CHARLOTTE, N. C. — The expansive ESPN campus here is where you find countless broadcast personalities moving about. Like Paul Finebaum, for example — a familiar voice in SEC sports broadcasting. Other network announcers come and go as routinely as housewives at a grocery store. It is part of their gig. And don’t forget Maria Smith.
She’s one of the most successful and versatile up-and-coming announcers you likely will bump into here. This fall, she takes over reporter Sam Ponder’s role on College GameDay and Saturday night college football telecasts. An Atlanta native, Taylor attended the University of Georgia’s Henry Grady College of Journalism.
She is quick to remember those formative years in Athens, where she learned the basics for developing a broadcasting career.
“A lot of good things are happening for me,” she said recently, “and one of the most important influences on my life and career was my time at UGA. I don’t take that lightly, and I won’t ever fail to remember those who helped me get started.”
She especially sent verbal high fives to Lady Dawgs’ basketball coach, Andy Landers, for whom she lettered, and Claude Felton, the Bulldogs’ virtuoso sports information director, from whom she learned.
“Don’t get me started on Claude,” she smiles. “I might not stop for an hour. Such a wonderful friend and adviser. If he were to call right now and ask me drive to Athens for something, I would drop everything and head that way.”
Felton, the Grady college faculty and others are always giving Maria high marks. But before she says thanks, she unloads kudos in their direction, saying they made her who she is.
And who is Maria Taylor at this point in her career? She is reaching the top in her profession while maintaining a balanced perspective. She’s never reluctant to say thanks and is quick to express gratefulness for where she is and how she got here and thanks for those who helped her.
This year has been a big one for her. She turned 30 in May and got married in late summer. Between the two milestone events, whe was promoted. She’ll join the morning crew on GameDay as a features reporter, and she’ll roam the sidelines at night, working with the ESPN/ABC No. 1 football crew of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit.
That’s heady stuff for a young woman who has always accentuated the work ethic and relationships as a conduit for success. She is as comfortable with a microphone in her hands as she was with a basketball and volleyball during her competitive days at Georgia.
She studies hard when preparing for a game, especially since she knows at halftime she might be interviewing Alabama coach Nick Saban as he comes off the field. That is not a time to shoot from the hip. Ask a good question and you get respect.
“The last thing you want to do,” she says, “is say, ‘Man, the offense is struggling, how are you going to fix it?’ You might get this response: ‘Who says we are struggling? We are not struggling.'”
It became habitual early in her career to evaluate other announcers, paying close attention to their ability to interview a sports personality, whether in a studio with no distractions or outside a locker room in a tight game with overwhelming distractions.
ESPN has something of a short course for its announcers, who work with a broadcast coach who hosts two-day seminars on how to interview and interact with coaches and players. The syllabus for the course includes how to respond if you get a hardball response from an interview subject.
She is mindful of the Georgia graduates who have risen to the pinnacle in television: Amy Robach of Good Morning America, Deborah Roberts of ABC’s 20/20 and Deborah Norville of Inside Edition. There’s also Julie Moran, whose resume shows she hosted NBA Inside Stuff, held a prominent role on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and later served as the lead reporter for Entertainment Tonight. In the Grady galaxy, Taylor is significant on the sports scene.
With a laid-back demeanor, Taylor has learned to manage, among other things, the enduring question about her height. Fans in the street in Charlotte don’t know her like they do in Athens, most of whom get around to saying, “You’re taller than I thought you were.” She smiles and explains that at 6-foot-2, that gives her an opportunity to enjoy college athletic competition and that she “can see over some of those linemen when they are in the huddle and confirm exactly what is going on.”
There is a vast audience that will more readily identify with her this fall. Americans can’t get enough football, and when they watch the TV games in a few weeks, they will get plenty of Maria Taylor. Her star is rising, and her campus fan club — those who have influenced her life and career — will be high-fiving generously in the background. They know that as she is making them proud, she will also be making ESPN’s college football audience take note.