VOL. 8 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 9, 2015
Link on UT
Changing Hometown, Careers Pays Off for Hyams
DAVE LINK | The Ledger
Jimmy Hyams moved to Knoxville from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the summer of 1985 looking for a fresh start to his journalism career and found a job as a sportswriter for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Thirty years and a career change later, Hyams still calls Knoxville his home and has no plans to leave. He’s now the sports director of WNML radio – the Sports Animal – where he is co-host of the state’s top-rated talk show, SportsTalk with John and Jimmy, on Monday through Friday (3-7 p.m.)
The only person to win both Tennessee sportscaster and sportswriter of the year awards, he co-hosts the UT Football Finals radio show during the season, along with the SEC Notebook and Sunday Sports Soundoff.
Hyams, whose Sports Animal co-host is John Wilkerson, had no idea how long he would stay in East Tennessee when he left his home state of Louisiana years ago.
“It just depended on how it went, and I fell in love with Knoxville, what it has to offer, the mountains, big-time college athletics, golf, tennis, lakes, the whole thing,” Hyams says. “I just thought it was a great place to live.
“When I got the job, I didn’t have any idea I’d be here 30 years, and I’ve had multiple offers to return to Louisiana, or other jobs. I’ve had some job offers in Georgia and Florida, but I just like it here too much.”
Hyams, 59, was born and raised in Natchitoches, and seemed destined for a career in journalism at a young age. It took a turn toward sports when his athletic career flourished.
As a 12-year-old eighth grader at St. Mary’s High School, Hyams was an all-district varsity shortstop and part-time starter on the varsity basketball team.
After transferring to Natchitoches High School as a freshman, Hyams lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track and field before focusing on baseball later in his high school career.
By then, Hyams was into the newspaper business. He started writing for the Natchitoches Times at age 13 and became the newspaper’s sports editor at age 16, a position he maintained while attending and graduating from Northwestern State University.
Hyams took his work seriously enough to give up baseball after his freshman year at Northwestern State, where he was a walk-on.
“The one year I played, I was the sports editor at the newspaper, I was taking 15 hours and I was trying to play baseball, and it was just too much, and I knew that I did not have a future in baseball but I had a future in journalism,” Hyams recalls. “It was just too much. It was too big of a load.”
After graduating from Northwestern State in 1976, Hyams landed a job at the Shreveport Times for a year (1977-78) before moving to the Baton Rouge Advocate in 1978.
It didn’t take Hyams long to land his dream job as the beat writer for LSU football and basketball in its city’s newspaper from 1981-83.
Unfortunately, Hyams’ dream job turned sour.
“I got the job at age 25,” he explains, “but when I was called in one day and told that I could only write positive things about LSU, that went against my journalistic principles, so I left.”
But he didn’t leave Baton Rouge.
Hyams got a job as the basketball sports information director at LSU from 1983-85, working alongside then-head coach Dale Brown.
Soon, Hyams realized the SID position also clashed with his journalism principles.
“They told me they wanted help with the media, but they didn’t really want help,” Hyams adds. “They wanted somebody to control the media, and that was a mistake.
“I took the job because I didn’t want to leave Louisiana, and then I realized that to get back into the media, I was going to probably have to leave the state.”
So Hyams interviewed for jobs at the News Sentinel and the Birmingham News, and was hired in Knoxville by former sports columnist Al Browning and former sports editor Steve Ahillen.
Ironically, one of the columnists Hyams was expected to monitor while at LSU beat was John Adams, who was later hired at the News Sentinel to replace Browning. Adams is still a sports columnist with the News Sentinel.
Hyams began covering Tennessee football in 1985 and was promoted to assistant sports editor at the News Sentinel. He won more than 25 writing awards in Tennessee and 20 in Louisiana before leaving the News Sentinel in 1998 to begin his career in sports talk radio.
This month, SportsTalk with John and Jimmy, will celebrate its 16th anniversary. Hyams gives Wilkerson props for the show’s success.
“I enjoy working with John,” Hyams says. “He’s got a great voice. He’s got a lot of knowledge about sports. He brings levity to the show. He’s got a great sense of humor, so I think we’ve made a pretty good team for the last 16 years.”
Jimmy Hyams interviewing former Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell.
There is no shock-jock radio during SportsTalk. Hyams applies the same journalistic principles to radio he did while in the newspaper business.
“That’s been my philosophy,” notes Hyams. “That’s the way I treat it. You can still have fun on the radio, but I’m talking about when you get down to reporting and serious things like that, I wouldn’t report anything (on radio) that I wouldn’t write in the newspaper.”
Hyams calls taking the job at the News Sentinel “the best professional move” he’s ever made. He met his wife, Melanie Sharpe Hyams of Knoxville, after moving here, and they have two daughters, Leslie, 23, and Valerie, 20.
While work almost never stops, Hyams still has some athlete in him. He’s played in a USTA tennis league for more than 20 years, plays golf on a regular basis and works out five or six days a week.
And he has no plans to stop what he’s doing.
“I’ve always felt fortunate that with rare exception, I’ve really enjoyed my work, and not many people can say they like going to work every day, but I can,” explains Hyams.
Hyams spent a few minutes with The Ledger discussing topics about Tennessee athletics and sports talk radio.
Q: How far ahead are the Vols this spring compared to last spring under Tennessee coach Butch Jones?
A: “I think Tennessee is ahead of where it was after last spring, but I think the amount of improvement was mitigated by the fact 16 players missed the spring game due to injuries.
Q: With fans so fired up about the 2015 season, what are the realistic expectations for the Vols? Seven wins? Eight wins? Why?
A: “I think eight to nine wins are reasonable. They won six regular-season games last year and came close to winning eight. This team should be better in all areas except middle linebacker. I have Tennessee ranked in the top five in the SEC in six of eight categories. The only areas outside of the top five are offensive line and linebacker.
“And while the offensive line is a bit suspect, remember, the Vols averaged 208.5 rushing yards per game with (Joshua) Dobbs (at quarterback) and only 96.4 without him. So the run game should be effective even without a strong offensive line.’’
Q: What do you see as UT’s biggest strengths after spring practices?
A: “I think UT’s biggest strengths are starting quarterback, running back, receivers, defensive ends and secondary. I think Dobbs will be one of the top three quarterbacks in the league. I think (Jalen) Hurd and (Alvin) Kamara will be one of the top five running back combos in the SEC.
“(Curt) Maggitt and (Derek) Barnett combined for 21.5 sacks, which is more than the team had the year before. And I really like the talent and depth in the secondary. Cam Sutton, to me, is one of the top cover corners in the SEC.’’
Q: What are the team’s biggest concerns?
A: “Offensive line, middle linebacker, defensive tackle and depth. I think Dobbs’ mobility helps the offensive line. UT doesn’t’ have an answer for the departure of (middle linebacker) A.J. Johnson. The defensive tackles are OK with Danny O’Brien and Owen Williams and two five-star recruits (Kyle Phillips and Kahlil McKenzie), but a power running team like Alabama or Arkansas might overpower the tackles. And UT doesn’t have depth at quarterback or running back or linebacker. If Dobbs goes down, this team is in trouble.’’
Q: Do you see Butch Jones being at UT for the long term, say 10 years or so, and why/why not?
A: “I think Butch Jones will be here long-term. Nowadays, that means 10 years. I think he loves Tennessee, his family loves Knoxville, he’s recruited well, and he is putting the program in position to sustain long-term success with his recruiting. And he’s won over the fan base and the former players, and when UT has it rolling, there aren’t many programs in the country that are better.’’
Q: Butch Jones has embraced social media platforms unlike any other UT coach I can recall. How important is that for fans, players, and recruits, especially these days?
A: “Very important. It’s an avenue to connect with recruits, with fans, with former players, even with the media. And it can be a way to keep an eye on your current players. Most importantly, fans want to feel connected to the coach and the program, and Jones provides that through social media.’’
Q: On your show and other talk shows, why is UT football the dominant subject, and has it always been that way?
A: “UT football is the dominant subject because of the tradition of the program and the fact that most fans love the sport and feel they have a working knowledge of the game.
“Tim Priest has always said, ‘Tennessee folks feel they can do two things: grill a steak and coach football.’
“There is a passion about going to a game in a 100,000-seat stadium, where there is a Vol Navy and a checkerboard end zone and a run through the ‘T.’ All that excites the UT fan.’’
Q: What do you think of the Rick Barnes hire as Tennessee’s basketball coach?
A: “I think the Barnes hire was solid. His last six years were his worst at Texas, and he still went to five NCAA tournaments and averaged 22.7 wins. I think if he did that at Tennessee the next six years, the fan base would be satisfied. Barnes is a very good recruiter, he knows the culture of the South and he understands UT basketball. He will do a good job.’’
Q: How long should fans expect it to take Barnes to field a team to compete for an SEC title?
A: “Kentucky makes that a tough question to answer. Maybe three to four years. If he gets Braxton Blackwell and (Abdul) Ado for the 2016 recruiting class, he might be a top 25 team next year. With Kentucky around, maybe the more realistic goal is to finish in the top four of the SEC, get a top eight seed in the NCAA tournament and make the Sweet 16 a couple of times in the next five to six years.’’
Q: How strong is UT’s fan base compared to the other SEC schools [in basketball]? Second only to Kentucky? What does that say about UT fans?
A: “I think the UT fan base for basketball is in the top two or three in the SEC. Kentucky and Arkansas might be better. That’s it. Look at attendance. Look at Thompson-Boling Arena when Bruce Pearl had it rolling. UT ranked in the top five in attendance nationally many times in the past 10 or so years.
Q: What are your thoughts about UT’s “rebranding” to Vols for all sports except for Lady Vols’ basketball? Good move? Bad move? Why?
A: “I didn’t think it was necessary. I think the Lady Vols have a nationally known brand that took many years to create. Ask anyone, who are the Lady Tigers? You might get five to six answers. Ask someone, who are the Lady Vols? I think most people in the U.S. know that is Tennessee. I’m no expert on branding, but I thought the Lady Vols had a successful brand.’’
Q: Dave Serrano was supposed to be a great [coaching] hire for UT baseball. Why hasn’t he had more success, and do you think he’s on the hot seat next year?
A: “I’m very surprised Dave Serrano hasn’t had more success. I thought his resume was better than any coach UT has hired since Johnny Majors after the 1976 football season. I do think he will be on the hot seat next year, but I also still believe he can get it done. He did too good of a job at UC-Irvine and UC-Fullerton to strike out at Tennessee.’’
Q: You were originally a print journalist. Why did you make the move to radio, and how has it gone for you?
A: “I made the move from print to radio because it was a new challenge. I was going to make more money, and I felt I could have a great impact on the community. Being in the public eye every day on air provides more opportunity for speaking engagements, working on committees, I serve on six now, and attending charity events. I’ve really enjoyed radio.
“It’s a challenge to be on air four hours on a daily basis Monday through Friday, and to have immediate answers to unexpected questions. And there is really no “down” time. People think it slows down in the summer, but to me, that can be the hardest time to put together an interesting four-hour show. I miss writing but I love radio as well.’’
Q: Sports talk radio shows are on all day now everywhere. How much has it changed since you got in radio, and why has sports talk radio experienced such a boom?
A: “It has changed a lot, and not necessarily for the good. I don’t like the fact that anyone can call in and rip players and coaches and be so cruel about it. I’m not a big fan of people calling for coaches to be fired, unless that coach violated NCAA rules. Then he deserves it. But how would you like it if people called into a public forum and demanded you be fired? How would you like for your kids to hear all the negative stuff said about you?
“I don’t care how much a coach or pro player makes, they shouldn’t be subjected to that. I’ve never publicly called for a coach to be fired, and I hope I never do, unless it is for NCAA violations or off-the-field behavior.
“I also take a different approach from some radio hosts. I treat my reporting just as if I were working at a newspaper. I wouldn’t report anything on air that I wouldn’t be willing to write in a newspaper. And if I don’t know the answer, I will say I don’t know, then try to find the answer.
“I think being right is more important than being first. I’m not sure everyone subscribes to that theory.
“I think sports radio has boomed because millions of people love sports, and they love the opportunity to express their opinion about sports. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with a good, solid debate. But when it gets personal, that’s when I cringe.’’
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.