Penn Staters craft big, productive presence at ESPN

It’s a typical group icebreaker, one activity among many designed to help campus newcomers get acclimated and feel welcome.

It’s stunningly simple as well -- a straightforward seek-and-find challenge summarized in five words: “find a Penn State alumnus.”

On a campus encompassing 123 acres, with 4,000 people who work in 17 different buildings, it might sound like a daunting challenge. Instead, the assignment can be completed rather easily at ESPN.

The nearly four dozen Penn Staters working on the company’s compact and ever-growing campus in Bristol, Connecticut, give the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” a strong blue-and-white feel. As a result, the icebreaker used as part of the company’s internship program has a high rate of success.

Those Penn Staters have been quite successful themselves, serving in everything from entry-level jobs to upper-level administrative positions. They've been at ESPN as little as a few months to as many as 18 years. And they feel right at home shaping how millions of fans consume their news and sports on a daily basis.

“ESPN is a lot like Penn State, actually. You have a lot of driven, talented people,” said Alyssa Manware, a 2012 graduate who fits the stereotype after earning two degrees (journalism and English) at Penn State. She works in commercial operations, part of a team that shapes how and when commercials appear during broadcasts.

While at Penn State, she completed five different internships and deftly combined those opportunities with what she learned in the classroom.

“It was a powerful combination, great hands-on experience and strong support from faculty members who challenged us as well as programs like networking sessions, resume workshops and mock interviews,” Manware said. “It was just great.”

Manware served as the on-campus liaison for an ESPN recruiter the spring of her senior year, and her work in that situation opened the door for a full-time job shortly after graduation. In the end, her determined approach completed the prophetic mentality she brought to Penn State as a prospective student visiting campus a few years earlier.

“I looked around and told my parents if I don't get in, I’m not going to college at all,” said the Southington, Connecticut, native. 

For the dozens of Penn Staters at ESPN, the trip from one campus to the other started in different places. Some, like Manware, were at the University Park campus their entire career. Others started at any number of Commonwealth Campuses, with the common route to success relying on determination and talent.

The cadre of Penn Staters at ESPN ranges alphabetically from A to Z. That’s from Mark Ashenfelter, a news editor who travels the country focusing on NASCAR, to Dan Zaksheske, a technical producer for ESPN Radio who runs the sound board, helps with topics and gathers sound for “The Paul Finebaum Show.”

Zaksheske’s behind-the-scenes partner on that show is another Penn Stater, producer John Hayes.

Overall, the Penn State contingent at ESPN handles a wide variety of responsibilities and possesses a deep pool of talent. For example: Rob King is the senior vice president in charge of “SportsCenter,” the network’s flagship program, and all news-gathering operations; Chrsitie Dockman works in production management, part of a 31-person team that handles the logistics of broadcasts events like the World Cup; Amanda Gifford Lockwood is the ESPN Radio program director in charge of all weekday shows for the network; Dan Kocse is an Emmy Award-winning content editor; and Matt Rissmiller is a feature producer for shows like “E: 60.”

Along with those more experienced alumni, many other Penn Staters who are just starting their careers are making valuable contributions at ESPN. Specifically, Caitlyn Smith, a creative assistant who graduated this spring and also typifies that driven-and-determined stereotype, had a big hand in how the recently launched and ESPN-owned SEC Network looks. She worked closely, and diligently, with conference schools and network counterparts on on-air graphic elements for the network.

Plus, several recent alumni work in a variety of production assistant roles for ESPN, and sometimes the connections between them and their predecessors could make for its own game -- a can-you-believe-that testament to connections, persistence and talent.

Here’s a look at a small handful of the Penn State alumni at ESPN:

Christie Dockman (’93)
Dockman spent eight weeks in Brazil this summer, making seemingly mountainous behind-the-scenes challenges of the World Cup (flooding rains that disrupted travel, language barriers, hundreds of employees away from home) nothing more than molehills.

She had one day off during the tournament. “It was like Groundhog Day every day,” she said. “Just rinse and repeat.”

Still, that’s the kind of situation in which Dockman thrives. She started her career at Penn State Behrend, made the most of the Division of Undergraduate Studies to find her path, benefitted from faculty members like senior lecturer Maria Cabrera-Baukus and completed the Manchester Study Abroad Program.

A western Pennsylvania native, she ended up at ESPN in 1996 after she filled in for someone else while covering a Pittsburgh Steelers game, made a contact at the game and found out about a job opening. She sent her materials that week, and had her first interview -- and a job offer -- a week later.

She has steadily grown her career at ESPN thanks to the company’s typical challenge for employees, which relies on constantly challenging top performers.

“We have a tendency to do that,” Dockman said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re really good, can you do a little more?’ It’s a pretty empowering approach. It’s not taking on more work. It’s an opportunity to show what you can do.”

Amanda Gifford Lockwood (’04)
Gifford manages some of ESPN’s most valuable programming, notably the weekday sports-talk staple “Mike and Mike,” which has been on the air for more than 14 years.

She had been working on other ESPN Radio programming (“The Herd with Colin Cowherd”) when the opportunity to take on more responsibility was presented. Although previous “Mike and Mike” managers had been producers for the show, Gifford did not hesitate at the opportunity.

She did appreciate the challenge, though. Despite her career-long involvement in sports radio and sports-talk radio (as a Penn State student she commuted from University Park to Bristol on weekends to serve as a radio board operator), she’s clearly not part of the typical sports-talk radio demographic. That would be men, ages 25 to 54.

“No one at ESPN has ever said to me, ‘Hey, how can you know what the audience wants?’ It’s good go have the opportunity to prove you can play, that you’re a pro,” Gifford Lockwood said. “That’s always been the case here, which is good. Plus, I am confident I know what I’m doing, and how to get things done.”

As a Penn State student, she completed double majors in journalism and education, serving as student marshal for each college during commencement exercises. She puts skills she learned in both disciplines to use every day.

While the communications part might seem obvious, Gifford Lockwood said her elementary education background has been just as valuable.

“It’s amazing how well the tactics that you use on children transfer,” she said. “I think dealing with people is one of my strengths, and that boils down to helping others rationalize things and be successful, which makes us all successful.”

Additionally, in terms of communications she also credits faculty members such as Ann Kuskwoski, John Sanchez and John Curley for real-life lessons in the classroom that build her confidence to tackle opportunities that came along during her career.

Dan Kocse (’99)
Kocse celebrated his personal 12-year anniversary at ESPN on Aug. 5.

“I love the company,” he said. “I love coming to work every day.”

A manager and highlight editor, he thrives on the energy in the huge editing suite. Armed with state-of-the-art technology, he and others in the department pride themselves on being able to put together sports highlights quickly, and in a manner that complements the broadcast.

Plus, with ESPN’s numerous platforms -- the company portfolio includes eight U.S. cable networks, 24 international networks reaching all seven continents as well as digital platforms, apps, podcasts and more -- there are amply opportunities to repurpose content.

“We’re always evolving, from technology to how a highlight appears on the air. We don’t want to be cookie cutter editors,” Kocse said. “Try not to look for things to emulate but see something to see and put our own twist on it.”

He has also worked as an audio editor and in floor production for ESPN.

Christine Newby (’12)
Newby followed a busy path at Penn State. She selected the University because of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism and took numerous opportunities in that area, working for The Daily Collegian and with student-driven TV productions such as “Centre County Report” and “In the Game.”

After starting her career at Penn State Behrend, she also completed several internships and was a member of the Curley Center student team that covered the Summer Olympics in London in May 2012.

“I was covering the water polo gold medal game when I got an email from Amanda Gifford offering me the job at ESPN,” Newby said. “It was a little harder to concentrate after that.”

Newby started with ESPN Radio and now in the midst of a production assistant program on the TV side.

“There’s just so much opportunity here,” she said. “Its exciting.”

Matt Rissmiller (’03)
Rissmiller grew up in Happy Valley and attended State College Area High School. His initial career path was advertising and strategic planning, an endeavor he considers “pretty similar” to what he has found as his calling and passion: a storyteller.

As a features editor, his segments on shows like “E: 60” allow him to immerse himself in the kinds of stories that lift the human spirit or make a personal connection for people who really have no connection with each other at all.

He works on a handful of stories at a time, almost invariably finding a way for quality access that produces emotional and solid segments.

“It’s truly overwhelming when they open up and trust me,” Rissmiller said. “Plus, it’s awesome that we have the time to invest in these kinds of stories.”

He builds that trust by showing potential story subjects his past work, and he knows ESPN’s team-oriented approach, for all projects, makes success possible.

“It’s certainly not a one-man show,” he said. “Plus, ESPN has the resources to get the final product across platforms and that’s invaluable for the impact of the stories.”

Penn State support was invaluable for Rissmiller getting his opportunity, too. He honed his skills working on campus with Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics and WPSU-TV. Then, when submitted his materials for the job at ESPN, another Penn Stater happened to see his name on a pile of materials on the hiring officer’s desk.

That fellow alum mentioned he knew Rissmiller and his work, and that was enough to ensure his materials at least got serious consideration. 

Last Updated October 20, 2014