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Van Earl Wright

From Coliseum to Coliseum
How one SJMC Alum made the move from sports journalism to hit NBC show

by Barry Gabay

Upon first glance at Van Earl Wright, you may not realize that you have just seen someone special. Aside from the piercing eyes and perfectly groomed hair, Wright looks like your everyday guy.

But when he opens his mouth and the bellowing trombone that is his voice envelops your ears, you know that you are not in the company of any ordinary individual.

You are in the company of a man with one of the most recognizable voices in sports.

Van Earl Wright (SJMC, 1984), or just Van Earl for those close to him, has more than 20 years of broadcasting experience. And now he’s the voice of NBC’s smash hit “American Gladiators,” an opportunity he has long awaited. He was first contacted by NBC last year.

“They tracked me down and asked if I was interested in doing the play-by-play for their new show,” Wright said.

The show they pitched to Wright was a new edition of the original “American Gladiators” that aired on CBS from 1989 to 1996 where amateur athletes compete in various physical competitions against the show’s own “gladiators” in hopes of advancing to the next round. At each season’s end, one male and one female athlete would be crowned champion.

Van Earl Wright was the first recipient of the School's Outstanding Young Alumni Award. This flash video contains Dr. Kent Sidel's introduction and Wright's comments during the 1993 ceremony.

But Wright didn’t immediately pounce on the opportunity.

“I was skeptical at first,” Wright recalled. “I wasn’t familiar with the old ‘American Gladiators’ and I didn’t know what a big deal it was for NBC.”

Only after watching YouTube videos of the old show and seeing what specifically his role would be did Wright accept the job.

demosThe first season of “Gladiators,” which is hosted by former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan and professional boxer Layla Ali, was a tremendous success. Twelve premier on Jan. 6 and the ratings for the show’s Monday night time slot were great throughout the season.

“We were extremely happy. I was overwhelmed,” Wright recalled about learning of the premier’s ratings. “It exceeded everyone’s expectations. Great numbers are exciting for the future.”

So just how did a former Gamecock become the voice of a major primetime network program? The path from USC’s School of Journalism to the L.A. limelight was no easy journey.

Wright grew up in Atlanta, but was born to bleed garnet and black. Twenty-three of his relatives, including his parents, Beth and George Wright (Class of 1950), and all three of his siblings are USC grads.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Carolina that Wright realized he wanted to become a sportscaster. His first experience came at WUSC, the student- run radio station on campus, where he hosted a Sunday night jazz show. The following summer, he accepted an internship at CNN in hopes of getting some real world experience.

“I saw those guys getting paid to watch games and talk about sports and I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Wright said.

Wright spent his first five years after graduation working in small markets around the Southeast as a sports anchor in Charleston; Tupelo, Miss.; and Beaumont, Texas, all the while growing frustrated and antsy.

“Any time I’d go back to Atlanta, I’d go down to CNN and they always told me, ‘You’re not ready, you’re not ready,’” Wright said. “I thought they were the dumbest people in the world, but they were right.”

American GladiatorFinally in 1989, Wright was hired by CNN to do the two-minute segment “Headline Sports.”

Although his face was never shown on television, Wright made the most of his two minutes. He began using quirky inflections in his broadcasts most notably an elongated pronunciation of “Los An-gee-leeeeeez” and home run calls of “Deeeeeeeeeeep over the wall.”

His broadcasts drew national attention. While watching Monday Night Football, Wright heard Al Michaels say, “Los An-gee-leeeeeez, as Van Earl Wright says.”

“At that time, most sportscasters were playing it straight,” Wright said. “For me, sports has always been fun and my enthusiasm came across in my reports and in my voice.”

After four years at CNN, Wright accepted the Sports Director’s position at WDIV-TV in Detroit in 1993 where he stayed until the fall of 1996 when he moved up to the big show in Los Angeles.

After a brief stint on HBO’s Arli$$, Wright got back into sportscasting in September 1997 and began a 10-year run with Fox Sports Net. Wright worked as lead anchor for the nationally televised Fox Sports News and National Sports Report before hosting the sports highlight show Final Score beginning in July 2006.

Working at Fox Sports Net gave Wright the opportunity to interview some of the biggest names in all of sports, but Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Julius Erving and Brett Favre stand out.

“All those guys are people first and athletes second,” Wright said. “They treated me with respect and courtesy and they did not think they were better than anybody else despite their athletic ability.”

Then last year, NBC came calling. The rest of Wright’s history is being written.

The 46-year-old Wright now lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif. with his wife of 15 years, Shari, and kids Alla, 12, Bishop, 10, and Elizabeth, 6. He’s enjoying the West Coast.

“Lots of people, the weather’s fantastic, no humidity, but I miss the South,” Wright said. “I’m ready to come home.”

When asked if he still thinks of the South as his home, Wright immediately responded, “Absolutely.”

He misses the people and culture, his family and the food, especially his favorite meal— “fried chicken, rice and gravy, butter beans, my mama’s cornbread, and turnip greens. Out here, I’ve got to cook it myself, though, because I married a Yankee girl!”

A great sense of happiness and pride can be heard in that bellowing trombone when Van Earl Wright reflects on his home and his past. He carries the spirit of Carolina with him wherever he goes. While watching the conclusion of the most recent installment of the USC-Clemson football saga, his son began slamming pillows on the ground in disgust at yet another Gamecock defeat.

All Wright could think was, “Oh no, I’ve cursed another generation.”

His son continually asks him, “Dad, why do all your ancestors have to be Gamecocks?”

The University of South Carolina will always be a home to the entire Wright family, but for now Wright is loving the Golden State.

“Life is very, very good,” Wright said. “I’m very thankful for ‘Gladiators.’ I have been blessed immensely.”

Barry Gabay photo

Barry Gabay

Barry Gabay is a fourth-year print journalism student from Richmond, Va. He wrote this article for InterCom, the SJMC alumni newsletter, at the urging of Ernest Wiggins, whom Barry calls his "absolute favorite professor."

Barry loves writing, especially creative travel pieces. His goal upon graduation is to be able to travel, teach, and write for as long as he can.