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Alum Jay Harris Keeping it Real at ESPN's Sports Center

By James Burnett '98

When Jay Harris's alarm clock rings every weekday, his first instinct is to stay in bed. After all, it's 3 a.m.

But he likes to get to work at 4 o'clock, 3 hours before millions of TV viewers first see him in the morning.

Harris '87 co-hosts ESPN's "SportsCenter: AM" show, which recently celebrated its first anniversary. A February article in Sporting News described Harris as "one of ESPN's secret weapons."

He offered perhaps the best clue to his success not during his morning show, but in a 2014 speech to high school students considering journalism at a convention in Washington:

The best journalists, he told them, "have the ability to walk like people, talk like people, write like people, and act like people when they do their jobs.... They act like they would act if you saw them at 1 o'clock in the morning at Waffle House....They keep it real. They act like you."

Harris' ability to "keep it real" has endeared him to fans and colleagues

during his 14-year run at the sports network.

"Forget about Jay Harris the anchor. Jay Harris is one of the best people I know," says Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter at 6 p.m. She described him as "one of the most humble people in our building. He always has a kind of encouraging word, not to mention an infectious laugh."

For his part, Harris attributes his easygoing personality and on-air style to his circuitous route to get to ESPN.

"I came from local TV news," he says. But not directly.

Technically, Harris, 52, came from the now-defunct Norfolk Community Hospital on Feb. 22, 1965.

His family lived in Portsmouth, but after his parents divorced he moved with his mother to her hometown, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

So how does a boy who grew up in Tar Heel country - where the clear sky is believed to have borrowed its shade of blue from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -land at ODU?

His father still lived in Norfolk, "so I had dual hometown citizenship," Harris says. "I found during my visits that ODU had a similar vibe to my high school - friendly, open, accepting. It just felt right."

Harris knew when he enrolled at ODU what he wanted to major in - speech communication:

"I did yearbook in high school. In 11th grade I took one of those aptitude tests, and I scored high on interpersonal skills. I liked writing, telling stories - that whole process. I wanted Brent Musburger's job at CBS Sports."

While he was at Old Dominion, Harris was a member of the Student Senate, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Dana Burnett, who was dean of students at the time, says Harris was balanced then and balanced now.

"As Jay has moved from ODU into the world of media..., I have observed that he has maintained his ability to stay proud and humble," he says. "Jay has earned the right to be a little cocky, but that isn't consistent with his core values."

Burnett, who recently retired as a professor of education, also recalls Harris trying to teach him how to step, a complex group dance popularized predominantly by African American fraternities. "We had a lot of laughs, but not much success," Burnett says.

In a perfect world, Harris and his natural talents would have gone straight from graduation to a news outlet. But he detoured to Washington, where he landed a job as a telemarketer, earning $16,000 a year.

In 1989, two years after Harris graduated, he called Don Roberts, a radio news director, friend and mentor, about the possibility of a job at WRAP, an AM station in Norfolk where Roberts was working.

The only problem: It would pay nothing. Harris wasn't deterred.

"I took my one suit and two ties and moved to Norfolk and stayed with my dad," Harris says. "It was three months before they found a little money for me."

Roberts, now an anchor at WAVY TV, recalls Harris' energy: "He hustled! Jay didn't care if 10 people were listening; he was learning. I saw the same hunger in him that I had to make it."

After a few other gigs in Hampton Roads, Harris and his wife, Stephanie, moved in 1991 - the day after their wedding - to Pittsburgh.

They stayed there for the next 12 years while Harris worked as an anchor at several outlets, including WAMO-FM, American Urban Radio Networks and WPGH-TV.

Even as he reported hard news, Harris stoked his lifelong love of sports. He had played basketball at Chapel Hill High School. "I still think I can take down anyone with my jump shot," he insists.

So in 2003, when ESPN invited Harris to audition for a job after an old buddy from Pittsburgh shared a tape of him with ESPN execs, it seemed like a dream coming true.

They liked Harris's style, he liked them...and he turned down the offer.

"I actually said no several times," Harris says, chuckling. "We had been in Pittsburgh for 12 years. We were settled."

Stephanie finally persuaded Harris to say yes to a job with a network she reminded him he watched all the time, anyway.

"She asked my buddy, 'Is this a good opportunity for Jay?' He said yes, so I said we'll go. But then I balked again. And she made me follow through. Thirteen years later I always say it's the best decision she ever made."

The Sporting News article called Harris "ESPN's utility player." His resume proves it. Over the years, he's worked on or contributed to such ESPN shows as "Baseball Tonight," "Cold Pizza," "ESPN Sports Saturday" on ABC, "First Take," "Friday Night Fights," and "Outside the Lines" and reported on the NBA finals.

In Februrary 2016 he joined three other anchors to launch "SportsCenter: AM," a new three-hour morning incarnation of the legendary show.

"There was great chemistry from the start because we like each other, and we all have worked together on various shows and projects," Harris said.

"As the first live show on the air, we get to set the table on the day, and at the same time add a new twist or context to the previous night's games... It's fast paced for a morning audience that dips in and out as they get ready to start their day."

Harris lives in Bristol, Conn., where ESPN is based, with Stephanie and their two children, Bryce, 18, and Tyra, 11.

He credits Old Dominion for his broadcasting ascent.

"I think to be a good broadcaster and a good journalist you need a certain amount of confidence," he says. "You put yourself out there to be criticized, for your work to be criticized. My ODU experience gave me that confidence because I was able to really get involved in campus student leadership organizations. ODU allowed me to grow up."

Since 2014, he's been back at Old Dominion in a new role - member of the Board of Visitors.

He describes the responsibility as "initially surreal," given his past at ODU as a student, and "eye-opening."

"I guess if anything jumped out at me early in my tenure on the board," he says, "it was that relationships like the one I had with Dana - student and teacher, mentor and mentee, friend - were not unique to me....Those relationships have been driven by this overarching attitude at ODU of 'What can we do to send these young people out to the world and be prepared?'"

His goal is to spread the word about Old Dominion.

"If there was one thing that I would like to see different - this is just me surfing in four times a year (to board meetings) - it's making sure that ODU is seen as a leading institution, not only in the state, but in the country. We were always like the little engine that could. Instead, people should think of ODU as the world class university that it is and not be afraid or ashamed of that."

In other words, keeping it real for Old Dominion, too.

James Burnett '98 is a strategic communications consultant and former journalist who worked for newspapers including The Boston Globe, Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Financial Times. He is co-founder of Cards in Color, dedicated to the positive portrayal of multiracial families and individuals in greeting cards.

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