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ESPN, Fox Sports analyst to speak at Dec. 14 UNK Commencement
By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – It’s a dream job.
Brenda VanLengen sits courtside at some of the biggest women’s college basketball games, breaking down the X’s and O’s for viewers across the country.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney alumna has been a sports broadcaster and analyst for more than two decades, working for ESPN, Fox Sports and other national networks. She’s called 12 national championship games – seven at the Division II level and five in NAIA – worked in the production truck at the NCAA Women’s Final Four and WNBA Finals and announced at the 2013 World University Games in Russia.
“I’ve gotten to do a lot of really cool things,” said VanLengen, who played basketball at UNK from 1983-87.
The 53-year-old uses words like “grateful,” “blessed” and “beyond my wildest dreams” while discussing the journey that took her from small-town Nebraska to sports’ biggest stages. She’ll also tell you how hard work, dedication and fearlessness put her on that path.
“If you are going to accomplish goals and dreams in your life, you have to make it happen,” she said. “You have to step forward and be the one who takes the initiative.”
VanLengen will speak 10 a.m. Dec. 14 during winter commencement at UNK’s Health and Sports Center.
VanLengen seemed destined to play sports at UNK.
Her parents Delmer and Sandra met at the school, known as Kearney State College from 1963-91, married the following summer and welcomed their first child in September 1965 while living in the former University Heights student housing complex.
“I’m definitely a lifelong Loper,” said VanLengen, whose brother Neil, a business teacher and volleyball coach at Howells-Dodge High School, and sister Angie Mohr also graduated from UNK. Mohr is currently working on a master’s degree through the university.
Delmer’s first job out of college was teaching and coaching high school volleyball in Roseland, a tiny community about 45 miles southeast of Kearney. VanLengen was the young ball girl running around his practices.
That fatherly influence drew VanLengen to sports, and a competitive spirit she inherited from both parents allowed her to succeed.
The 5-foot-11 small forward arrived on the UNK campus in August 1983 and earned varsity playing time as a freshman. During her senior season, the two-time Academic All-American and team co-captain helped lead the Lopers to their only NAIA national tournament appearance.
“I had a great career,” VanLengen said. “It’s a part of my life that I cherish very much – great friends and great experiences.”
One of those friends, the late Ann Stockton, left a lasting impression on VanLengen during the brief time they knew each other.
Stockton, who also played on the UNK women’s basketball team, was killed in a motorcycle accident in June 1985, the summer after her freshman year.
“It was devastating,” VanLengen said of the loss. “It still hurts me.”
In a way, it was also motivational. VanLengen vowed to live each moment to its fullest and take advantage of every opportunity, carrying on the passion and enthusiasm Stockton shared with others.
In 2001, VanLengen honored her friend by establishing the Ann Stockton Memorial Scholarship, making her the first person to endow a scholarship for a women’s sport at UNK.
After graduating in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in business education, VanLengen spent two years as a teacher and coach at Kearney High School before deciding her true calling was at the collegiate level.
She contacted Angela Beck, then head coach of the Nebraska women’s basketball team, and landed a position as a graduate assistant. VanLengen spent five seasons on Beck’s staff before reaching another crossroads.
Her next decision launched the career that’s earned her an Emmy and the prestigious Mel Greenberg Media Award.
VanLengen joined the broadcast team at Nebraska Public Television in 1996.
“They were way ahead of the curve,” she said. “They were broadcasting women’s basketball games way before most anybody in the country.”
The Olathe, Kansas, resident also worked a few local broadcasts for the University of Kansas, which led to her big break in February 1998.
VanLengen was serving as executive director of the NCAA Women’s Final Four – making sure Kansas City was prepared to host the event – when she and a friend made the drive to Lawrence to watch the Jayhawks face in-state rival Kansas State.
She decided to skip the line outside Allen Fieldhouse by sneaking through the media entrance. That’s where she ran into a member of the athletic department’s communications team.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Ready for what?” VanLengen responded.
The answer – a national television broadcast on Fox Sports.
One of the announcers failed to show up because of a scheduling snafu and they needed a last-minute replacement. VanLengen, dressed in jeans and a white button-up shirt, accepted the challenge.
“I walked in off the street and got my debut on national television with 15 minutes notice,” she said with a laugh.
Was it a lucky break? Absolutely. But VanLengen was also ready for this moment and unafraid of potential failure.
“I think luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” she said. “If I would have gone in there and been horrible, I may have never gotten that opportunity again. You have to be ready for your opportunities when they arise.”
As a motivational speaker, VanLengen talks about the importance of dreaming big, taking risks and living boldly.
“The best things in life happen when you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone,” she said. “If you’re open to opportunities and open to the possibilities, you never know what incredible things may happen in your life.”
For VanLengen, one brave decision opened several doors.
Fox Sports immediately added her as a regular broadcaster for Big 12 women’s basketball, and she’s spent the past nine seasons as the primary analyst. ESPN followed with its offer, allowing her to work NCAA tournament games.
As an independent contractor, VanLengen’s schedule includes 60-70 broadcasts per year for Fox Sports, ESPN, SEC Network and Big Ten Network. She also calls Missouri Valley Conference games, as well as soccer, softball and volleyball.
VanLengen is a rarity in the industry – a play-by-play commentator and analyst who comes from an NAIA school and holds a teaching degree.
“Even though I don’t have a broadcast journalism degree, I feel like my education and training in Kearney prepared me well to be a broadcaster,” the 2008 recipient of the UNK Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award said.
Her internal drive and passion for women’s college basketball are attributes that don’t appear on a college transcript.
“My career could have gone a lot of different ways, but I’m very thankful and very blessed that this is what I get to do for a living,” VanLengen said. “It’s something that I love.”
UNK WINTER COMMENCEMENT
UNK alumna Brenda VanLengen will speak 10 a.m. Dec. 14 during winter commencement at UNK’s Health and Sports Center. Lindsey Smith, who is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in sports management, is the student speaker.
Social media: Follow @UNKearney and #lopergrad on Twitter to see photos and posts from 2018 graduates and their friends and families
Live broadcast: Watch commencement live and join the #lopergrad conversation at http://unk.edu/eventdashboard