Sports Journalism Institute

Helping women and minorities get into newsrooms since 1993

Dinich is first SJI alum to nab Investigative award

Madisen Carter
SJI Class of 2019

There’s a first time for everything. And Heather Dinich is proof of that.
Dinich, an ESPN college football reporter, is the first Sports Journalism Institute alum to win first place in the investigative category of the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest for her reporting on Maryland’s offensive lineman Jordan McNair.
McNair died of heatstroke, suffered during a football workout May 29.
“I was not expecting it,” Dinich said. “I was honored to be a part of it because it was a collaborative effort from start to finish. Each of us had a different role and different strengths throughout the reporting process of it, and for that to be recognized was really an honor.”
Dinich was one of the three journalists reporting the story. ESPN’s national college football insider, Adam Rittenberg, and ESPN’s college football and recruiting reporter, Tom VanHaaren, also had part of reporting and putting the McNair story together.
“I am really proud to work with Heather and Tom, I couldn’t have asked to work with better colleagues to go into a story like this with,” Rittenberg said. “Heather and I have worked together for many years, we joined ESPN really close together.”
The whole process of reporting on McNair went on from early June throughout early November 2018. Because Dinich is based in Maryland, only 30 miles outside of College Park, her role was significant throughout the process.
Dinich went to all the press conferences regarding McNair and did live and standup shots. The attorneys for McNair were located in Baltimore, and she would travel to their offices for meeting with the lawyers.
Dinich even took a train to New York to conduct an interview with McNair’s parents, Marty McNair and Tonya Wilson.
The in-depth investigative reporting was something Dinich was not 100% familiar with. The first-place story in the investigative category was her first investigative story – ever.
“The investigative side was a complete learning process for me,” Dinich said. “To be able to have the resources at ESPN was what made it all possible.”
Deputy sports editors who do investigative journalism as a living guided Dinich, Rittenberg and VanHaaren along the way. They helped them know what they should be requesting and what specific questions to ask, Dinich said. They bounced ideas off of and received suggestions from two of the top investigative journalists, Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach.
As college football was starting in August, Dinich had more work to do. Dinich would balance the McNair investigation going to meetings and press conferences, while starting the first week of October, flying to ESPN to do studio work covering college football.
“It was a lot, but it was rewarding in terms of what we do. That’s why we do what we do, for stories like that, that have real meaning,” Dinich said. “I think all of us really felt good in the end and thought, ‘Wow, we wrote something that mattered.’”
Dinich first started with ESPN in 2007. She began covering college football playoffs in 2013 and has since become known as an expert in the field.
Through it all, Dinich has been to many colleges and said the traditions of the schools is her favorite part of the whole process.
“The traditions keeps you young and it’s special to every school; it’s unique in every different part of the country,” Dinich said. “I feel like what separates college football from the NFL is that you went to school there; you have a tie there that will never go away. I feel like those traditions and that connection is what makes it so special, so unique and so fun.”
As the first SJI alumni to win first place in the investigative category, and with the career growth she’s had at ESPN, Dinich said that the Sports Journalism Institute helped her with her career tremendously.
“It helps you see the real world and expectations,” said Dinich, who was in the Class of 1999. “You come out prepared for the real-world experience in the field, and it’s so beneficial and important that they do that for students because there aren’t enough minorities and women in newsrooms.”
Dinich is a professional mentor at the University of Maryland and part of organizations such as the Association for Women in Sports Media and the Football Writers Association of America.
Looking back at her career, Dinich had a few words to say to all the aspiring sports journalists:
“Don’t stop trying and don’t give up when you get those rejection letters because you do get them,” Dinich said. “One day you get that one acceptance letter, that one job, that makes all the difference, and it changes your career path.”