A sports junkie and his Bears: Chris Mitchell has the best job in the world
In October of 2013, Chris Mitchell wanted to recognize a sophomore on the Washington University women’s golf team, Connie Zhou, who was coming off a fantastic week. Zhou had beaten the Wash. U. 54-hole record and had secured her first ever individual victory, but there was no weekly honor in the Bears’ conference, the University Athletic Association, the way there was in most other sports.
Other sports information directors would have given up at that point, but Mitchell continued to search for a way to honor Zhou’s accomplishment. He submitted an entry to Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd section, which spotlights a wide variety of athletes, both students and professionals. Mitchell did not have to submit the entry, but he did, seeking to give Zhou the publicity that she deserved. Zhou had grown up an avid reader of Sports Illustrated, but had no idea that Mitchell submitted the entry.
“For Chris to do that meant a lot to me,” she recalled this week. “I didn’t think winning that tournament was a huge deal but he obviously thought it was good enough and did that on my behalf, which was really nice.”
Zhou’s story is one that, for student-athlete after student-athlete, has been replicated throughout Mitchell’s 19 years at Washington University.
Mitchell’s title, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications, might not sound all that exciting. For most other people in his role, it probably would not be that exciting. For Chris Mitchell, though, the title is different. Talk to anyone who has spent even a few minutes with him and they will tell you: Chris Mitchell thinks he has the most exciting job in the world.
Chris Mitchell sometimes calls himself the Public Relations director for Wash. U. athletics, but his job consists of much more than that. “His role is telling our story,” said Jim Conlon, the head coach of the Wash. U. women’s soccer team. “He’s the greatest storyteller out there,” Conlon said. Not only does Mitchell maintain the Bears’ website and social media accounts—he calls the WashU Bears Twitter account, which he started in 2008 and which now has more than 6,200 followers, “one of his babies”—but he writes press releases before and after games, coordinates interviews with players and coaches, keeps track of statistics, organizes media coverage, and plans events such as the various tournaments Wash. U. hosts each year.
“One of the many things that’s always impressed me about [Chris] is his willingness to do things above and beyond,” said Joe Worlund, a former assistant athletic director at Wash. U. who worked in various roles here from 1982-2014. “He’s respected on a national stage.”
Pat Coleman, the executive editor at d3sports.com, a website that follows Division III athletics, said that Mitchell is unique among the country’s sports information directors. “I always know that if I’m going to cover an event at Wash. U., I’m going to get great information and the best treatment,” said Coleman, who interacts with over 200 sports information directors each year. He said that Mitchell always gives him recommendations for the best St. Louis hotels and best local restaurants, recalling how Mitchell goes out of his way to make sure that the media is taken care of.
“A lot of times in this role—in sports information—there’s a lot of old-school people who just do the same thing every year and do the things the way they did it the year before because it makes their job easier, but [Chris] is always continuing to push himself and grow and I think that’s pretty cool to watch,” said Sean Wallis, who played for the Wash. U. men’s basketball team from 2005-2009 and worked for Mitchell as a student assistant.
Wallis emphasized how Mitchell always worked towards improvement. “There’s really no one that authentically cares more about Washington University, its community, and its students than Chris does,” he said. “The atmosphere he created was just bringing an unmatchable energy, passion, and excitement for every game, whether that was a weeknight soccer game where it was 20 degrees outside and there may not have been a ton of people there, or it was a huge home football game or home basketball game. He brought the same passion and energy to his work and that was totally apparent.”
Before she had even arrived on campus, Zhou was struck by how helpful and welcoming Mitchell was. He answered her email questions about coming to Wash. U. and had been a face of the Athletic Department before she got here. Then, on one of her first days in St. Louis, she met Mitchell while taking a head-shot for the department. “Actually meeting him was so reassuring for me because he really represents Wash. U. athletics so well in the sense that he cares about the athletes and treats you like he’s known you for a long time,” she said. “I really appreciated that.”
Conlon, the women’s soccer coach, remembered the moment more than a decade ago when he realized Chris Mitchell was special. Mitchell stood on a barstool in the press box during a men’s soccer game running the live feed camera, using one hand to pull the camera back and forth to follow the action. In his other hand was a microphone, which he used to announce the game’s substitutions. Conlon remembered that Mitchell somehow still found a way to operate the game clock, getting the timing just right even as chaos swirled around him. “When you have a person running three people’s jobs as one in order to have others have a great experience, you know he’s a selfless man just trying to make other people’s days better,” Conlon said.
The two men have become close over the last decade. They often go on runs together around lunchtime (at one point last winter Mitchell had a streak of a 5K each day for 516 days in a row), where topics of conversation range from upcoming Wash. U. opponents to Conlon’s daughter’s field hockey team. “It’s just a good way to get out and shoot the breeze,” Mitchell said.
Conlon spoke of Mitchell’s involvement outside of Wash. U. to show what sort of person he is. He has seen Mitchell’s extensive work with McKendree, where Mitchell chairs the McKendree Sports Hall of Fame Committee, and at the Collegiate Sports Information Directors of America, where he runs the group’s Goodwill and Wellness Committee, helping to plan annual conferences and community service. “He is a person who inherently gives back his gifts,” Conlon said.
Mitchell’s constant effort and drive stuck out to Zhou, both as she played for the golf team and as she later worked for Mitchell as a student assistant. “I can’t think of a time where he wasn’t super enthusiastic and spirited,” Zhou said.
Seeing Chris Mitchell’s enthusiasm in action is a special experience. What is shocking is how calm and collected he seems even as a million things must be flying through his head. One second, he jokes jovially with a student assistant about the previous night’s Duke basketball game. The next, he solemnly reads an NCAA sportsmanship pledge to the crowd of two-or-three hundred gathered despite the early onset of winter. He alternates between fan, critiquing a shot that went wide or a play-call that fell short, and sports information director, calling out “Shot. 28. Blocked.” mid-sentence so that an assistant knows how to properly notate the play in the scorebook.
Chris Mitchell’s devotion to his job means that there are lows as well as highs. Seeing him after the women’s soccer team got eliminated from the Elite Eight after penalty kicks was painful. He still ran through the motions of his job, speedily getting assistants to run the proper forms down to the field for coaches’ signatures and helping wrap up the broadcast of the game, but his excitement was gone. In his characteristic Wash. U. pullover, with the bear snarling from the inside of his shoulder, Chris Mitchell was shocked and sad, keeping back tears but visibly upset and probably hoarse, too. Still, though, he made his voice loud and clear as he reached for the microphone to announce congratulations to the Pomona-Pitzer team that had just defeated his beloved Bears.
Chris Mitchell almost did not have the most exciting job in the world. For a while when he was younger, he wanted to be a high school math teacher. That changed when he got a D in calculus during his sophomore year of college at McKendree University, a small liberal arts college about 30 minutes east of St. Louis. Not wanting to retake the class and have to spend more time in school, Mitchell took a career-planning test at the McKendree career center.
“The test came back that all my interests were [in] sports,” Mitchell recalled, agreeing that it would be fair to characterize him as a “sports junkie.” The career center recommended that Mitchell work in the sports information office, but the department did not have a spot for Mitchell during his junior year, so he turned to the student newspaper. A four-year captain of the McKendree men’s tennis team (it was new at the time, so nearly every player got to be a captain), he kept playing and fighting to get better, helping lead the Bearcats to three regional championships in his time at the school.
When the sports information office had an opening for an intern his senior year, Mitchell quickly filled the position. He soon fell in love with the job, abandoning the idea of becoming a math teacher in favor of sports information. “I was like, ‘I think I could do this for a living,’” he told me.
Since he came to Wash. U. in 2001, Mitchell has done it for a living, and he seems to never stop. Even when we talked on a Monday in November after a weekend in which he had barely been home but to sleep, he was still positive about the job. “I gave up almost my entire life for this weekend,” he said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Seeing him sprint through 100-hour work-weeks, it is easy to wonder how Chris Mitchell never gets burnt out. The short answer is that he does sometimes get tired and that he powers through. The longer answer, the one people give without hesitation, starts with Mitchell’s wife, Mary Ann. Like her husband, Mary Ann is a sports information director, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). People say that holding the same job title at different schools allows the Mitchells’ relationship to flourish.
“There’s a total understanding of the commitments and time needed, but they also make a ton of time for each other, going to sporting events and concerts,” Wallis said. The couple goes out for dinner every Wednesday night to a Mexican restaurant called El Rodeo in Granite City.
“That’s important, because when you have a crazy lifestyle—and we know on the weekends that we’re not going to see each other a lot—it’s good to spend some time together,” Mitchell said. They work just a few miles away from one another, but the Mitchells rarely get to travel together because of differing schedules. They make an effort to eat dinner with each other whenever they can—“[Mary Ann] likes to cook a lot,” Chris said with a smile—and spend time with each other after dinner, watching basketball on television or catching up.
Mitchell has a rule, which he says he breaks only rarely, that he is not allowed to do work between the time the couple has dinner and the time Mary Ann goes to bed. After that, work is fair game, and Chris told me that he often finds himself up past midnight as he finishes up a press release or splices together a video to post on Twitter the next morning.
Chris and Mary Ann met at a sports information directors’ conference back in 2005. Their shared profession is something that has always united them. “She’s someone I really look up to,” Chris Mitchell said. “We share a lot of ideas with each other. She proofs a lot of my game notes and I always say that she’s the best [sports information director] in the family, so I’m the second best.”
The Mitchells take a step back from college athletics during the summers, enabling them to focus on their high-stress, high-intensity jobs during the academic year without getting too burnt out. “They find their balance in the summer,” said Jay Murry, who has been a broadcaster for Wash. U. athletics since 2009. From vacations in Mexico to touring country music festivals across the nation (the Mitchells are huge fans of Florida Georgia Line, and Chris said—only half joking—that his main claim to fame is that the band follows him on Twitter), Chris and Mary Ann recharge when the Wash. U. student-athletes flee St. Louis’ oppressive July and August heat. “They really use that time to reconnect,” Murry said.
Chris Mitchell’s office sits across from coaches and other athletic department personnel in a brightly-lit hallway reminiscent of the kind you would see in SportsCenter commercials. Filling the walls of Chris Mitchell’s office, which has enough room for multiple chairs and a wide, L-shaped desk but is not extravagant, are framed posters from numerous Wash. U. national championships. The posters feature student-athletes in various phases of jubilation, from the exaltation after a title-winning dunk to the championship banner-wielding smiles after an overtime goal in the freezing cold. Each one is signed by the members of the team and Chris Mitchell can name nearly every player on the wall.
Not only can he name the players, but for most he starts spouting tidbits of trivia. He talks about the role each of the men’s basketball players had on the 2008 championship team and starts talking about what the women from the 2016 national champion soccer team are doing with their lives now. He estimates that he could tell you something about 80 to 90 percent of the players he has covered during his 19 seasons with the Bears. “There is nothing like being with a team that is chasing a championship,” he said in a piece that Mary Ann wrote for the College Sports Information Directors of America when Chris won an award in March 2018.
The student-athletes call Chris Mitchell “C-Mitch.” His relationships with them are a major part of what keeps him coming back, year after year. Athletes hang out near Mitchell’s office and he spends long days and nights with his student assistants in the press box. Each spring, Chris and Mary Ann host the year’s cohort of student assistants for a barbecue. They call their house Mitchell Park, an homage to sports stadia across the country, and his former assistants recall a big backyard, a pool, and that Mitchell was a big fan of the grill. He likes to keep in touch with his former assistants, telling me how he attended Wallis’ wedding and the two men text regularly.
Though he did win 65 matches over his four years playing for McKendree, Chris Mitchell does not believe that his time as a college tennis star is the main reason that he was inducted into the Bearcats’ Sports Hall of Fame in September. “What [the induction] meant to me is that some people actually thought that I had made a difference and that people have recognized what I’ve done in my professional career,” he told me.
“I am not in this profession to get rich,” Mitchell said in his McKendree induction speech. “I am in this profession to give back and hopefully make a difference in someone’s life.”
He pointed to a memory from 2017, when the goalkeeper for women’s soccer 2016 national championship team, Lizzy Crist, was named the NCAA Woman of the Year. As Mitchell and Crist walked to the media room at a Marriott hotel in Indianapolis, she turned to him and gave him a big hug. “Thank you for all that you’ve done for me,” Crist said to him.