The Observer has had a long history of dedicated sports editors devoting themselves to the newspaper and Fordham community. (GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION BY ESMÉ BLEECKER-ADAMS)
The Observer has had a long history of dedicated sports editors devoting themselves to the newspaper and Fordham community.

GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION BY ESMÉ BLEECKER-ADAMS

Writing Sports: The Hidden Gem of The Observer

The Observer sports section has been sustained throughout the decades by a dedicated set of editors keeping sports coverage alive

April 21, 2021

40th anniversary stickerOften on the back page of print editions of the newspaper, Observer sports editors have produced entertaining articles that also informed the student body about an unfamiliar part of the Fordham community. There have been many lulls in coverage over the years, but there have also been prosperous periods worthy of remembrance, times when the sports pages stood out as a highlight on a campus without college sports.

One of the earliest back-page dwellers, Ian Baer, College at Lincoln Center (CLC) ’87, first joined The Observer as a budding journalism major looking to hone his skills. A spot editing the sports section opened up soon after, and Baer leapt at the opportunity.

At first, Baer produced national sports columns and intramural athletics coverage, but the national sports columns weren’t journalistically challenging, and CLC football games were often played on concrete. Baer was looking for stimulating coverage within The Observer’s means, and the Bronx was calling.

“What we didn’t want to be was almost as good as The Ram.”Ian Baer, CLC ’87 , former sports editor and editor-in-chief of The Observer

As is often the case with Lincoln Center sportswriters hoping to break into the Rose Hill sports world, the talented journalists at The Fordham Ram represented tough competition. The Ram was closer to the events, published more newspapers and had more writers catering to an audience that cared about the games.

Instead of competing directly with other publications, Baer did everything he could to find unique pitches and spins on existing stories to entertain his audience. If he saw a CLC student reading the paper, he would ask them for feedback on his work — the only way to gauge reader engagement back in the day.

“What we didn’t want to be was almost as good as The Ram,” Baer said.

One of Baer’s favorite contributions was a piece on men’s basketball Assistant Coach Jack Armstrong, CLC ’85, who was still an undergraduate student attending the university when he received the position.

Instead of discussing the basketball team, Baer wrote about the assistant coach in a feature article about changing dynamics within college basketball. As a so-called basketball nerd, Armstrong would not have been accepted in the personality-driven coaching profession several decades prior, but Baer wrote about the evolution of the position and the young assistant coach’s role in that change.

“You had to really kind of scrap, especially as the sports editor, so I always felt like there was more pressure on us to be more interesting,” Baer said.

Baer went on to have a successful career working for multiple advertising agencies, but he first helped cultivate a sports section that would continue to flourish for years afterward.

Toward the end of the 1985-86 academic year, then-Editor-in-Chief Robert Dunne, CLC ’86, gave Baer a rare opportunity he didn’t anticipate. Dunne was stepping down from his position and was seeking a successor who would promote a positive work environment. He chose Baer, and after more than a year in one of The Observer’s most efficient sports sections, the editor took his vision to an even higher platform.

Despite serving for most of his senior year, Baer’s time in a managing role with The Observer wasn’t as enjoyable as he had hoped. He failed to cite a specific reason for his premature departure from the newspaper in the spring of 1986, but a self-described disillusionment and eventual shift from journalism to advertising after graduation may provide a hint.

Baer went on to have a successful career working for multiple advertising agencies, but he first helped cultivate a sports section that would continue to flourish for years afterward. Cracks wouldn’t begin to show until long after he graduated.

“The Observer taught me to be responsible and dedicated. It was basically a classroom in action, and it’s not just theory or what the textbook says; The Observer is real, and people are going to read this.” Clemente Lisi, FCLC ’97 and former sports editor for The Observer

In The Observer’s first 10 years, the editorial board was privileged to have a consistent stream of dedicated sports editors. But in the early 1990s, the position of sports editor began to resemble a revolving door.

In four semesters between 1992 and 1993, The Observer had four different sports editors with little to no overlap. After several years of limited engagement, the next step was inevitable, as the section disappeared for a time. The 1994 and early 1995 editions of the newspaper had no sports editor at all on the masthead.

The situation was bleak in the fall of ’95 when Clemente Lisi, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’97, joined the editorial board of The Observer. Many of the people who could have given him direction, like the popular and successful sports editors of old, were long gone. Lisi was a rising junior undergraduate student with two years and two pages per issue to revive sports coverage on the Upper West Side.

The new sports editor also had to ingratiate himself with a Rose Hill sports community that had completely lost touch with The Observer — and quickly became a regular on the Ram Van.

“The Observer taught me to be responsible and dedicated,” Lisi said. “It was basically a classroom in action, and it’s not just theory or what the textbook says; The Observer is real, and people are going to read this.”

Soon after taking over, Lisi quickly realized that there were untapped opportunities in Manhattan, and following an astounding rebuilding phase, he made the necessary connections to cover national sports.

When Major League Soccer first began playing, Lisi used his Fordham connections to get press credentials to cover the New York MetroStars, known today as the Red Bulls. He also secured multiple trips to Madison Square Garden in his time with The Observer, and just four months after becoming sports editor, he interviewed Glenn Healy, the goalie at the time for the New York Rangers.

Whether it was heartbreaking community developments or national sports personalities beyond Lisi’s station, the old disadvantages were suddenly opportunities.

The new sports editor also had to ingratiate himself with a Rose Hill sports community that had completely lost touch with The Observer — and quickly became a regular on the Ram Van. He knew that he couldn’t cover everything at Rose Hill; The Observer published a newspaper every two weeks and his staff was limited, so he chose his trips to the Bronx carefully.

Unfortunately, his finest moment of Fordham sports reporting was in the midst of tragedy. In November 1996, Lisi’s sports coverage made the front page of The Observer when Fordham football player Bill Tierney, Fordham College at Rose Hill ’98, died on the field before a game. The news rocked the community, and The Observer dedicated the entire front page to Tierney’s passing. Without Lisi’s connections at Rose Hill, covering the story would have been very difficult for the Lincoln Center publication.

Whether it was heartbreaking community developments or national sports personalities beyond Lisi’s station, the old disadvantages were suddenly opportunities. Lisi’s status as a Fordham student opened the door for him at Rose Hill, and his position in Manhattan gave him proximity to stars of the sports world. He maximized opportunities in a position that once appeared unenviable, and his degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and long-time job with the New York Post were products of that hard work at Fordham.

“When I graduated, I don’t think I passed the baton to anyone … I kind of was guilty of the same thing that a lot of sports editors did.” Clemente Lisi

The coverage was outstanding from the instant Lisi took over the section, but he had his struggles as well. On a pre-digital newspaper, it was difficult to gauge reader engagement, and instead of adjusting to his audience, the editor simply had to form a vision and execute it. Lisi did this effectively for two years, but when he left, there was no one to carry on what he started, something he cited as his primary regret.

“When I graduated, I don’t think I passed the baton to anyone … I kind of was guilty of the same thing that a lot of sports editors did,” Lisi said.

He was one of the most productive sportswriters in the newspaper’s history, but as soon as Lisi got his diploma in 1997, The Observer was once again without a sports editor. The position dipped in and out of existence for six years until Vin Gurrieri, FCLC ’05, began a partnership with Ryan Dever, FCLC ’03, to revamp the section once more.

The problems were all the same. The sporting events were far away, the staff couldn’t cover everything, Rose Hill sports officials weren’t familiar with the newspaper and the Lincoln Center audience wasn’t naturally interested. Despite it all, Gurrieri saw an opportunity where many would see obstacles. He and Dever had lofty ambitions for the section, and with some initiative, they managed to execute them and bring sports coverage back to Observer newsstands.

Gurrieri covered the downfall of men’s basketball Head Coach Bob Hill, the academic side of Fordham athletics and an uncharacteristically talented football team. Most importantly, when he left The Observer in 2004, he also left behind an infrastructure for the section to continue.

“I got a little bit lucky, because there were multiple people after me who were interested in pursuing it,” Gurrieri said. “So maybe the interest was there all along but it just needed someone to spur it.”

The sports section ran efficiently for many years after Gurrieri’s departure, and early archives on The Observer’s website show that sports coverage was prevalent into the 2010s.

Gurrieri went on to pursue a career in legal journalism when he received several opportunities in the field after college. Despite a career shift, he still paints his time with The Observer in glowing terms, describing it as an extracurricular activity that deeply impacted the rest of his life.

“You realize those benefits more in the years after you leave than in the time you were there,” Gurrieri said. “It’s something that gave me a foundation for a lot of things I did in life afterwards.”

The sports section ran efficiently for many years after Gurrieri’s departure, and early archives on The Observer’s website show that sports coverage was prevalent into the 2010s. But interest slowly waned as the decade progressed, to such an extent that the section was renamed the sports & health section in 2016 to compensate for the lack of coverage. It was a better solution than dormancy, but it was no longer viable as a sports section alone.

I became the most recent Lincoln Center sportswriter with a blank slate in front of me.

In November 2018, I walked into my first Observer meeting. When I expressed an interest in sportswriting, Colin Sheeley, FCLC ’19 and former editor-in-chief, immediately encouraged me to start writing consistently. He spoke carefully, as if he were afraid I would run away. My Observer career was only 25 minutes old when Luke Osborn, FCLC ’21 and former sports & health editor, asked me to apply to be an editor and focus on sports.

In my first semester as an editor, Osborn and Sheeley taught me how to work for the newspaper. The task of once again rebuilding the sports section was left to me, and it was overwhelming. These past sports editors could have provided valuable insight, but I didn’t know to ask them. I became the most recent Lincoln Center sportswriter with a blank slate in front of me.

With more secure footing as a sophomore, my vision became clearer and the Ram Van rides to Rose Hill became more frequent. When I was alone early on, my goal was to compete with larger sportswriting publications by sharpening my writing skills to such an extent that the content became a must-read for students. Developing recruitment tactics was next, and I even began to entice writers from the Bronx campus with more editorial freedom. It has been a successful endeavor that has further bridged the gap between the newspaper and Fordham sports.

In nearly three years, I’ve informed a very artsy crowd about a successful women’s basketball team, the departure of ill-fated men’s basketball Head Coach Jeff Neubauer, the experiences of multiple MLB draftees and an athletics program temporarily paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I began to make connections at Rose Hill, Owen Roche, FCLC ’21, became an invaluable mentor as editor-in-chief and demonstrated an immense amount of patience as the section went through serious growing pains. Lena Weidenbruch, FCLC ’20, and I earned jobs as editors at the same time, and she became an integral partner in my effort to produce quality sports content.

In nearly three years, I’ve informed a very artsy crowd about a successful women’s basketball team, the departure of ill-fated men’s basketball Head Coach Jeff Neubauer, the experiences of multiple MLB draftees and an athletics program temporarily paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has never been boring, and my enthusiasm for The Observer and all the people I’ve worked with is no less fervent than that of my predecessors.

With a year remaining, I’m still looking to pass on the baton and find a way forward for the newspaper’s sports section when my time comes to relinquish it. That future is uncertain, but it appears far brighter now than it did when I walked into my first staff meeting as a first-year lacking resources and know-how.

If the section continues after I depart, then I can take some credit for carrying on a vision that many before me have dreamed of fulfilling. But if the section someday returns to a diminished state, as it has so many times in the past, I can take solace in the fact that The Observer helped me earn a small but loyal audience doing work that I loved alongside people I deeply respected. There are worse ways to spend four years.



About the Contributor
Photo of PATRICK MOQUIN
PATRICK MOQUIN, Sports & Health Editor

Patrick Moquin, FCLC ’22, is majoring in journalism and oversees Fordham sports coverage for The Observer. He played baseball in high school and also follows horse racing and motorsports, though he’s allergic to horses and doesn’t have a driver’s license. He most thoroughly enjoys his time at The Observer when he’s working with other editors and writers.

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