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AA All Access: ESPN’s Ohio State-Michigan Super Tuesday telecast

COLUMBUS, OH — As the Schottenstein Center bustles with increasing activity a couple hours before Tuesday night’s Top 25 matchup between eternal rivals Michigan and Ohio State, ESPN’s Mike Tirico has already put in a full day of work. He left his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early morning and made the 3.5 hour drive to Columbus in time to make the afternoon shootaround and begin gameday preparation for the 9 PM ET telecast on ESPN. In what may come as a surprise, broadcasting a major sporting event isn’t something that begins and ends within the confines of your television’s program guide.

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“Even the guy I saw in the elevator today leaving my room said, ‘oh, you goin' out to dinner?’” Tirico related. “And I said, no, I’m going to the game. He said, Well what the heck are you going to the game so early for?’”

In truth, it takes a crew of about 40 people, some arriving at the arena a full 11 hours before tip, to make this ESPN Super Tuesday broadcast possible. Many of them are on a plane every other day to get from one college town to the next. Some make lengthy commutes from their midwestern homes. Some work 3 games a week and only get to spend Sundays with family. Pretty much all of them have to multitask – analyst Dan Dakich did his daily WNFI radio show in Indianapolis from Columbus in the afternoon before making his way to the arena floor to talk with coaches Thad Matta and John Beilein.

The idea of preparation takes on many different forms for the Super Tuesday Big Ten crew. For the operations staff, preparing for a game broadcast means a seemingly infinite series of checks and tests that will go completely unseen and unnoticed by the millions watching at home. Operations producer Jason Hedgcock and his crew must perform each necessary one so that the broadcast can go off without a hitch. For an “A” level broadcast like this, that means a minimum of 8 cameras including the 2 above each rim. The brutal winter across the midwest has brought an added element of difficulty each week in just bringing the production truck to its minimum working temperature of 55 degrees. “A lot of this is planning and execution,” Hedgcock said. “There are a lot of standards in place that helps everyone have good plans to ensure success.”

If you’ve never been inside a television truck, it’s almost impossible to describe the maze of wires, dials, knobs, and monitors that are crammed into what feels like a small walk-in closet. And yet somehow, this mass of old and new technology comes together to create a seamless broadcast of a live sporting event. The hours spent wiring cables, checking audio, calibrating the hues of each camera feed, and checking satellite transmissions are done to ensure that the fan at home has the best viewing experience possible. From the software on the score bug to the headsets referees will use to talk to the production truck for replays, every piece of equipment (and its backup, and the backup’s backup) have to be checked and re-checked and in working order for the telecast. Before every game, Hedgock types out a 5-7 page document for the staff that contains every possible modicum of information needed for the game. It’s filled with not just specifics about each piece of technology that will be used, but also things like emergency contact information and the location of the hotel and nearest hospital. After the game, Hedgcock types out a detailed report on any issues that arose during the day and what may need to be highlighted before the next game. It’s almost like writing a report for your favorite college class, if it just so happened to be graded by a couple million people twice a week.

At 7:00, two hours before tip, director Scott Johnson gathers 13 cameramen and women in the first few rows of the stands behind the broadcast table to go over the technical side of the evening’s broadcast and the shots he and producer Bart Fox will be looking for throughout the game. He runs through the pregame schedule and how the crew will have to be alert depending on when the preceding Florida-Tennessee game might end. Johnson goes over the schedule of the game intro and the players that are to be spotlighted for bumps during the SEC game. Over the noise of PA tests, Johnson goes through each camera position with their focus during the game. Camera 2 will zero in on who commits fouls and has assists worth spotlighting. Johnson jokes that I’ll be on Camera 10 for the broadcast, which thankfully for everyone involved, is the only camera that does not move.

The culmination of preparation for the operations staff occurs 90 minutes before the broadcast when the transmission test takes place. At this time, Hedgcock takes over the production truck as all the audio and video is beamed via satellite back to Bristol, Connecticut for a final test run before Johnson and Fox take the controls and the production truck becomes fully functional. At that point, the operations staff have done everything in their power to ensure that the announcers and everyone working the telecast have the necessary tools to do their job.

While the technical preparations are ongoing, producer Bart Fox and his team craft the narrative of the night’s pivotal encounter between Ohio State and Michigan. For Fox, preparation means approaching this Super Tuesday game as another chapter in a season long story that’s currently in progress. “Because we do the Big Ten on Tuesday and Saturday every week and it’s much the same crew, I see the Big Ten as one big long storyline,” Fox said. “I’m every day preparing and keeping up with everything going on in the Big Ten and college basketball in general.”

That ongoing conversation includes announcers Dan Dakich and Mike Tirico. Their running e-mail chains and group texts continue to search for the best way to frame the narrative of the Big Ten season and the upcoming game broadcast. “Preparation is a weird thing especially doing the Big Ten,” Tirico echoed. “In some ways preparation starts in mid-November when you see a team for the first time. It’s a constant building process of gathering information and adding to it. There may be something with Aaron Craft that happens tonight that goes back to my notes from two years ago.”

When it comes to the specific game at hand, those preparations become more focused at different times for the different individuals working the game. Dakich prefers to watch each team’s last 3 games in 3 different ways – one time without sound (a holdover from his days coaching with Bob Knight), one focusing on offense, and one on defense. For Tirico, who has just worked an NBA game in Oklahoma City on Sunday, it’s spending the day Monday going through game notes and reviewing game footage. For Fox, crafting the story he wants to tell starts at least a week ahead of time, but he’s happy to turn the direction of the broadcast over to the announcers.

“The announcers have to drive the content,” he said before the game. But 85% of the time we’re following where the announcers want to go and 15% of the time they’re following where we tell them. If they’re driving that much of it I want to get their thoughts early on what’s important to them and then we’ll try to enhance that.”

At a network that houses some of the best play by play announcers in the business, Mike Tirico is arguably the best of the best. He added the Super Tuesday Big Ten package to an already loaded schedule that includes Monday Night Football, the NBA, tennis, golf, World Cup soccer, and pretty much every other major sport ESPN covers because of his appreciation for college hoops. And it helps that about half of the Big Ten schools are within driving distance from his Ann Arbor residence. The reverence for Tirico’s broadcasting acumen permeates through the Super Tuesday team.

“Tirico’s the smartest guy in the world so we’d be foolish not to listen to his ideas,” Johnson said. “He sees the big picture, he sees the little picture, he sees details, he sees everything. Guys like that it’s great to follow them,” Fox added.

The attention to detail is staggering to see up close. Two hours before the game Mike Tirico enters the production truck to review graphics that are possibilities to be used during the telecast. It’s not just for the purposes of being familiar with the content, Tirico suggests edits to tighten up the text for the graphics. He gives his reasons why he wants to explain the difference between the RPI rankings and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, presenting convincing evidence that he’s actually more familiar with it than anyone at the network.

One of the key storylines that the Super Tuesday crew zeroes in on leading up to Ohio State-Michigan is Aaron Craft’s defense on Nik Stauskas. While I interview Dakich an hour before tip, sideline reporter Allison Williams comes over to ask the analyst about Stauskas setting up his screens. The inner coach in Dakich bursts forth as he diagrams Michigan’s offense for her on the telestrator and how Craft would try to stop Stauskas from getting clean looks at the basket. A half hour before the game, Dakich reviews with Fox his on-court segment covering how he anticipated Craft would try to stop Stauskas from running off screens.

Almost immediately, it all comes to fruition. With just five minutes gone by, Dakich sees a particularly strong defensive possession by Craft where he denies Stauskas the ball. While Tirico handles play by play, Dakich buzzes Fox to tell him that’s the play he was waiting for and exactly what he thought he might see from the Buckeye defense. At the under 12 TV timeout, Dakich strolls out on the court to explain to viewers what he had just rehearsed an hour earlier. It was a brief segment, but it comes from a healthy period of preparation, planning, and execution. Without the three facets of technical operations, production, and announcers, those kinds of insights wouldn’t be possible.

Although those moments when an idea comes to life are great for every broadcast… most times 95% of those hours and hours of preparation are immediately discarded once the ball is thrown into the air.

“Everyone is different. My preference is to take everything we prepared for in advance and throw it out the window and react on the fly, because that’s when it’s really fun,” Scott said.

Both announcers prefer the more spontaneous style as well because of their comfort level working with one another. This is only the third year Dan Dakich and Mike Tirico have worked together on Super Tuesday, but spend an evening with the pair and you think they’d been partners for 30 years.

“Dan’s really unique because he’s more honest and unguarded than most people who do college basketball. It adds to his ability to speak off the top of his head and I try to tap into that. It’s a very easy place to go with him during a game,” Tirico said.

“I hope it comes out in the broadcast, but we have a blast. We have an absolute freakin’ blast. I look forward to Monday nights, Tuesday after the game with this crew with Bart and Scott. Just a freakin’ blast,” Dakich exclaimed. “That’s what I decided when I went into broadcasting. I’ve been fired from my dream job, fired from Bowling Green, I got divorced so nothing’s going to bother me and I’m going to have fun at this job because this is a fun job.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine few announcers having more fun during a game broadcast than the former Indiana and Bowling Green head coach. He’s quick to make light of his man crush on Buckeyes PG Aaron Craft on and off the air. During the first half he quips, “I don’t have a man crush on anyone except myself,” shares a laugh with his broadcast partner, and embraces the fact that the quote will be all over social media seconds later. At the end of the game, Tirico and Dakich joke about the possibility of Michigan guard Derrick Walton leap frogging Craft at the end of the game with his effort in the Michigan victory.

“I got two goals during the game,” Dakich said. “One is the coaches after the game call or text because I know all these guys and say, ‘hey we used your clip.’ I love that. And my other goal is to make him (Tirico) laugh. The biggest compliment is he’ll say to me ‘man, I forgot we were on TV!’ That’s how I want to do it.”

Tirico isn’t the only play by play man in on the jokes, though. During the first half fellow ESPN announcer Dave Pasch texts Dakich to offer an encouraging word about the broadcast and challenge the analyst to drop a “Waltonism” and channel the spirit of the legendary Bill Walton. During a timeout, I pass Dakich a note that suggests paying tribute to The Grateful Dead, but it’s probably something that needs to be more subtle than that. Finally at the under 4 timeout of the second half, Tirico points to Dakich to give him the reins to toss it to commercial break. He narrates a couple replays and after a Sam Thompson dunk, lets out an exclamatory “BEAUTIFUL!” and gives me a fist bump. Mission accomplished.

What’s the key to bringing it all together to create a successful telecast from the technical operations that begin at 8 AM to the final buzzer just past 11 PM when Mike Tirico and Dan Dakich sign off the air? Like any work environment it boils down to the ability of the individuals involved to work together. “It starts and ends with communication,” Fox noted before the game. “Once we’re on the air there is nothing more important than communicating clearly, quickly, and thoroughly. There might be 25 people on various channels listening to where Scott and I are going with a broadcast and where the announcers are going. I may have to make a decision like that and if I don’t communicate it clearly, different people can interpret it differently and on program it’s not going to look like what we want it to look.”

Although the wide majority of sports fans will only know the names of the on-air personnel presenting the game, the truth is that each person working Tuesday night at the Schott is pivotal to the Ohio State-Michigan broadcast. From Jason Hedgcock and the engineers to Scott Johnson and all the people behind the cameras to Bart Fox and the folks in the truck to the announcers on the floor. All of these diverse, differently shaped pieces have to perfectly fit together to complete the puzzle that is an ESPN Big Ten basketball broadcast.

Tirico reflected on the one thing he’d want to relay to viewers about all the work that goes into making this ESPN telecast possible. “There are people working behind the scenes working so incredibly hard and it’s the couple dozen of people working in the trucks that really make this show happen,” he said. “I wish people could see and understand and have an appreciation of how they do it.”

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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