Last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, billions of people all over the world took to their homes, staying indoors to keep themselves and each other safe. Unfortunately for Tony Barnhart, a decades long veteran of the sports journalism world, his home wasn’t necessarily the safest place for him to be.
A tree fell on Barnhart’s Dunwoody home in the middle of the pandemic, he said while sitting in his home office, his new Georgia Sports Hall of Fame plaque sitting off to the side, not yet hung.
Barnhart – who covered college football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 25 years and worked for CBS Sports before joining the SEC Network in 2014 – found out he would join the 2021 class of inductees while living in an Airbnb house last year waiting for his home to be fixed.
“I got a phone call from a guy by the name of Bill Shanks, who’s a local radio personality who works with the Hall of Fame,” Barnhart said, harkening back to when he found out. “Bill called and said, ‘I know we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but I’ve got some news for you.’”
In an interview with The Reporter, Barnhart discussed how he got his start, the different transitions in his career, the Hall of Fame induction, and why he and his wife have lived in Dunwoody for so long.
Let’s start with a bit of background on you. Where are you from? How did you get into journalism?
Tony Barnhart: I grew up in a little town called Union Point, Ga. It’s in Greene County – get on I-20 in Atlanta, start heading towards Augusta, and when you’re about halfway to Augusta, there’s a sign that says Union Point, population 1,500. I went to Greene County High School in Greensboro, Ga. and played football – not very well, but I played football.
I had an English teacher. Her name was Tommi Ward, and she told me, “You know, if you work at this, you might be able to write for a living.” She encouraged me to do that. Originally, I thought I wanted to be a football coach, but ultimately decided I wanted to give writing a shot. I started at Georgia Southern, transferred to journalism school at [The University of] Georgia, and graduated from Georgia in journalism school in 1976.
Where did you first work out of school?
[I] began with a small newspaper in Union, S.C. I was there for about nine months, [then] moved to Greensboro, N.C., for about seven and a half years.
Both [my wife] Maria and I are from Georgia. She was my high school sweetheart. The goal was always to get back to Atlanta, and to work for the AJC. That happened in 1984. I was with [The AJC] almost 25 years, then in 2008 when the economy tanked, they started doing buyouts. The best advice I got was, you can make it on your own in radio and television if you leave the AJC. So we did. I’ve been on my own ever since.
At those papers in South Carolina and North Carolina, were you covering college football?
The newspaper in Union was a small daily, and we did everything. You covered high school football, you covered college football, you did baseball, you did everything. But yeah, I spent a lot of time in South Carolina at Clemson when I was in Union. In Greensboro, you’re right in the middle of the [Atlantic Coast Conference.] So I covered ACC football and basketball there. Then I came to Atlanta in 1984 as the [University of] Georgia beat writer.
Have you lived in Dunwoody since you moved back to Georgia?
When we moved to Atlanta in 1984, I was covering [The University of Georgia] exclusively … so I had to be on the east side of town so I could get to Athens really quickly. So we moved to Stone Mountain. We were in Stone Mountain for 10 years … [but] we had friends who lived here in Dunwoody and just fell in love. It’s not too far in, it’s not too far out. It’s a great community, great people. So we moved into [our] house in 1994, and just never considered leaving.
You mentioned the best piece of advice you got was “you can make it on your own in radio and television.” Who told you that?
I had been doing television and radio on the side. My primary job, of course, was with the AJC, [but] I was doing work for ESPN, I was doing work with CBS. My agent – a great guy by the name of Mark Carmony – I went to him because he’d been negotiating all of my television and radio contracts. I said, “Mark, this is a little scary – cutting the umbilical cord of the AJC which has always been the mothership. Can we do this?” We’d had to say no over the years, because there just wasn’t time to do it. Would there be enough people still asking that we could afford to leave the AJC? And he said, “Yeah, we can.”
That was a great piece of advice. I’ve never regretted it. The newspaper business was in a tough spot in 2008 when the economy tanked, and it turned out to be a good decision.
What have you been doing since you left the AJC?
I had been doing some work for CBS in the studio in New York. We had a 30-minute pregame that led into the SEC Game of the Week … I would do that show several times a year in New York and then other times I would do it from the location for whatever game I was covering. When I left the AJC, I got a call from a guy by the name of Michael Aresco, who was the [executive vice president] of programming at CBS [at the time]. CBS owns a cable station called the CBS Sports Network. And they said, “We’re looking for programming for that cable. How would you like to have your own show?” I said, “I really think I’d like to do that.”
So for four years, I flew to New York every single Monday during the football season, and wrote and helped produce [The Tony Barnhart Show]. We would tape the show on Tuesday, and I would fly home. Some Saturdays, I would go back to New York to do that Saturday show, so there were weeks when I made two trips to New York each week. I think that 2009 year, I ended up going to New York 29 times. 2009 was the craziest year I ever had, because it was the Tuesday show in New York, sometimes the Saturday show in New York, and in between we were doing a show for CSS. CSS is now out of business, but it was a regional cable network that was very popular. We did a show called “Talking Football” twice a week on television.
Did that film in Atlanta?
Yeah, this was from Atlanta … My wife will tell you that that was the craziest year ever.
So did all that back and forth end in 2014?
In 2014 when The SEC Network was going to launch, they reached out to us. They said, “Would you be interested in working for The SEC Network?” I told Maria, “You know honey, if The SEC Network makes an offer, we’re going to have to consider it.” She said, “Well, first of all, we’re not going to consider it, we’re going to do it.”
So The SEC Network launched in 2014, and I left CBS to go do that, because that’s what I’ve been doing all my career. And we’re still there.
What does a typical day look like for you now? I realize the COVID-19 pandemic might have changed that a bit.
We’ll absolutely have to write off [the pandemic] as one of those things. This is my 45th year doing this. Last year was the first time in 45 years that I did not go to a single game. I could have managed the virus … but I didn’t go to any games because frankly, I couldn’t talk to anybody. Can I talk to the coaches before the game? No. Can I talk to the coaches after the game? No. Can I talk to the players after the game? They’ll be on Zoom. Everything was done on Zoom. It didn’t make any sense for me to get in a car and sit in the press box where there’s Plexiglass on either side. It made for a weird season. My hope is that things are going to be closer to normal this year.
Typically, in a normal college football season, I do two or three columns a week for a website that me and two of my newspaper buddies put together. You may go to campus on Monday or Tuesday leading up to a big game. If you do that, you’d write midweek columns and travel on Friday, game on Saturday, come back on Sunday. Then you’ve got conference calls during the week, and you work on the phones, stuff like that. It’s not as crazy as it used to be.
Do you have any sense of how things are going to progress coming out of last season, COVID-19 safety-wise?
I’ve asked everybody that’s involved, and they’ve all said the same thing – we’re going 100% until somebody tells us we can’t.
You’ve seen the business change throughout your career. What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s looking to get started in sports journalism today?
This generation and the last generation of journalists have to have as many tools in the toolbox as they can come up with. You need to know how to write, you need to know how to video, you need to know how to edit video …. When I started in this business, if I was doing a stand up at a stadium, we would have a cameraman, a producer, and somebody else to help us out. Now, you’ve got a cameraman, and that’s about it.
You’ve got to be able to do everything.
I feel like the whole journalism industry is moving that way.
Absolutely. That’s what journalism schools are doing now. You’ve got to teach people how to do more than one thing … Put it this way – the people who can do more than one thing have an advantage in the marketplace over those who can’t.
You were recently inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. When did you find out about the induction?
Oh, that’s an interesting story. The committee that meets to pick – I’ve served on that committee, and they meet during the fall. You’ve got to get the picture – we’re not even in [our] house because of [a tree that fell on our home last year]. We’re living in an Airbnb house. Maria and I are sharing the dining room table – I worked on one end of the table, and she worked on the other end of the table with a printer in the middle that we would share – really glamorous stuff.
Were you expecting it?
I knew there was a possibility, but when you’re told, you’re still in shock. Did you really pick me? I mean, I went in with [former Atlanta Braves] Tom Glavine, Brian Jordan, people like that. It was incredible. I was very excited. You know, you grow up in a little town like Union Point, you never think that kind of thing could happen to you.
Yeah, imagine yourself onstage with Tom Glavine.
It was cool! First of all, Tom Glavine is a great guy. I never spent any time with him because I didn’t cover the Braves. But he was just as nice a guy as he could be. We had guys like Matt Stinchcomb, who was an All-American at [The University of Georgia]. Maya Moore, one of the greatest basketball players in history, male or female. It was a really neat night.
Can you describe the night and the ceremony?
They have the ceremony at a place called Macon Auditorium. It’s not the Macon Coliseum, that’s where they play basketball … It’s a two-day event. On Friday, they bring you in and they have a reception, literally at the Hall of Fame. You know The Masters? You get a green jacket. When you’re in the Georgia Hall of Fame, you get a blue blazer with a patch on it … so they have a jacket presentation ceremony, which is really neat.
Then on Saturday, they have two events. One is a sort of “fan fest,” where all the fans come. They [have] not only the new Hall of Famers … but all the former Hall of Famers come back. They put us in a ring upstairs and people come by and do autographs. I would sign my little name, and I would look down and there’s Tom Glavine, and there’s this guy with boxes of balls and cards, and Tom just sat there – Dude, I’m not signing all that.
Then the dinner that night was “coat and tie” and we wore our jackets that they gave us. You have a parade, they march you through, say hi to the crowd and sit down. Then they introduce you and then you get three minutes to thank everybody in your life who ever helped you.
Well, is there anything else you’d like to say?
I would just say I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with a lot of really good people. No question that getting the break to come to the AJC in 1984 – that was the first big break. And the second big break is when I started doing television work at ESPN.
Funny thing – DeKalb County used to have what they would call the cable access channel, where they put city council meetings and all that kind of stuff … One of the things they did was high school football. They put me on a couple of high school broadcasts, and they had a sports talk show that they would run. I was just awful. But you have to learn how to be bad. And I learned how to do television because the guys at ESPN taught me how to do that.
I was really lucky that a lot of people helped me along.