Sports media: Detroiter Hill never imagined anchoring 'SportsCenter'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Jemele Hill, a Michigan State alum and former Detroit Free Press sportswriter, has suspended by ESPN over tweets urging a boycott of NFL sponsors.

Growing up in Detroit, Jemele Hill didn't consider a career in television.

"Never," she said, laughing. "I never wanted to be at ESPN, I never wanted to be on television, I never wanted to host 'SportsCenter.'

"Maybe I should go out and say I never want to win a million dollars -- then maybe that will happen!"

Hill, a Detroit Mumford and Michigan State alum, earlier this month was named one of the next anchors for ESPN's flagship show, "SportsCenter," along with her "His & Hers" co-host, Michael Smith.

The duo will continue hosting "His & Hers" weekday mornings, before shifting to the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" starting Feb. 6.

They will be taking over for Lindsay Czarniak, who goes on maternity leave next month and will return in a new, as-yet-unannounced role next year.

"We're really excited about it," Hill told me over the phone the other day. "It was a very odd position for us to be in, in the sense that usually when you're having these discussions at ESPN about where you're future is going to go, you have a really clear idea of what it is. This opportunity literally materialized out of nowhere.

"It was really a dream opportunity -- it just kind of falls under the category that you don't know what you're looking for until it kind of smacks you in the face."

Next month will mark Hill's 10th anniversary at ESPN, after a career in newspapers that started at the Raleigh News & Observer, then the Detroit Free Press, and finally the Orlando Sentinel before making the move to Bristol, Connecticut, in 2006.

Hill, 40, has worked on a variety of programs at ESPN, before finding her niche and great success along with Smith on "His & Hers."

"I tell young people this all the time -- it's OK to redirect sometimes," Hill said. "I thought, frankly, like a lot of print journalists, I looked at TV as something beneath me. I felt like it was disrespectful to the craft, thinking about being a television personality.

"It's been such a natural fit for me, it's kind of scary."

ESPN brass started having initial talks with Hill and Smith about the idea a few months back, and at first they were hesitant. They've created a bit of a brand on "His & Hers," and they like the commentary and opinionated aspect of the show.

As ESPN tries to evolve, higher-ups told them that's exactly what they wanted them to bring to "SportsCenter."

The theory is, by evening, everybody knows the news of the day already -- what they're looking for, by then, is some perspective.

"That is kind of what piqued our curiosity," Hill said. "As things kind of got worked out and as we had more philosophical conversations with them, we realized this was an incredible opportunity for us to take what we already do and marry it to ESPN's baby -- and do it in front of an audience three times bigger than what we do."

While Hill never dreamed of being on "SportsCenter" while growing up, she did watch the show, of course.

Everybody had their favorite pairings or anchors -- whether it was Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott, Craig Kilborn, whomever.

"And, you know," said Hill, "Mike and I are hoping that we can try to carve our own legacy in a product that has an incredible history."

Paying their respects

When Drew Sharp was promoted to sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press in 1999, that opened up the Michigan State football and basketball beat.

That beat went to Hill.

"He was the reason I wound up at the Free Press," Hill said.

Sharp died suddenly Friday at age 56 from heart disease. His visitation is Wednesday and funeral is Thursday.

Since the shocking news, media members from coast to coast have paid their respects, including at ESPN, where Hill said Sharp was really well-liked.

Even the professional and college sports teams have paid tribute.

At Maryland on Saturday, university officials left flowers at his spot in the press box for the Michigan State game. The next day, the Lions left vacant his seat on press row for the game against Washington.

And following the game -- a crushing defeat for him -- Washington QB Kirk Cousins, whom Sharp covered while he was at Michigan State, opened his postgame presser with condolences to Sharp's friends and family.

Ticket changes

Gotta say, 97.1 The Ticket (WXYT-FM) is doing some good things these days.

The station had no real incentive to make any drastic changes after knocking off the second FM sports station, Detroit Sports 105.1 (WMGC-FM).

But the brass over there hasn't rested, shaking up the morning show, and easing the restrictions on doing on-air interviews.

Jamie Samuelsen has been a good addition to the morning show, working alongside Mike Stone. The show has done much less pop-culture talk, and is focusing much more on sports, doing its fair share of interviews. (Though the weekly Jim Harbaugh chat is a coin flip, whether it'll be great or awkward; it's usually Harbaugh's doing, either way.)

I like how they've been having News colleague and night-time 97.1 host Bob Wojnowski pop on regularly in the mornings for a fun and goofy segment.

The content on 97.1 has drastically improved on Sundays, too, now that they've bid adieu to the Lions rights. Mike Valenti finally gets to host a game-day NFL show, and Dan Leach and Dennis Fithian do a bang-up job on the "Around the NFL" show that airs while the Lions are playing.

This and that

Rob Parker has bolted TV20 -- a sister station of Channel 7 (WXYZ), the local ABC affiliate -- after a brief stint anchoring sports on the 10 p.m. newscast. Brad Galli has taken over the time slot, as well as doing the 5, 6 and 11 newscasts on Channel 7.

Parker, who has been seen lately on Skip Bayless' new show on Fox Sports 1, appears to be trying to build back his national presence.

... Which college football team has been involved in the most of the top-watched games this season? Would you believe Wisconsin? It cracks the top eight three times, with its game against Ohio State on ABC (No. 3, about 9 million), against LSU on ABC (No. 7, 8M) and Michigan ABC (No. 8, 7M).

... How bad has it gotten for Michigan State football this season? Its game against Illinois next weekend actually will air on ESPN News. Ouch.

... In a Twitter poll of 695 Detroit sports fans, 74 percent are rooting for the Cubs to beat the Indians in the World Series.

Twitter @tonypaul1984