When preparation meets opportunity with cornell jones
Cornell W. Jones is a graduate of Winston-Salem State University and currently the host and producer of SportsCenter franchise segment OffSCenter, the voice of College Basketball Billboards on ESPN, and an Associate Producer in the Features Unit.
Over the course of OffSCenter, Cornell has had the opportunity to interview over 50 athletes and celebrities including Von Miller, Kevin Hart, Mark Whalburg, Candace Parker, Ice Cube, Richard Sherman, and many more.
Performing over 100 voice-over packaged pieces for specialty shows as well as voicing weekly College Basketball Billboards are additional highlights of his catalogue at ESPN.
In addition to these original content and voice-over responsibilities, Cornell serves as a Producer in the Features Unit servicing SportsCenter. His highlighted features include production for Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union, The Warriors, The British Open, Floyd Mayweather, Northwestern University, and more.
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Written by: (Brandon Alexander)
tell us about your childhood and what you wanted to be?
Cornell: I grew up in suburbs of Manassas, Virginia – The DMV. I was raised in the suburbs but I vacationed in the hood. My mom is a principal, and my dad is a psychological therapist. He's from Alexandria, Virginia, which, is a little bit more rugged. I used to go there with my cousins on the weekends. Growing up was beautiful. We went to church about three days a week. I had to get A’s in school or else my mother would get on me. She was my principal in middle school and high school. I always tell people she's suspended me twice.
I knew from a young age I wanted to talk but I didn't know what I wanted to do. When I got to high school I started watching ESPN. I thought to myself, “These guys like talking about sports and seem to be making some money.” I wanted to go down that path so in high school I joined different clubs that allowed me access to cameras. I fell in love with that side of it as well. From age 17 on, I knew I wanted to be a reporter and anchor in the sports arena.
What college did you go to?
Cornell: College is when I knew what I wanted to do. I studied mass communications at Winston-Salem State University. I ran track at Winston as well so my schedule was busy. It taught me how to be “who I am” if that makes sense. I went into Winston as one person and it enhanced me ten times over. As far as the home atmosphere of the HBCU, it was a vibe.
What was your first job after graduation?
Upon graduation it was hard. That was the part where I struggled the most because I applied to 47 TV stations, and got a ton of job rejections. Luckily, my mom helped me out and gave me a permanent substitute teaching job. It was rough at first but then I attended a conference by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). It is a yearly conference you have to go to if you're a journalist. Once I was there I started talking to different people such as Jay Harris, who's my frat brother.
A woman by the name of Kim Blue saw me walking by as I was waiting for Jay and she said, “Hey can I talk to you” I said, “No, I'm waiting for Jay and she said “do you want a job?” I said, “yes I do let me tighten myself up and come talk to you.” We talked for about like 2 or 3 hours and that’s how I got my start at ESPN.
What’s your role at espn?
Cornell: Currently, I am the voice-over artist for college basketball billboards. When you hear ESPN's exclusive presentation of college basketball is brought to you by – that’s me. I also do ESPN Plus which is one of our new platforms.
I also do longer form features as well. It's a lot of long nights in the voice-over booth by yourself listening to yourself. It's a little weird but you get used to it. I do it so much now I probably have it in my bag but I have a personal mic that I travel with and if they called me and say, “Hey we need this voice over.” I'll set up my mic, get under a blanket to block the echoes out and then I'll just start talking with my computer. It's like a little home studio right there.
I was producing a piece and it just so happens the talent was running late one day so they couldn't get to the audio booth to voice it over. I decided to just go in voice it over myself as a scratch track. Surprisingly, my manager heard it and said it was good. I was like “Wait, we have to wait for the actual voice-over. I have to replace it.” She insisted we put it on the air.
Who are your mentors?
Cornell: My father, he started a group called The Untouchables in DC. It's a youth mentorship group where we would go to Alexandria with a group of 40 to 50 young black men. They used to take us to sailboat camp and I learned how to sail as a kid. They also took us to basketball games from a young age. Throughout college, my mentors were my directors. At ESPN I mentioned my frat brother, Jay Harris.
What is your passion?
Cornell: My passion in life is seeing others succeed!
When I was a track coach at Osborn high school, my favorite student-athlete was Michaela Johnson. At the beginning of the year she's a basketball player who doesn't want to run track, but I get her out there and she starts to try different events. Over the course of six months she gets to the state championships. That moment made me tear up inside because seeing someone succeed after working so hard for so long is what it’s all about. Personally, I'm working for the kids that I don't have yet. I'm setting a foundation for my family. I want to see my kids succeed, I want to see my family, my friends, and my inner circle succeed. Generational wealth is everything to me. That's what gets me going. I need everyone around me to be successful.
What challenges have you faced in your career?
Cornell: There were a lot of challenges. Just getting in the door at ESPN was very difficult. I may be one of the first, if not the first, to come in to ESPN as a production assistant, become an associate producer, and then go straight on TV. Usually when you start at a company, they say, “Just focus on your job and you’ll be fine.” I had a greater vision, and not to say that it's the right vision or the wrong vision, but I just needed to take a different path. Getting past other people’s perception that I was just a production assistant and just doing this on the side was very difficult for me. I set myself up by wearing ties every day, wearing suits, and shaking people's hands. You have to be seen as more than just what your job title is. Once you get over one hurdle, there's always the next one. Just continuing to get over that is my biggest challenge.
What INSPIRES you to succeed?
Cornell: My inner circle. I have two main friends that I love to death, Desmond Barnes and Jonathan Jackson. They inspire me because of everything they do. Someone else in the group chat, Michael Varner who's a teacher is now going on world tours. One my friends, Des, quit his job at Walmart to be a travel agent. He wanted to live in Thailand for six months and to me that's inspiring because I don't know if I could even imagine quitting my job and just going to live in Thailand. Now he's creating trips for hundreds of people at a time. It’s inspiring when I see that in my inner circle because my mantra in life is “Dream, Work and Pray It Can Happen.” It can happen any day.
do you believe everyone has a dream?
Cornell: Everyone has a dream they're just scared to admit it to themselves or they're scared to go after it because it seems too crazy. I used to tell my students all the time, “tell me a dream and if it doesn't make me laugh, it's not big enough.” When I was in high school I’d say, “I'm going to work at ESPN. I'm going to be an ESPN anchor.” People would say, “You tripping boy.” I believed in my heart I was going to do it. When people from high school see me today they say, “I remember you told me like ten years ago.”
What frustrates you most about today’s culture?
Cornell: I always say that our generation seems to be imprisoned at the moment. We have so much history to lean on that we don't know about and that's not to our fault a hundred percent, but it's to our fault once we get to a certain age. Because we can read. We can open the internet, do research, and I'm in a sports mindset, but there's so much history outside of sports as well. Don't just live in this moment, lean back on what happened, lean back on what worked. Everyone was together back then.
Which book has impacted you the most?
Cornell: The five love languages. As I mentioned earlier, I'm getting married. I started reading that book and it tells you so much about how you love and how your partner loves. If you're looking to get into a relationship or if you're in one, I would definitely suggest to pick up that book.
what advice would you give to a young broadcast journalist?
Cornell: Don't get discouraged. People turn down good ideas all the time. Mark Shapiro, who was a senior vice president at ESPN had an idea for a show and people said no. When he got promoted to the director of content, I believe, he said, “I'm doing this show” and it was Pardon the Interruption (PTI). It's the most amazing show and everybody loves it, but people told him no. I figured if on that level somebody can tell him no to a great idea, don't be discouraged when you have an idea that you know is hot.
Let everyone know how they can find you online.
Cornell: You can find me on main platforms such as ESPN Plus, espn.com or on social media @CornellWJones.
Interested in learning more or connecting with Cornell?