Sports Information honors students with Pinsky, Deford Awards, address by NBC correspondent Ken Dilanian ʼ91

Kent Barbir

Intelligence and national security correspondent for NBC News Ken Dilanian ’91 spoke at the ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Dick Quinn.)

On Saturday, the Sports Information department honored six student workers for their contributions to Eph Sports Information through the Deford and Pinsky Awards. Both awards, according to Director of Sports Information Dick Quinn, are the only ones of their kind in college sports.

The Deford Award, presented annually to top student Sports Information assistants since 1990, honors contributions to the fields of sportswriting, photography and statistics. The award is named for six-time National Sportswriter of the Year Frank Deford, a longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and NPR, whom Quinn referred to as his “all-time favorite sportswriter.”

A few weeks after Quinn arrived at the College in the fall of 1989, he decided that he wanted to create an award honoring exceptional student contributors to the Sports Information department. For Quinn, there was no better namesake for the award than Deford, whom he knew personally. “Frank and I shared a love for the color purple and a love for our daughters, both of whom had cystic fibrosis, and left us way too soon,” Quinn said.

After meeting with Deford through a Williams connection, Quinn was able to persuade him to come to Williamstown and present the award himself, first at the inaugural event in April 1990 and for several years thereafter. Deford would also receive an honorary degree from the College in 2016.

The Pinsky Award, now in its 13th year, focuses on student broadcasters who cover live Eph sporting events. The award is named for Aaron Pinsky ʼ06, a former student broadcaster who passed away from an incurable form of brain cancer in 2010. “Two of Aaron’s friends, Mike Needham ʼ04 and Zach Ulman ʼ06, asked me in the fall of 2009 if an award could be created in Aaron’s name so he would know he would never be forgotten at Williams,” Quinn said.

This year, the honorees for the Deford Award were Joe LaRocca ʼ22, Xander Utecht ʼ22.5, and Dan Vaughn ʼ22.5.

LaRocca, who spent four years on Sports Information covering men’s cross-country, men’s tennis, women’s basketball, football, and softball, was described by Quinn as a dedicated employee with great attention to detail. “He easily could have been named Earnest, because that is one of his striking characteristics,” Quinn joked.

Utecht, a captain of the football team, was honored for his work with the Sports Information statistics team, helping to compile in-game stats and train other student contributors. “A stat crew has to function as a team.” Quinn said. “Xander’s maturity and commitment to detail was exemplary.”

Vaughn, also a member of the football team, compiled statistics for men’s and women’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s lacrosse, softball, and baseball. “Their maturity and focus on getting things right are attributes honed by their Williams football experience,” Quinn said. “Xander and Dan were just two of the 75 reasons that Eph football went 9–0–0 in the fall.”

The Pinsky Award was given to Matt Freitas ʼ23, Rachel Neugart ʼ22, and Lulu Whitmore ʼ23.

Freitas, a member of men’s lacrosse, is “the go-to-person when an event needs a talented student color commentator,” Quinn said. Color commentators help play-by-play commentators, hired externally from the Northeast Sports Network [NSN], by filling in with notes, statistics, and commentary during webcasts of Eph athletic games. During his time at the College, Freitas has covered football, women’s soccer, wrestling, and both men’s and women’s basketball.

Neugart, a softball captain and the current co-president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, was the Public Address (PA) announcer for football and volleyball, also writing recaps for the latter. Quinn recalled how Neugart excelled in her football announcer role in particular, although she initially expressed doubts about her fit for the position. “Soon after Rachel started, I was being stopped on Spring St. and asked who the new PA person was at football,” Quinn said. “Everyone remarked about her energy and passion and her resonant voice.”

Neugart’s announcing even received plaudits from Berkshire Eagle sports columnist Howard Herman, who called her “the best PA person I’ve heard here at football.”

Whitmore, who works in the Sports Information office and also runs the Eph Sports Instagram account, was recognized by Quinn for her contributions as a color commentator for volleyball, apparent even to the NSN commentators she was paired with. “Soon after she started, the NSN folks were all raving about her knowledge and commentary,” he said.

The featured speaker for the awards ceremony was Ken Dilanian ʼ91, intelligence and national security correspondent for NBC News. Dilanian, while better known on the national stage for his journalistic work, recovered what was described by Quinn as “the most famous fumble in Williams football history.” In the final game of the 1989 season against Amherst, Dilanian, a defensive end, recovered a fumble with under a minute remaining to give the Ephs a 17-14 win, securing the team’s first-ever undefeated season in its 108 years of history.

Dilanian’s talk, titled “Why a Williams education beats journalism school,” focused mostly on his work in journalism, a career spanning three decades and including time at USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and The Associated Press. At the College, Dilanian majored in history and political science and wrote opinion pieces for the Record on the Gulf War. By the time he graduated from the College, Dilanian knew that he wanted to pursue a career as a journalist. “It was the golden age of newspapers,” Dilanian said. “It was really hard to get a newspaper job.”

While Dilanian managed to find a position with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he said much of his initial work was obscure. “The first story I ever wrote at the Philadelphia Inquirer was about a pet funeral at a pet cemetery,” he said. After his initial stint with the Inquirer, Dilanian moved to Texas and worked for a few different local papers, covering cases on governmental corruption and the death penalty. Eventually, Dilanian returned to the Inquirer, where he covered the state legislature in Harrisburg, European news in Rome as part of the Inquirer’s foreign bureau, and long-term investigative pieces in Philadelphia as a member of the investigative team.

In 2007, Dilanian moved to Washington, D.C., to join USA Today, where he spent three years until moving to the LA Times’s Washington bureau. At the LA Times, Dilanian was assigned to the intelligence beat, a job he looked back on as one of the toughest of his career due to its sensitive and confidential nature. “There’s no press room in the CIA,” Dilanian said. “I knew I was going to get my butt kicked for two years, but after the two years, it would be worth it.”

The struggle ended up paying off. Dilanian leveraged his experience to move to The Associated Press in the same beat, then NBC soon after. Since Dilanian had spent most of his career at newspapers, he said the different focus of NBC as a company proved both an exciting and challenging adjustment. “I had never really done much TV [work] — I didn’t really know what the TV world was,” Dilanian said. “[But] if you’re a reporter on a television network, you kind of want to be on television … It was like learning a new career after 25 years in the newspaper business, like telling stories with a lot of pictures.”

Initially a reporter for the network, Dilanian moved into a position as a correspondent, covering intelligence stories such as the Mueller Report live on-air for NBC News. “That was the most television I’ve ever done,” Dilanian said. “I was on like nine times a day.”

Dilanian ended the talk by fielding questions from the audience, reflecting upon the future of journalism as a field. “The existing business model of newspapers has failed,” he said. “[But] I think there will always be a way of delivering local news, because our democracy depends on it.”