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The Best Of John’s Journal From 2021-22/ No. 10: From Morning TV To High School Speech

Posted: Monday, July 4, 2022 - 11:50 AM

This has been a big year for Jason DeRusha. The longtime WCCO TV morning anchor recently left television to become an afternoon host on WCCO radio. He made news away from the media, too, when he became the speech and debate coach at Maple Grove High School. His kids are involved in those activities, and this is a story of someone giving back to young people.

This is No. 10 on the list of my personal favorite John’s Journal stories from the 2021-22 school year. We’ll continue counting down the Top 10 in the days ahead.

Here’s the story that was originally posted on Jan. 30…

Jason DeRusha is always busy, it seems. His alarm goes off at 2:45 on weekday mornings in his Maple Grove home so he can arrive at WCCO TV in downtown Minneapolis in time to anchor morning shows from 4:30 to 7 a.m. and 9 to 10 a.m. He’s frequently heard on WCCO radio and is the food critic for Minnesota Monthly magazine.

He is past president of the Board of Governors of the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He’s a frequent speaker and host for charity fundraisers. He has earned nine Emmy Awards for his television work.

He’s also a dad. And, proving that life comes with twists and turns, he’s the first-year coach of the debate and speech teams at Maple Grove High School.

Jason and his wife Alyssa have two sons; Seth is a junior at Maple Grove and Sam is in ninth grade. Both boys participate in debate and speech, but the teams were left without a coach as the current school year approached. The previous coach had stepped down and time was running short before the debate season began last fall.

Jason sent an email to the school and asked how he could help.

“Those were famous last words for any parent,” he said with a laugh. “The next thing I knew, I was doing a Zoom interview and getting a background check as an employee of the school district.

“This really was about trying to do the right thing as a dad. With my job in TV, I’ve sort of never been able to coach my kids’ soccer teams or teach their church school or any of that stuff.”

He jokes about debate practice in the fall and speech practice in the winter conflicting with his afternoon nap, but he’s all-in.

“He’s very energetic and involved, which is really great for the team,” said senior debate and speech participant Mira Cook during a speech tournament at Wayzata High School on Saturday. “He is very involved in everything that goes into it; not only the coaching aspect, but the kids themselves, which is really nice. He’s very invested.”

DeRusha took part in high school speech while growing up in suburban Chicago. He was a three-time state finalist in a category called Radio Speaking, in which students are given a stack of news stories that they shape into a timed radio segment. His high school had its own radio station, which became his home away from home and helped him get started on a broadcasting career. After graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee, he worked at TV stations in Davenport, Iowa, Rockford, Illinois, and Milwaukee before joining WCCO in 2003.

One sticking point in his new coaching position was that he knew nothing about debate. That didn’t dissuade him from taking that job, which became more about administrative duties than coaching.

“To be completely honest, he was there to manage us,” said Seth DeRusha. “He didn't really do anything debate-related. He got us signed up, he got us judges, and he made sure we were going to be there, which is what he could do.”

Jason said, “The respect I have for the people who have done this for years and years, they’ve been really generous. I didn’t know anything about debate. The kids had to teach me everything. Next year I’ll be ready to go. It took a full season to get my arms around it.

“I just thought, ‘I speak for a living, I might have some things to offer these kids.’ But debate is barely about public speaking. It’s about research and preparation. Debate topics included Bitcoin, NATO and the Baltic states, whether the unlimited right to strike is just or not. These kids are tackling important issues. The beauty of debate is it forces kids, based on a coin flip, to argue one side or the other of these issues. If you required everyone in our country to argue both sides of an argument, we’d be in a better place.”

DeRusha knew how vital these activities were to his own children, as well as many of their friends.

“Debate and speech are so important for kids who maybe aren’t as athletic or don’t have other interests. This becomes the hub of their friend group, and all of Seth’s friends are from debate,” he said. “I didn’t want those kids to not have this experience. You’d never have a soccer or tennis or football team go a season without a coach, and it was a realistic possibility that these teams wouldn’t have a coach. I was not going to let that happen.”

Speech tournaments are a Saturday mainstay, starting early in the morning and filling up much of the day. For Saturday’s event at Wayzata, the Maple Grove team was on a school bus before the sun had fully risen and they weren’t home until dusk was settling in.

The Crimson speech team gathered in the Wayzata cafeteria between rounds. DeRusha checked on kids as they came in from performing, several of them competing in speech for the first time. His initial question to each of them was, “How’d it go?”

The kids gave their assessments, dug into the lunches and snacks they brought along, and hashed over the early rounds of the competition as they awaited word on who advanced to the final rounds.

“He gives us feedback on speeches, which is really good to hear, especially from someone who has kind of used speech in their life,” Mira said.

To the general public, Jason is the most recognizable debate and speech coach in Minnesota. Even at Maple Grove High School, his role has raised questions along the lines of, “Is that the guy on TV?”

“Occasionally, we actually do hear that,” Mira said. “It's mostly from people within our own school, who are kind of like ‘Oh my God, you guys have a celebrity as your coach.’ ”

Seth DeRusha said he sometimes refers to his dad as Coach “to make fun of him.”

“All my friends are obsessed with him in a jokey way,” Seth said. “They take pictures of him when he’s walking into the school. It's like a joke. At the last tournament, one of the people who was working at the tournament recognized my last name and asked me about it. So it's funny like that.”

As much as DeRusha has done to make sure the students are able to participate in the activities they love, it’s a two-way street. In early December, for example, he posted this message and a team photo on his Twitter account, @DeRushaJ:

“So proud of these absolute legends: the Maple Grove Senior High debate team just won the Northern Lights National Qualifiers tournament and all of these young people earned the right to compete at the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Louisville this summer. But they also showed me how loving and caring they are as humans, as they faced some tough decisions in the final phase of the tournament. It has been my absolute honor to coach them along the way - as usual I’ve learned more from them than they learned from me. Our future is in good hands with all of these scholars.”

“These moments with these kids have been an incredible gift,” he said. “The kids are amazing.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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The Best Of John’s Journal From 2021-22