It was the finals for Jeopardy!’s Tournament of Champions in 1991, and Jim Scott (Col ’91) couldn’t believe his luck. As the categories were revealed, French literature popped up. Scott had just graduated from UVA with a French minor.
“It felt like I hit the jackpot,” Scott says. “It was right in my wheelhouse.”
He did well in that category and others, capitalizing on the knowledge and skills that he’d honed for most of his life. He competed on a televised quiz show with his high school. He was active on UVA’s college bowl team. And at 22, Scott became Jeopardy!’s youngest Tournament of Champions winner.
“It would have been foolish for me to put that time in with the expectation of eventually being on Jeopardy! The number of people who actually get on the show are just too low,” says Scott, whose appearance is immortalized in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. “But why not?”
Scott is one of dozens of UVA alumni who have stepped up to the bright lights on game show stages to compete for cash, cruises and Rice-A-Roni. They’ve played Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? and The Price is Right, among others. Some have even competed against each other.
“It’s one of those bucket-list items,” says Travis Gaylord (Engr ’92), a three-day Jeopardy! champion in February 2020 before losing to Patrick Rice (Engr ’17). “It was overwhelmingly positive.”
Persistence and Luck
With placement tests, applications and auditions, getting on a game show can require persistence and luck. It took about a decade of taking annual online tests for Donnie Edgemon (Col ’97) to score a spot on Jeopardy! in 2015. But his experience there made it easier to snag a turn on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2019, where he won $50,000.
“Jeopardy! is a qualifier, it seems, for casting people at other quiz shows,” says Edgemon, who has steered his love of trivia into Triviappolis Treasures, a travel trivia app.
The hosts are kind—but typically hold contestants at arm’s length. There’s not much interaction beyond what viewers see on TV. That’s in large part because of laws that were passed after revelations in the 1950s that some quiz shows were fixed. It was especially true when Nancy L. Buc (Law ’69) competed on Jeopardy! in 1968 with Art Fleming, the original host.
“You couldn’t even go to the bathroom without a watcher to make sure that you weren’t cheating,” says Buc, who remembers signing a long release.
And while competing on a game show might seem glamorous, it isn’t exactly. Contestants typically pay their own way and wear their own clothes. Multiple shows of Wheel and Jeopardy! are taped each day. For his first appearances on Jeopardy! in 1990, Scott flew to Los Angeles to tape four shows in one day and then flew back two weeks later to compete in the final one.
Despite the rounds of tryouts or small discomforts, UVA alumni say it’s worth it. Childhood memories or a love of trivia draw them to the shows. Rodney J. Hobbs (Com ’94) started watching The Price is Right as a preschooler. In 2012, he won its showcase, snagging $28,000 in prizes and fulfilling a lifelong dream. He also appeared on the Game Show Network’s Catch 21 in 2010 and Wheel in 2020, where he won $15,000 in prizes. “I like game shows, and I like to win money,” he says.
Kristin Hucek (Col ’08), a three-day Jeopardy! champion in October 2020, remembers afternoons after school watching the show. At UVA, she sharpened her knowledge of random facts during trivia nights at Mellow Mushroom. “I like using knowledge in a competitive way,” she says.
To prepare to compete, Hucek asked her husband to quiz her on topics like vice presidents and Greek mythology. For Wheel, Hobbs practiced his enunciation and studied the wheel to avoid the bankrupt wedge.
Before Rice competed on Jeopardy! last February, he holed up in a conference room at work to watch past shows and try to predict the location of Daily Doubles and determine the probability of his getting certain value clues correct.
“I definitely went in very excited, but determined to win at least one game,” he said.
Rice did—but took the champion title away from another ’Hoo in the process. On the day of his taping, Rice was sitting in the studio audience as another show was filmed and heard Travis Gaylord tell host Alex Trebek that he attended UVA. Rice and Gaylord eventually learned that they graduated 25 years apart with the same major—mechanical engineering. Trebek later shared with them both that he’d watched Ralph Sampson (Col ’83) play basketball for UVA. (The longtime Jeopardy! host died of pancreatic cancer in November 2020.)
They weren’t the only ’Hoos to recently square off against each other. Hobbs and Shannon Hart (Educ ’18) were two of three contestants during an October 2020 episode of Wheel. At the time, Wheel and Jeopardy! were both pulling contestants only within driving distance of their California studios because of COVID-19. Both Hobbs and Hart live in the Los Angeles area.
They exchanged a few pleasantries, remembers Hart, who won the bonus round, taking home nearly $56,000 in prizes. They wouldn’t find out until later that they were both Wahoos.
Again and again
Scott’s story stands out among game show ’Hoos. He’s been on Jeopardy! four times, including the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions and the 2014 Battle of the Decades. His winnings include more than $154,000 and a case of Rice-A-Roni.
His expert play is captured in Groundhog Day. As the character Phil Connors, portrayed by actor Bill Murray, lives the same day over and over again, he watches the game show and gets each answer correct because he’s seen it so many times. The clip is from the semifinal round of the Tournament of Champions, and Scott is getting the answers correct too.
Scott didn’t know he’d be in the movie. (And, sadly, he doesn’t get any residuals from the now classic film.) “After it came out, my phone started ringing off the hook with people either telling me, ‘You really ought to go see Groundhog Day’ or actually telling me why,” he says.
His run is certainly a claim to fame for Scott, now a lawyer in Arlington, Virginia. But being on Jeopardy!, Scott says, “doesn’t define me anymore.”
Still, if the show invited him back, he also wouldn’t hesitate. “I’m not anticipating it,” he says. “If it happens, it would be fantastic.”