Monday, November 23, 2009

Where Do I Begin? For Starters, Pull Me Away from the BCS; ‘Inside Baseball’ on NFL Broadcasts

Some days I just don’t know where to begin.

I am absolutely restraining myself because how many days in a row can you hammer the BCS? But the apologists are now telling us that Oklahoma State will get a BCS bid—and deserves one—if it beats Oklahoma this weekend, which at last check was 6-5 and got hammered Saturday by Texas Tech.

But if Oklahoma State wins we’ll hear all about their win over a mediocre Georgia team and how they came from behind to beat god-awful Colorado with a third string quarterback leading the charge. Forget the loss at home to Houston or the 41-14 pounding—also at home—by Texas.

What may be worse is that The Big Ten WILL get a second bid—the only question being can Joe Paterno’s name overcome the fact that his team lost at home to Iowa and they finished with identical 10-2 records. Again, let’s remember that The Big Ten doesn’t have a single impact win outside the conference. The most impressive non-conference win by a Big Ten team might have been Ohio State squeaking out a 31-27 win over Navy in its opener—at home of course.

Some Orange Bowl geek was quoted over the weekend talking about how impressed he was with the 48,000 tickets Iowa bought the last time it was in the Orange Bowl. Yeah, but the TV network—Fox—is going to want Joe Pa. Meanwhile, Boise State rolls along undefeated and it DOESN’T MATTER. Boise could beat The Colts or the Saints next week and these bowl geeks would be talking about how impressed they are with Oklahoma State or how Iowa fans travel or how good Penn State looked in beating Eastern Illinois.

Someone please drag me away from all this before I end up back in the hospital.

Speaking of the NFL—no, this will not be the weekly beat-up-the-Redskins segment. Let me just say this: if the Cowboys are planning on winning their first playoff game since Bill Clinton’s first term, they better improve a whole lot. They were life-and-death to beat a team that has no offensive line and is in complete turmoil from top to top. Forget the bottom, there is none.

Sunday night I actually watched some of the Sunday night game in part because I’m sort of a closet Bears fan. I loved Gale Sayers when I was a little kid although my memories of him are pretty blurry and I was in Indiana in ’85 during The Super Bowl run and read the Chicago papers every day. Plus, Chicago’s a great city, a place I spent a lot of time in my younger days—especially when Ray and Joey Meyer had it going at DePaul.

So, I sat and watched and my mind wandered. I was thinking just how really GOOD Al Michaels is at what he does and how smoothly Chris Collinsworth has stepped into John Madden’s very large shoes. That said, I also thought back to 2004 when I was doing my Ravens book.

If you watch the NFL you will constantly hear the announcers saying, “when we talked to Lovey Smith last night…” or “let me tell you, no one is more frustrated by his lack of production lately than Jay Cutler…” Or whatever. The implication always is that the coaches and players tell them things they don’t tell anyone else.

Which, to some degree at least, is true. You see, part of the massive NFL contracts with the networks makes it a requirement that players and coaches from the two teams meet with the announcers, the producer and director prior to each game. The network submits a list early in the week—usually from four to six players, plus the head coach and occasionally a coordinator—to the team. Sometimes there’s some negotiation because a player is tired of doing the meetings every week or because a team wants to get extra mention for someone coming off a good week.

For a Sunday game, the home team usually meets with the TV guys on Friday; the visiting team as soon as they get to town on Saturday. There are no cameras in the room and the TV guys are looking for a nugget of information that can spice up their telecast.

As part of the book, I wanted to compare how the different networks handled the production meetings. Did the play-by-play and sideline people stick to anecdotal questions while the analyst asked more x-and-o stuff? Who was more aggressive? Who took longer—CBS? Fox? ESPN? ABC? (which was in its last year of Monday Night Football) Fox’s Dick Stockton told me he didn’t WANT stories. “They get in the way of telling people what’s going on in the game,” he said. CBS’s Dick Enberg was just the opposite: he craved little details about the players lives.

Obviously I wasn’t going to steal any information in part because I didn’t think (correctly) the TV guys would get anything I didn’t already have but also because if they did it would be on the air the next day. My book wouldn’t be out until the next fall.

When Kevin Byrne, the Ravens PR guy mentioned to the CBS producer doing the Ravens opener with the Browns that I would be in the meeting, there was a little bit of whining. One self-important CBS producer, Bob Mansbach later objected to me coming to a meeting—it was with a group I’d already seen in action so I didn’t really care though I told Mansbach he was full of you-know-what. Overall, the CBS folks were easy to work with.

So were the people from Fox and, believe it or not, ESPN. Jay Rothman, the lead producer couldn’t have been more gracious and since I knew Mike Patrick and Joe Theisman well there were no problems at all for the two ESPN games the Ravens played in.

And then there was ABC. Thank goodness the Ravens were only on Monday Night football once that year. When Kevin mentioned me to Fred Gaudelli, the producer—I think that’s his name but it isn’t worth looking up to be sure--Gaudelli acted as if Kevin had said that I would be replacing Michaels on play-by-play. (I know this because I was sitting in Kevin’s office at the time).

“That’s OUR meeting,” Gaudelli screamed. “NO outsiders.”

Kevin tried to patiently explain that the other three networks had already cooperated and this was strictly about process and had nothing to do with fact-finding or anything along those lines. “Al and John will go crazy,” Gaudelli said. “He shows up, we’ll go straight to the league.”

I was seriously tempted to show up just to tell Gaudelli what a blow-hard he was and to see if he was telling the truth about Madden who I had always liked. Kevin offered a compromise—he’d take notes so I’d get a sense of the meeting and there would be no confrontations. Kevin was SO good to me throughout the book I didn’t want to cause trouble for him. So, I didn’t go.

Neither did Michaels.

Apparently he didn’t like flying in on Saturday for a Monday night game. He was on a speaker-phone for HIS meeting, one that was SO important he wasn’t even there. That cracked me up.

Look, I think Michaels is one of the all-time great play-by-play guys. He also has—and has a reputation for having—one of the all-time egos. At one point he apparently had a clause in his contract that he ONLY stayed at The Four Seasons when he traveled. I had also heard he went crazy over any criticism at all. Plus, our politics are a little bit different—to put it mildly.

When I wrote the book I made no mention of ABC going nuts at the thought of me being in the production meeting. Inside baseball. Nobody cared. I went on to say that Michaels and Madden were still the best announce team in football even though, “Michaels’ massive ego occasionally tramples on Madden.” Which I had always believed to be true.

Michaels is friendly with my agent, Esther Newberg. When he read that line he called Esther—screaming and calling me names. “Why are you calling me?” Esther said. “Here’s his number, call him—he’ll talk to you.”

Hey, I wouldn’t even have put him on speaker phone.

He never called. What a surprise.


thedean said...

Thanks for giving us the inside scoop. Wasn't it Brent Musberger who got in trouble for crossing the line and giving out team strategy "during" a game. The question I always had was why would you tell him something if you did not think he would repeat it?!?

Anonymous said...

Anyone else notice Ari Fleischer got hired by the BCS to defend it to the public? Interesting choice, and in an of itself interesting that the BCS now feels the need to have an executive director and now a PR firm.

I can't imagine either are cheap. Are they worth it?

Mark said...

John - Don't feel badly. Keep the BCS bashing coming. I realized this weekend that we've reached that time of the year when all of the excitement and goodwill from bashes itself against talk of Bowl Season. I hate this feeling. Despite the lack of a dominant team, I have enjoyed the season. I've watched a lot of great games, and great performances. But for what? This is the time where we should be talking about teams like Houston, Boise, or maybe even UNC - teams that no one wants to have in their bracket b/c they present difficult one game matchups (personally I am for the 16-team tournament). The alternative sucks so badly that I almost can't wait for baseball season.

qtlaw24 said...

Mr. Feinstein keep up the BCS bashing. Sadly, there is nothing else. However, if we get Iowa - OKST instead of TCU - Boise State I will be looking to the NHL and/or NBA instead. Those clowns can go back to whining as their numbers drop.

As for Al Michaels, interesting info, however, I will confess I have a soft spot for him given that he used to be the home town SF Giants' announcer.

Anonymous said...

I can barely wait to read what John will have to say about the BCS shenanigans that are sure to emerge following today's embarrassingly weak showing that Texas made against Nebraska. Of course what I'm referring to here is that even though Texas was exposed as being over-rated and deserves to actually drop in the BCS polls and standings (as does Florida), you can bet your bottom dollar it won't happen. Why? Because looming large is the spectre of TCU getting their much deserved shot at the Mythical National Championship, and the BCS can't have that!

If the voters in the human polls had a shred of intergity, they'd put TCU ahead of Texas - and yes, Cincinnati, too, - so that we'd actually wind up with the two most deserving teams in the MNC game this season. But it ain't likely to happen.