time, who went to American University in Washington, D.C.
“When I added up everything up it seemed like [Maryland] was the place to go,” Roberts said. “But I didn’t make the lacrosse team and I broke up with that girlfriend, so what I ended up with was blind, dumb luck because I can’t imagine a better place to have spent my four years of college…I ended up with and extraordinary experience.”
But Roberts didn’t let not making the lacrosse team keep him away from the sport he loved or from taking steps toward a promising career in journalism.
“When I ended up not playing, I ended up broadcasting the [lacrosse] team on WMUC,” Roberts said. “My freshman year they ended up going back to the National Championship Game, which gave me a chance to work with ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
Roberts said that his position as a color commentator for WMUC would open up opportunities for him to work on ABC Sports’ productions as what he said was called a “gopher” at the time. He said that the “gophers” were basically more manpower for the production crew, mostly local people, one or two of which would usually be more experienced and have more responsibility than the rest.
For that particular game, which featured Maryland defending its national title against Cornell, Roberts was one of the more experienced on the crew because of his knowledge of not only the sport of lacrosse but also, more specifically, Maryland’s team.
Roberts must have done something right while working at that game because he said one of the production assistants asked him afterward if he would be interested in helping out with an upcoming golf tournament in Philadelphia. Roberts was also a golf fan and had been playing most of his life, so naturally he said yes.
Throughout his four years at Maryland, Roberts said the assignments from ABC Sports became more plentiful with greater responsibilities and would sometimes require further travel, eventually leading to his first full-time job with the company as a production assistant.
“That began my connection with ABC and when I graduated I was hired by ABC Sports,” Roberts said. “Everything has a way of working out and this was an example.”
From 1975-77 Roberts also served as a part-time staff reporter for the Gannett-owned Westchester/Rockland, N.Y. newspapers, where he said he realized that he really enjoyed the sports aspect most when it came to writing.
In his early years with ABC Sports, Roberts had the opportunity to work closely with Howard Cosell, writing and producing features for SportsBeat, an Emmy award-winning show. He then transitioned into news and from 1985-87 worked as an assignment editor and producer for ABC News, before returning as a writer and producer of features for ABC Sports.
Roberts credits his years with ABC and being around journalism icons like Cosell for teaching him how to be a professional journalist, especially when it came to interviewing.
“[Cosell] had the ability to interview people, ask the difficult questions, and not lose them,” Roberts said. “Television is filled with people who don’t want to ask difficult questions because they don’t want to upset the person they are interviewing. But you’re the viewers’ surrogate and you have to ask the questions that people at home want to know, and if you’re doing any less then you’re not doing you’re job.
“The years that I spent at ABC really did a lot to influence me. I met a lot of incredibly talented people and I kept my eyes open…I’ve always thought I’ve had a bit of a hybrid style, and it’s because of the time I spent around these people and the influence they had on me.”
But it wasn’t until after working at ABC for eight years that Roberts says he discovered his calling for on-camera work.
“I got to the point at ABC where it looked like they were going to eliminate my job,” Roberts said. “So I figured at that point I was writing and producing features for people at ABC Sports anyway, and the only part of the process I wasn’t doing was narrating it. So I gave it a try, and I took a bunch of features that I had made that had aired with other people’s voices on them, and I put my voice on them to make an audition tape, and I sent it out to a bunch of places. I got a bunch of no’s, one harsh one in particular from a station in North Carolina, and the only place interested in me was a small media outlet at the time in Connecticut called ESPN, where I ended up working for 12 years.”
However, Roberts said this was a time before ESPN became the empire that is known today as the “World Wide Leader in Sports,” and he realizes that getting hired by the company today would be much different.
“ESPN was at a point where they could afford to put people like me on air,” Roberts said. “There was tremendous growth after that, and I feel very fortunate to have arrived there when I did.”
As a SportsCenter correspondent at ESPN, Roberts’ coverage included heavyweight championship boxing matches, NBA Finals, the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. He also regularly contributed to ESPN’s Outside the Lines series, which he helped create.
But in order to find a niche for himself in a rapidly growing company, Roberts resorted to a familiarity to help guide him.
“At ESPN everyone had their beats and no one wanted to cover golf. So I decided if I attached my name with a sport it could be a good way to make a name for myself. I got involved with golf in the early 90s and then Tiger Woods happened, and everyone became more interested in golf.”
And as Woods’ golf career began to grow, so did Roberts’ résumé.
In 2000 he joined NBC Sports and has since worked on the network’s Golf Channel as an essayist, interviewer, and studio host. In addition to working golf telecasts for Golf Channel and NBC, Roberts is also the voice of Masters.com, the website that tracks golf’s biggest tournament. He has also served as a studio host for NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame Football and Wimbledon.
In 2009, Roberts’ first book, ‘Breaking the Slump,’ which explains how some of the best golfers to ever play the game broke out of career-threatening slumps, was published by Harper Collins and was critically praised in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Sports Illustrated.
Although he is most recognized for his work in golf, Roberts is adamant that he is more than just a golf reporter.
”I’m a sports reporter,” Roberts said, “that’s what I was and am, golf is just what I am most closely associated with.”
Over a broadcasting and journalism career that spans more than 30 years, Roberts has won 13 Emmy Awards; one of which is displayed at R.J. Bentley’s Filling Station in College Park, where Roberts was an original employee. But he said he is just as proud of the work that he does that people may never get to see.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Roberts said his greatest achievement of them all has nothing to do with sports or journalism.
“My greatest accomplish in life is the fact that I have been married to an incredible woman for 20 years and have three great children,” Roberts said.
He and his wife, Sandra, currently live in the New York area with their three sons.
Roberts’ writing is considered some of the best in broadcast journalism, and he admits that writing for broadcast is perhaps the most difficult type that he does.
Part of Roberts’ advice to aspiring journalists is to be able to express themselves through any kind of writing, but said that they shouldn’t be afraid to step outside the box when it comes to the rules of journalism.
“A journalist is a wide ranging description,” Roberts said. “I say be fearless, that doesn’t mean if you’re a journalist covering a war that you should do something dangerous, but be fearless in terms of telling a story. The mediums change but the one thing that stays consistent is people’s appetite for good stories.
“Don’t be afraid to break the rules of journalism. Ask a lot of questions, not in the sense of someone you are interviewing, ask why you are doing certain things. Don’t just follow everyone else. The older I get the more I understand that blazing your own path is so incredibly rewarding. Have the courage to do what not everyone else is doing.”