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Preparation runs deep for Men’s Final Four broadcast crew

By Greg Johnson

NCAA.org

Preparation makes perfect when it comes to producing and broadcasting the Men’s Final Four.

From Mark Wolff, CBS’ coordinating producer of college basketball, throughout the entire television crew in Atlanta to cover the 75th Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, the attention to detail is impressive.

Wolff has been with CBS for the last 30 years, but this is the first time he’s been in charge of the broadcast for the NCAA’s marquee championship event. He isn’t new to the tournament, though, since he’s been a regular at preliminary-round sites and regionals.

“My role is to keep people moving in the right direction editorially,” said Wolff, who has also produced Super Bowls XXXV and XXXVIII, as well as the NBA Finals for CBS in the past. “It is the coordination of a lot of people and getting them to move in the right direction.”

Wolff, 54, runs production meetings, along with director Bob Fishman, who is calling the shots at his 31st Men’s Final Four. Agenda items include technical aspects of the broadcasts and storylines that were prominent leading up to the national semifinals on Saturday.

Wolff and Fishman go back to the 1980s when they worked on shows together. They also have been paired in their producer/director roles for the last 10 years on NFL broadcasts.

“What is fortunate for us is we’ve surrounded ourselves with the highest-quality people technician-wise, and there is a tremendous amount of history and years logged into this tournament,” said Wolff, who grew up in Tarzana, Calif., where one of his friends from childhood is St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher.

In the television broadcast business, no one is truly comfortable regardless of how experienced they are. Wolff leads his professional life by the mantra, “My biggest fear is being average.” It’s a piece of advice his father gave him, and a tile with the saying hangs on the wall in his office.

“You are only as good as your last show,” said Wolff, who concentrates on storylines and replays during the broadcast. “I attack everything in that realm. I like to compete. I try to bring everyone on the crew up to another level. That’s part of my job.”

Calling the shots

Wolff sees his job as being like the head coach on a football team. If Wolff is the head coach, Fishman is the quarterback.

During a normal two- or three-hour broadcast, Fishman makes thousands of decisions. That number doubles during the back-to-back semifinals on Saturday.

“I always open the floor to my camera crew during the production meetings,” said Fishman, who was born in New York City but grew up in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. “I basically have the same crew every year. They are handpicked, and they are great. We go over certain scenarios, especially on what to do in a game-winning shot scenario.”

Since every decision is made literally in a matter of seconds, Fishman and every member of his crew know their job at end-of-game situations. Certain cameras follow the action, while other crew members focus on isolation shots to get reactions of coaches and the players on the benches.

Since there isn’t time to tell more than 20 cameramen what to focus on, all Fishman has to say at the critical moment is, “Game-winning situation.”

“We went over that very thing Friday morning,” said Fishman, who has won Emmy Awards for his work in college basketball, NFL coverage, the World Series and the Daytona 500; and Eclipse Awards for horse racing coverage. “Every guy on the crew knows what their job is in that scenario. I’ve worked with some of them for more than 20 years and others for at least five years. All of them are veterans. I have the best. There is no better crew working today in television.”

Regardless of how much time is spent preparing, live television does have its unscripted moments. An example was the compound fracture Louisville guard Kevin Ware suffered in the first half of the Midwest Regional final in Indianapolis last Sunday.

“I initially thought some kind of collision had happened, since a couple of Louisville players fell to the ground,” said Fishman, who has worked at CBS for 40 years and turned 64 last Tuesday.

The first replay showed how Ware fell awkwardly after contesting a three-point shot by Duke’s Tyler Thornton. The second replay from a camera at the other end of the court also showed the injury, and Wolff and Fishman decided not to show anymore of the gruesome scene.

“I’ve seen numerous horses snap their legs in horse racing,” Fishman said. “This was more shocking because you don’t expect something like that to happen in basketball. It was completely out of context to what you expect to see on a basketball court.”

CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson happened to be seated near where the injury took place. She immediately was called to duty.

“I first reported what I saw from being down there, and that was how emotional Kevin Ware’s teammates reacted to the injury,” Wolfson said. “I tried to bring a real-life experience to the broadcast.”

She also interviewed Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who relayed the story that Ware told his teammates to go win the game while medical personnel tended to his injury.

“We cover sports and the conversation is about the competition or fun stories,” Wolfson said. “We never expected to be dealing with an injury like this. You always have to be ready to react.”

Voices of the broadcasts

While many people behind the scenes make the broadcast shine, the voices and faces college basketball fans attach to the event belong to play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz and analysts Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr.

Nantz and Kellogg have worked together since the 2008-09 season. Kerr, a Turner sports analyst, was added to the table three years ago after CBS and Turner collaborated to acquire the media rights to the tournament in a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal in April 2010.

About 90 to 95 percent of this trio’s groundwork is done prior to arriving in Atlanta. They were on the phones with all four of the sports information directors during the week, picking up any bits and pieces of information they could.

Nantz is known for his meticulous preparation. On Friday, each team is allowed a 50-minute open practice to get used to the surroundings of the stadium. While the players are doing drills, Nantz met with each sports information director and began filling in boxes on a large note board he keeps for every game he does.

The color of the ink in the boxes corresponds with the team colors. He began keeping notes this way 15 years ago, and he saves them in a file at his California home. One box has basic information like what each player averages in points and rebounds. Another box contains a pronunciation guide.

Nantz also collects lesser-known information about a particular player, a coach, the school or the program in general. That comes in handy. For instance, on Friday, he was armed with information on how Wichita State’s football team invented the forward pass in football in 1905. He was ready to use this piece of information if one of the Shockers threw a long pass in the game. He was also ready to talk about Michigan’s Mitch McGary’s father being a steelworker if the right circumstances occurred.

Nantz needs only to jot down a few words on subjects like these to remember the nuggets.

“I have been blessed with good recall,” said Nantz, who has been the lead play-by-play announcer on the Men’s Final Four for 23 years. “A few words can spark a whole story. Unfortunately, our storytelling in a live basketball broadcast isn’t in long form. It is usually eight seconds – if you’re lucky.”

Going into the first semifinal between Louisville and Wichita State, Nantz was ready to tell the audience that in the Shockers’ Final Four appearance in 1958, Bill Bradley scored a Final Four-record 58 points against them in a consolation game. If someone reached the 30-point mark, he could throw this one out to keep things in perspective.

“I’m a storytelling guy,” Nantz said. “The sports information directors are the unsung heroes, and they represent their universities so well. My job is primarily storytelling and letting people know exactly what they are observing.”

Nantz says he never scripts any part of his broadcast, even the opening. He has an idea of what he wants to say, but he lets it flow naturally when he goes live. Since Nantz has the storytelling part of the on-air crew covered, that leaves Kellogg and Kerr to focus on game strategy.

Kellogg was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and was an all-Big Ten Conference performer before being a first-round draft pick of the Indiana Pacers in 1982. He has enjoyed a stellar broadcasting career since retiring from the NBA. This includes being CBS’ lead game analyst for the last four years.

“I had about 95 percent of my prep done by Friday,” Kellogg said. “My notes for both games were done by then, and all I do from there is review the notes leading up to the broadcast.”

Kellogg also likes to take a few quiet moments before the broadcast goes live. On Saturday, he went to the CBS Green Room about 50 minutes before the tipoff of the first semifinal.

“I like to get somewhere quiet for about five or 10 minutes to pray and get my thoughts together,” Kellogg said. “I like to find windows of time to meditate, read scripture and pray.”

Kellogg also has a routine of walking the concourse about 10-15 minutes before tipoff. Sometimes he’ll even stop and grab something at the concession stand.

“I like to get a feel for how the fans are seeing things,” Kellogg said. “I like to walk around and be a fan for about two or three minutes. I will sample the popcorn. If they are popping it fresh, I do that. But if they are just dumping it in a bag, then I won’t try it. But if it is smelling good, then I’m all in.”

Kerr has built good chemistry with Nantz and Kellogg through the last three years. The trio has worked the Big Ten tournament semifinals and finals as well as games at the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.

“Clark and Jim are great,” said Kerr, who played in the 1988 Final Four with Arizona and was on four NBA championship teams in his time with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. “They welcomed me with open arms and made me feel comfortable right away. We like each other, and it shows on the air.”

Kerr said the pre-production meetings are similar to being on a high-efficient basketball team.

“We talk about what makes a team work and what should be highlighted, what some of the themes should be,” Kerr said. “We also have statistical people who have ideas for graphics, numbers and different things that can be used to show what the teams do, and why they are good. It is a collaboration of ideas and people.”

Nantz summed up the entire crew’s mindset when all the preparation culminated as the ball was tossed up at 6:09 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday.

“I know I’m prepared, and I’ve got the players and the stories down cold,” Nantz said. “Now, I get to sit back, and if I was in some other line of work, my weekend would be scheduled around the Final Four just as it is now. I’m excited to see how the games play out, and I get to call it. We just have to enjoy the moments.”