Sports

Maria Taylor stands tall for ESPN after overcoming early doubts

Before she came to Tampa this weekend to serve as ESPN's studio host, she worried.

Before she rose to prominence as a college football analyst and reporter for the network, she wondered.

Before she started making regular appearances as a co-host on the morning show Get Up, and before she earned roles in national commercials for Pizza Hut, Mercedes Benz and Home Depot, Maria Taylor actually considered a career correction.

While living in her parents' Atlanta home as a 24-year-old – on their insurance – and doing freelance volleyball and basketball for Comcast and Fox Sports South, doubt crept into her thinking.

"I went back to school to get my Masters in Business because I really didn't think it was going to work out," said Taylor, now 31. "I didn't have a full-time job and I was like this isn't going to work. At some point, I'm going to turn 26 and my parents will not be giving me insurance anymore.

"So that was really a gut check moment like, 'Are you really going to dive into this or are you gonna change where you want you to go with your life?' So I stuck with it and it all worked out, but I was preparing for the alternative for sure."

Now the 6-foot-2 Taylor stands as a bonafide star. A former University of Georgia volleyball and basketball player, she brings athletic knowledge and an easy manner to broadcasts, even managing to hold her composure last fall as Alabama coach Nick Saban snapped at her about a postgame question regarding the play of quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.

"I've been yelled at by coaches since I was 12 years old playing AAU basketball. You know what I mean? I've been called everything under the sun, and by any coach you can imagine," Taylor told ESPN's Paul Finebaum days after the incident drew national attention. "So it didn't really affect me in that way. I understand that at times coaches get heated, and there are things they don't really want to talk about. As a sideline reporter, you're in the line of fire, and I just got lit up once. And that's fine. "

Saban called and apologized minutes after she drove away from the stadium.

Taylor, who joined ESPN in 2014 and helped it launch the SEC Network, said she didn't succeed without help, counting among her mentors ABC Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, who spent 15 years at ESPN as a sportscaster.

Taylor and Roberts communicate often. She has shadowed Roberts at work, and Roberts has even visited her at the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn. Taylor says success leaves clues.

"The point of that was no one should ever want to be somebody else, but you can take hints from their journey and use them to strategize your next step," Taylor said. "Always being authentic and genuine, and being yourself and recognizing when someone is good at something, and try to figure out why. That's where those clues come in."

She also said that Roberts advised her to be present at the moment whether she's in the workplace or doing community service.

"Just having this positive aura, having this excitement and willingness to do anything and everything that is put in front of you," Taylor explained. "That's something that I really took away."

And her resume reflects that: a willingness to do everything with an attitude that doesn't yield to fatigue or frustration. ESPN women's college basketball analyst Andy Landers, who coached Taylor in college, said he still gets calls and texts from people he hasn't spoken to in decades telling him how good she is and asking if she is as nice as it seems on TV.

The answer he says is always yes.

"She makes me feel smart," Landers said, but it's also a joy because she is such a good person, she cares so deeply about other people and what she does, and works really, really hard and prepares intensely so that she can make it look easy."

Studio analyst Rebecca Lobo also raved about Taylor's attitude, and said the network is lucky to have her own women's basketball. It's a complimentary suggestion that Taylor could claim to be too successful for the sport, but Landers said Taylor remains humble.

"It's just amazing how many people she touches and impresses like that, and what's cool is, it's real. I'm most proud that she stayed true to who she is. She's the same person that she was when she was a student at the University of Georgia. She's big time, but she ain't big time. That's the best thing about her. I think a lot of time when people make it, they change a little bit and she hasn't."

Taylor's experience as a student-athlete benefits her career tremendously, giving her a talking point to break the ice with players and coaches, but she says it's no substitute for knowing the sports. Unlike many of the network's hosts, she combines that playing experience with a deft ability to pose the right questions to analysts.

Pat Lowry, ESPN's program coordinating producer, says Taylor's experience coming in as a former college athlete helps the network get just what it needs from coaches, and even helped ESPN score a Sports Emmy nomination for Outstanding Playoff Coverage of the NCAA Women's Basketball Final Four.

"She can tee up any analyst, especially with Coach Landers because of their relationship," Lowry said. "She has a way of weaving everything together that is a natural talent that not everybody has and she's just incredible at it. The sky's the limit for her."

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