by Jamie Baldwin, Michigan State University Director of Athletic Communications/CoSIDA Special Awards Committee member
What can be said about a 25-year award recipient that wasn't said when he was given CoSIDA's prestigious Warren Berg Award in 2015? Or when the Metropolitan New York Football Writers and USA College Football presented him with the Bob Kenworthy Division III Football Communications Award?
Perhaps something was missed when he was the recipient of the Fraser Stokes Award for dedication to Cortland athletics in 1996, or the ECAC-SIDA Irving T. Marsh Service Bureau Award for excellence in the profession in 2009, or induction into Cortland C-Club Hall of Fame as an honorary member in 2012?
Fran Elia is a distinguished elder statesman in whichever group he's been honored. In his 27 years at the State University of New York at Cortland (nearly 26 of which he has served as the full-time sports information director), he has been a willing and patient mentor to scores of SIDs across the decades – including this writer, who had a secondary connection of sharing a hometown with Fran and instantly had a secondary mentor in the field to my own outstanding boss on my campus.
Elia never wandered too far from his hometown. He is a graduate of Linton High School in Schenectady, NY and nearby Siena College, where he was a basketball manager as an undergraduate. Elia jokes that he convinced Siena SID (now Director of Athletics) John D'Argenio to "pretend that he was letting me help" to stay involved with intercollegiate athletics after Elia briefly utilized his accounting degree in a "real-world" job.
An opportunity for an internship at Cortland came up, and as a Job Seeker at the CoSIDA convention, he left a message for then-SID Pete Koryzno. After the interview, Elia was offered the spot and moved to Cortland, about two-and-a-half hours from his hometown, and learned under Koryzno, who himself was a long-serving member of CoSIDA, serving on its inaugural Computer Committee in the 1980s and on its Special Awards Committee for more than a decade. Koryzno moved into a position with University Relations at SUNY Cortland in 1992, and Elia assumed the duties of the Sports Information Director.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The field has changed, as we know. A one-man shop has evolved into a staff of two full-time SIDs and a graduate assistant. The emergence of websites, social media, webstreaming, and technological advances have changed the profession by leaps and bounds, but Elia stands behind the one premise that has served him well during his tenure: It's about the message.
"Honestly, there are times when the changes in our profession are a great challenge to me. There's part of me that wants things to be the way they were when I started, but most of the time I'm excited about what's new in the business," explains Elia. "I continue to remind myself that no matter what new technologies are introduced in our profession, the messages we send are still more important than the media we use to send them. It's exciting, but sometimes overwhelming, to find new and better ways to get out our messages.
"One of the good things about working in athletics is that the basics of the sports don't really change. If my 24-year-old self in 1991 time traveled to today, he may not recognize the devices that everyone is staring at while walking around campus, but he would be able to watch a baseball or basketball game and still get it. There's comfort knowing that sports haven't changed too much in the last two decades, and hopefully they won't change too much more in the next 20 years."
Elia is "old-school" in another manner – he's spent his entire professional career at one institution. It's not uncommon to find someone in our business who has enjoyed a long tenure at a school – but just one school? No internships, grad assistantship, before landing that spot that keeps you challenged and satisfied?
"The main reason why I've been at Cortland so long is because of the great people I've been able to work with. I was lucky enough to get my start here as an assistant under Pete Koryzno in the fall of 1991, and the following year became SID when Pete took over the role as PR Director. He was my boss until he retired in 2010, and is still a good friend and mentor. I've been very fortunate to work the last 18 years with Associate SID Dan Surdam, who has been a great colleague and friend. Also, I've been blessed with an incredible wife, Heather, who has supported my career pursuits and has tolerated my non-traditional work schedule.
"Through the years I've worked alongside great administrators and coaches – ones who I have respected greatly, and who have respected me. Also, it's been easy to work a long time at Cortland since I believe strongly in the institution and its mission, and I've seen the great people who have come through here as student-athletes and have gone on to do great things. Many of them still hold Cortland in their hearts and remember their time here as an important part of their life. It's great to play a small role in those experiences."
Among those experiences? Cortland has claimed 195 team conference titles, 14 national team championships and 57 individual national championships in his time on campus. He's hosted NCAA events, been a part of 27 Cortaca Jug football games, ECAC championship tournaments … and the list goes on.
A 25-year recognition is in some ways a chance for those of us who have shared these years together in the profession to poke fun at each other that we're getting old. It's also a chance to look back at a career filled with memorable moments, and the memorable people who cross our paths – the student-athletes, the coaches, the administrators. It's also an opportunity to think about the scores of other SIDs we've had the pleasure of working with in a shared passion.
"There are many great things about this profession, but easily the best thing is the quality of people who work in it. Almost to a person, everyone I've worked with over the years at different schools and conferences have been great people. You can't say that about many professions," notes Elia.
"When I first started, there were established veterans in the sports information world who embraced me right away and helped me grow. And I hope that I've done the same for others when they started. We look to help each other in this business. We look past school rivalries and competitions and work together. This has always appealed to me and my personality, and it's what has kept me strongly entrenched in this industry."