In today’s post, we transcribe our interview with Jesse Kurtz, who is the lead anchor for the Mountain West Network, in addition to being a broadcaster for Air Force football.
MWCConnection: How did you get into broadcasting and reporting? What has your journey been like in your career so far and how long have you been in your current role?
Kurtz: I aspired to be a sports broadcaster from the time I was in Elementary School. My parents had a cassette tape from those days of me recording commentary like I was on TV. There was no “Plan B”. I graduated Cum Laude from Colorado State University with a double major in Technical Journalism and Speech Communication. After graduation, I spent 15 years working in local television as a Sports Anchor/Reporter in Sioux City, Iowa, Colorado Springs, and Denver. While working in local television, I also worked on the side as a sideline reporter for NFL games. That schedule got to be VERY taxing on my family, especially with young kids. Anchoring a 5, 6, and 10 p.m. newscast kept me from things that became very important to me at the time (family dinner, helping with homework, bath & bedtime).
In 2012, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson approached me with an opportunity to start the Mountain West Network and create video content from the MW office. An idea that MW staff member Javan Hedlund spearheaded. With the plug being pulled on “The MTN” and 24/7 programming dedicated to the MW gone, Craig and Javan knew there would be a massive void of video content being produced about the Mountain West. He gave me a “blank canvas” to create what I thought would be impactful on behalf of the league and its member institutions. The opportunity allowed me to be creative as a professional and have a more “traditional” schedule of 8-5, Monday-Friday. The chance to strike a professional/personal balance while also the challenge of starting something from scratch was too good of an opportunity to pass up, and it’s been incredibly fulfilling.
The opportunity to join the Mountain West in this role coincided with an offer to serve as a radio broadcaster (analyst) for Air Force Football (those two offers literally came the same week in the summer of 2012). I had never considered being in a “live” booth over the previous 15 years of my TV career. At one point, I decided to turn the offer down because I was afraid of not being good at it. The next morning, I decided to take a leap of faith and accept the challenge (the job was approved by Craig Thompson and the athletics directors in the MW) of jumping in a live booth. It’s a role that I cherish, and I am so incredibly blessed. My father (who passed away from cancer in 2008) and I used to listen to Denver Broncos games on the radio while sitting in our seats at Mile High Stadium growing up. In many ways, every time I put on the headsets to broadcast an Air Force Football game, I can’t help but feel his presence. It’s a pretty magical feeling. It also allows me to travel and visit folks on campuses around the Mountain West to hear about what’s important to administrators, coaches, athletes, and fans. That is a significant help in crafting a strategy for the MWN.
MWCConnection: What are your favorite parts of your job for the Mountain West, and why do you think have stayed for so many years?
Kurtz: First and foremost, it’s a terrific place to work. The MW office is filled with incredibly hard workers who are “out-of-the-box” thinkers. Our staff is small but mighty, and we push each other to be great. The outstanding leadership of Commissioner Gloria Nevarez and Deputy Commissioner Bret Gilliland has established a “blueprint of success”. It has given us the tools to strive for success within that framework.
Secondarily, the Mountain West is in my blood, and I am fully invested in its success. As a young reporter, I attended the very first MW Football game (Colorado State at BYU) in 1999 in Provo, UT. Ever since that day, I have been one of the league’s biggest fans, and to have a role in promoting all that is great about the league is a true honor. The “underdog” mentality that we have, where we work hard for everything we have in life, is gratifying.
MWCConnection: On the opposite side of things, what might be a challenging aspect of the job that people may not know about without doing it?
Kurtz: Staying relevant in college athletics is a daily struggle. This world is moving at such a rapid pace with constant change in our business. What worked today might not work tomorrow. We are adapting as quickly as possible to ensure we stay relevant and viable into the future. Also, balancing coverage between all of our institutions (and sports) is a constant focus, which comes with challenges. We want to highlight the success of individual athletes and teams while also telling the impactful stories that demonstrate what makes our league unique. That is a tall mountain to climb, as we have more stories on our radar than we can possibly tell. Prioritizing is a big challenge.
MWCConnection: Can you take us through your weekly routine during the season? What are the main aspects of your job, how do you prepare for your videos and broadcasting, and what are some of the behind-the-scenes things that we wouldn’t know about?
The work week starts on Sunday afternoon with the voting of our “Players of the Week” awards. The committee meets and determines the nominations that have been submitted. We then secure video assets to highlight those winners on Sunday evening. The POW videos are usually completed on Sunday night and ready for posting first thing Monday morning. On Mondays, our creative team meets to discuss what has happened over the weekend and what’s on the horizon that deserves video promotion. From there, we set up interviews to create video content for the week. The rest of the week, we’re in constant communication with our “comms team” to stay on top of big things that happen that may deserve the same treatment. The communications teams and the video staff on our campuses do a great job of providing us with information and video to produce our content. Without their help, we could not accomplish our job.
Preparing for videos includes research on the topic so we can conduct impactful and informative conversations. What people may not know is Bridget Howard, and I edit our own stories and create our own animation graphics for the presentation. In the field, we shoot our own video, too. I think it’s incredibly important to be “hands-on” throughout the entire process (Research, shooting video, writing, editing video, and on-air presentation). Seeing a project through, from start to finish, is very satisfying.
MWCConnection: What is your approach when speaking with coaches or athletic staff? How is your approach different when speaking to players?
Kurtz: Being very clear on the intentions of the story is key to approaching our coaches and athletic staff. We are often granted access because of the trust we have earned and the understanding that we operate within the scope of “what’s good for the Mountain West and its member institutions”. We work on behalf of them.
From there, I have learned in 25 years as a broadcaster that being honest, direct, and informed when interviewing is the only approach. Coaches and players appreciate when your questions are “to the point” and can be backed up with facts (or at least as you see it). My approach with players is very similar. However, I think that 18–22-year-olds deserve a little more “care”. They’re still learning to speak in front of cameras, a “learned skill” that is challenging to master. If we need to re-ask and re-record the question and answer, we will do so.
MWCConnection: During the spring and summer, which are often considered the down periods of the sports calendar, what does your job look like and what might be different or the same?
Kurtz: Spring is incredibly busy for us at the MWN. In addition to creating video content from our studio in the MW Offices in Colorado Springs, we are in full championship-coverage mode. Bridget and I travel to our various championships to cover the events. That involves shooting, editing, and reporting. We both are involved in the Men’s and Women’s Basketball coverage with our “studio show” live from the Thomas & Mack Center, where we produce/anchor 20 postgame and 12 halftime shows. We have an incredible production team comprised of video staff from various MW institutions that help with the initiative. From there, Bridget and I split up travel/coverage of Tennis, Golf, Softball and Baseball. Over the past two years, I have been in the live broadcast booth for the baseball championships.
Summers give us a chance to take a breath, step back, evaluate our coverage over the past year, and plan for the next. While we still produce videos from our studio when warranted, we take some time off for vacation. We go “fast and furious” from Labor Day to Memorial Day. It’s essential to take some time to refresh and recharge. However, after July 4th, we hit the gas pedal again, getting ready for MW Football Media Days. Planning what we want our coverage to look like and start producing our eight-hour, LIVE show from Las Vegas, which last year included over 120 pieces of video to be used in the show (all edited by us in the MW office). This is a big project for us and takes a few weeks to plan and perfect before we ever step foot in Las Vegas. When we return from football media days in Las Vegas, we start production of our preseason football content, including our “Top Five At Each Position” series, leading us up to the kickoff of the football season…. At which point, summer is over, and we start the sprint again!
MWCConnection: Looking at the Mountain West conference in general, where have you seen the conference grow and improve during your time associated with it?
Kurtz: Recently, we have seen the challenges in college athletics of “sticking together”. Realignment has grabbed all the headlines over the last few years. Our leadership with Craig Thompson and now Gloria Nevarez has been instrumental in keeping our league together and thriving. I don’t think that can be understated. We now have an incredible bond between member institutions who are aligned in the path forward. That is incredibly valuable, given the current state of flux within college athletics.
MWCConnection: What do you think are the strongest aspects of the Mountain West conference?
Kurtz: The student-athlete experience is the top priority in the Mountain West, which is incredibly refreshing. Every decision is made through the lens of “what’s best for the student-athlete.” Their welfare, voice, health, and success are considered in everything we do. That’s why we exist. To help these young men and women from diverse backgrounds gain experiences that will set them up for success in life. All while giving them a platform to compete on the field of play. I don’t think a sports organization in the country prioritizes those crucial factors better than the Mountain West.
MWCConnection: Football and men’s basketball get the most attention, but in your opinion, what is a less heralded sport that you think the MW is competitive in? Also what is your favorite sport to cover?
Kurtz: Cross Country and Golf. The Mountain West has competed on a national level in both of those sports at a very high level. BYU won multiple national championships in XC when they were a member of the MW, and New Mexico has put together a dominating run in women’s XC recently, which included team and individual national titles. Training at altitude is a huge advantage for many of our teams, and they have used that to recruit and compete at a high level. MW golf has been very good on a national level, too. San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado State, Nevada, UNLV, Boise State have all made great postseason runs in the national championship lately, including advancing to match play. UNLV’s Ryan Moore won an individual national championship as a member of the Mountain West. Xander Schauffele and Adam Scott both played in the Mountain West and have gone on to tremendous success on the PGA Tour. Recently, the MW had multiple players play deep in the US Amateur, including Connor Jones (CSU) and Matthew Sutherland (Fresno State). San José State has been a nationally elite women’s golf program recently too under the direction of Dana Dormann. The Spartans have had back-to-back national runners-up at the national championship in Natasha Andrea Oon and Lucia Lopez Ortega.
MWCConnection: Throughout your career, do you have a moment or story that stands out more than others when it comes to doing what you do?
Kurtz: I’ve gotten a chance to experience some unbelievable things in my career. Prior to the Mountain West, my top three would be:
1) Covering the first Nebraska Football game after 9/11. The famous “Husker Walk” brought me
to tears. Rather than the videoboard revealing the team walking in the tunnel, it showed first responders with the American Flag. Talk about goosebumps!
2) As an NFL sideline reporter, I got to be “front and center” for Tebow Mania with the Denver Broncos. The fanfare was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Mobs of fans greeting the team busses wherever we went.
3) Being doused with champagne by Colorado Rockies players in the clubhouse when they clinched the NLCS was amazing.
Since joining the Mountain West, getting to experience Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl win in 2014 and being invited to the locker room to document the excitement was incredibly cool. San Diego State’s Final Four run
and provided nearly full access to the team in Houston to tell the Aztec’s story was humbling. But honestly, the stories that tell the human element of sport are my eternal takeaways from this job. My favorites are:
1) The Show Grandmas - https://youtu.be/2-fhXWrvScE?si=sPMbOynLU7s2z5Lc
o We got the pleasure of introducing the world to these wonderful young ladies who became Aztec basketball superfans through unspeakable tragedy.
2) Fly, Fight, Win! - https://youtu.be/-P20szvrCuY?si=EZy6YTr_EDjNxQJB
o Air Force baseball made a magical run to a championship fueled by a drive to honor fallen teammates
3) Why We Stand - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj7WluLPQPg
o Important perspective of the type of athlete who competes at the Air Force Academy.
Telling stories like these brings so much joy to my professional life because it sheds light on our institutions and their positive impact within their communities and on our country. That’s why I was hired. To let America know that the Mountain West is filled with transformational, diverse, and impactful people who make college athletics great.