“I probably had my worst moment of my career at the U.S. Open,” Wolfson said Thursday, sitting on a couch in the CBS green room at Capital One Arena in Washington. “Lleyton Hewitt had just beaten Taylor Dent in five sets, and he really should’ve beaten him easily, and I said to him, ‘Do you feel as though this exposes your weaknesses going further in the tournament?’
"Well. That’s not what the crowd wanted to hear. I wanted to be all serious, and I was trying to prove myself, and the whole place booed. And I get into the green room, and our producer at the time looks at me and says: ‘Tracy. It was a good question. It was just the wrong timing. And remember you’re not Barbara Walters.’
“I could have crawled into a hole and never come out after that, but it made me rethink how I approach interviews.”
Wolfson, 44, has spent 15 years honing her craft at CBS, where among other roles, she serves as the lead NFL and NCAA men’s basketball reporter. She will be on the sideline at Capital One Arena this weekend for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s East regional, rounding out the third month of what already has been a busy 2019.
Even for a veteran of Super Bowls and Final Fours, Wolfson has found herself in the spotlight a bit more than usual of late. In February, she survived an intense — and nationally televised — scrum on the field after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl. Her persistence pursuing an interview with quarterback Tom Brady led to headlines, including one by Sports Illustrated that declared, “Tracy Wolfson Was the Real MVP of Super Bowl LIII, Says Twitter.” Last week, a photo of the 5-foot-2 New York native and 7-6 Central Florida breakout star Tacko Fall captivated college basketball fans for an afternoon.
Wolfson laughs and waves off talk of the attention. Next week’s men’s Final Four will be her 10th as the lead reporter with CBS, and the chatter is all good fun — she welcomes it, even, especially if it highlighted some of what a sideline reporter does behind the scenes. But Wolfson remains focused on the goal she set in 2005.
“We’re there to support the broadcast. It’s not about us. It’s about the game,” Wolfson said. “I think Mike Krzyzewski’s interview after Duke beat UCF was a perfect example. I knew we had to go to ’60 Minutes’ and we probably only had one or two questions — well, let him talk. It’s not about coming up with the most interesting question or showing your knowledge. It’s about eliciting a response for fans, so at that point, what can you do that’s going to tee him up? It’s Coach K. He has so much emotion. There were so many story lines. So you just say, ‘Can you even describe that?’ And he got into everything.”
Wolfson kept collecting lessons after that 2005 U.S. Open tournament, gathering what she could from the front lines of sports’ biggest moments.
After her wireless microphone cut out during the postgame interview following legendary Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden’s final game, Wolfson and her team decided to always use a corded mic. After Super Bowl 50 she decided she would always make a beeline to the quarterback at the end of a game — at Levi’s Stadium, the scrum had closed around Peyton Manning before Wolfson got there and she had to elbow her way past professional football players to get to him.
“I remember thinking, ‘I might not get this interview,’” Wolfson said. “And then you just start elbowing.”
Both the corded mic and the beeline came up at this year’s Super Bowl, when Wolfson appeared to be swallowed by a mass of people surrounding Brady.
She was actually by Brady’s side, holding on to his jersey the entire time so she didn’t lose him, a trick she employed after the Manning debacle. When Wolfson disappeared from view for a moment — “I’m hearing my team in my ear yelling, ‘Where’d you go?!’” — it was to get handed a backup wireless mic by her audio producer, who was watching the scene unfold. Her corded microphone had been stepped on.
Wolfson wasn’t fazed. Navigating interviews after SEC football games with fans storming the field is much worse than that, after all, and for her diminutive stature, Wolfson’s pretty fierce.
“My height just makes me tougher,” she said. “You just kind of have to plow through.”
Wolfson used her height in that picture with Fall, which originally was meant to be used as part of the CBS broadcast before UCF tweeted it, as a different way to tell the big man’s story. Visuals matter when you have between 30 and 60 seconds to convey a story.
That’s how Wolfson decided to get Kansas Coach Bill Self and his longtime friend, Villanova Coach Jay Wright, together for a pregame interview at last year’s Final Four, rather than go with a scripted open Wolfson narrated herself. It worked so well that CBS did it again with Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo and Michigan Coach John Beilein before this year’s Big Ten tournament championship.
“One question each, let them have fun,” Wolfson said. “It was awesome. It almost doesn't matter what you ask. Well, it matters what you ask. But it's the two coaches that make it. It's about finding unique ways to bring things to life.”
That, ultimately, is Wolfson’s charge every game: To make an impact and bring a game to life in 30-second bursts. What viewers don’t see is that she’s constantly communicating with the play-by-play announcers, analysts and CBS directors in the production truck, because, especially in football, she is the crew’s eyes and ears on the field. She feeds everything from what coaches say in the huddle to a key player’s level of frustration to those calling the game, and even if she’s not on camera, her reports fuel the broadcast.
It’s why she loves being a sideline reporter in a period in which women in particular are being pushed to strive for the booth or the anchor desk.
“I absolutely love what I do as a sideline reporter,” Wolfson said. “There’s a unique skill you need … and there’s a lot that doesn’t come to light on the screen that I do, even though I’m on TV. But that’s what it’s about — it’s not about us. It’s about getting the best broadcast possible.”