Sports journalism to the Max
Max Utsler’s love of sports and expertise in broadcasting has helped thousands of students find their own niches
Summer 2019 Edition
When Associate Professor Max Utsler accepted a teaching job at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 1984, he wasn’t planning to stick around for very long.
He told his new boss, Dean Del Brinkman: “I’ll be staying here about five years and moving on.” Thirty-five years later, he’s now moving on. Last month, Utsler ended a his teaching career at the J-School in which he taught, by his estimate, close to 5,000 students everything from writing, TV broadcasting and all facets of sports media.
The sports part has been a central theme throughout Utsler’s life. Had it not been for sports, Utsler wonders if he would have even gone to college at all.
Growing up on a farm in central Illinois, everyone was either a farmer or a factory worker, Utsler said, and he was a “duck out of water” in that environment because he didn’t like the dirt or the isolation. What did interest him, though, was sports, and he played as many as he could: football, basketball and baseball.
In his senior year at Knoxville High School, Utsler had initially turned down an offer to play basketball at nearby Knox College in favor of prestigious Dartmouth College, a place that seemed like a world away from his small town and he had never even visited. A couple of months before he was to move away, a bad stomachache turned out to be an appendicitis. In the hospital, the Knox College basketball coach visited Utsler and offered Knox College’s training facilities for him to use before he headed east.
“My mom and I said, ‘I don’t know why I’m looking at going halfway across the country to college when a guy like that is right here,’” Utsler said, noting that his coach turned out to be one of the biggest influences in his life.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in American Studies at Knox, he taught seventh grade English in suburban Minneapolis and was a volunteer baseball coach at the University of Minnesota. He wanted a paying coaching job, though, which meant he’d need a master’s degree, so he went off to the University of Missouri to study journalism, where he was offered a volunteer assistant coach position there.
The summer before he was to finish his master’s degree, a teaching opportunity opened, which led to Utsler “hanging around” MU for about 10 years, teaching and coaching. Under the advice of his mentor Dave Dugan, Utsler beefed up his professional experience by working during semester breaks at TV stations in Kansas City.
“Then my mentor said, well, if you’re going to stick with this teaching thing, you probably ought to get a Ph.D., and I couldn’t turn him down,” Utsler said, especially when his adviser pointed out that “‘Look, we have Ph.D.s that are driving in from Kirksville and St. Joe. All you have to do is walk across the quad.’”
After getting his doctorate and tenure, he decided to leave MU to work in television in St. Louis, largely for financial reasons. He loved St. Louis and thought he would stay, but after a year, he was contacted by Brinkman, who offered him a teaching position at KU.
Despite his assertion that it would be a short-term career move, he loved the connections he made with his students.
“I’ve always made it a point to remind myself that I teach students — not news, not sports, not video,” Utsler said.
Alana Flinn (j’18), account manager for americaneagle.com in Chicago, appreciated the kind and nurturing way that Utsler taught.
“He understands that students are just that — people who are here to learn and hone a craft,” Flinn said.“He was never judgmental or harsh, as some in this field become. If you struggled in one area, he’d be happy to work with you and find your niche in another.”
Lara Moritz (j’92), news anchor for KMBC 9 News in Kansas City who also graduated from Knox College, said Utsler has been “one of the great people I’ve met in my life.”
When Moritz was looking at options for graduate school, one of her advisers suggested that she talk to Utsler.
“Max talked to me for a long time on the phone, overnighted an application to me, and in a matter of weeks I was going to KU for an M.S. in journalism,” Moritz said.
“He has been a mentor to me, a cheerleader for me and most importantly, a dear friend over the decades to me,” she said.
Because of his professional experience and connections in broadcasting and sports, Utsler helped countless students learn the skills and gain the experience to work in television and sports.
Utsler created the “Sports, Media and Society” class to teach students all aspects of the business of sports, and each year, the enrollment was pretty evenly split between news and strategic communication students, he said.
“We finally woke up and realized that it’s a big business and that there are some special skills that you need to have to work in that business,” he said.
• B.A., American Studies, Knox College
• M.A., journalism, University of Missouri
• Ph.D, education, University of Missouri
• Bengtson Faculty Mentoring Award, 2019
• Katich Award for Creativity in Teaching, 2017
• H.O.P.E. Award finalist, 2003
Chris Bacon, assistant professor at the School of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, met Utsler while working on his doctorate at the J-School. Bacon worked closely with Utsler while Bacon was executive producer at the student-run KUJH-TV.
“During my time at KU, he helped open doors for me in the academic world,” Bacon said. “For example, he has a long-lasting relationship with the Broadcast Education Association. During my first national conference in Las Vegas, he introduced me to everyone he could. This included faculty members in my field, division leaders, and even national leadership.”
Utsler will miss the day-to-day contact with students, he won’t stop mentoring young people.
In the last couple of years, Utsler has become involved as curriculum coordinator for C You in the Major Leagues Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore. The group’s mission is to support youth baseball, education, faith-based organizations, and families in crisis, and Utsler mentors 11 high schoolers from underserved areas of Kansas City.
Now that he’s retired, he’ll also have more time for sports. He plays baseball two nights a week and plays hockey as well.
As anyone who knows Utsler is aware, he is a fiercely loyal St. Louis Cardinals fan, so he’ll have more time to travel across the state to catch a few more of those games. And even though he’s attended or covered plenty of memorable professional sports games, Utsler enjoys watching kids’ games, too, or high school or college sports.
“I love the fact that pretty much every time I watch a game or play in a game,” he said, “I’m going to see something I’ve never, never seen before.”
He’ll also keep working as an official scorekeeper for the Kansas City Royals, which he has been doing for past seven years. For Utsler, it’s not work; it’s just being a part of what he has enjoyed doing since his childhood.
“I love the atmosphere of a game,” Utsler said. “Some people like to visit art museums. I like a gym.”
— Julie Adam