Monday, August 25, 2014

ESPN personnel dominate TV playoff field

Forget speculation about two teams from the SEC qualifying for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

That's an on-field matter -- deserved, likely, or not.

Off the field, and on the television screen where college football really matters, the dominance of the SEC pales in comparison to that of the all-sports, four-letter juggernaut some fans and viewers love to hate and others love to love.

In this, the debut season for the College Football Playoff, all the on-screen players that really matter call ESPN home. With the season set to begin Thursday, here are those top four -- the best at what they do and those truly worth watching -- as well as a few more just outside the championship bracket.

1. Chris Fowler: He's the undisputed champ, having honed his presence as host of the best studio show in sports ("College GameDay"), even though that program never originates from a normal studio. His preparation and presence make him a voice of the game, even though he's never been a regular play-by-play voice. That changes the season, when he takes over Saturday night play-by-play duties for games on ABC. That allows him to start and end the day with college football fans. Expect him to be steady and well prepared. It's a lot of work, but he'll be ready.

2. Kirk Herbstreit: He's handled the double duty Fowler picks up this season for the past several seasons, working as an analyst on "GameDay" and then flying to different sites when necessary to work as a game analyst with Musburger. Herbstreit comes prepared and he's steady. He works hard, has weathered criticism at times through the years and has consistently put himself in position as a multi-talented standout in the sport.

3. Joe Tessitore: He handles the same double-duty as Fowler and Herstreit. Long a respected play-by-play man and a solid storyteller with strong contacts across the sport, Tessitore becomes host of "SEC Nation" on the SEC Network this season. It's the same long day as Fowler and Herbstreit and he brings the same dedication, preparation and talent. There's really not much room between No. 1 and No. 3 on this list.

4. Tim Tebow: OK, it might be early for this comparative upstart to get this spot, but he made an impressive mark during the final Bowl Championship Series last season. He was spot-on with some predictions and clearly comfortable on TV. Thankfully, it seems the silliness of his potential return to the field as a pro quarterback has been forgotten. All viewers might bring opinion of Tebow to Saturdays (and other times they watch) but coaches and players respect his accomplishments and know him as genuine, and as prepared in his current position with the SEC Network. Consider him the solid team the finds a way into the playoff field.

Now, if they expanded the field, which college football itself will do sooner rather than later, here are some other likely TV playoff contenders. They're in alphabetical order, and there's still a hefty ESPN feel. Of course, that pretty much seems obvious when your network carries 450 games with teams from all 10 major conference during the season.

Rece Davis: See Fowler and Tessitore, and see another man similarly busy and talented. Davis bring the same skill set to his work as a play-by-play man and studio host. And, he might do it a little more regularly with daily studio duties. He's good, and depending on how long Fowler wants to shoulder the studio and play-by-play duties could be eventually end up on "GameDay" himself.

Bruce Feldman: Fox Sports has gone to real reporters to bring information to its college football shows, and Feldman gives them a proven pro in that spot. He's respected and well connected. Although he will not be seen by as many people as watch his ESPN counterparts, if Feldman's on TV he's worth watching.

Stewart Mandel: He moved from Sports Ilustrated to Fox Sports, giving the network (along with Feldman) a much stronger presence on college football than it had just six months ago. Another connected, solid pro. A print-to-TV transition invariably takes some time, but it could be relatively quick in this case and what viewers Fox Sports gets for studio programming should benefit as a result.

Brent Musburger: Bounced to the SEC Network, he immediately gives the outlet gravitas as play-by-play man on the biggest games of the week. Viewers know his voice, and he knows the game. Still, it was time for the move:

Gus Johnson: Other critics do not clamor for him on football as they do on basketball, and he's been spending a fair amount of time trying to enhance is soccer chops and cred, but he's solid on college football -- and a little big of energy never hurt.

Tom Rinaldi: He'll make you cry. He'll whisper his questions. And he'll write the heck out of his broadcast pieces. A solid, super TV reporter. When teases for his pieces air, it's my job to get whatever distractions could occur out of the way and get ready to watch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Analyst Spears takes inDirec route to SEC Network

Marcus Spears
With all the attention on his partners as the SEC Network readies for its debut Thursday, analyst Marcus Spears could get lost in the mix -- which would be a first for the 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive tackle who played eight-plus seasons in the NFL and earned a national championship at LSU.

He's really not worried about being seen, though. He's focused on doing his job, and if he does it well he knows things will be fine -- even if his path to the job was somewhat unusual.

At this time last year, Spears was preparing for his first season with the Baltimore Ravens. He had spent the previous eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys after being selected in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft and the Ravens offered an opportunity to extend his playing career.

Unfortunately for him, that opportunity lasted only into the seventh week of the season before he was cut and returned to his home in Dallas.

Then, for the next chapter of his life, he was initially more worried about what to watch on TV than finding a job on TV.

"When I first heard about the SEC Network, I was just trying to find out if DirecTV would pick it," Spears said. "I called them to find out, but nothing was set at that point." Not long after that, his perspective about the network changed. Instead of just trying to find the channel, he wanted to find out about an on-air job.

Spears reached out to Stephanie Druly on Twitter and the SEC Network vice president responded. He knew the approach was unconventional,  even "a shot in the dark," but he pitched himself for a job and asked for an interview.

The network requested samples of Spears's work (he had done local shows in Dallas during his playing career) and he received a phone call two weeks after that. Then there was a trip to Bristol, Conn., another three-week wait and a trip to Austin, Texas, for more interviews and auditions at the studios of the Longhorn Network, also owned by ESPN.

Spears was pleased with the Bristol audition, conducted with Brock Huard ("A great guy, he made everything comfortable," Spears said.) and he was even more upbeat after the second audition. Spears said the consistent, intense media attention the Cowboys received during his playing career enabled him to regularly hone his on-air skills and gave him an advantage as he worked to make the transition from a playing career to a broadcasting career.

His move to the SEC Network, as a member of "SEC Nation" on Saturday mornings and with regular studio duties, became official in early April. Among a quartet that includes Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and SEC firebrand Paul Finebaum, Spears could easily be overlooked. Host Joe Tessitore has earned the respect of college football fans with his work through the years, too.

Still, Spears brings the same team-first approach to the SEC Network that he did as a member of the Cowboys and Ravens.

"The most challenging thing is the amount of information you have, and how well you have to be prepared," Spears said. "The information it takes to be successful from an analyst's standpoint is totally different. It's not just one team you're playing against that you study, it's every team in the conference. That's OK, though. I want to be prepared. I want people to know I know the game and respect my work."

Along with his experience in the conference and week-to-week preparation, Spears plans to bring something more -- some fun. He appreciates Tebow as a "rock star" and Finebaum for his deserved and practiced skills to create discussion and reaction. Together with Tessitore, Spears think the quartet can engage and entertain SEC Network viewers.

They started building their chemistry during a three-hour dinner at a Bristol restaurant after a promotional photo shoot. Since then, there have been almost daily conversations among the starting lineup for the SEC Network's flagship show.

As a result, Spears believes the network and show are well positioned to do their jobs. "We can be a fixture in this conference and college football," he said.

And that's something that would certainly be hard to miss.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

No guarantee of score on Penn State scoreboards

Some die-hard Penn State fans probably anticipate seeing two huge scoreboards in use for the team’s first home game Sept. 6 at Beaver Stadium.

They’ll get more than two scoreboards, though. They’ll get four — and what they see might be a little unexpected.

Along with the eco-friendly, high-tech and well-publicized boards mounted over the north and sound end zones (the existing boards were retrofitted with state-of-the-art technology), two simple, smaller scoreboards hang under the front edge of both the north and south decks at the stadium.

Those smaller boards will always feature game score, down and distance because the “videoboards” — and that’s the more accurate term — will not always display the game score.

So, the frequency, size and quality of videos available might increase from what has been seen in the stadium in the past, but there’s no guarantee the score will be on the boards.


That’s why the smaller scoreboards, visible behind the goalposts at each end of the stadium, were installed to make sure the basics were handled on a regular basis.

Penn State officials plan to put updated statistics on the videoboards and there’s almost no doubt what ends up on the screens might be some compelling and interesting images. Game information will be on the screens between videos as well.

Hopefully, though, as things shake out during the season and Penn State puts the boards through their paces, someone will find a way to fit all the information on the screen together. From a customer-service, user-friendly standpoint, people are accustomed to seeing video and at least a score/time logo on a sports broadcast.

It just seems something like that could be done with the videoboards as well.