The first time Rachel Baribeau interviewed then-Auburn baseball coach Steve Renfroe, it was a nerve-wracking experience. She was sweating. She was so nervous, she felt her eyeballs might pop out of her head. But Renfroe was gracious, his demeanor never changing over the course of the interview.
If he detected Baribeau's anxiousness, he didn't show it.
Not long after that, Baribeau covered her first Auburn football game — a wild, back-and-forth affair against Syracuse in 2002 which saw the Tigers take a 37-34 victory in triple-overtime at Jordan-Hare Stadium. And those two experiences were all Baribeau needed to cement her career path.
She was going to carve out a place for herself in sports journalism.
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"Both of them combined were the nail in the coffin that I wasn't getting away from this," Baribeau said Wednesday in Emerson, Ga., where she was covering the Perfect Game under-14 national championship baseball tournament at LakePoint Sporting Community. "I knew I was hooked."
But as a female in a male-dominated industry, it's been an uphill climb for Baribeau. As she describes it, for a female to earn the admiration of her male peers, "you have to work twice as hard to be respected half as much." She also needed people willing to take chances on her.
Baribeau wouldn't be where she is now — a national personality who works for both the ACC Network and SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel — if people hadn't stuck their neck out for her along the way.
The first of those was DJ Jones. After graduating from Auburn in 2003, Baribeau came to Columbus — a place she was already quite familiar with, as she constantly visited family members who lived in the area — where she got into contact with Jones, who, impressed with her drive, gave her a spot on his radio show, "DJ and Friends."
"It was brave to give a young woman straight out of college two days a week on the radio," Baribeau said. "He asked me, Can you bond with (listeners)? Do they want to hang out with you? Do they want to have a beer with you? Did you inform them? Did you teach them something they didn't know before? And most importantly, keep your facts straight."
And Jones said "she more than held her own."
"Rachel had spunk," he said. "She came in and she was ready. I told her that you've got to know your stuff. And if you don't know it, don't act like you know it. She respected that."
Baribeau knew "her stuff" to the extent that Jones can't remember a caller ever phoning in and challenging her on any factual point. That made it all the more impressive, he said, especially given the dearth of female voices in sports talk radio.
Put simply, Baribeau was a trailblazer in the Bi-City market.
"She really was ahead of her time. And even though some males might not have initially liked her being a part of the show, they understood that if she was on with me, I was confident she knew what she was doing," Jones said. "And she gave a different perspective, which was a benefit to me, since it only expanded our audience. So all of a sudden, we have Rachel Baribeau talking about sports, and we've got female listeners tuning in to hear what she has to say."
Not everyone was as welcoming as Jones, however. Ever since she broke into the business, Baribeau said she's faced her share of discrimination from males who didn't respect her. One situation in particular has stuck with her: She had a male colleague that she was quite friendly with off the air.
Then the show would begin.
"He would try to disprove my facts and talk down to me," she said, knowing that he was trying to "embarrass" her on the air. "But once the red light went off he would be nice to me again, so it was very troubling."
The fact that she was a self-proclaimed "over preparer" was a benefit: Since she wasn't wrong, she didn't have to worry about the ramifications. Had she made a miniscule miscue on-air, it likely wouldn't have cost Baribeau her job. But it might have cost her something every bit as important: credibility with the audience.
"Here's the reality of a woman in a man's world: The leeway for you if you make an error is much different than that of a man," she said. "If I make a mistake on the air, I'm going to pay for it much longer, deeper and harder than a man if he had done the same thing. There are still a lot of people in the world that love sports and believe that I have no place covering sports."
To help aspiring female sports journalists avoid those pitfalls, Baribeau decided to develop a "coaching" business focused on the industry. In this setting, Baribeau wears many hats: Coach. Mentor. Drill sergeant. Big sister.
Her goal is to impart the kind of knowledge you won't learn in a classroom — the "real-life stuff."
One point she continually harps upon to her protégés is to meticulously cultivate their personal brand. That means double-checking every single tweet, Instagram or Facebook post or any picture they're tagged in before it is broadcast to the world via social media.
Once it's out there, it's in the public domain.
"I always ask them, 'What foot are you leading with?'" Baribeau said. "If you're leading with your sexuality and wearing a too-short skirt and low-cut stuff, people aren't going to get past that nine times out of 10. They're not going to see your intelligence."
For women to continue making gains in sports journalism, that's what people need to see, Baribeau said: More brains, less beauty. Baribeau isn't saying it's impossible for an attractive woman to succeed; rather, it's that they shouldn't rely on physical appearance alone.
Eventually, that fades away with age.
"I tell young women, if you're banking on just that physical appeal, you're going to have a lot shorter career than if you really develop your mind," she said. "For me, I can do radio until I'm 70 or 80. I love it. Radio, it's one of my favorite mediums. No one judges me on my looks when I'm on the radio."
If one judges Baribeau on her contacts in the business, it's hard not to be impressed. She considers national college football personalities such as Tony Barnhart, Pat Forde, Tim Brando, Brett McMurphy and Spencer Tillman (to name a few) among her close friends. Knowing that she can call up any of them at a moment's notice is still hard for her to believe. She forces herself to stay grounded, though.
Otherwise, she might start to lose sight of how incredible her career has been to this point.
"I pinch myself on a daily basis. I think that's a great way to live — in a constant sense of wonder and amazement," Baribeau said. "I try to count my blessings instead of focusing on the things going wrong in my life."
It's that faith that has helped her get this far as it is. She's upfront about her relationship with God. At times, she admits, it may have come at the expense of another job or a possible endorsement. But if that's the case, so be it.
She's not going to change who she is for anyone.
"This life isn't about me. It's about the legacy that I leave. It's about how many lives I touch and ultimately how many lives I can impact for Jesus Christ," Baribeau said. " I'm not going to be ashamed of Him. I love God and He's the reason for the success I've had. He's going to open doors that no man can open or shut and He's going to have me exactly where I need to be."
Where that leads her next is anyone's guess. She's gone from Auburn to Columbus to Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Atlanta before she landed her gigs with SiriusXM and the ACC Network. Undoubtedly, it's been a meteoric rise. Even as she continues her ascension in the industry, Baribeau said she doesn't want to be defined by her career.
She wants the lasting image to be of her character.
"I've always heard you can make a negative deposit with somebody or you can make a positive deposit," she said. "If I've somehow brightened your day or made you smile or if I've gained your respect or made that interview easier to deal with, that's great. I want people to walk away with a better, more positive perception of me than when they first met me."