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Q&A with Jason Fitz

Brian Noe

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Jason Fitz has seen many parts of the world while touring with The Band Perry. He’ll now get much more familiar with Bristol, CT after landing a huge opportunity with ESPN. Jason is set to co-host a national show with Sarah Spain weeknights from 6p-9p ET. Spain and Fitz debuts on ESPN Radio Tuesday January 2, 2018, and Jason can also be seen hosting SportsCenter on Snapchat.

During our recent conversation, Jason touched on many things including his approach to the sports industry and his love for girlie drinks. Although he just got called up to “The Show” (shout-out to Kevin Costner in Bull Durham) Jason still has very high goals. You’ll find that his mindset is the opposite of complacent even after receiving a giant promotion. By the way, can you believe Bull Durham came out in 1988? Good Lord. Enjoy.

BN: So, you’re packing your bags and heading to Bristol. How excited are you to start this new gig?

JF: It’s all a little surreal. You set out life to have huge dreams, and then they start to come true and you’re like, “Oh, man. There’s like actual consequence I have to start to figure out now and deal with.” It’s kind of funny. We laugh about it a lot I think in our heads. We thought in a few years I might get this chance, not so quick — kind of a first world complaint that I’m like, “Oh, wow. It’s all happening too fast.” We’re figuring it out and it’s really cool. It’s really exciting.

BN: What was your first gig in the radio business?

JF: I started with a podcast. I was touring with The Band Perry and in our busiest year we were gone 300 days. I came home to my wife one day and I said, “You know what? I realize I’ve worked my whole life to be here and I’m successful. I’m really thankful for that, but I don’t love what I do.” So, she said, “If I ask 100 of your friends what you love, what would the answer be?” I said sports. So she said, “Alright well, find a way to talk about sports.”

I took my microphone that I used for my fiddle part of the string section and I sat in my car because I felt like such an idiot. I didn’t even know what a podcast was at that time. I sat in the car and I recorded a 10-minute ‘here’s me talking about sports.’ I put it up on Facebook for my friends, and everybody was like, “Oh my God, this is great.” Me being me, I sort of ripped it apart and said okay, how can I build a business plan and what’s the next step?

I did the podcast a little over four or five years ago and eventually CBS Sports liked it and we tried a partnership for a little bit. In that process SiriusXM actually took note. They gave me my first shot a couple of years ago doing a one off in the middle of summer, solo hosting for four hours on the NFL channel. I did four hours by myself on NFL radio the first time I ever hosted on radio.

They liked my work and eventually gave me a little bit of a run as a fill in during the holidays on Mad Dog Radio. I think they looked at it like, “Hey, if you’re home and you’re not on the road, and you want to do some shows, then come sit in.” I just kept using that to try to get better, and eventually ESPN noticed. My first TV show with ESPN was almost a year and a half ago. My first ever radio show with ESPN was January of 2017, which is now about a year later. I’m about to have my name on a national show, which is very humbling.

BN: What do you remember from that first experience of doing four hours on the NFL?

JF: Man, the funny thing is, I’ve always been sort of a prep freak anyway, but I think I got to the studio — no kidding — probably six hours before the show. I brought in all these different marker boards and paper and I story boarded it like they do a movie or a music video. I looked at it and I said okay, I’ve got four hours. Four blocks per hour, so I have to have 16 topics. I had a buddy that helped me a lot on the podcast and he actually came into the studio with me and just helped me flesh out ‘okay, here’s what we want this to be.’ I tried to find topics and then research it. I’m not kidding, I think I was in there six hours for a four-hour radio show.

And I’ll be honest, I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t even know how to take a phone call. A lot of people don’t realize this at Sirius, you’re not in the room with anybody. I was at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville where there’s a Sirius studio. I was in a room with a mic and a computer in front of me and that’s it. My producer, who I’d never met, was in New York. He hopped on my headphones three minutes before we went live and said, “Okay, here we go.” I didn’t even know how to press the button to answer a phone call. That’s how crazy it was.

BN: Was your heart beating out of your chest?

JF: Yeah, I think I was amped up more than anything. The weirdest part of it was a bunch of my friends had a listening party at one of my buddy’s places in Nashville. They were all listening to it and they were going to throw a big party afterwards.

The funniest thing is I spent my whole life in music. When you finish a show in music you have a crowd and hopefully applause. You walk off the stage, and with your buddies, you can sort of high five and say, “Heck yeah, good show.” Instead, I was in a studio by myself.

The weirdest part was we finished the show and they have to immediately connect the next show, so it was just a, “Great job, man. Hope to talk to you soon.” And they hang up and you’re like, “Oh, okay?” So I was just sitting there in the studio by myself — self high fiving saying “good job.”

BN: Did sports fill you up a little bit more than music or was there something about music that contributed to your feeling unfulfilled?

JF: I started playing the violin when I was four. It was eight hours a day most of my life growing up being a classical musician that I had to practice. I just turned 40 this year. I played the violin for 38 years and you can say I did it as a full-time job for about 32, 33 of them. That’s a long time for anybody in any career.

When I was a little kid — my dad is a big Raiders fan — Sunday, his rule was that was the one day I didn’t practice. It’s not because we were religious. It’s because my dad didn’t want to listen to it while we watched the Raiders game. He would go get a dozen donuts and we would sit down and we’d watch the Raiders game together.

I think somebody smart in psychology could pinpoint why that was always a release for me, but sports were my release. Even as a kid sometimes when you’re practicing, you’ll mute a game and you’ll watch it. You can have a game on in the background while you’re working on scales and stuff. Rudimentary music stuff was always there with the enjoyment of sports.

As I got older, I think the passion just grew for sports because it was my release. It’s always been my escape and that’s what I love about it. What music is for most people — an escape — it’d become a job for me. Sports has always been my escape, so I just followed that escape passion.

BN: Are there still times when you hear a song and you’re like, man, I wish I was onstage right now?

JF: There’s been a couple of times that I’ve seen buddies play and I’m like, “Oh, it’d be fun.” You always hear athletes say they don’t miss the game as much as they miss the locker room. The comradery of musicians on the road is a very special and unique thing. There’s a part of me that will always miss that. At the same time, no one’s ever going to stop me from picking up a violin when I feel like it, or sitting down at the piano with a bottle of whiskey and writing a song. Nobody’s going to stop me from still having music. It’s just part of who I am.

It’s really nice to not have to worry about — is my song three minutes and 20 seconds? Does it get to the chorus in the first 45 seconds? Will radio play it? What demographic wants it? All the behind-the-scenes business stuff that makes music the music business. I’m so glad to not be a part of, that I haven’t really had that missing-it moment.

BN: Is whiskey your go-to song writing drink?

JF: Well, everything kinda girlie for me, I’m a girlie drinker. Canadian like Crown — I drink a lot of Crown — so Canadian whiskey. There’s always flavored cherry vodka. I get made fun of all the time when I sit down. Most guys, you’ve got this image of a country guy sitting down who’s got the scratchy voice, so he’s going to drink the Jack. I’m the guy that walks in and I’m like, “Oh, do you have a cherry vodka in diet I can drink?” It’s always nice to have that drink now and just sort of relax and try to get in a flow and see what you can write.

BN: What from your history and experiences in music do you apply to your approach in radio?

JF: Everything. I mean literally everything. From the day that I started, I think back to my influences growing up in sports talk radio because it’s all I listened to. Colin was a huge influence. Dan Patrick was a huge influence. Rich Eisen. Stuart Scott. Guys like that were huge influences. Then, when I started piecing together a podcast, my original goal was to — just like in music where you hear something and you say, “Okay, how can I emulate that sound?” — my thing was how can I let those inspirations affect things?

When I solo host especially, taking a look at what guys like Colin do and where they take their pauses at and how they approach their show. That immediately became ingrained in me. Anyone that listens for a little bit knows there are a lot of analogies from me. I’ve always been that guy.

The music business is very similar in a lot of ways. I think it’s why I’ve become fast friends with so many athletes and so many sports broadcasting people. There’s similarities to what that life is and how the connection between guys and the work you put in. Like I just said, the locker room sort of love that you have for everybody.

You think about how all the guys in the NBA seem like they’re friends. Well, I cut my teeth at the same time with the guys that play for Jason Aldean, the guys that play for Rascal Flatts, the guys that play for Florida Georgia Line. We were all sort of coming up together. There’s a special connection and I think that transfers over whether you’re talking about music or you’re talking about sports. I think that’s a huge part. It’s part of what I think makes me different as a host, but it’s a huge part of what is wired into me for sure.

BN: You just mentioned the pausing that you will hear from certain hosts — is there anything along those lines when you heard yourself early on and thought, “Oh gosh, I have to work on that. I didn’t even know I sounded like that.”

JF: I think slowing down was my biggest challenge in the beginning. One thing that I will say is that as I reached out to people in life. I never reached out for people to help me. I always reached out for people to try and make friendships. That was always my goal. Then, eventually as people become your friend and they say, “Hey, you want me to come on your pod? I’d be happy to.” That was sort of my process.

A lot of times I would have people — talent guys or behind-the-scenes guys — that would say, “Hey, if you want me to give your podcast a listen, I’d be happy to.” The biggest thing for me is I took every ounce of coaching I could get.

Early on, I remember one of the pieces of advice I got from a coach was always give people time to catch up. You just said something, you think it makes a ton of sense, but you gotta give it a beat. You gotta let people catch up with what you said. Process it. Agree with you or disagree with you, and then move forward. Stuff like that. Once you hear it, then you know to listen for it in the future.

I think that it wasn’t so much a weirdness of hearing my voice as much as it was, am I applying all of the coaching I’m getting? I looked at every single pod as a demo. Does this sound so good that if I ran ESPN, I would say, “This guy’s got potential.” That was always my approach.

BN: How would you describe your style in radio?

JF: I never want to shy away from saying anything big and important. I have no problem with that, but I also really understand there’s a big part of this that’s entertainment. I’m the guy that is looking at it saying, “What are we doing here? Are we having fun? Is there big energy to it?” Those are all keys for me.

I think when you get in the car especially, and you’re listening to radio — I always said this when I was hosting the morning show in Nashville — you get into the car in the morning. You’re already in a bad mood. You’re going to work. You’re stuck in traffic. And you’re angry because your favorite team is not as good as you think they should be. So how do we have that difficult conversation but still make you smile and laugh along the way? That’s sort of always been my approach. I’m not going to shy away from telling you that your team stinks, but I hope that I can do it in way where we can laugh about it through the process and we can have a good time.

BN: There are players in the NFL that have their welcome-to-the-NFL moment when they’re like, “Oh gosh, I’m not in college anymore. This is a different level.” Have you had your welcome-to-ESPN moment yet?

JF: I’ve had a bunch of them. I think even the first time I actually hosted on ESPN Radio, it was January of 2017. It was a two-hour show. I was flying solo. I was in a remote studio connecting with people in Bristol. I think that when you first hear the voice that everybody knows — the this-is-SportsCenter guy — but he actually says your name. That’s a very holy cow, this-is-real moment.

I’ll even go back to the much talked about talent meeting last week that happened in Bristol, where they brought in everybody that works for ESPN. Walking through the halls and seeing the studios filled with every person you’ve watched for a generation, and you’ve listened to for a generation, all working their butts off. That was a holy cow, I’m not watching this, I’m a part of it. It’s a very inspiring moment.

I’ll give you one more cheesy one. My first TV show with ESPN was College Football Daily with Mike Golic Jr. and Elika Sadeghi. We’d been into that maybe a couple of months. I was walking through the halls of ESPN. I had gone up there to meet with a few people. I didn’t have anything going other than the TV show at the time, but Mike Golic Sr. was in the hallway. He stopped me and he was like, “Hey, Fitz. You’re doing a good job on the TV show. Really like it.” I realize his son is on it and that’s why he’s watching, but the fact that he knew who I was, it was a very kid-in-a-candy-store, man-I’m-making-it moment.

BN: Can you give me an idea of what the process has been like for you over the past few months leading up to this weekday opportunity with ESPN?

JF: Man, it flew by. I did my first solo hosting last January. Then they gave me a Sunday night show with Jordan Rodgers for part of the winter, Jordan & Fitz, that we did in I think February and March. That was sort of the end of my contract. We knew that was going to be the end of contract one. The question was what were they going to do for contract two. They made me another offer, which took me to the next level. In July, my first eligible day to work back, they put me and Golic Jr. together on Mike & Mike, which was another sort of what-the-heck-am-I-doing, how-am-I-already-in-this-chair moment? That was July 3rd this year.

I was working my tail off. I’m not going to deny that, but I think you have to have a little bit of right place, right time in life to make it. In July, everybody was on vacation. I was doing my four hour Braden and Fitz show on ESPN Radio in Nashville. Then I would go home long enough to maybe take a nap or grab a bite. Then I would come back to the studio.

There were a lot of days for six to eight weeks where I was in solo hosting on Jalen & Jacoby, and then filling in with somebody on Izzy and Spain. There were weeks and weeks and weeks of four hours of national at night, and four hours of local in the morning. A lot of times I would just sleep in the studio and then wake up the next morning and do it the next day.

I spent July and August grinding with no idea where that was going to lead me, but I just knew that if I said yes to everything and I worked my ass off, that’s all I could do. You have to trust that process. I said yes to everything. I just kept my head down and did all the work I could, but once football season starts, as you well know, that’s the primetime, the most important time for the sports talk world.

When football season started my ESPN assignments sort of went away because that’s when they want all of the regular hosts in — to be there and make sure that fans are getting the voices they’re used to hearing at the right times. So my work just sort of went away. I just wasn’t sure what was going to happen. You hear rumblings. You hear rumors, but after all the years in the music business I know not to count any chickens before they’re hatched. Again, I just sort of kept my head down and said, well whatever happens happens.

It was really kind of out of the blue. I was up there doing some screen testing for what I now get to do — the SportsCenter Snapchat that I do on Thursday nights and launches on Friday mornings. I got called in to meet with some of the big wigs and thought nothing of it. A couple of days later I got a call and they said, “Hey, we know you’ve worked with Sarah. We know you and Sarah get along. Sarah likes you and you like her. We think it’s a good pairing. What would your level of interest be?” Within days it went from not working all that much and we’ll see what’s going to happen, to by the way, you need to move to Bristol and we’re going to give you a bunch of opportunities.

BN: Your general vibe seems to work really well in radio in terms of a two-person show. Do you find that you have a natural chemistry with whomever you’re working with and it can be even better depending specifically on who you’re working with?

JF: To a certain extent. I spent a lot of the summer hosting solo. I love hosting solo because it’s the Colin in all of us — you get to give a monologue, make a big statement, there’s a lot of nice things to hosting solo. The great thing about the co-hosting in general — I’ve always felt like — as long as I know my role,  things are going to go really well. My role in co-hosting is to make it fun and conversational and to facilitate. I feel like I’m at my best in that role when I’m acting as a point guard.

For example, hosting with Jordan. Jordan played football. He played in the NFL. If I can find a way to get a great tidbit, a great story, a great moment out of Jordan, then I’ve done my job. If we’re talking about what quarterbacks we do or don’t believe in in the NFC, of course I have an opinion. I’m going to give you that opinion, but then I’m also going to make sure that Jordan gets his opinion out. His opinion comes with weight because he played in the NFL. I’ve looked at it that way with everybody I’ve hosted with.

I’ve been really lucky at ESPN. They’ve put me with great people and the biggest thing that I find at ESPN that’s sort of empowering, is there’s so much freaking mutual respect for everybody. They believe that because you’re in the room, you belong in the room. I was afraid it was going to be this super cutthroat, I hate you, get off my radio show environment like the music industry can be at times. When you’re sitting in with somebody and they’re like, “Get out of my way. Don’t play on my song. I want my solos.” ESPN’s much different than that.

I look at it and say my job is to make it conversational. That’s why I love working with guys like Golic. Golic Jr. and I have become really good friends. Jordan and I have become really good friends. When you can do that, and you can talk to somebody about sports, that’s when I think you’re giving the world hopefully the most entertaining product. When it can be smart, but it still sounds like a bunch of buddies sitting at the bar having a conversation. That’s when I know I’m doing my job.

BN: I know you just got this major opportunity and it probably sounds strange to ask you about your career goals, but is this it or are there other things that you eventually want to achieve?

JF: Heck no. That’s the thing, the first day I walked into ESPN and actually met with anybody years ago when I was just a podcaster, I had to convince people that they should let me have some sort of a format on air. They asked me what my goal was. My answer to them was quite simply to be the face of the network for a generation. I know that that sounds just as obnoxious as it is.

To me, the goal has always been very simple — I want to combine the things that I love the most about guys like Colin Cowherd, Rich Eisen, and even Jimmy Fallon. They’re so damn likable in what they do, and it’s so much fun to watch them perform, that you feel connected to them. You feel like you are hanging out with a friend. That’s what ESPN offers on all of their platforms.

The radio piece was a huge part of my first step, but there’s also a desire to have a daily presence on TV. I also want to make sure that I’m involved in all the social media things that we’re doing now. I’m really excited by the brand’s focus on Twitter and Snapchat and the things that they’re letting me be a part of.

Mike Golic Jr. and I did a college football playoff rankings reaction show through the course of the fall. The last episode that we did after the final four came out got 3.3 million views on Twitter. I think that we’ve got a format that’s averaging over 1.5 million views for episodes of SportsCenter on Snapchat. There’s a big piece of the future of the network that I’m working hard to try and be a part of.

I think as generations of fans grow up, I want to be to a generation, what the Rich Eisen’s of the world were to me.

BSM Writers

What Tom Brady Needs To Know Before His First Fox Broadcast

“Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tom Brady announced he is retiring from the NFL today. It happened literally a year to the day since the last time he retired.

The last retirement lasted just 40 days. Before the end of March of last year, Tom Brady had decided he was done pretending to be happy about embracing life off of the field and announced he was returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a third season.

I guess we cannot rule out that that will happen again. The difference this time around, at least for Tom Brady’s professional life, is that he has a plan for his future. Now that his playing days are over, it is time for him to start his ten-year deal with FOX to be the analyst in the network’s top NFL booth.

Audiences do not know what to expect. No one can deny that Brady brings star power. He is the GOAT after all, but we cannot say for sure if he will be any good.

The pressure is tremendous too. Not only is Tom Brady embarking on a new career, but football fans seem to have taken a liking to the guy he is about to unseat. Whether Greg Olsen gets kicked back down to the number two booth or he is forced to share the spotlight in a three-man booth, plenty of people will look at Brady as the reason we hear less from the guy regarded by many as the best analyst on TV right now.

Brady does not have much room for error here. Since that is the case, I thought I would get some perspectives from people that can help him out. I asked three people to give me their best advice for Tom Brady.

Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.

THE PLAYER TURNED ANALYST: ANTHONY BECHT

In 2000, the New York Jets used the 27th pick of the NFL Draft to select Anthony Becht. He played for five different teams during his twelve NFL seasons.

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Courtesy USA Today

His broadcasting career began in 2013. Becht worked on ESPN for eight years as an analyst on the network’s college football games. He has since abandoned the booth to return to the sidelines. He will be the head coach of the St. Louis Battlehawks when the XFL starts its third first season this month.

I texted and asked him to look back on his broadcasting career. What does he wish he knew before he started? Here are the three pieces of advice that he had for Tom Brady.

1. Less is more. Folks want to watch the game and just know the “why”. Providing tangible information in a five or six second window is key.

2. Fans want to know about your personal experiences as a player – information and stories they can’t get or wouldn’t even know about because they never did it at the level we did. Share those when the time comes in a game.

3. Have a strong opinion about what you agree or disagree with, but be able to voice it without being demeaning towards players and coaches. It’s an art form and takes time to articulate that in a way that’s done right. I never bash any player or coach because a lot of work goes into be a professional athlete and coach. That needs to be respected but critiqued appropriately.

Anthony Becht via text message

THE PLAY-BY-PLAY LEGEND: TIM BRANDO

Tim Brando has worked with a lot of people. That happens when you have been calling football and basketball action on TV for as long as he has. When I called him on Wednesday to discuss what is ahead for Tom Brady, he drew on his experience with another Brady.

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Courtesy FOX Sports

Brando was working with Jole Klatt in his early days at FOX, but he and Klatt were not going to be an exclusive team. He remembers Brady Quinn coming in to their booth shortly after his NFL career had eneded. Quinn was about to make his debut for FOX. Before they were ready to turn him loose, the network wanted the former quarterback to get a feel for the pace and atmosphere of a broadcast booth.

I do think it’s important that you have a new talent understand what that workplace is like in the booth – the choreography that takes place, because there is choreography. If the ball is deflected, your spotter’s hands are coming together like a bad clap. If there’s a hit, who caused the hit? Who stripped it? So there’s a hand signal for stripping the ball and then recovering the ball with the arms closing together. So who got the recovery? Who caused the fumble? Those things are always helpful.

There are things that are going on frantically in the booth, but you as a broadcaster have to remain calm, understand it, and sound succinct and confident. That just takes time and it takes reps. 

That’s one of the great things I think that Greg (Olsen) probably had an advantage in, as do a lot of analysts that get better over time. They do games of lesser importance that maybe the whole world is not watching. 

Tim Brando via Telephone

Tom Brady won’t have the luxury of time or of reps under the radar. He may get to do a few practice games, but the first time he will be calling a game on live television, it will be one of the biggest of the week.

Brando says in that case, it is really important that Brady use his instincts to his advantage in the booth the way he did on the field.

I don’t know Tom well, but I know him well enough to know that he prides himself on preparation. I don’t doubt for one minute that he will be prepared. He’s obviously an incredible competitor. You know, this is a this is a business of competition too. 

If you’re a great player, just like a coach, you love the ecstasy of victory. You don’t want to admit it, but you love the agony of the defeat as well. That feeling of defeat is something we feed on to motivate you for your next performance. In television and sports television, you don’t get that in terms of winning and losing, but you do get it if you look at it as a great performance, 

I believe that all great broadcasters are performers at heart. It takes a certain level of of a theater. It’s live. It’s not scripted. 

I think some players that get in the booth that are looking to have that same, you know, euphoria that they have after playing and winning a game. Some of them get that and understand that in broadcasting and get out of that the same thing and others don’t.

Tim Brando via Telephone

THE BROADCASTING COACH: GUS RAMSEY

Plenty of broadcasters turn to Gus Ramsey for critiques and advice. The Program Director for the Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting at Full Sail University is also a broadcasting coach working with clients at all levels of the business. They trust his opinion because of his professional experience.

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Courtesy Full Sail University

In a prior life, Ramsey was the producer of SportsCenter on ESPN. He has worked with a number of incredibly talented people and been tasked with taking newbies to new heights, so I asked him what he would be thinking if it were his job to get Tom Brady ready for his first FOX broadcast.

Sometimes great athletes forget that most humans don’t know what the athletes know. Things that are basic or simple or even mundane to the athlete are incredible pieces of wisdom or insight to the average fan.

When I was at ESPN we had Tony Gwynn in for an episode of Baseball Tonight. In our show meeting, Tony was explaining why a hitter was slumping because we was cupping his wrist. He went on explaining it for 30 seconds or so. The room was in total silence, eating up every word. The greatest hitter of our generation was doing a deep-dive on hitting. It was amazing.

Tony suddenly got a little self-conscious, stopped explaining and apologized for “going on too long” and we were all like “No!! Keep going!” Tony thought is was boring. It was just the opposite.

Athletes can think things they’ve learned and repeated their whole lives are common knowledge so sometimes they don’t share that info because they think “everyone knows this.”

I want to walk away from a broadcast feeling like I learned something. Sometimes the ex-athlete doesn’t realize how much educating they can do in a broadcast.

The other thing I always encourage former athletes or coaches to do is to take the viewer where they’ve never been; on the field, in the locker room, in a contract negotiation, etc. If you can get that viewer to fully appreciate the feelings and emotions of what goes on in those places, you enhance the experience for us.

Terrell Davis was an analyst on NFL Network for a bit after his career. He once described Champ Bailey running back an interception 100 yards by saying as Bailey got to the 50 yard line “right here it feels like someone put sandbags on your ankles.” I’ve never run 100 yards in a football uniform in Denver’s altitude, but Terrell’s line helped me better understand what it feels like.

Gus ramsey via text message

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BSM Writers

Mark Packer Loves Reading Your Memories & Tributes to Billy Packer

“I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports.”

Tyler McComas

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It still stands today as one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of Arizona basketball. Three simple words said it all as the Wildcats celebrated an overtime win over Duke to win the 1997 national championship. “Simon says championship.” Those were the words of legendary broadcaster Billy Packer as Miles Simon fell to the floor with the ball in his hands. It’s one of many lines his son, Mark Packer, has been reminded of recently.

It was the perfect three words after the country just watched Simon carry Arizona to college basketball glory. Packer captured the moment perfectly, just like he did during every Final Four for 34 years.

Packer passed away last Thursday at the age of 82 but his legacy and impact in sports broadcasting will never perish. He was heard during every NCAA Tournament from 1975 to 2008 and was on the call for some of college basketball’s most iconic moments, including Michael Jordan’s shot to win the 1982 National Championship, Bird vs Magic in 1979, and even Kansas completing an improbable comeback to win the 2008 championship in his last broadcast. And the best part of it all was that Packer did it his own way, with his own unique style.

“It has really been remarkable,” said Mark Packer. “When Billy passed Thursday night we put it out on Twitter and it took off but I didn’t really know what to expect on Friday and Saturday as far as reaction. But the tributes have been fantastic and our family has loved it.

“I have heard from just about everybody and their brother. Folks I never thought I’d hear from, I’ve heard from them, such as commissioners, whether it be the NBA, whether it be other Power 5 leagues, I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports. To me, that’s been comforting to all of us. It just reinforced all the stuff we knew he was about and brings back special memories.”

Packer’s style of broadcasting has been well-documented over the years. He was honest about what he saw and always spoke his mind. Granted, that didn’t always sit well with college basketball fans, but Packer wasn’t concerned about that. He was honest because he cared. 

“He wanted the game of college basketball to be the best it possibly could be,” said Mark.  “When he saw things he did not like, the one thing he always did was speak his mind. He ruffled feathers and he didn’t care. His intent was to make the game the No. 1 priority. You realize now he didn’t have it out for your team, he was just speaking his mind.”

That style meant fans would often yell at games, ‘You hate Duke! You hate North Carolina!’ Packer’s honesty was often taken by fans as he hated their favorite team. He used to laugh at that, just as Mark does know when he thinks about those moments. That’s because Mark can remember feeling the same way as other fanbases as a kid growing up rooting for NC State. 

“When he was calling an NC State game I thought he was always out to get my team,” laughed Mark. “He’d be doing a game in Raleigh — we grew up in Winston-Salem — and the next morning after the game I would be eating breakfast before school and I would say ‘Man, Billy, you really got on so-and-so last night, what’s your problem with NC State?’

“He used to just laugh, because I thought he had an agenda against my team. Of course the funny thing is, we’d go on trips with him to other games and you’d hear fans say, ‘Billy Packer hates my team!’ It almost became a laughing joke, even amongst the family members, that Billy Packer was out to ruin your team’s day when he does a ballgame.”

Mark has always referred to his dad the same his television partners did. That goes for his two other siblings, as well. “Dad” was rarely, if ever, said in the Packer household. Instead, the legendary broadcaster was called by his first name.

“The fact they called him Billy on television, we never called him dad,” said Mark. “We just called him Billy.”

As you can imagine, ‘Billy’ had a lot of stories. That’s normally the case when you’re around the game’s greatest players and broadcast the legendary games we still talk about today. Packer was always quick to share those stories with his family, which made for an entertaining childhood.

Out of the hundreds of messages Mark has received since his dad’s passing, he says he hasn’t heard any stories he’s never heard before. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t been telling him stories about his father.

“We’ve heard them all, quite frankly,” laughed Mark. “Maybe the thing that was so funny about it was that it reinforced some that we thought were total BS when we heard them the first time.”

Packer will always be synonymous with college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. He was the voice of the sport during its golden era and helped bring the magic to TV sets across the world. If Mark had to guess what his dad is most proud of regarding his broadcasting career, he says it would be just that. 

“From a broadcasting standpoint, probably the Final Fours,” said Mark. “When you, I think the number was 34 I heard, and he did so many of them, for us, we kind of took it for granted. It was just something he did. It was March and Billy is about to go do March Madness. It was just fabric for not only him personally, but also the family. He just loved the sport and wanted it to be good.”

Mark has carved out an incredible broadcasting career of his own. He’s hosted both radio and TV shows with outlets such as the ACC Network, WFNZ in Charlotte, and ESPNU. Having a front row seat to one of the most iconic careers in broadcasting, undoubtedly helped shape his career. Mark is very forthcoming as to what lesson he took from his dad the most. 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Mark said. “That’s prep. He always studied. He was always coming up with notes and angles and facts. I have always done that with the radio and TV shows, that you constantly prep, you constantly read and make notes. You may not use but 10 percent of whatever you’ve been studying, but somewhere down the road you’ll use it again.

“When we were cleaning out his closet I ran into an entire box of old notes that he had from games from yesteryear. I kept every one of them and I can’t wait to look at them and relive those games and see his prep work and point of detail for all those games.”

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster

Anatomy of an Analyst: Doris Burke

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.”

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Basketball and Doris Burke have been synonymous for many years. At the age of 7, she started to play the game that would eventually get her to the top of her profession. Along the way she’s recorded many firsts for women in this field which I’ll detail later. Burke has also become an inspiration to other women already in broadcasting and those thinking about a career in media. Pretty impressive. 

Burke was raised in Manasquan, New Jersey. She was the youngest of eight children, and started playing basketball in the second grade. She starred at Providence, where she was the team’s point guard all four of her years there and made an impact immediately. 

During her freshman year, Doris Burke led the Big East in assists. She was a second-team All-Big East player once and twice made the all-tourney team of the Big East Women’s basketball tournament. Burke held seven records upon graduation, including finishing her career as the school and conference’s all-time assists leader, a record that has since been broken. She served as an assistant coach for her alma mater for two years from 1988-90.

From there it was time to embark on a Hall of Fame career.

ROAD TO ESPN/ABC

Burke began her broadcasting career in 1990 as an analyst for women’s games for Providence on radio. That same year, she began working in the same role on Big East Women’s games on television, and in 1996 she began working Big East men’s games. 

Doris Burke has been working for ESPN covering basketball in different roles since 1991. It has also allowed her to do other things along the way that were unchartered for women in the business. In 2000, Burke became the first woman to be a commentator for a New York Knicks game on radio and on television; she is also the first woman to be a commentator for a Big East men’s game, and the first woman to be the primary commentator on a men’s college basketball conference package.  In 2017, Burke became a regular NBA game analyst for ESPN, becoming the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full regular-season role. 

If that wasn’t enough, from 2009 to 2019 she served as the sideline reporter for the NBA Finals on ABC. I mentioned it was a Hall of Fame career and it was officially deemed as such in 2018. Burke was selected to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the Curt Gowdy Media Award winner.

AS AN ANALYST

“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.” Relying on her past experiences in the game as a player and coach, the information she brings her audience is relatable. Some analysts struggle to bring home a point in a way that a casual fan will understand. Burke has no trouble with this. Her ability to spell it out, concisely and conversationally sets her apart from most analysts, male or female. 

Burke attacks her job, knowing that some will question her authority when it comes to commentary on the NBA. She doesn’t mind steering into the skid.

“I am mindful of the fact that I have not played or coached in the NBA,” Burke said to Sportscasting.com last year. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t do a very competent job. I think I try to do that every single night, and I’m never afraid to ask questions.” 

It’s all about the information to Burke, and has nothing to do with the fact she’s a woman covering the NBA.

“If you enhance a viewer’s experience, it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she said. “As long as you are competent and put in the work … you’re going to be accepted.”

Doris Burke learned the ropes so to speak from several women that came before her. In an NBA.com piece from January of last year, she outlined how much she enjoyed watching former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Gayle Gardner. Early on in her career at ESPN, Burke got to work with Robin Roberts on WNBA and women’s college basketball broadcasts along with Ann Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman. Roberts was Burke’s inspiration as she started her career path. She admired the professionalism that each displayed. 

“Working alongside Robin Roberts … the one thing I would tell you is the most powerful means to change or impact somebody is by your actions,” Burke said. “She was the epitome of professionalism and competency and garnered the respect of the people around her because of the work habits she had. Watching Robin early on let me know that the basis for everything is the work you put into something.”

While Roberts may have been influential to Burke, Burke has been a beacon for other woman that are getting opportunities in broadcasting.  When asked about their role model, YES Network analyst Sarah Kustok, 76ers play-by-play broadcaster Kate Scott and former WNBA player and current Miami Heat studio analyst Ruth Riley Hunter all mentioned Burke by name.

“Burke is the best example for anyone — male or female,” Hunter told NBA.com. “I love the way she describes the game. She adds so much to every broadcast, and when I was playing in the WNBA I was always really inspired by her work.”

Burke is popular amongst her colleagues at ESPN/ABC, thanks to a tireless work ethic an ability to adapt to whichever sport she may be calling that day. Count Jeff Van Gundy among her biggest fans.

“She’s the best, most-versatile analyst and commentator at ESPN,” Van Gundy said of Doris Burke in 2017 via Deadspin. “She does it all—great interviewer, commentator, studio analyst—everything. And she is an expert at it all—women’s and men’s college basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. She’s the LeBron James of sportscasters. There’s no better broadcaster out there right now.”

Burke is equally a big fan of Van Gundy and the top broadcast crew for ESPN/ABC’s NBA coverage. That includes Mike Breen and Mark Jackson as well. 

“We are talking about three of the best to ever do it. Mark, Jeff and Mike have held down the NBA Finals for over a decade with commentary that is the best of the best. Hubie Brown is a living legend. All of those men have been nothing but gracious and supportive of me,” Burke told the Athletic. 

Doris Burke is considered one of the best NBA analysts around.  Her bosses at ESPN made sure to re-sign her to a multi-year deal and promised she will be involved in “high profile” NBA games in both the regular season and playoffs. Burke will also call finals games on ESPN Radio and appear on the NBA Sunday Showcase program on ABC.

Good for her and good for fans of the NBA on ESPN/ABC.

DID YOU KNOW?

In 2010, she was featured as the new sideline reporter for 2K Sports ‘NBA 2K11’ video game. She has appeared in every version since, including the latest ‘NBA 2K23’.   

As a senior at Providence in 1987 she was the school’s Co-Female Athlete of the Year.  

Her basketball idols growing up were Kyle Macy, Kelly Tripucka and Tom Heinsohn.  

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