They never met until they worked together in cable-television news, but by then, two former Williams student-athletes had more in common than a profession.
True, they are as different as night and day in one respect – Mika Brzezinski today is an early morning host on MSNBC while Erin Burnett appears every evening as host of her own show on CNN.
And Brzezinski, who graduated nine years before Burnett, was a distance runner while majoring in English at Williams and hosting a local-access cable program, while Burnett was a political economy major who played field hockey and lacrosse for the Ephs and participated in a range of extra-curricular activities.
But both are remembered on campus as hard-working and competitive. And both were champions.
Brzezinski won a New England Small College Athletic Conference 5,000-meter championship, coming from behind to upset an all-American opponent in the race.
Burnett was part of an undefeated Little Three and Eastern College Athletic Conference championship lacrosse team and also was a key player as a forward on field hockey squads that won a NESCAC title and made repeat appearances in the Division III Field Hockey Championship.
Today, Brzezinski is co-host with Joe Scarborough of the “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC and author of two best-selling books, while Burnett is host of the CNN nightly program “Erin Burnett OutFront” and twice has been selected for Fortune magazine’s annual “40 Under 40” list.
They are among the most prominent and widely watched women in broadcast journalism, with Brzezinski gaining an audience at CBS News before arriving at MSNBC in 2007, and Burnett appearing on air at Bloomberg News and CNBC as well as NBC News and MSNBC – and even appearing on the Donald Trump show “The Apprentice” as a boardroom adviser – before moving to CNN in 2011.
Their paths finally crossed when Burnett reported stories for “Morning Joe.”
“I knew of Mika but did not know her until our paths crossed at MSNBC,” Burnett said in a 2008 feature published on the Williams athletics website. “She’s been a great friend, mentor and confidante for me.”
Outside of her 5,000-meter run title, Brzezinski’s name doesn’t appear in conference or NCAA record books, but running was her greatest passion in college, and she still runs today.
She has said she struggled academically at Williams – in fact, she attended Georgetown for two years before gaining admission to the college. But she credits her alma mater for pushing her. “It made me fight to get in and fight to keep up and I love Williams for that,” she said in a feature on the school’s athletics website about her experiences at the school.
Brzezinski not only worked hard in the classroom, but on the hills surrounding the college as a cross country team member and on the track. And the traits she displayed as a distance runner – including fighting back to win that NESCAC championship race – have been on display throughout her career.
“She was ideally suited for the longer distances because she was disciplined and could run a steady pace forever,” Peter Farwell, who coached distance runners at the time, said in the 2008 article.
Burnett, a three-sport standout in high school, wanted to attend Williams because it offered the opportunity to play multiple sports.
“I knew I didn’t want to play just one sport in college and wasn’t sure I wanted to do all three (she also was an excellent squash player), so I picked field hockey and lacrosse,” she remembered in 2008.
Her fondest memory as a student-athlete is traveling to her home town in Maryland during her junior year to play in the Division III championship, then scoring the winning goal in a first-round victory over second-ranked Salisbury.
Burnett also excelled in the classroom and then pursued a career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before deciding she might be interested in writing for cable news – but not in appearing on camera. However, her journalistic talents eventually led to becoming an on-air reporter and anchor.
One Division III school offered two young women what they were looking for in a student-athlete experience. And now, sizable audiences wake up every morning watching one outcome of that experience on cable news, and then wind down at night watching the other.