This article was originally published on the UConn Today Web site on February 27, 2012.
By: Kenneth Best
It was just after 8 a.m. Saturday morning in and the early bird part of the crowd of more than 2,500 students was just stirring, getting ready to be part of ESPN College GameDay. The broadcast would begin two hours later, as a prelude to the nationally televised men’s basketball game between the Huskies and Big East rival No. 2 Syracuse.
The Husky cheerleaders, dance team, and pep band were busy helping students to get up to game volume, as more students streamed into Gampel. At the same time, technicians and staff from ESPN moved about the business of checking their equipment and making sure everything was in place for the first of three shows that would originate from Storrs.
At precisely 10 a.m., the crowd sounded like the Huskies had just scored a game-winning basket, as host Rece Davis and analysts Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, and Hubert Davis began the ESPNU broadcast of College GameDay. They would continue with a second hour for the ESPN edition of the show, and then return to the air eight hours later for the 8 p.m. show, just before the -Syracuse game. The Huskies stormed back from a 17-point deficit in the second half, but lost by 71-69.
The three hours of GameDay telecasts, which are also supplemented by halftime and postgame reports, are the visible part of one of ESPN’s most popular programs and an opportunity to showcase college students’ enthusiasm for their team before a national television audience.
The broadcasts are the culmination of more than two days of on-site preparation by the crew of 75, who travel back and forth across the United States each week with a caravan of five trucks that includes portable control rooms, satellite uplink dishes, a power generator, and the GameDay set. They arrive on site by Thursday to begin setting up the miles of wire and cable and multiple television cameras and monitors that are integral to the broadcast. By Friday, the familiar on-camera personalities join the GameDay crew from their other ESPN assignments around the country.
“It’s basically like taking Sports Center on the road,” says Luther Fisher, who is responsible for the technical operations of the show. “I’m building a studio each week. You run into obstacles, like how far the [control] truck is from the arena where we’re located.”
Fisher and operations assistant Patrick Abrams also work with the host institution to determine what the capabilities are at the arena, even as they travel with all the equipment necessary to produce a national television broadcast. In addition to preparing for the broadcast, they must have access to equipment they do not carry, such as forklifts, and also coordinate meals and housing for the ESPN staff.
By Friday, as the technical aspects of the show are still being completed, the production team and on-camera team arrive on site to begin their planning for the broadcast. Every moment of each GameDay broadcast is scripted, from who will be talking on the air to where they will sit or stand during the show.
“I have the pleasure of showing up and all this stuff is in place,” says producer Tom Engle. “We have a pretty long show meeting. The unique thing about College GameDay is that while you want to focus on the [game] matchups, you are appealing to a much greater audience. You have to do a national perspective. As we get closer to the NCAA Tournament, there are more teams that people want to hear about. People want to hear about their team, and we have to try and cover as many teams as we can.”
The expertise of analysts Hubert Davis, a former NBA player; Phelps, the former coach at Notre Dame; and Bilas, an attorney and former assistant coach at Duke, comes into play, as they discuss the topics for the show with host Rece Davis and Engle, the producer.
Phelps says he continues to follow the same preparation he did as a coach – using large note cards with key details written in his own handwriting.
“I’m not a computer geek,” Phelps says, pulling out a pile of note cards. “My whole life is these cards; this is how I do it. I watch games, get game stories and boxes [box scores]. I gotta do the cards. That’s how I used to coach.”
The meeting also includes director Rodney Perez, who prepares a detailed list of every moment for the broadcast that includes who will be speaking, what will appear on screen, and which camera will be used. Just as the students were arriving at Gampel on Saturday morning, Perez met with his camera operators to take them through every aspect of the show. It would be his voice from the production truck parked behind Gampel that everyone would hear in their headsets as he directed GameDay.
Not long before the first hour of GameDay began on ESPNU, Phelps walked out on the floor of Gampel to cheers from the growing crowd of students dressed in white and holding banners and large cardboard heads of Huskies players and the ESPN announcers. His task was to rehearse the students for the moments when their vocal enthusiasm would be on display to the national television audience, beginning in the 9 a.m. hour with a live Sports Center segment for Bilas, who discussed the day’s college games, including UConn and Syracuse.
“Yes! You still are the defending national champions!” Phelps said, drawing a burst of cheers, before dancing a bit as the pep band launched into “Talking Out the Side of Your Neck,” the familiar funk tune played during games when students wave their arms and sway in time to the music.
“I get the student who is first in line who stayed out all night and make him the student leader,” Phelp says. “I get the band director and get it rehearsed. It always works. It’s the moment for those students that are there, and they know that and they just can’t wait to be a part of it for two hours.”
With the game plan in place and the clock ticking toward going on the air, stage manager Mike Ruhlman takes the scripted moves on paper and choreographs them during the show.
“My job is kind of like being an air traffic controller,” Ruhlman says. “My challenge is to make sure everyone is where they need to be, when they need to be there, for two hours.”
Ruhlman notes that at most arenas, the GameDay desk is moved on and off the court during halftime, giving the ESPN crew a few moments to set it up. Because there is a concourse at Gampel, the halftime show and later postgame report can originate from that part of the arena.
“Certain courts lend themselves to certain [camera] shots,” he says. “This one is nice and big. It gives us a big feel for our evening show. For us, the basketball court is our stage. We want to have the best show we can have, and working with the school, have the school be represented in the best fashion.”
By noon on Saturday, the morning broadcasts were concluded and the GameDay crew that had been working in Gampel Pavilion since well before 8 a.m. was able to get some rest, while the ESPN game crew began to arrive and prepare for its 9 p.m. game broadcast. In another eight hours, it would be show time once again.
The ESPN College GameDay basketball crew has driven more than 6,000 miles since beginning its 2012 broadcast season at Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., on Jan. 14. This past week they drove 744 miles from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Storrs.It was the sixth time UConn has been part of a basketball GameDay, and the third time as host site. The first-ever men’s basketball GameDay broadcast – modeled after the successful football GameDay that began in 1987 – was on Jan. 22, 2005, when the No. 13 Huskies played host to No. 17 Pittsburgh. The first-ever women’s basketball GameDay also took place at Gampel Pavilion place on Jan. 16, 2010, when the No. 1 Huskies hosted No. 3 Notre Dame. Only UConn, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt have been part of basketball GameDay for both men and women, and only Kansas and Kentucky, with seven men’s games, have been part of more GameDay broadcasts.
After breaking down its portable studio and loading up the trucks, this week GameDay will head 632 miles south to Durham, N.C., for the Duke-North Carolina game and the end of the regular season. Then it will be time to get ready for conference tournament week and March Madness.