Keith Mann stands at a football press conference wearing Nebraska athletics apparel.
Nebraska associate athletic director for communications Keith Mann stands at a spring football press conference.

Sports media relations professionals form a key cog in the day-to-day operations of Nebraska athletics.

Yet, the average Husker fan likely doesn’t know who they are or what they do. 

Those in the communications office work on a daily basis as the liaison between coaches, athletes and the media. In total, the office employs six full-time professionals along with two others on two-year deals. Additionally, there are staff photographers as well as eight to 10 student workers and six to eight student photographers depending on what the department needs. 

The staff works to facilitate interviews, organize press conferences, compile statistics and fulfill many other duties. Nebraska’s office is among the best in the nation according to the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).

The organization has named Nebraska’s athletic communications staff among its Super 11 eight times since the award began in 2009. The Super 11 is a yearly honor that recognizes the top 11 sports information offices in the Football Bowl Subdivision level. 

Nebraska has appeared on the Super 11 three times in the last four seasons with 2022’s honorees still pending.

Associate athletic director and communications director Keith Mann leads the way at Nebraska. All eight awards occurred under Mann who began his career as Nebraska’s communications director in 2004.  Mann described compared his job to being a conduit between the media, local or national, and Nebraska’s athletes, coaches and administrators. 

Of course that’s not all as sports communication professional does. 

Nebraska’s staff assists with some social media content depending on the sport according to Mann. There’s also daily maintenance of the website such as updating stats, rosters, schedules or creating written content. 

Undoubtedly there has been a strong push toward digital content throughout the last 15 years and the sports media relations field hasn’t escaped it. Like the news outlets they work with on a daily basis, Nebraska’s sports communications office has evolved with the times.

Mann said much of the content his office produces is digital only. However there still is some printed content, such as the football media guide that fans can find in stores. 

Through change, the standards stay the same. Mann said there is no concrete mission statement. The bar is relatively simple: Serving the student athletes, coaches and teams comes first.

“Our job isn’t to be front and center,” Mann said. “Obviously, there’s times when you’re working with the media where it’s a higher profile situation, but we want to be behind the scenes and serving.”

Ted Gangi serves as the webmaster for the FWAA and is the founder of CollegePressBox. His company is a media aggregation website that collects game notes, statistics, media guides and more from sports information offices across Division-I football. Gangi compiles that information on the CollegePressBox website for convenient use.

Gangi has considerate experience working with different sports information teams dating back to his time as a researcher with CBS Sports in the late 1980s. To Gangi, Nebraska’s secret sauce is its consistency. 

“I think it’s one of the best sports information offices in the country independent of the results of the games,” Gangi said. “Nebraska was once a perennial powerhouse in football and while still competitive, and not at that level currently, the level of execution and commitment from the sports information office has never wavered.”

Clemson and Colorado are the only schools to make the Super 11 more times than Nebraska with nine appearances each. That’s impressive to Gangi especially considering how reliant the award is on the head football coach’s willingness to cooperate. The Huskers have had three coaching changes since the birth of the Super 11.

“The services rendered by sports information are critically dependent on the head coach, his coaching staff and how they choose to be perceived or how they choose to be presented to the media,” Gangi said. “The fact of the matter is Nebraska has had some coaching changeover and it’s another area where things have not wavered.”

Nebraska’s media scene is not without its challenges. Perhaps the greatest is the sheer size of the contingent. There are three recruiting-centric websites, two major newspapers, hybrid outlets like Hail Varsity, The Athletic, TV stations and other media organizations. 

“You’ve got so many people that want to share great stories about our teams,” Mann said. “If we’re talking football specifically, they want to talk to a player who has a great story and that type of thing. It’s become harder to arrange a true one-on-one interview with the different sites because there are so many of them.”

For Mann, the media environment in Lincoln bears some parallels to that of the Tennessee Volunteers. He spent the 1996 season in Knoxville as an assistant SID where Mann’s primary focus was with the football program. 

“The fan bases are incredibly passionate,” Mann said. “The media that covers the teams, particularly the football teams, it’s not a, ‘Hey, here’s the six weeks of spring ball, here’s the season and the rest of the year we don’t cover football.’ It’s a 365-day coverage type of situation in both schools.”

Mann said it seems like Nebraska’s media corp grows every year no matter the results of its athletic programs. Steven Sipple is a member of that corp and has been for over 30 years. He began and spent the majority of his career with the Lincoln Journal Star before he jumped to On3 and in June of 2022. 

Sipple described Mann’s operation as professional, matter of fact and helpful. But, there’s another attribute that the columnist has seen Mann display through their working relationship in the past 25 years. 

“What I tell people all the time is he provides a sense of calm,” Sipple said. “Nebraska football is not always calm. There’s not a lot of sanity attached to it, but Keith (Mann) is very sane. He helps maintain sanity and I’ve always appreciated that about him.”

Game day operations is another specialty of Nebraska’s according to Sipple.

“It’s smooth enough that I’ve come to take it for granted,” Sipple said. “I take it for granted until I go to another place and it’s not quite like it is here.”

Mann’s office does what it can to make a writer’s job easier. Sipple highlighted copies of box scores accompanied with complete quotes that the media receive in the press box after returning from postgame interviews as an example. The professional nature of press conferences also stands out. 

“You don’t get that everywhere,” Sipple said. “I can think of one Big Ten school in particular where you have to go look for the box score and you may not even find it.”

Building relationships with media members like Sipple is another important component to the job of a sports communication professional. Mann said good rapport can help to establish ground rules that administrators or coaches want implemented. Oftentimes, these policies are designed to prevent an issue on the front end.

But when conflict does arise, good relationships can make a difficult conversation between a media relations professional and reporter much easier.

“If you develop those relationships with the media, then when you do have to say, ‘Hey you know the article you wrote the other day? I really felt like it was a little unfair because you asked this or you wrote this,’” Mann said. “If you’ve never talked to someone and you come off as doing that it looks like you’re just trying to bully them.”

Even with good ties to the media, sports information can sometimes be a thankless job. 

“I think if you get into this profession, like what Keith (Mann) does, then you know you’re going to be taken for granted,” Sipple said. “And, you do a good job anyway.”

Yet, Nebraska has received that recognition among its peers. Gangi believes the athletics communications office bears similarities to the fanbase it directly and indirectly serves. 

“It’s kind of like the attendance,” Gangi said. “People still come and the sports information office still grinds it out, still works hard, still puts in the hours and still provides the services necessary for a top-rate program.”

Whether it be working through a relations crisis, building website content or conducting gameday operations, there’s a lot an SID can do in a day. To Mann, the job boils down to one simple question. 

“Did we help present Nebraska athletics in a professional and positive way?” Mann said. “Whether that’s through being good partners with the media and communicating well with them (or) whether it’s pitching a story that HuskerOnline does that tells a great story about our athletes. If we’ve done a good job of helping put Nebraska athletics in a positive light, that’s really what we’re here to do.”