Stories of the Storytellers is a periodic series from the Newsroom featuring some of St. Thomas’ prominent storytellers who have introduced us to many of the interesting people, places and events of St. Thomas history.
Gene McGivern has been the award-winning sports information director at St. Thomas for 22 years, and over that time he has overseen and told thousands of stories out of the Tommie Athletic Department. A native of Davenport, Iowa, and an Iowa State University alum, McGivern was a newspaper reporter in Nebraska and Iowa throughout the 1980s, as well as a freelance sportswriter in the Twin Cities for 20 years. He is also the author of two biographies, one on former Michigan and Iowa State basketball coach Johnny Orr, and one on former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green.
The Newsroom sat down with McGivern to talk with him about his role as one of St. Thomas’ prominent storytellers.
On the shift in his role to include more writing as sports information director: The traditional model was feature stories and pitching the stories. The transition has come over the years; there was a time 15 years ago where I didn’t write many stories. I might get asked to do one or two a year for [St. Thomas] magazine and I might go out of my way to write one if it was a really unique story, but there’s been this gradual transition. I still go about identifying some of our best stories … and pitch them, but now we write more of them ourselves. If they’re really good they have a rebound effect and they still will have a long shelf life for someone else to pick up on. That has definitely evolved over the years.
On the appeal of stories to a university: As a writer, I just believe in good human interest stories. They can tell a lot about an athletic department; they can tell a lot about a team; they can tell a lot about a university. Universities are such amazing places with such diversity, so many creative people, so many smart, concrete thinkers. There’s just such a wealth of ideas and people that contribute to what a university is, all the way from the administration, the board of trustees, the faculty, the students bringing the energy and face of the school, and the alumni and what they contribute and how important it is what they do after they graduate. That’s what St. Thomas is, all the folks out there that are Tommies who are doing great things in their families, communities, careers, and how most of them will speak so highly of their years here that helped them become who they are. … In their stories we have something we can identify with.
On the role of being a historian for the university: Every once in a while you have to explain to somebody what your job entails. With writing came statistics, photography, record keeping. One of the big ones you forget is that you’re a historian. You go to the library and sit in Ann [Kenne]’s office, the archives, it hits you [we have] that 130-year history organized and documented there. In my office I just turn around and some of those binders are a good 10 years of our history right there at my fingertips. … That whole historian part is fascinating. I’ve been here 22 years. … I hope I’ve been able to document the history so in 10, 15 years people can come back and look at the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2010s and see the things I documented. It’s really kind of an important job in that way. … There were times in the ’70s and ’80s where a coach would just take his stuff home with him or dump it out, so there are these windows throughout our history that aren’t very well documented because some of that good day-to-day history is gone. You hope all these papers stacked here will mean something to somebody someday.
On the emergence in 2008 and growth of his popular blog, “Gene’s Blog,” for TommieSports.com: Some of that is being in a profession for 28 years and the smarter you get. You understand how to do it smarter. You always have to come back to your purpose and what you’re hired to do. What unique things can I bring? … The early years I didn’t do as good a job because I didn’t write enough; it was the traditional model of lots of pitches. I would have done this sooner if I could do it all over.
When I started doing [the blog] I didn’t have a grand vision of writing a feature story every week. It was just the idea to go beyond what we normally put out there and put some context; this blog could be a way to do notes or stats … and it quickly evolved because I did a couple stories with a theme and beginning, middle and end. I got a lot of great feedback.
On finding stories among so many athletes: We have more than 600 student athletes and that means you really have 600 stories. They may have a lot of commonalities, but everyone has a different family situation, academic situation, vision for their future. They’re all stories that makes this person unique. What have they gone through to get here? What have sports meant to them? Those are all stories. I’ll admit, there are plenty of kids who graduate who I never uncover that great gem about them, whether because the coach didn’t tell me or I spent too much time sitting here typing. I can’t get out and meet 600 people like I’d like to. I wish we did make a point to sit down and get to know everybody.
On his favorite stories he’s told at St. Thomas: I ended up getting a national award for story of the year for a story on Dennis Denning. I probably could write it a lot better today and was short of what I would try to do now. It was for [St. Thomas] magazine, but wasn’t maybe as deep as it could have been. That’s partially because Dennis wasn’t the kind of guy who would cut a vein open [to tell you a lot]. But he was a really interesting guy, a really generational guy. He reminds me of my dad, a no-frills, no-nonsense guy. … He really understood human psychology and what would work with guys. … I’ve probably written better stories, but it was a simple concept and the analogies I used told that story well. A lot of times we think of great stories as the prose, but often it’s the examples we use. Sometimes less is more.