He’s seen it all: Tim Tessalone brings guidance, work ethic to USC’s athletic department

Tal Volk/Daily Trojan

Over his 40 years in the USC athletic department, sports information director Tim Tessalone treasures two specific memories the most.

The first came in 1979, his very first year working in the department. It was a small memory, one of many that Tessalone would collect over the next four decades. In the final minutes of a blowout over UCLA, as Tessalone traipsed down the stairs from the Coliseum press box to the field, backup tailback Michael Hayes subbed in for Charley White.

Hayes wasn’t a star. He worked clean-up for a guy who went on to win the Heisman and become All-Pro in the NFL. He rushed for zero yards until his senior year, when he picked up a little over 500 yards as a stacked Trojan team rolled to an undefeated finish and a Rose Bowl win. But as Tessalone walked onto the field, he watched Hayes do something special in an otherwise lackluster fourth quarter.

Hayes burst through a hole, sprinted 20 yards and somersaulted into the endzone. It was Hayes’ first and only touchdown of his college career, and he celebrated as if it was the game winner. For Tessalone, the moment captured everything that had drawn him to sports in the first place.

“It’s easy to talk about the stars and remember all those great players,” Tessalone said. “But for every one of those there’s 20 kids who ride the bench and don’t get their moment in the sun. This kid got his moment. It was small, it didn’t really mean anything to the game, but he got his moment. There’s been a million of those moments since, and to me, that’s what athletics is about.”

It has been four decades since that moment. Tessalone is now a staple of USC athletics, entering his 40th year working full-time in sports information and having served as the head SID since 1984.

Tessalone grew up in Los Angeles, rooting for both USC and Notre Dame, oddly enough. He entered USC hoping to be a sportswriter but quickly switched to public relations, then interned with the sports department as a senior.

After college, however, he left USC for a few years to work at a public relations agency that served financial firms, the Motion Picture Academy and, most importantly, the Rose Bowl. Being on the sidelines for the Rose Bowl each year made him miss USC and the atmosphere of a sports department.

So in 1979, the same year that a sports channel called ESPN launched and Jimmy Carter was president, Tessalone returned to USC as an assistant sports director. He hasn’t left since.

Tessalone has weathered eras of USC football, from the championship-drought decades of the 1980s and 1990s to Pete Carroll’s dynasty and the ensuing sanctions. He’s managed four Heisman campaigns, from Charley White to Matt Leinart. And in his time, he’s become one of only 12 media members to be inducted into the USC Athletics Hall of Fame.

“I don’t need to see a poll to know that Tim is at the top of the list,” said Fred Claire, the former general manager of the Dodgers and Tessalone’s long-time friend. “I have seen his work and the performance of his team members play out year after year with outstanding performance. At a time when integrity and credibility come into question in the world of sports, Tim stands as an example of always doing the right thing.”

A lot has changed since Tessalone first walked into his job. The sports information department used to consist of just three people: the SID, an assistant SID and a secretary. The internet had not been invented yet, and social media didn’t exist. Despite the popularity of the USC football team, Tessalone considered his job well done if the Los Angeles Times beat writer popped his head into practice every few weeks.

Now, everything about the job of sports information director is more demanding. Tessalone oversees a staff of seven sports information directors and student workers. His job description includes running a website and social media accounts while managing the football press corps — typically at least 10 beat writers — that attends every single practice and scrimmage.

And perhaps the greatest challenge of the job now is social media, which allows young athletes to access the media wherever and whenever, without oversight from the sports information department.

“It used to be that all we talked to [players] about was media relations and how to do an interview,” Tessalone said. “Now, that’s only half of our conversation. Social media is the other half.”

Although Tessalone joked that social media keeps him up at night, he’s found that the values he held at the start of his career remain the same now. At the end of the day, his goal as sports information director is to help athletes tell their stories. He’s never believed in sheltering athletes or keeping them from the press. While many other schools deny access to freshmen or only allow coaches to comment after losses, USC athletes face the media win or lose, taking hard questions even after blowouts.

It’s why head coaches like Andy Enfield feel their players are always comfortable with the media because of Tessalone’s ability to relate to them. It’s why countless athletes, from Keyshawn Johnson to Sam Darnold, believe they are more prepared for the professional leagues than players from any other school. While coaches are preparing their players on the field and the court, Tessalone is the quiet force in the background prepping them from everything that comes after the buzzer.

“Our philosophy is that for our athletes, dealing with the media is part of their educational experience here,” Tessalone said. “That’s why we’ve never really shielded our athletes like some other places do. We think that if they’re properly educated and trained, that this is part of the total athlete experience.”

One example is former linebacker Rey Maualuga. When Maualuga entered USC as a freshman, he could barely hold eye contact with a reporter, answering in broken half-sentences and struggling to speak up loudly enough for recorders. But rather than pulling him from scrums, Tessalone continued to encourage the young player, gently preparing him to face the media each week.

By his senior year, Maualuga was almost unrecognizable as a confident All-American who easily spoke in public. When he won the Chuck Bednarik Award for college defensive player of the year, Maualuga put on a tuxedo, stood up in front of a crowd of thousands and gave a full speech without notes for almost 20 minutes. To Tessalone, that growth was as important as any progress he made on the football field.

To manage this ever-increasing flow of information about his teams, Tessalone has to be constantly on-duty. He works seven days a week from August to January for football season, then six days a week for the rest of the year. In June and July, over summer break, he can take a breather for a little bit before the next season begins.

It also means that, even though he probably cares more about USC football than any non-coach or player in the country, Tessalone can never be a normal fan. During each game, he’s at work, keeping stats, watching the field and coordinating with reporters. Even when Tessalone went to a Rams game on a day off, he couldn’t quite figure out how to cheer along with the rest of the crowd.

“I’m a USC fan, there’s no doubt about it,” Tessalone said. “But there’s no cheering in the press box. I can’t remember the last time that I clapped. For me, it’s a weird feeling to sit in the stands anymore. That cheering gene is no longer active.”

Tessalone’s work ethic, according to colleagues, is unparalleled. Assistant SID Paul Goldberg says that the image of Tessalone, with a pen tucked behind his ear and a carefully folded to-do list in his back pocket, has become one of the iconic images of the school’s athletic department.

“That kind of symbolizes who he is,” Goldberg said. “He is ready to jump into action on anything at any time.”

Whether it’s on or off the field, Tessalone is known as the guy who always shows up. That’s always been the case in the 23 years that Tessalone and Goldberg have worked together. When Goldberg’s first son was born, Tessalone came to the hospital unannounced. Thirteen years later, he was in the crowd for the same kid’s recital.

Tessalone works with athletes during their college careers, but he is known for showing up for them in every step that comes afterward — games, weddings, funerals. This stems from his desire to help each athlete, starters or benchwarmers, to grow through their years at USC.

“I think what also keeps him going is his natural role as a mentor — and a university is a great place to serve in that role,” Goldberg said. “He derives a real satisfaction and enjoyment from helping students advance in their careers and never turns away anyone who has a question. I cannot count the number of people who have sought his counsel. His door is always open.”

Over time, this sense of community has helped Tessalone embrace the idea — however cheesy — of the Trojan Family.

It makes sense, after all, given that his own family is part of that community as well. He met his wife at USC when they both lived in the dorms. All three of his children — the eldest of whom is named Troy — attended their parents’ alma mater. For Tessalone, USC is his career, home and family all wrapped into one.

“It’s a hokey concept, the Trojan Family,” Tessalone said. “People from the outside don’t get it, but it is a very real thing. Trojans love each other and take care of each other. Just to see them move on in life, whatever they do, that’s what’s really cool.”

Over all these years, more than perhaps anyone except for band director Arthur Bartner, Tessalone has seen it all.

He watched football players hold up a student who impaled herself on a fence after falling out of a dorm window. He kept the team calm as turbulence knocked players’ heads against the airplane ceiling on a flight to Notre Dame. He sat in front of his idol, Muhammad Ali, at a private screening of his film “When We Were Kings,” listening to the star mumble along narration out of the corner of his mouth.

But none of those are his other favorite memory of USC.

In fact, he didn’t have a second favorite up until last year. That flipping touchdown by Hayes was his favorite, hands down. But then, he watched the women’s 4×400 meter team come back to win the national championship in 2018, and Tessalone was forced to add another favorite.

“To see that comeback — and I’ve been around some pretty cool comebacks — that was maybe the single greatest USC athletic feat in any sport that I’ve ever seen,” Tessalone said.

The race quickly became a national sensation. Senior anchor Kendall Ellis started the final leg of the race in fifth place and tore up the first place runner’s 100-meter lead to lunge forward for a last-second win. It was one of the best things Tessalone had ever seen at USC, better even than the 1974 comeback over Notre Dame that he watched from the stands as a student.

The fact that Ellis used to be an intern for the athletic department only made the comeback sweeter. For Tessalone, it was a culmination of four years of watching yet another athlete grow both on and off the track.

“That, to me, is the coolest part of the job,” Tessalone said. “It’s not the wins and losses, it’s not the superstars and champions. It’s watching athletes grow from freshmen to seniors and knowing that we might have touched them a little bit.”