ESPN’s Laura Rutledge On Finding The Story Beneath The Surface

Ballet requires a level of perfection and focus. It was the sport Laura Rutledge credits for teaching her to stay focused on one goal at…

Ballet requires a level of perfection and focus. It was the sport Laura Rutledge credits for teaching her to stay focused on one goal at a time. It’s a mentality, she says, that helps in her career today at ESPN.

At the network, Laura is the co-anchor of morning show Get Up!, one of the lead reporters for the network’s college sports coverage, and the host of SEC Nation every fall on SEC Network. And, in August she debuted The Moment with Laura Rutledge, a new show on SEC Network about making sports fans’ dreams come true.

Laura’s resume includes reporting roles for the ESPN College Football Playoff, Super Tuesday college basketball coverage, SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, SEC Softball Tournament, SEC Baseball Tournament, NCAA College World Series and NCAA Women’s College World Series. In addition, Laura has anchored many episodes of SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight, has worked as a red carpet host at the ESPYS for the past two years, and last fall, she made her NFL reporting debut on Monday Night Football.

A month ago Laura received a new title – Mom. She gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Reese Katherine Rutledge. (Side Note: Laura and her daughter even share a birthday!)

Earlier this spring, I Want Her Job Founder Brianne Perleberg spoke with Laura about organizing schedules, working through sick days and preparing for live TV. Read on for Laura’s advice for staying on top of deadlines, building a TV wardrobe out of a carry-on suitcase and her thoughts on why building trust is the key to telling a great story.

What is your schedule like?

I am pretty heavily on Get Up! at this point in New York. I started off the week on Get Up! and did that for a few days, which requires a 5 a.m. wake-up call, filming the show, and then meetings after the show. A lot of times there’s also other obligations, like interviews for other shows. I’m also working on another project right now – a show I’m producing and hosting. A lot of my time last week involved preparing for that.

On Saturday, I covered the Alabama spring game. During the weekdays, I have my work for Get Up!, which isn’t really college football based, but is more focused on NBA, Major League Baseball, and of course the NFL. I’m focused on that during the show. Then outside of the show, for example, I’m taking production calls and coach’s calls, and talking to Alabama Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throughout the day.

Then, Friday was an accurate depiction of the “lack of glamour” – which I would never complain about, because I love my job – but I think sometimes people think that a job on TV is really glamorous. Here’s a real picture of what Friday looked like.

Laura Rutledge on the set of Get Up!
New York, NY – January 18, 2019 – South Street Seaport Studios: Laura Rutledge on the set of Get Up!. (Photo by Joe Faraoni, ESPN Images)

I woke up at 5 a.m. I did Get Up! We had a post-show meeting. Then I raced to the airport while on the phone with Nick Saban on the coach’s call on the cab going from my studio to La Guardia. When I got to the airport I was going through security while trying to be on the conference call. Then, when I got to my gate my flight was delayed. I was trying to get to a shoot for a show I’m doing in Tuscaloosa. My flight got delayed about an hour and a half, so I grabbed a rental car as fast as possible and drove the hour to Tuscaloosa. The shoot that evening went until 8 or 9 p.m., and then I drove back to Birmingham, which is where I live, just so I could get a night at home. (And honestly, because I’d been on the road for a month, I had no clothes for the game the next day. I had to come back and get some clothes!)

Then 6 a.m. the next day, Saturday, which was the Alabama spring game, I got up to go back to Tuscaloosa, which is another hour drive back. We did shoots all morning to get prepared for this new show, while also getting prepared for the game. There are these funny moments where I’d be outside the stadium doing a shoot for this other show, and then running inside the stadium just to get mic’d up for the actual game broadcast and go live on ESPN 2.

After the game I was able to have a night at home. On Sunday I was scheduled to go to Kentucky for their athletic awards. My flights got delayed, so I had to drive to Kentucky from Alabama, which is a 6-hour drive. No big deal. I did the awards on Monday and then drove back to Alabama to then host Alabama’s athletic awards on Tuesday. Now, I head to New York today, and I’ll be there for the rest of the week for Get Up! and then will head back home for the weekend.

During football season, it’s a little more of a regular schedule, and I work every day of the week including Sunday.

It almost sounds like you’re running for office! With all of these flights, stops and early wake-up times. How do you keep track of your schedule?

Being out-of-pocket so often I’m constantly writing reminders in my phone calendar. I know that will keep me updated on what’s going on, and my constant to-do list. I’ve also realized that a to-do list or schedule for me can get so overwhelming that I almost have to take my schedule day-by-day. It sounds like ‘coach speak’ but it’s the only way I’ve found to get through it. I say, “These are the things that are prioritized for today. These are the things that I have to get done today.” I have to push some things off. Unfortunately, things that I do want to get done get pushed off more often than I like.

I am also big on writing things down. I have a planner that I take with me everywhere. It’s sort of old-fashioned. People ask, “Why don’t you go digital?” But, I find that if I write things down I remember them, and I’m almost able to digitize my entire schedule in my head a bit better.

Of course, there are times where I forget stuff, and I’m so embarrassed by it. I just have to be honest about the fact that I’ve forgotten, and we’ll have to find a way to make it work. For the most part, I try very hard to not forget things and be on time, because I value other people’s time.

The sports you cover have a clear beginning and end to their seasons, but your schedule is year-round. Where do you find time to rest and recharge?

It’s something I’m trying to get better at. [She laughs.] I’m really bad at that. The other day someone asked me, “When is the last time that you took a vacation or time off?” It was in August of last year, so that’s not great. [She laughs.] I need to be better.

Laura Rutledge of ESPN
Nashville, TN – March 13, 2019 – Bridgestone Arena: Laura Rutledge during the 2019 SEC Men’s College Basketball Tournament (Photo by Allen Kee, ESPN Images)

I’ve found that I love my job so much – and I’m not just saying that. For me, being able to do this coverage of events, or these shows, I don’t want to miss out on those things. That is part of what drives me. It’s also part of the reality of what’s important to me at this point in time. My family has been so wonderful about supporting that.

What I find is that a lot of times my family – my husband, my parents, my brother, or whoever else – will come to some of my events so we can spend time there. I’m fortunate that sometimes my job is cool so they want to come to shows. That’s really special.

Personal downtime is something that I’ve learned I need. I’ve learned that sometimes I have to turn everything off, think, take some deep breaths, and focus on just myself for a little bit. It’s important to recharge.

Tonight I will fly to New York, and if everything is on time I will get there around 8 p.m. Then I’ll take a cab and get to my hotel around 9 or 9:30. I will make sure that at that point I’ve done all my preparation for tomorrow’s show, so that I’m not scrambling and I can relax and focus on getting to bed early. That is something that I wasn’t good at for a while. I would think, “Well, maybe there’s that one more thing that I need to look at or I need to be prepared for.” But now I try to always have that trust, and tell myself that it’s going to be okay, and I will figure it out tomorrow. It’s all going to work out. Positive self-talk is a big part of my downtime and making sure that I am fulfilled in the best way possible. I’m bad at guilting myself when I’m not working, and I think I should be working. Instead I’m learning it’s okay to say, “You know what? You deserve this. You should go take a walk and get a coffee.” [She laughs.]

I mentioned before our interview that I’m sick and losing my voice today. It made me wonder: How do you manage when you are sick and need to be on-air?

I know how hard it is to try and talk through an interview, especially when you have something respiratory. Working with Mike Greenberg on Get Up!, he is so adamant about making sure that you don’t get sick. He says our biggest tool is our voice, and it’s so true. Of course, people are seen on camera, but most of the time it’s our voices that are carrying a show. People step away from the TV and all they will hear is someone’s voice.

First, I am incredibly bullish about my preventative measures for getting sick. I would seriously recommend this for anybody who travels a lot. I was nonchalant about it for a while and thought, “I’ll be fine.” But when you’re on planes, and you’re traveling, there are so many germs. Now I’m the person who I never thought I would be. I have a to-go pack of Clorox wipes with me at all times. The second I sit down on a plane I Clorox everything. I sanitize my hands. I actually travel with disposable masks in case I’m sitting next to somebody who is sick, and I have no shame. I’ll put those things on! I’ve found that it’s too much to try and deal with a sickness on top of a crazy schedule. I don’t care if people judge me, but I’m going to do it.

Second, I do a lot of natural things. I have immune drops that are echinacea and elderberry. I would recommend those to anybody who’s trying to stay healthy and boost their immune system. I’m also big on taking immunity juice shots. You can find a juice shop in a lot of places that you go. I’m not someone to drink a whole green juice. I wish I was better at that. But, I’ve found that drinking just a ginger, lemon, cayenne type of shot that’s all packaged together – even though it’s a bit tough to get through – will really be beneficial.

Laura Rutledge of ESPN
New York, NY – January 17, 2019 – South Street Seaport Studios: Deshaun Watson, Mike Greenberg, Laura Rutledge and Marcus Spears on the set of Get Up!. (Photo by Allen Kee, ESPN Images)

I remember a time when I had a bad case of strep throat during football season. I didn’t stop. I kept going, and I hosted a show with a 102-to-103-degree fever. I don’t even remember what I said. It was probably a dangerous thing to do on many levels, especially because you don’t know what you’re talking about when you’re that feverish. I just took as much medicine as was safe to take and tried to get through it. I also made everyone around me aware that I was not doing well.

Looking back, I think it was bad. When you’re watching from home, it’s not like you expect the people you watch on TV to never get sick. If you see someone on-air who’s sick, you’re likely thinking, “I don’t want to watch somebody who’s sick. They need to go home.” One of the biggest things now for me is removing myself. If I’ve gotten sick, I try to call my bosses up and say, “I can’t do it today.”

I’ve tried to power through some things that I probably shouldn’t have, and it’s become a combination of knowing when to quit, knowing when I can keep going, and on the front end, making sure I do everything I can to not get sick.

As a woman on TV, you must constantly be aware of how you present yourself. I look at a lot of men on TV, and I think they could probably get away with wearing the same suit day after day, but as a woman you can’t do that. What are your tricks for keeping your wardrobe fresh on air, while also remaining on-budget – and amidst such a crazy schedule?

It’s always a challenge. A lot of people think I have all my clothes provided for me, and I go to a beautiful rack and pick them out when I get to work. That’s not the case. It’s kind of great in a way, because it does give me freedom to create my own style and decide, “Hey, this is what I’m going to wear.”

But on the other side of that, it creates challenges because I’m thinking, “Okay, I’ve got to come up with something to wear today.” One thing about my job in particular is that much of my time is spent preparing for the show, or preparing for the game, and whatever my next story is. I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about what I look like, or what I’m going to wear. It becomes, for me at least, second fiddle to everything else.

The way I’ve made this a little more foolproof is that I only wear solid colors. If you look at my collection of clothes, you’ll rarely see a pattern. I stick with a lot of black. I will wear the same pants a few times a week, which might be gross, but that’s what I have to do. A lot of the times I travel with a carry-on bag, and I just don’t have enough space. I’ve found, too, that it’s okay, because no one really sees my pants and no one notices.

One of my biggest keys is that I found this brand called Commando. It’s a body suit brand, and they have some other things as well, but I love their plain, black body suits. They have turtle necks, or mock necks in different styles. There’s a pretty boat neck one as well. I just have a few of those, and I will wear those under almost everything. It gives you a nice, simple layer to start your outfit. So, you’ve got a black layer and you can add to it. You can put a skirt over it. You can put pants over it. You can put a blazer over it. You can put a lace top over it that needs something underneath it. I’ve found it a really good staple to carry around with me. Plus, they’re so small that they can fit in anything. I would recommend something like that if you’re looking for a wardrobe staple that helps. Even if you’re not traveling, it’s a nice, classy layer.

There was definitely a time where I thought, “Oooh, I need to be sort of hot and glamorous on camera, and I need to find these really stylish outfits and things that are going to be a little on the sexy side.” Now I’ve found that’s just not the image I want to portray. I think I’ve always erred toward the side of being more conservative, but definitely now, and definitely over the past couple of years. It’s important to me that I can still look the way I want to look, and look stylish and trendy in certain areas, but also very classic. I never want my wardrobe to distract from what I’m saying. So, anything I’m wearing is always just sort of there to be classy, crisp and professional. Shaping outfits this way has made it easier. I know I’ll be wearing pants, a black staple and a blazer. And I do love a good statement earring.

Let’s talk about all of the work that goes into your work. What are some of the ways you prepare for a show?

The bulk of my day is spent in preparation mode. In today’s day and age there is so much information available – even on your phone. Everything is right there. I’m always that annoying person who is always checking my phone, staying up to date, and creating a working knowledge of everything that is going on in the day. I do this specifically for co-hosting Get Up!, because we do cover such a wide variety of topics. This is the skimming level of prep that happens throughout the day. The next level is dialing in on what might be a different angle for a story, or a good question from a studio standpoint.

I don’t think everyone realizes how it works for us. There’s nobody at ESPN telling me how to prepare. They allow me, and trust me, to prepare however I want. I appreciate that so much, because it gives me the flexibility and freedom to cater that to myself. Then, when I’m preparing for an event or a game, that preparation looks a little different. Most of the time, those two are happening simultaneously, which does create some challenges. But I’ve found that if I compartmentalize my time, it helps. I might spend an hour on NBA preparation for tomorrow’s show, but then I’m going to spend 30 minutes on preparation for the Georgia spring game. And 30 minutes is probably enough for that particular date, because I’ve covered a ton of Georgia football, so I’ve already got a working knowledge.

Laura Rutledge of ESPN on SEC Nation
Atlanta, GA – December 1, 2018 – Georgia World Congress Center: Laura Rutledge on the set of SEC Nation during the 2018 SEC Championship (Photo by Phil Ellsworth, ESPN Images)

If I’m doing something totally outside of my comfort zone, that would require a different and more lengthy preparation. That is where I would dial-in, eliminate distractions, put my phone away and figure out what I can do to really get on this. What I’ve found is that cramming is possible, and something I did in college, and I could still do if I have to. But, I try to avoid it as much as I can. The level of stress is so much higher there. If tell myself, “Okay, I’ve got the NFL Draft. It’s a week away. It’s a bit far to start intense preparation, but I’m going to start some so that when I get to it I’m not totally overwhelmed.”

How does the process work between you and your team behind the camera?

There’s a misconception, especially for sideline reporters or reporters in general, that we’re being fed questions. That’s just not the case. Yes, if we are in a football game and doing a halftime interview I will often alert my producer and say, “I’m going to ask him about that interception and the fact that the quarterback stared down a receiver and it led to this mistake.” Or, “We’ve got compelling video on this and I know it’s going to be good to show again, so I’m going to ask specifically about this play in the game.” I give them a heads up so they are ready to roll that video, and it’s not catching them by surprise.

Then, in the moment a lot of times something happens. Right before the interview I’ll see that the coach is having a heated argument with an official. That changes my whole line of questioning, and I know that we caught it on camera, so I’m going to say, “You were just speaking to that official, what was that about?” Then that changes everything we have planned, and they trust me enough to roll with whatever I’m going to do there. Often times, in live sporting events, it truly is so unscripted that your planning is constantly changing and moving around. As the game goes along it’s a living, breathing organism. From that standpoint, that is very much on me, and if I ask a question people don’t like, it was me who asked it. It’s really never fed to me or discussed. And in those positions, they do give you the flexibility to rely on your own instincts, and they trust you there.

It’s a little different in studio, because we will have a more specific plan for how we’re interviewing somebody, but we always knowing that we have the authority to go off script whenever we want. If you’re the one on TV, then you, to a certain extent, are driving the content, and the production follows you. That’s a beautiful thing about the trust between everybody who is “behind the scenes” and all of us who aren’t behind the scenes. It is a trust thing. Those people are never really seen in front of the camera, but they do so much. The production staffs on all of the shows and games don’t get enough credit. It’s so hard to do their jobs, and they are relying on us in front of the camera to lead the ship a certain way. Sometimes we go off script, and they have to follow along. They’re incredibly quick on their feet, clever and very talented.

What can you tell us about your new project?

It’s so exciting. I really believe – and this is true from the person I’m talking to when I’m ordering from at Chick-fil-A, or the person that I’m talking to when I’m trying to buy a random tool for my house, or somebody on a plane – everybody has a story. That, to me, is the most amazing thing about life. If you talk to anybody there’s this story that’s lying under the surface. And often times, sadly, I think people think that their story isn’t as important or as worthy as somebody else’s. That’s just not the case. I think the beautiful thing about humanity is that everybody’s story is just as important and so impactful to what their path is going to be and to what other people’s paths are going to be around them.

I love this job, because a lot of times in having the great honor of telling people’s stories they trust me with those stories. I’m always thinking of ways to tell more stories, and especially more stories that are untold. So much of the time we know a story and we’re trying to find a different angle, but what about telling a story that’s never been told before? That was the inception behind the idea that created this project. It was what was important to me with uniting fans with the schools, players and coaches they love the most – and finding ways to give them a small token of appreciation for what they do. This project will be the culmination of that on TV.




After Hours graphic

I’d love to have coffee with:

Oprah Winfrey. Her story is amazing, and the fact that she’s built an empire out of telling stories and being herself is one of my favorite things about her. She’s one of my favorite people.

My current favorite saying is:

“Tooters.” I don’t exactly know where it came from, but I’ve been saying it for most of my life. I keep hoping it’s going to catch on, and then people don’t want to say it. I find it very satisfying. IT can be both negative or positive. You could say, “Ugh, tooters.” Or you could say, “Tooters!” It works in all aspects.

My favorite sports analogy is:

I love “can of corn,” which is the same as catching a pop fly in the outfield. It’s supposed to be an easy catch. I think it’s just such a funny phrase. It’s always made me laugh for years.

My favorite way to spend my day off is:

Going to my parents lake house. They have a little cabin that is secluded, in the woods, rustic, and down and dirty. We go kayaking on the lake. It’s a great way to spend time.

One lesson I’ve learned lately is:

It’s okay to have a mistake on live TV and admit your mistake. I think people like that better than when you try to pretend you didn’t make a mistake. I think people like that better. I’ve always admitted it, and sometimes I’ve gotten criticized for that by bosses but I’ve found more and more that the best possible way to go about it is to admit it and move along. It’s hard to be comfortable with that, but it’s a lesson that I continue to learn. I’m going to keep messing up, so I might as well just own up to it.

I can’t live without:

Peanut butter. I love peanut butter. Everything is better with peanut butter.

I feel my best when:

I am regularly going to Pure Barre. It’s almost like a flashback to ballet but not quite as intense. I find it to be such a great workout, and I wish I could do more of it. I try to do pseudo workouts myself, but I do better when I’m in a class because I find more pressure to keep going.