University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Ryen Russillo ’97

Talking Sports

Ryen Russillo

Departments / Alumni Profiles

Talking Sports

RYEN RUSSILLO '97   Three years after graduating from UVM, living on Church Street above the Rusty Scuffer and working as a bartender at What Ale’s You wasn’t quite the life Ryen Russillo ’97 had envisioned for himself. Unsure of his next step, the current co-host of ESPN Radio’s highly acclaimed “Scott Van Pelt Show” and host of the radio network’s “College GameDay,” decided to rededicate himself to what he loves best: talking about sports.

Russillo had started on that track with an internship at Burlington’s CBS affiliate, WCAX, during his senior year. When hopes that might grow into a full-time position didn’t materialize, he kept tending bar and widened his search for work in the sports media field. The door finally cracked open when he landed a play-by-play position with the Double A Trenton Thunder. Six months later, the team relocated and Russillo decided to move on himself, launching what would prove to be another frustrating search for work in the Boston radio market.

“I thought it might be over at that point,” says Russillo, named Best Radio Voice of 2007 by Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, who praised the young broadcaster for his reasoned approach and knowledge across sports. “But I kept pushing for any air time I could get. I was relentless and probably annoying as hell.”

Russillo’s perseverance led him to the lobby of WWZN in Boston four times—and four times he was told the program director was too busy to see him. Eventually serendipity smiled when Russillo ran into the director outside of the Garden on the way to a Celtics game and  was offered the chance to fill in at WWZN part-time on Saturdays.

Russillo earned a reputation at WWZN for deftly merging entertainment and sports knowledge while hosting “The Die Hards” between 2003 and 2005. But staff layoffs at the station once again left Russillo scrambling for part-time jobs in the Boston area. After a brief gig at WBCN as part of the station’s pre- and post-game Patriots coverage, the Martha’s Vineyard native started filling in at ESPN. Foot in one of sports media’s biggest doors, Russillo quickly sought every opportunity for precious air time.

In an industry filled with communications majors (Russillo jokes that nearly all of them seem to be grads of the
Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse), the Vermont alumnus brings a different skill set and background to his sixty-hour-a-week job on the road and at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

“Taking a broad range of courses at UVM has definitely helped me over the years,” says Russillo, who earned his degree in political science. “I wasn’t a great student early on at UVM, but I completely revamped how I studied and had some success my last few years. It’s that focus that helps me to make things easy for people to understand but also entertaining. Fortunately, I’m close to being the same guy on air as I am off it, which isn’t always the case.”

Shadowing Russillo on a typical fall Monday at ESPN is both entertaining and exhausting. Pro athletes and legendary broadcasters pass nearly unnoticed in the flurry of activity as one show ends and another begins. (Unlike the network’s famously deadpan promo spots, there are no furry college mascots to be found hanging out by the water cooler.)

Russillo’s week starts with a production meeting with six members of the “GameDay” team, all of whom look weary from a weekend on the college football road. One of them—ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich—likens Russillo’s ability to handle the multiple moving parts of a typical “GameDay” broadcast to that of a symphony conductor. 

“He’s got talent and he works really hard,” says Matich. “He’s running a show with four other guys on the set and somehow makes it look easy. The fact that he can run the entire show while handling all this information that comes in and somehow make it sound simple to the listener is extraordinary.”

Following the meeting, Russillo grabs a quick bite at the ESPN cafeteria, consults with his producer, and walks to another building to record his “NBA Today Podcast” for ESPN Radio. He talks basketball with NBA insiders and listeners, taking on the sorts of questions—will Le-Bron James leave Cleveland for New York?—that sports fans can endlessly gnaw.

Then it’s off to his main gig: “The Scott Van Pelt Show,” broadcast nationally between 2-4 p.m. on all ESPN Radio affiliates. Russillo is  relaxed on the air while joking with Van Pelt about his weekend in Tuscaloosa, but turns up the intensity as he explains what head football coach Nick Saban has done since arriving at the University of Alabama, repeatedly pumping his open right hand forward as he drives his point home.

Working at the highest level of sports radio hasn’t been easy. The road is fun, but it doesn’t leave much time for a social life. At one point, Russillo says, he had four big-screen televisions in the living room of his Hartford apartment in order to keep pace with the sports world.

“It’s a lot of work, but I love it,” says Russillo. “It seems like it took forever to get here, but now that I am it feels like it happened really fast. You always want more, but right now I’m really trying to enjoy what’s going on in my life.”

Jon Reidel G’06

Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue.

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