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Interview: Florida grad Laura Rutledge on her time at UF, her rise at ESPN, and the Gators’ surprising 2018

One of the rising stars in all of sports media is a Gator — and she talked to a rising star of our own.

Laura Rutledge / Instagram

Editor’s note: We get pitched interviews on occasion, usually in conjunction with some former Florida player doing something — for Tim Tebow, more than once, it’s been charity work — in the community for a company and having a few minutes to talk. I don’t tend to take them for myself, because I’m not great at interviews and because outside is scary.

But Alligator Army contributor Ashley Kummer is great at them, and a rising star in sports media. And so I thought of her when the opportunity to interview ESPN’s Laura Rutledge — a fixture on SEC Network coverage who has recently broadened her roles at ESPN to include pinch-hitting on SportsCenter and Get Up — as part of promotion for Pilot Flying J, and Ashley was able to take time to talk to Laura about her background at Florida, her rise at ESPN, the value of coffee in her busy career, and so much more.

Oh, and we totally would’ve chopped this up into a feature if not for Laura giving such good, long answers to Ashley’s questions. Blame them for being good at their jobs. — Andy

What made you want to pursue your education at the University of Florida?

I had in-state tuition and decided that it was going to make the most sense. I was between Florida and Florida State and just decided that Florida was better for me and the communications program was really good and that was one of the reasons why I chose it.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in media?

Early on in my freshman year at UF, I had someone who was telling me I could make a little extra money at the on-campus radio station so I decided to take them up on that offer and went up there and they had an opening in sports radio at WRUF. So I said all right, I’m gonna try to do it — and I loved it from the get-go!

I was there in a really good time for Florida sports from ’07-’11 so it was like the perfect time to be there. I just got a lot of experience on radio.

So did you come in your freshman year as a communications major?

I did! I just was general communications, but then I refined it to telecommunication-news once I realized exactly what I wanted to do.

When did you become interested in sports media specifically?

It was really just that freshman year! When I went up to the radio station and started doing that and realized there was an opportunity in sports, I decided this is what I was going to do. I just loved it. I think that falling in love with Florida sports at first, and then growing up as a sports fan – I loved the Braves and the Falcons since I grew up in Atlanta — but I never really imagined myself doing college sports and didn’t think it’d be a career, but then when I had the opportunity to be there and see what it could be, see what the environments would be at Florida and college sports, I loved it.

Besides ballet, did you play any other sports growing up?

I was terrible at all sports! I tried, but I did a little bit of soccer, ran a little bit of track, but I was not good enough to really get beyond any total beginner level. I did just enjoy watching them though. Growing up with brothers, I would go to their soccer games and stuff, too. That was always really special. My mom went to Clemson and my dad went to Georgia Tech, so we also kinda grew up on ACC football. That was a big part of what we did, too.

So how was it transitioning from the ACC to the crazy world of the SEC?

I loved it! I mean, I had plenty of time to figure all that out because I was in college and totally immersed in the SEC world, and I think I still have a great appreciation for ACC football, and it’s been cool because on Thursday nights with ESPN, I do a lot of ACC games. So it’s nice to have some of the SEC environment on the weekends and then throughout the weeks in a lot of ways, but also having exposure to other conferences.

What was your favorite part about working at the studio at UF?

I honestly just loved being able to talk about all sports. It wasn’t ever just football. I covered women’s basketball, volleyball, men’s basketball, gymnastics, softball, baseball – you know, pretty much everything. It really equipped me with a lot of skills that I would end up needing once I got to ESPN.

When I got here, one of the main reasons I wanted to work for the SEC Network was to do as many sports as possible. I love football, obviously, and love baseball, and certainly some more of those more mainstream sports, but also really enjoy some of the Olympic sports, so it was cool to have that chance at a young age to figure out how that would be a big component of my career.

Favorite part about attending UF in general?

Favorite part about Florida was just the passion for sports. I think everybody that goes there knows what it’s like to be a Florida fan and knows what Florida fans are like. You think about their intensity and how much they love to win and while I was there, they did a lot of winning so it was a lot of fun. I think just that pride that was taken in every sport.

It wasn’t just the basketball team that had just won back-to-back championships, it wasn’t just football that had Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow and they were winning championships, it was everything. It was just this level of excellence that was expected throughout.

So your senior year, you had the internship with FOX Sports Florida. What made you want to accept that you in your final year and go full force into the sports media industry?

My senior year I was just kind of looking for more opportunity and was trying to get internships at multiple places and they wouldn’t hire me. I tried for ESPN, I tried for big FOX, I tried for CNN, I tried for everything and just couldn’t get an opportunity. I really sent countless emails and beat down the door of this guy that was at FOX Sports Florida and finally they hired me to this internship but it was really just copying DVDs for most of the time. I sort of ended up with this last minute opportunity because one of the on-air people had a conflict and they said “Could you step in and do this feature?”

And that was really how I got a chance to work with them and be on TV for a little bit at a pretty early time there during my senior year, but that ended up leading to the Tampa Bay Rays (sideline reporter) job, which was my first job right out of school. I was actually still in school because it was spring of my senior year that I started to do the Rays broadcasts, and that was total right place, right time, but I also think that sticking with an internship that I was convinced wasn’t really worth my time was honestly the best thing that could have happened.

As a woman in sports media, did you face much adversity early on in your career when you were first starting out? And do you face much now as an established journalist?

There’s still always times where people will doubt you, and it’s probably true for anybody who hasn’t played the sport, but probably more in football for women. And certainly, there’s so many of these incredible women who have come before me that are amazing journalists and have such wonderful credibility that sort of paved the path for all of us now, and I’m so thankful to them. The challenges that they faced were much different and much worse than probably what I even face, but there are times where people doubt me and you just kind of have to brush it off and keep going.

I have always said that my best asset and best weapon in those situations is knowledge. Coming into every situation as prepared as I possibly can be has equipped me to be able to stand on my own two feet when somebody is coming back at me like I don’t know what I’m talking about or being on a set with a lot of guys a lot of the time and being able to hold my own – it just comes from the time and the preparation that goes into all of it. I think from that standpoint, I just feel like I can’t ever use that as an excuse, it’s just part of it and we just keep rolling with it and I’m always just very thankful to have this job. I would never use that as a crutch or a reason why I’m feeling sorry for myself because it’s not that way.

I do think as women in this business, we need to all continue to try as hard as possible to support each other and encouraging as we can to each other as we do continue to create a movement of women in sports media.

When you first came over to ESPN, did you have any idea you would take off to the degree that you have with all these different expansions with your new roles?

NO! (laughs) I was honestly just thankful for an opportunity. I had worked my way up at FOX Sports and was doing a lot of Major League Baseball and a little bit of college football, but just really wanted to get back to the SEC because I felt like that’s where my heart really is, and in college sports.

Just to have a chance to continue to do this stuff is amazing to me. I’m constantly pinching myself. I would have never imagined it. Like I said before, I’m just really thankful all the time. Even when the travel gets crazy and the schedules can be nuts and I may not be having a lot of sleep, I just always remind myself how thankful I am to be doing it.

You mentioned how you were really into Major League Baseball with FOX Sports Florida & I know you met your husband who is very involved in the baseball world (former MLBer Josh Rutledge) at an Alabama tailgate. What is it like having a husband in baseball while you’re working in sports media?

Yeah, you know, I actually think it’s been great for both of us because we both have our own careers and we also understand a lot about each others careers so we can support each other in ways that if you haven’t ever experienced it before, it might be more difficult.

He’s just always been a wonderful supporter of me and everything that I’m doing in college football, college baseball, whatever it may be. He’s been such a great encourager and I hope I’ve done the same for him.

We’ve kind of learned over the last few years as our careers have grown and changed and moved around that one thing that we can count on is each other and that’s how we operate on a daily basis. I’m just very thankful to him for being as understanding and supportive as he has during all these years.

How do you balance your work life with your home life? I’ve seen your Instagram stories where you’ve done SEC Nation in the morning and then go right back home to Atlanta after. How do you balance it all out?

Yeah, the travel can get pretty crazy! Thankfully Pilot Flying J is always there for me to grab coffee while I’m traveling from place to play since they have over 750 retail locations across North America. I’m always running in to them for just about anything with my schedule.

But yeah, Saturday is my one day at home so basically I get home and hang out and watch football with him and I think the most important thing is whenever I’m home and whenever I’m with my family I turn everything off and focus on them as much as possible and I guess its sort of I’m not following my own advice if I’m posting social media of myself being home (laughs) either way I’m kind of trying to focus as much as I can on being with him and being as focused on that as I can.

What’s the difference between covering Florida as a student and covering Florida as an alumna?

You know, as a student I think I really was a fan, and obviously still am a fan and I always hope that Florida does well, but even at the time I really never went to a game as a student, funny enough. I started off in sports media so early there, covering the games for the radio station, I really never experienced the games as a student. I would actually love to go to a Florida game as a fan now because I’ve never really done it. The transition for me was not as difficult as I thought it would be because I learned that I obviously have to keep my fandom to a minimum to maintain credibility and it’s easy to because I really do at this point root for every team and players and coaches on these teams and just kind of want everybody to have success.

I guess the biggest difference is that now I do have to be very cognizant, like even in an airport or something, I gotta be careful about wearing a bunch of gear from any school even if its not Florida because I get a lot of gear from places and you just have to be careful about that, but you know, in general, people understand that it’s okay to be proud of your school you just have to keep it at a professional level.

What is your overall projection for UF Football this season and where do you see the program moving forward?

I think Florida already has exceeded some expectations and they’ve gotten to a point now where, you say, look at the beginning of the season and after the loss to Kentucky, everybody kind of left them for dead and to be able to beat LSU and to be able to beat Mississippi State on the road, they’re really showing that Dan Mullen has brought a new energy and revised offense in a way, but also the defense. Todd Grantham, I think, doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done and for the way he’s called the defense. Blitzing at the right times and just the comfortability that Dan Mullen brought to the offense and brought to Feleipe Franks impressed me.

Look, they’re gonna get a lot better and I think already we’ve seen the signs of that being there and it’s just about maintaining consistency. A game like Vanderbilt that Coach Mullen keeps calling a potential trap game, those are the games that you really have to watch out for. (Ashley and Laura spoke prior to last weekend’s game. — Andy) To me, they are close to contending for the East and much closer than I thought they would be, and I still at this point certainly have the World’s Largest Cocktail Party in Jacksonville circled on my calendar as a big East game, and potentially a decider.

You never know, now that Kentucky has lost, you never know what could happen when it all shakes out at the end.