Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Deas captures that elusive contest victory before big move

By Damichael Cole
SJI Class of 2019

The Tuscaloosa News was one of the most successful Gannett publications in Tommy Deas’ 10 years as sports editor. And, according to Deas, it had the third-most APSE contest awards during his tenure, ranking behind The New York Times and Washington Post.
Still, there was one category in which the publication lacked an award — game stories.
Deas ended that drought with the top-ranked game story in the 2018 APSE contest with a story on that year’s College Football Playoff National Championship between Alabama and Georgia. The late-night game went into overtime and Deas scrambled to submit his story after the final whistle. The idea of Alabama’s dynasty falling short was the story.
In overtime, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss. Deas stopped typing on his keyboard to focus on what was happening. In the ensuing play, Alabama connected on a 41-yard touchdown pass to win the game.
“As I’m writing, it appears that Alabama is going to win – then they’re not going to win after the sack,” Deas said. “I really focused in on the ball leaving Tua’s hand and as it was in the air, the dynasty was hanging in the balance.”
The top game story was one of two awards Deas won in the 2018 APSE contest in the small category. He also placed sixth in the contest for an explanatory story about the declining attendance at Alabama football games.
“It’s a live-event problem,” Deas said. “People experience the world through their HD screens, so there’s a generational shift where people aren’t going to games in the numbers that they used to.”
Deas spent 25 years at the Tuscaloosa News before moving to The Tennessean in December. He spent the first 15 years as a sports writer and the last 10 as sports editor.
The Tuscaloosa News’ success as a newspaper in the smallest division wasn’t normal. It consistently bested larger news organization in Deas’ 10 years as sports editor. Deas even won many of those awards himself.
It wasn’t his personal success that pleased Deas most in 2018.
Tuscaloosa News writers Joey Chandler and Terrin Waack both placed in the 2018 contest. Chandler placed fourth in column writing for the second time in three years after Deas told her he wanted to see her develop as a column writer. Waack placed 10th in beat writing as an intern.
“I was able to work hands-on with those young journalists and to see their success, to me, means more,” Deas said.
Waack was hired full time after her internship and credits Deas with a lot of her success.
“He left his fingerprint on the sports section,” Waack said. “Even though he’s gone now, we want to make sure we live up to that standard.”
Deas was hired by the Tennessean and began working as a sports enterprise reporter on Dec. 1, 2018. He held that role for three months before being assigned regional sports editor for Tennessee and Florida.
In his new role, Deas manages more than 30 sports journalist and a dozen properties owned by Gannett across Tennessee and Florida.
Gannett is still the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., but it has undergone changes to fit the audience. The addition of eight regional directors across the country is one of those.
Deas’ experience has helped the Tennessean continue to emphasize the important values of journalism. He believes that storytelling and investigative reporting are as important as ever.
The delivery system is just different.
Deas’ new role presents challenges that come with adjusting to the times. He emphasizes creating a structure with more communication coordination.
One day, Deas may be editing stories and the next day he could be writing one. With the NFL Draft being in Nashville—site of the Tennessean— Deas had to make sure that all of his publications across Tennessee and Florida were covered.
Shifting from the Tuscaloosa News to the Tennessean may have caused a role change, but Deas is still aiming for the same success and impact.