Eric McDowell and other sports information directors like him are writers, planners, schedulers, stats-keepers, videographers, web designers. But they’re also in a unique spot to position college sports for the future.
Twelve wooden steps ascend at a 75-degree angle into the press box at Messa Rink in Schenectady, New York. It hangs over the northeast edge of the ice, a bird’s-eye perch for sportswriters and stats collectors who turn the game’s minutes into memories. On this November weekend, the Union College men’s ice hockey team hosts Brown University, and in the final pregame moments, as hockey players glide across the fresh ice and slap pucks against the protective glass, a different kind of adrenalin-fueled warmup takes shape in the press box.
Its inhabitants – two local newspaper writers, a blogger, four student workers, an athletics department intern, an athletics employee ready to punch statistics into her laptop, and, over in the corner, a man pumping music over the public address system – brace for a busy night. Eric McDowell, the Union assistant athletics director for sports information, is anxious, even compulsive, as he bides for face-off. He sits on the counter with one finger tapping his head. He lifts his glasses from his nose, wipes the bridge and slips them back into place. He eyes the neat piles of game notes, glossed programs and spiral-bound media guides his staff has prepared and, when a photographer grabs his copies for the night, moves quickly to realign the edges of the paper stacks.
McDowell, 55, with dark hair, eyeglasses with thin rims and thick lenses and a New England accent he has retained despite spending years on the West Coast, wears a gray suit and black tie and expects even his student workers to dress professionally for the press box. He greets everyone with a handshake or a slap on the back, depending on his familiarity with each. Most conversations in this 40-by-10-foot space take place in shouting gestures – the music is loud.
The rink lights dim. Game on.
McDowell and Eric Egan, a Union physics student and senior outfielder on the baseball team, stand, calling out the action as other students and athletics employees record the numbers. The most important stats – shots, saves – are entered directly into the computer. Others – participation, plus/minus – are written by hand and entered later. Another student writes down everything the computer is capturing – a backup in case the laptop freezes.
When a puck tracks into the far corners, McDowell pulls binoculars to his face to continue reciting the action.
“17!” McDowell calls a shot at the goal.
“17 wide,” Egan says, adding description.
“12, yep. What came after that?” McDowell retorts.
Egan: “Shot by ...”
“… by 29. Wide, right?” McDowell jumps in, confirms the player and looks at Egan for more.
“I had it saved.”
“OK, that’s fine. Save, it is.” The action keeps moving, and so does McDowell.
“19, 28, save. Yeah, he didn’t do anything, 21.”
The crowd roars. A puck is thrown into a scrum at the net.
“That was just a loose puck – that wasn’t a shot.
Right?” McDowell polls the crew.
“I didn’t say anything.” Egan says.
“If it went in, we would have a problem,” McDowell says, a joke at the ready. “Own goal like soccer.”
After two periods, Union leads 2-1, and McDowell wears a broad smile, proudly showing a reporter how fast the statistics can get down the steps, in and out of the copy machine, and into both teams’ dressing rooms. “That’s two extra minutes the coaches can spend poring over video – they know we are coming with the stats.”
With 1:37 remaining, Brown scores. The game goes into overtime. The reporters glance at the clock, anxious about the time they just lost between game’s end and deadline. McDowell and his team are nervous, too – they want a fair, efficient game, but they’re Union Dutchmen at heart. They want their team to win.
Brown rushes the puck to the far end of Messa Rink. Brown sophomore forward Tyler Bird finds classmate Max Willman on the left wing.
“Look at this,” McDowell says, his voice rising. Willman’s first shot hits the Union goalie, but the Brown forward puts back his own rebound with 28 seconds to go for the game-winner.
He slams his open palm on the countertop. “Are you kidding me?”
Celebrating Brown players litter the ice, victorious.
As quickly as it came over him, McDowell’s emotion is gone. He instructs the students “to run the box scores,” and he walks them down to the copier. The department intern updates the final score to the Union website and the conference scoreboard, posts to Twitter, and delivers the final digital statistics file to Brown. McDowell races through the crowd, slips through a side door and, on his quiet walk downstairs to the postgame press conference, reflects on his reaction to the loss.
“You may care, but it’s not about you, and it’s got to be about the student-athlete,” McDowell says. “For one student-athlete that loses, somebody won.”
In his office, McDowell is surrounded by the trappings of a 35-year career as a sports information director.
Sports information directors, long known as SIDs, first appeared on college campuses in the 1930s as a public relations role handled by a campus office. By the ‘50s, the position popped up solely within athletics. Its original intent was simple: to make sure local media received accurate information for the college teams they covered – rosters with heights, weights, hometowns and high schools.
More than 60 years later, SIDs are the chameleons of a college athletics department. Beyond librarians and stats-keepers, they are graphic designers. Photographers. Feature writers. Live video producers. Webmasters. Videographers. Marketers. Social media managers. Department historians. Media relations experts. The SIDs’ colors have changed as college sports grew in popularity and technology evolved, and over the past 20 years, their anthem has become, as McDowell says: “The SID can do that.”
“No other professional in college athletics has evolved and added more to the plate than this one,” McDowell says. “Nobody.”
SIDs no longer just document the accomplishments – they package and present them, in tools that have become an important part of recruiting and retention of college athletes. Yet along the way, as they were picking up more skills and becoming the grand multitaskers of their department, SIDs also became important links between the story of the individual college athlete and the story of college sports as a whole.
And departments are tapping into the SIDs’ knowledge and using it to help athletics think about vision and priorities.
“It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” says Doug Vance, executive director of the Collegiate Sports Information Directors of America, a collective of 3,000 athletics communications and public relations professionals who work not just at schools within the NCAA but also at National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics colleges, junior colleges and other four-year schools in the U.S. and Canada. “We’ve created a plan, and now we’re moving forward to execute that plan.”
McDowell grew up in Dennis, Massachusetts, about 90 minutes southeast of Boston. He got his first gig in sports at age 14, handling the softball scorebook four nights a week at a 30-and-over men’s league on Cape Cod. He didn’t get paid, but he learned a new language – and learned that he loved it: BB; 2-3 SAC BU; 4-3, +; 2B LL, RBI; P4. 1H, 1 R, 1 LOB. (Translation: first batter walks, is sacrifice bunted over to second and then moves to third base when the third batter of the inning grounds out to the second baseman. Fourth batter hits a double down the left-field line, and drives in the run. Fifth batter pops out to the second baseman. For the inning, the team batting had one hit, scored one run and left one baserunner on.)
In 1975, a family member with Red Sox season tickets held a family lottery to decide who would go to which World Series games, and McDowell and his grandmother got Game 6. Any baseball fan knows the result: New Hampshire native and Boston catcher Carlton Fisk golfed a baseball toward the foul pole, and all of New England helped him wave it fair, sending the 1975 World Series into the forgotten Game 7 against the Reds.
As a kid, McDowell liked scoring Red Sox and softball games, and in the summers of his Cape Cod youth, he wrote for local newspapers. Soon, he had the one-two combo of an eye for a story and an understanding of game statistics. But like many young sports fans, he headed to college – in his case, the University of New Haven – with no idea a profession could be built around the two. “I don’t think many people come out of high school and know what an SID is,” he says.
Another thing McDowell had in his corner: a mother who understood his passion. Without his knowledge, she contacted the athletics department at New Haven. McDowell loves telling the story: “She wrote, ‘Is there anything in athletics that you could find for him, since he likes keeping stats and likes sports?’”
The athletics director invited McDowell to work with the sports information director. Two years later, that same athletics director offered McDowell the SID job. He began while continuing his degree and became full-time after graduating.
In the 1980s, sports information jobs had different challenges before the internet. Getting information when your team was on the road was never a certainty. On good nights, the coach would find a pay phone and call in results before getting on the bus to head back to campus. And McDowell had only traditional avenues for getting a score to fans and the public – local newspapers and TV stations. “We didn’t have email,” McDowell says. “We did a phone call.”
Some nights, McDowell went down to the New Haven Register, taking along any prints of game photos. Afterward, he would hang around the veteran reporters – writers who covered the Giants, the Jets, the Yankees and the Hartford Whalers. His job was to understand their business and make it easier for them to cover his teams. “I would just soak in tips from them,” McDowell recalls.
From those late nights, McDowell came up with a strategy for New Haven. He began drafting a weekly release each Monday for newspapers. With the help of some athletics administrative staff, they stuffed envelopes and mailed – yes, mailed – previews of the week to area newspapers and televisions stations. McDowell developed a sense of what the media needed and how to get out the stories of his athletes.
His efforts were innovative for the 1980s, and soon other sports entities noticed McDowell. He was offered a temporary statistician job in professional hockey and felt a tug to make it in the big leagues. Instead, the next position he chose was a Division I school in New England, the University of New Hampshire, which featured a top-flight men’s ice hockey program. But he wasn’t there long. Soon, McDowell found himself working in a region not known for ice hockey.
A colleague at yet another Division I school in New England was hired as athletics director at California Polytechnic State University and recruited McDowell to come, too. Besides the Southern California weather, the pitch included the allure of helping Cal Poly transition from Division II to Division I and the chance to handpick an athletics communications staff.
There was another great force that pushed McDowell to leave behind family and the familiarity of the East Coast: His girlfriend at the time persuaded him the move was the right one. “If it wasn’t for her,” he says now, “I never would have made that move.”
She returned east six months later. McDowell stayed – for the job.
McDowell manages a team of student workers who documented Union’s field hockey home victory against Wheaton (Massachusetts).
At Cal Poly, McDowell saw an opportunity for longevity. “My whole intent was to stay there for my career,” he says.
But while he was basking in the sunshine and settling into a job he thought he might keep forever, his world changed with three letters: www.
Ritch Price, then the Cal Poly baseball coach and now coach at the University of Kansas, walked into McDowell’s office one day and requested a webpage for his Mustangs. McDowell could muster little in response: “All right. Head back to your dugout. I need to think about this.”
He was hesitant. His first thought was a question of equity – a webpage for one team meant one for each of more than 20 sports on campus. His second thought was how to set priorities, and he sat down with his assistant and the student staff to figure out a plan. “It was a very scary moment to think, ‘How in the world will we do this?” McDowell recalls.
His staff started with Dreamweaver, an HTML software that could create the web files locally before uploading to a campus network server. The priorities for each Cal Poly team were roster, schedule and staff. Updates were unreliable and untimely – a campus webmaster with a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. job had to push updates on the site’s pages.
Looking back, McDowell says, that experience felt like steering a car to train how to fly a plane. “We just had to play and determine what worked,” he recalls.
The demands of a web presence, of course, only grew – and so did the job of a college SID. What worked, as it turned out, was more – more stories, more videos, better graphics. For the most part, SIDs were excited to rise to the challenge; they could share stories of college athletes themselves instead of relying on outside media to do them. But in their quest to add more responsibilities, bigger questions – such as work-life balance and ensuring their career looked attractive to up-and-coming professionals – were pushed aside.
“At CoSIDA, we’d have a panel and say, ‘Hey, now we do websites,’” McDowell recollects. “It really fell in everybody’s lap probably before people really got the hang of the fact that we needed more people to do this.”
It was in those busy years, when the web was new and SIDs were trying to get comfortable with their role there, that the Golden State Warriors first called Eric McDowell.
At first, he turned down the chance to be the public relations director for the NBA team. He believed he was about to have an opportunity to serve on the national CoSIDA board, and everything he had worked for in his career was coming to fruition at Cal Poly. But when Golden State called a second time and then a third, McDowell began to question whether his career had really been pointing toward pro sports all along.
He saw another hint of promise in the San Francisco area: a bigger city where he might meet someone with whom he could share his life.
“It was extremely difficult to look in the mirror and say, ‘You really want to see if you can do this,’” McDowell says. “There’s only 32 jobs in the country where you are the director of PR for a national professional basketball team. … I guess I was caught up in just the awe factor and exciting opportunity.”
Months later, in December 1997, McDowell found himself in one of the most demanding communications crises in modern American sports. The New York Times had reported that the Warriors’ All-Star forward, Latrell Sprewell, had choked Golden State coach P.J. Carlesimo, forcing him to the hardwoods during practice. The team’s leading scorer was thrown out of practice – but returned 20 minutes later and connected on a punch to the coach.
For several days, McDowell fielded 4 a.m. calls from sports talk radio stations hoping to land a Carlesimo interview.
Developments in that story trailed on for months, and McDowell was the Warriors’ main point of contact. First came the news that the NBA had suspended Sprewell for one year and the Warriors had voided his contract. Then, photos surfaced of Carlesimo’s neck with dark, bruised lines – the outlines of fingers. Sprewell hired Johnnie Cochran as his lawyer. Ultimately, the punishments were reduced in arbitration.
At every ugly step, McDowell tried to find joy in the parts of the job he enjoyed. He saw Mark Price shoot perfect free throws, witnessed A.C. Green break the consecutive games streak. He had seen the production of an NBA All-Star Game come together.
But he stayed at Golden State just one season. Not because of Sprewell, and not because of the grueling NBA travel schedule, McDowell says.
He walked away because of what he didn’t have. He missed a college campus. He missed working with female college athletes, because during the days when women’s sports struggled for fair treatment, McDowell worked hard to correct the inequity.
He headed back east – back home – and picked up a job with an American Hockey League team. But it wasn’t until he found his way to a sports information post at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, and then, beginning in 2005, at Union College, that he felt like he was back where he belonged. “The tank may run empty,” McDowell says, “but the student-athletes fill it right back up.”
He also found love when he headed home. Today he and his wife, Jennifer, have a 5-year-old daughter, Sara.
McDowell was the first Division III sports information director to lead CoSIDA when he was president in 2014-15.
Eleven hours after Brown scored the overtime goal to beat Union in men’s ice hockey, McDowell returns to work at 8:45 a.m. By 9:30, he has schlepped from his office to the football press box atop Frank Bailey Field.
McDowell, wearing a Union Sports Information fleece, black pants and a Red Sox wristwatch, sets up his laptop at the 45-yard line. He plugs into a small printer and tests a larger copy machine behind him. The room also houses a micro-refrigerator and a space heater – which are luxuries in this cramped room only until they are needed. The box, atop the grandstand on the west side of the field, has the lightweight construction of a modular home with a bank of windows on one side and doors at each end. This press box draws a bigger crowd, perhaps 30 people, including visiting coaches, game personnel, writers, home and visiting radio crews, the Union athletics live video stream staff, and, sometimes, the college president and his guests.
“I get here early,” McDowell jokes as he double-checks his stacks of game notes, “because in two hours, everyone will need me.”
Outside the press box, the sky is gray, the football turf wet from the night’s rain. Union alums have taken over the parking lots behind Bailey Field, while alumni from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have set up along Nott Street. They light their grills, catch up with friends. Music and the smell of brats and burgers begin to fill the air.
On this day, besides football, the Union cross country teams are three hours away at the NCAA regionals in Geneseo, New York. Basketball season tips off with home men’s and women’s tournaments in the Viniar Athletic Center. More than 300 people are expected at the annual Hall of Fame banquet and dinner that night. Men’s ice hockey also will compete against 2013 NCAA champion Yale University that night at Messa.
McDowell huddles with his intern to run through the plan – and several contingency plans – for the afternoon’s four basketball games. He has high hopes for her. “We’ve never had an intern that could input that sport,” he says.
Today is also Senior Day for the football team, which faces its rival, Rensselaer. But news big enough to break through the cocoon of college sports infiltrates the morning: The previous night, 130 people in Paris lost their lives at the hands of radicals with explosives and firearms, and one of the attacks had taken place at a soccer stadium. McDowell adds a moment of silence to the pregame plan.
McDowell and the public address announcer huddle before game time, making final edits to the moment-of-silence script. After the PA is done reading, the stadium is silent. Even the press box is silent.
Quietly, McDowell counts. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.” At the fifth beat, he taps the PA on the shoulder. “Thank you” crackles over the speakers, and a yell goes up from the Union bench. Time for kickoff.
McDowell sees very little of the football game. He crouches over his laptop, entering statistics shouted out by one of the two student workers helping him today. They scurry back and forth, pivoting to make room for each other as the teams move up and down the field.
At halftime, with Rensselaer leading 16-10, McDowell ensures his stats are balanced and puts his Sox watch back on as a single copy prints. He grabs the box score, fires up off his seat and wheels around to the copy machine. But when he feeds in the paper, the machine coughs and beeps to a stop. “Come on!” McDowell utters.
Sixty seconds later, McDowell has relieved the machine of its jam, and the copies spill out. Students run the box scores to the locker rooms, the radio play-by-play staff, the print reporters.
At stake today is the Dutchman’s Shoes Trophy, among the most garish spoils that can be found on a college football Saturday. It features two elfish clogs affixed to a wooden box with a brass plaque. Rensselaer has raised the trophy for each of the last three seasons, and with a potential NCAA berth on the line for the Engineers and the Dutchmen in a winless season, Rensselaer will probably take it home again today.
Eric McDowell started his day early and will end it late. He is watching not a football game, but a computer screen. His team probably won’t win. He didn’t even get to enjoy a tailgate bratwurst.
But he brought a community together to remember innocent victims half a world away. He saluted the career of a local writer who devoted much of his career to the Dutchmen. He helped orchestrate a sendoff for the football seniors, recognizing them and their families for the work and dedication they brought to the tradition of college sports. He mentored students who enjoy sports and data, just like him. Once the copier spit them out, he brought accurate information to people with an urgent need for it. At day’s end, he’ll go home to his family.
It’s been a long fall. And a long weekend.
But it’s been a good Saturday.