Professor Fellenzer: mentor to USC’s students and stars

Jeff Fellenzer draws from an endless supply of sports media connections to teach his acclaimed class. (Design: Mia Islas | Daily Trojan; Photos courtesy of Jeff Fellenzer)

During the fourth inning of a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs in April 1976, two fans suddenly ran onto Dodger Stadium’s outfield carrying an American flag and a lighter. Before they could make their political statement, Cubs center fielder Rick Monday ran from behind and scooped up the flag to keep it out of harm’s way.

Up in an employee box, then-USC undergraduate Jeff Fellenzer was running the message board. As the incident on the field unfolded, his boss, Fred Claire, turned to him and told him to display something for the fans to see.

“Rick Monday … you made a great play,” the board read.

The message was captured in a fan’s video and is now considered part of a signature moment in baseball history. Claire said he believes the words are some of the most meaningful in the history of Dodger Stadium. Now an associate professor at USC, Fellenzer recounted the experience in his office at Wallis Annenberg Hall. 

“There’s so many great stories in sports, and I’m trying to bring some of those stories to the classroom,” Fellenzer said.

Although he was raised in Long Beach and developed into a sports junkie during his childhood, Fellenzer didn’t solidify his fan loyalty to USC until he committed to the University. His mother, Sue Fellenzer, graduated from UCLA and worked in education for over 50 years while raising Jeff on her own. He credits his mother for his work ethic and for introducing him to the man who would become a staple in his life and, later, his classroom: legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

Fellenzer grew close to the coach over the course of a decade before Wooden’s death in 2010, frequenting Wooden’s residence with his fellow sports fanatic friends to talk sports, life and wisdom. Meanwhile, Fellenzer was creating one of the most popular classes at USC.

After jobs with the Dodgers, CBS Sports and the NFL, Fellenzer started as an adjunct professor at USC in 1990, taking over the only sports media class offered at USC at the time: “Sports Reporting.” The class was previously taught by former Sports Illustrated writer Joe Jares, and Fellenzer modeled his class in a similar mold while also writing for the Los Angeles Times. 

However, he started to change the narrative of what his role as a professor meant. Inviting guest speakers from the field became a habit for Fellenzer, who took a class centered around the writing and details of sports reporting and broadened its message through the use of voices with varying roles in the industry. 

“I wanted them to get to know people like I did that could be influential in their lives, [who could] tell them their story and share their expertise, and then also perhaps be a good contact for them,” Fellenzer said. “So I started to do that, and it really wasn’t done much [before].”

The approach caught the attention of Joe Saltzman, then the associate director of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who Fellenzer credits with the creation of the “Sports, Business, Media” class that Fellenzer is best known for at USC. As the school looked to the turn of the century, Saltzman was charged with creating classes focusing on specific genres of journalism. 

What he came up with was an accumulation of students’ interests in entertainment and sports through the two lenses of business and media, and Fellenzer was the perfect candidate to tackle the hybrid job.

“He knew the sports media inside and out, and by covering sports, he had learned a good deal about the business of sports,” Saltzman said. “He was the perfect teacher for the course.”

Spring 1999 was the pilot semester for the course. Needing a co-professor to help with the broad scope of content, Fellenzer recruited his former boss Claire, who had just been fired as the Dodgers’ general manager after an underperforming season. With the combination of both professors’ experience and expertise in sports, the class became a home run for any student looking to get their foot in the door of the competitive field.

Since Claire departed the class in 2001, Fellenzer has led what is now one of USC’s most sought-after classes: “Sports, Business, Media” was one of the University’s five highest-rated classes according to a 2012 student survey.

“If you had the students grade Jeff and he got anything other than an A+ or the highest mark available, I would be shocked,” Claire said.

The buzz around the class stems from the extensive guest list that reads as a who’s who of influential people in the sports industry. Wooden, who appeared three times, has been honored with “Weekly Wooden” segments that include the coach’s life lessons and wisdom, which students are then tested on. 

Some other notable speakers include the group panel of Olympic broadcasters Jim Nantz, Jim Lampley and Dick Enberg, Olympian and USC alum Louis Zamperini, former USC football coach Pete Carroll and NBA legend Jerry West. The list includes both headline makers and the people behind the cameras of the sports scene, but all serve a purpose in displaying what it takes to be successful in one of the most competitive media industries.

Students have the opportunity to not only listen to speakers but network with them as well. While Fellenzer’s class has an official run time of almost three hours, students will line up afterward to connect with speakers and Fellenzer himself to ask questions, discuss career opportunities or just talk sports one-on-one. 

“Anytime you see the conversation you have with him is so genuine,” said Aron Cohen, a junior majoring in communication. “He actually cares and listens to every word and everything you’re saying … He actually wants to help you [at] any time. It’s something that I’ve noticed. Every time that I’ve talked to him, he always at some point tries to bring up a point or bring up an opportunity to help me.”

The class is not centered solely on sports knowledge; rather, through the use of industry voices and a discussion format, Fellenzer encourages his students to engage in current conversations among classmates and network with possible employers.

A multi-billion dollar industry, sports media and business is one of the longest standing and most saturated fields to enter — every kid who has tuned into a game has dreamt of being either a player on the field or a broadcaster in the press box.

In his course, Fellenzer directly addresses the biggest obstacles of entering the industry. The class offers contacts, LinkedIn connections and a face for students to put to a person who just might put them in their career — something colleges market to attract young people to their campuses in the first place.

“How do you separate from the pack?” Fellenzer said. “Well, one way to do it is if you’re well-connected, because for me, it’s all about relationships. I think I have that in my keys to success … [You] can’t say necessarily it might be that way in accounting or medicine or something, but in sports, because so many people want to work in sports, there’s tremendous opportunities out there. The breadth of the industry has never been greater.”

Not only are his guests possibly beneficial to the students’ future careers, but the speakers themselves take away lessons from his class as well. Fellenzer has retained a network of individuals that return every year or even every semester. Ilan Ben-Hanan, senior vice president of programming and acquisitions at ESPN and a USC alum, is one of the class’s regulars.

“I actually end up learning so much by talking to each class and understanding how they consume their media, how they consume their sports, their perspectives on ESPN,” Ben-Hanan said. “It’s immensely valuable.”

Over the last 20 years, Fellenzer has acquired his own alumni network of students who have taken the class, including Memphis Grizzlies Vice President Zach Kleiman and three NFL quarterbacks — Sam Darnold, Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler — along with a multitude of editors, writers and content creators. 

“Sports, Business, Media” goes beyond checking off a credit requirement. Fellenzer has created a playbook for young people to follow into their careers.

“He’s created his own little team in here, and he’s their coach,” said Yogi Roth, a Pac-12 broadcaster and frequent guest speaker at Fellenzer’s class. “He brings in great assistants every once in a while to talk to them every week, but he’s still the head coach.” 

A USC alum himself, Roth understands the connection his host has with his students and what Fellenzer has contributed to the University.

“He’s a gem,” Roth said. “I think he’s the greatest gift on this campus, and I got no problem saying that.”

Fellenzer vows he will be at Annenberg on Wednesday nights for the foreseeable future. Just like at the ’76 Dodger game, he will continue to sit to the side, observing and moderating sports stars’ actions and commentary and ensuring that future generations understand the weight of their moment in history.

“I’m gonna enjoy discussing those things and passing on my knowledge and opinions as much as I would just learning about them and if I was just reading about them,” Fellenzer said. “It’ll seem fresh and relevant to me always, and I think that’s kind of a fun thing for me.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Ilan Ben-Hanan took Fellenzer’s course. Ben-Hanan attended USC, but did not take the course. The article has been updated online with the correct information. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.