The television and radio reporters who work the sidelines during football games have some stories to tell — and not all of them are about the action on the field. Recollections of stormy weather and colorful coaches are as vivid as the big plays they describe from their unique, ground-level view.
“It’s just always so interesting to be on the sideline and have that access, but it’s also interesting when you go into some other stadiums,” says Langston Moore, who served as sideline reporter for University of South Carolina radio broadcasts from 2012 to 2018. “It was incredible to walk around LSU and see all that tailgate stuff going on outside that I never was able to do when I was a player because I was having to get ready. I loved capturing those stories.”
That’s the first job of the sideline reporter, to capture stories for audiences at home. While the rest of the announcing teams are ensconced in broadcast booths high above the field, the sideline reporter typically stands near the benches, just a few feet from the action. They see plays from a different angle and are also charged with updating the audience if players appear to be hurt.“When you see somebody limp off the field, you’re immediately going over to find something out,” says Pete Yanity, sports director at WSPA-TV in Spartanburg. Pete has worked as a sideline reporter and/or play-by-play announcer for multiple teams, including stints with both the Carolina Panthers and Clemson University. “You’re making sure you can get to a place where you can get the information.”
Alyssa Lang says when she sees a player being treated with ice bags, it’s a bad sign because it probably means they’re done for the day. Alyssa is a host, anchor, and reporter with the SEC Network. A USC grad and former Midlands television reporter at WLTX, her first game as a sideline reporter was for ESPN in 2018.
“The pace was different,” she says, as was some of the jargon producers used. “The biggest challenge was learning that you have to be a lot more succinct than you have ever been in your life.”
Pete had already spent years as a television reporter before becoming involved in live football broadcasts. Langston played at USC and in the NFL before landing his radio gig but also had a broadcasting connection.
“My father went to Carolina’s journalism school and was in radio for years, so I was never afraid of a microphone,” Langston says. Ken Moore was a Lowcountry radio personality, and Langston played high school football at James Island. “I spent a lot of time napping under mixing boards when I was a kid.”
Former Clemson running back Reggie Merriweather currently works the sideline for the school’s radio network. He came to the job with experience doing pregame broadcasts and contributing to radio shows around the state as a Clemson expert. He says he’s enjoyed it, “especially in the past couple of years, being able to be part of a national championship.”
Langston says he was fortunate that his coach at USC, Lou Holtz, encouraged players to interact with the media. Todd Ellis was quarterback for the Gamecocks under Joe Morrison, a coach who was not talkative with reporters. That sometimes resulted in Todd filling the vacuum as the voice of the team.
“That was hugely helpful to my development,” says Todd, who is an attorney in Irmo. “I think it helped me get into radio and in becoming a lawyer.” After his playing days, he moonlighted as a sideline reporter for radio and TV for several years before becoming the Gamecocks radio play-by-play announcer, a job he has held since 2003.
Along with injury updates, other important duties for sideline reporters are the on-field interviews with football coaches. Todd says the halftime interview is harder since the coach might be upset over something that happened in the game and is looking to get to the locker room to plan for the second half.
“It’s an absolutely tough situation, no matter what’s going on,” Todd says. He tried to start the coach with a broad, simple-to-answer question, followed by something more specific. “It’s not easy, and the other thing is they’re moving on you. In radio, they’re walking into the tunnel. It’s chaos, but it’s also what I call ‘raw radio,’ which I love.”
Television logistics generally require the coach stay put for the halftime interview. The late Mike Leach, who coached at Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State, had a reputation for ignoring that custom.
“I would have to tell the camera operators, ‘He doesn’t want to stop, so we’ll have to walk with him,’” Alyssa says. “You just roll with it. As far as approaching the interview itself, I try to watch the coach — what is he doing in the last few minutes of the half? Is there something he’s fired up about? Sometimes the best approach is to keep things simple.”
Langston recalls his first time on the sidelines for the Gamecocks on a rainy night in Nashville, Tennessee. As he approached Steve Spurrier for the halftime interview, the former defensive lineman decided he would put a big arm around the coach and pull him in close so they could hear each other.
“He did not like that at all,” Langston says. “He gave me two of those little jabs to the ribs, like, ‘Get off me.’” Langston jokes that he’s not sure whether it was because Steve was being germ-wary or because the former NFL quarterback still preferred pass rushers to keep their distance.
Weather can’t be overlooked by the sideline reporter, who is going to be out in the elements for upward of three hours. Todd remembers a particular wardrobe malfunction when the Gamecocks played LSU. “We were in Baton Rouge and it was pouring. At one point the television producer called down and said, ‘Your tie is all rolled up.’ It was soaked from the rain, so I took it off and don’t know where it ended up.”
Todd recalls a bank with a time/temperature clock he could just barely see from the field at the University of Tennessee. “One time from the start of the game to halftime, about one and a half hours, you could see on the bank clock that the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. The wind had whipped up, and sleet was coming down.”
NFL games in August are literal lightning rods for bad weather, and Pete admits there were times when he “went to the umbrella a little late.” He recalls an eventful halftime when he was doing sideline work at a Panthers preseason game in Philadelphia.
“A big part of what I did was a nine-minute halftime show,” Pete says. “Clouds are starting to form, maybe a little rain, and, all of a sudden, it’s starting to storm and look threatening. Just as they come back to me — I kid you not — I see a bolt of lightning right over the stadium and I say, ‘Welcome back.’ We got through the first segment, and I told the producer, ‘We’re going to get in the tunnel, and I’m not so sure we’re going to come back out.’ When they came back to us, we were still back in the tunnel.”
Communication is vital among the sidelines, the booth, and the television production truck. Through earpieces, headsets, or their microphones, sideline reporters are talking offline and on air to announcers and producers. For TV, the reporter is joined on the sideline by camera operators and other crew members.
“On television, the play-by-play announcer, the color commentator, and the sideline reporter are all trying to bring to fruition the vision of the producer,” Pete says. “On radio, it’s much more spontaneous.”
Early in Todd’s career, he would sometimes cover a Gamecocks contest for both radio and TV. “I’d pick up a mic and do radio, and then turn around and do a television standup,” he says. Now that he’s in the booth, he relies on a producer to relay information to the sideline reporter, currently Jamar Nesbit.
On SEC Network broadcasts, Alyssa is sometimes talking live to her booth announcers, Taylor Zarzour and Matt Stinchcomb. “Our crew in particular is very tightknit,” she says. “It becomes a flow the more you work together. We try to be very conversational. We let the storylines speak for themselves.”
Not that they always know what’s being said. Southern football venues have a reputation for loud atmospheres, and Reggie and Alyssa say there have been times they couldn’t hear the producer … or even themselves.
For all the chaos on the sidelines, announcers typically don’t get whacked by bodies flying out of bounds. Todd says he eyed players who were trailing the play as they were more likely to get bounced out. Alyssa tries to make sure she’s not doing an on-camera report with her back to the field while the ball is in play.
“I pride myself for never getting rolled up on the sideline,” Langston brags while chuckling. He also has a pro tip for how to monitor the action when you can’t see the field. “I tell my daughter, Malani — she cheers in high school in Texas and they’ve got these huge stadiums with jumbotrons — I tell her when you have to face the stadium, look at the scoreboard.”
Alyssa says she follows numerous fans and reporters for local teams so she can sense what people are talking about the week before a game. Working preseason NFL games, Pete would often learn the backstories of players who were new to the team. Reggie reads the national and local journalists who report on Clemson, “but after the first couple of games, you know the key guys to watch.”
“It’s not just showing up and asking some questions,” Alyssa says. “We’re preparing for these games six days beforehand. You’re doing that from Sunday up until kickoff on Saturday, but if you’re a sideline reporter, you’re only getting four or five minutes of broadcast time during a broadcast. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that doesn’t pay off until maybe down the line weeks later when you’re covering that team again.”
While not as potentially contentious as halftime interviews, postgame discussions with the winning head coach can yield memorable moments. TV interviews are usually conducted on the field, while radio chats take place near the locker room.
Alyssa worked several Mississippi State games with Mike as coach and says that he was her favorite interview. He was legendary for his willingness to expound on offbeat topics. She once elicited a postgame treatise on Halloween candy. Another time, when she told him she was in the midst of planning her wedding, he recommended she elope while also offering to advise the groom-to-be.
“Our business can be toxic in a way that you have to feel like you have to imitate somebody else,” Alyssa says. “But he was always passionate in talking about the things he liked to talk about. You never knew where it was going to go, and it was a very human interaction. Having unique interactions are why you get into doing this, showing off the uniqueness of people. I also always enjoy talking to Coach Beamer. I know I’m a little biased. He’s honest, too. He’ll tell you if they’re not getting it done, and fans see it. Fans are smart, and they know if a coach is just feeding them a line.”
She says she’s aware that sometimes she’s the last person a coach wants to see when they’re walking off the field, but most understand both have a job to do. And as long as football fans crave boots-on-the-ground updates, sideline reporters will continue to do their job each fall, seeking storylines and quizzing coaches.