The First Four games are done, and now we’re ready for the uniquely chaotic, frantic, frenetic, non-stop chaos of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Ernie Johnson will be splitting hosting duties with Greg Gumbel at CBS’ New York City studios with analysts Clark Kellogg, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley.
This week, Awful Announcing caught up with Johnson to talk about his tournament prep, critics who doubt Barkley’s college basketball knowledge and EJ’s upcoming biography, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary, coming out on April 4.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re looking at the teams and matchups now in preparation for the tournament. What’s getting you most excited about the NCAAs this year?
The thing that gets me excited about the tournament is that first day when we’re doing the studio on CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV. I would say Thursday and Friday are the two busiest days of the sports year for me, when I consider everything that I do during the year. There’s nothing quite like those first two days, just in terms of the volume of shows and the quick turnaround.
Teams and seedings and matchups aside, that’s what gets you going as the tournament begins. The fact that once we hit the air at noon [eastern] on Thursday in New York, you’re doing four pregame shows and you turn around and do a halftime show, a between game show on another network and they come fast and furious. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
What’s your prep for those first two days like, and how does it differ from your prep for Thursday night NBA?
I think after this long, when you’ve done the NBA for 28 years doing that show, I have a system where I’ve built files on every team that you build an update every season and every game, basically. And you’re dealing with 30 teams.
In the college game, now we’re seven years deep. So I have a file of probably 200 college teams that I’ve built files on through the years. And so the last few days, in the last day in particular, and weeks leading up to selection Sunday, you’re going through those. And you know who’s going to be in the tournament, basically you know the heavy hitters that are going to be in there. So you’re kind of updating your information on those teams. Who’s not there anymore; who is there; what has the team done this year; how many winning streaks have they had; what kind of key injuries have they had. And then you’re finalizing all that. That’s what I did all day on Monday.
I sat there in my home office and I went through with a kind of rundown from Stats Inc. that they give us on the teams. And I’m just pulling nuggets, pulling names, looking at trends during the year and updating every file for all the teams that are going to be in there now. And the thing that’s different from the NBA is that by the end of the week, half those files are going to be gone because you’re one and done in the tournament. So the preparation is kind of similar for me in terms of how I get to know each team, but you carry it out differently because of the one-and-done nature of the tournament.
Inevitably at this time of year, there are going to be media and sports critics who say Charles Barkley’s tournament prep or his knowledge of the teams could improve. But you sit there with him, Ernie. What do you see?
Oh, no. You know what? Here’s the deal.
When you get right down to it, we’re talking basketball. It would be different if they said, “okay, the World Curling Championships are coming up in March. The TNT NBA crew will be doing the curling championships.” And then you could say “what the heck do those guys know about curling?”
Look, we’re talking basketball. And Kenny and Charles watch a lot of college hoops in the course of our NBA coverage. I’m not at Chuck’s house with him, but on a night when we’re on the air with the NBA, there’s always college stuff on monitors too. He says “I wanna watch this team. I’m watching our game, but I want to see what these guys are up to, too.” And so there are conversations going on all the time also with our research staff Hal Gaalema, Joe Underhill. On a Thursday night when we’re talking NBA, they’re always talking about “hey, what do you think? Does this guy impress you? What’s your take on him?” And Charles has seen them all play.
And so people can say whatever they want to say. And I think it’s an easy thing to say, “well the NBA guys are now going to the college game, so what do they know?” Look, we’ve been watching the games. We’ve been preparing for it. And when it comes right down to it, it’s basketball. And there are nobody better than the guys that we have in New York as Greg [Gumbel] and I split time. Chuck, Kenny and Clark are a wonderful fit together. And I think if you’re watching the tournament, you’re gonna get great stuff from those guys.
For seven years now, it’s been one of those things where folks have wanted to take a shot and say “oh, NBA guys can’t cover college.” No. I think we’ve proven that it’s been a really good formula.
Given the current political climate, there is the chance that over the course of the tournament, there might be some politically divisive issue brought up by one of the analysts. How do you handle that and navigate through that as a host?
I mean, I have no idea if something like that is going to happen.
Neither do I, but it’s a possibility.
We deal with that in a different way, too. On TNT, it has to be something that the whole world is talking about. It’s not like we’re going to come on the air some night during the NBA and say “hey, instead of talking about the Golden State-San Antonio game coming up, let’s talk about affordable healthcare.”
We talked at length about the presidential election, for instance, because it’s what everybody in the world was talking about that. So it’s not like we sit here and monitor Washington and say “we really gotta come out and talk about wiretapping.” That’s not what’s happening. Look, if you sit here and say “if this happens, we’re gonna do this,” we take everything as it happens. If there’s something that happens in the world that Charles is dying to talk about, we do it. And so, that’s kinda the way that NBA show has been running.
As far as what happens on CBS, I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.
The tournament ends the first week of April, and then you have about two or three weeks before the NBA playoffs start. How do you deal with not having much of a break at all going right into the postseason through the Eastern Conference Finals?
Yeah, there’s not much break at all. The tournament will be over on the 3rd, that Monday night. And then less than two weeks later, the playoffs start. It’ll be that Sunday, the 16th, that we’ll start. It’s no biggie. I keep up with the NBA the same way I do when we’re not doing college basketball.
A lot of times, I’m in my hotel room in New York and I’m doing the same thing I always do, going through box scores and keeping a daily log on what’s going on in the NBA. So that’s something that’s very important to me, is that I don’t say “okay, I know we’re not on the air with the NBA, so I’m going to ignore it.” I keep same daily notes that I always take, maybe at a different time during the day. It’s not like I say “hey, what’s been happening in the NBA since we’ve been gone?”
So we’re still up to speed with that. Our next time on the air after the championship game will be that following Monday, the 10th. And that’ll be our last regular season telecast. And then the following Sunday, will be our first time with the playoffs underway. It’s a little chance to catch your breath, and get totally back up to speed on when games are going to be meaningful when we come back on the air [for the NBA]. It’s a great run of college hoops, but you do have that little chance to recharge and then dive back into the NBA for that 40 games in 40 nights.
And then at some point in April, your autobiography is coming out. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
That’s the day after the championship. So Tuesday the 4th is when Unscripted comes out. We’ve got a media tour scheduled that begins that Tuesday. So I’ll fly from Phoenix after the championship game to New York and do some media Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We’re planning, right now, New York and then going up to Bristol and doing the “car wash” at ESPN and then fielding some chances in Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta. So yeah, it’s going to be a very busy time.
The crazy thing is, this is the first time I’ve ever written a book. And it was a really rewarding experience for me. But there are a lot of things that go into it once you’ve actually written the book. There’s recording the audio book, which is something I did for two days after the All-Star Game. So I’m kinda looking at my schedule and they’re asking me “when can you do this, and when can you do this?” So any real free time that I’ve looked at in my schedule has been kind of occupied by the book.
So I leave New Orleans [after the All-Star Game], come back to Atlanta, record the book for two days and then get back to the NBA. And then the same way here. When the college tournament ends, there’s four or five days of traveling to promote the book and then get back in the studio on Monday.
It’s a whirlwind [laughs]. There’s been precious little free time over the past several months. But it’s all good. It’s very cool. I’ve got plenty of energy.