The countdown begins at 7:28 p.m. "Two minutes, people. Two minutes to air,'' one voice shouts out. "Have fun,'' says another. The countdown moves to 90 seconds, then a minute, then 30 seconds. Last-minute instructions go out. "Let's have a good night.'' Finally, it's "10 … 9 … 8 … '' One more "have fun'' is shouted. "3 … 2 … and go!'' "Hello, everybody, and welcome to ESPN's college football.'' And they lift off. For the next three hours, it's organized chaos as 105 men and women work at a maniacal, dizzying pace to produce an ordinary college football game on ESPN. In this case, it was the Thursday night edition featuring USF and Cincinnati, but it could have been any of the dozen or more games ESPN does every week.
Everything you see — every camera shot, graphic, replay, every tease to upcoming games — is meticulously planned, prepared and executed with lightning-quick precision. There is no room for error. The slightest mistake is seen by millions and cannot be taken back once it hits the airwaves. It's fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants live television.
Like the teams ESPN is covering on this night, the game is only the final exam, the result determined by how much practice and preparation was put in leading up to the game. The broadcast begins at 7:30. Kickoff is 7:45. But by the time it starts, the ESPN crew has been working on this game for days.
• • •
Game day. It's 9 a.m. inside a spacious conference room at a Tampa hotel where ESPN's crew is staying. There's fresh fruit and muffins, coffee and juice. One by one, the four members of ESPN's broadcast team wander in — play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler, analysts Craig James and Jesse Palmer and sideline reporter Erin Andrews — grab something to eat and sit around a large rectangular table.
Within minutes, they are joined by others: the director, the technical director, the producer, stats and graphics people.
This is how game day begins for ESPN — 12 people sitting around a table.
They're here to prepare for that night's broadcast, but it's obvious everyone prepared for this meeting to prepare. They know the story lines involving both USF and Cincinnati. They know who is playing well, who isn't, who has been a surprise, who has been a disappointment.
Fowler kicks off the meeting, throwing out topics for debate, topics that should be the main talking points during that night's broadcast. How good is USF freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels? Can a Big East team compete for the national title? Is Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike a Heisman Trophy contender? Right away, it sounds like a dozen college football fans just shooting the breeze.
Occasionally, the conversation drifts far enough off track that the man in charge, 43-year-old producer Phil Dean, reels everyone back in by saying, "Okay, let's focus.'' Then he says, "Super focus'' and everyone laughs — an inside joke that reveals how well these people know one another.
"It makes such a difference when you work with people you know really well and people you really like,'' Palmer says later. "You can tell how much we genuinely like one another, and that's so important when you're putting together a broadcast like this because so much of it is about trusting one another.''
As the meeting plods along, themes for the broadcast take form. A high-definition TV shows tightly produced highlight packages of USF and Cincinnati. There's a shot of USF's early days, when a trailer was the football office, and highlights from last year's meeting between the teams.
There are graphics that have been prepared for the night's broadcast. One graphic shows how USF started each of the past three seasons 5-0 and how it finished by losing several games.
Later that night, the graphic is put on the air while Fowler, Palmer and James talk about whether this will be another season in which USF fades down the stretch. They merely repeat the conversation they had over muffins 10 hours earlier.
Many of the graphics and highlights shown in the morning meeting make it on the air. Most don't.
"I would say 40 percent, maybe half of what we have available to us, ends up on the air,'' Fowler said. "You prepare for everything. But eventually, the game dictates where you go. You might have a ton of stuff on some wide receiver. But if they don't throw the ball to him, you're not going to talk about him.
"But when something does happen, you have the information available. In the end, the game will tell you what you use and what you don't use.''
The meeting lasts nearly two hours.
"Actually one of our shorter meetings,'' Palmer said.
Every angle is covered. They have even talked about Cincinnati's backup quarterback.
• • •
The car that picks up the broadcasters to take them to the game will arrive at the hotel at 5:40 p.m. for the 7:30 broadcast.
But that doesn't mean the crew has the afternoon off. There's time for lunch and a workout, but it's mostly a full workday for everyone at ESPN, especially the broadcasters. This game is not their only responsibility of the week.
Fowler hosts the two-hour College GameDay on Saturday morning. Palmer works in ESPN's New York studios on Saturdays. James and Andrews work Saturday games. The USF-Cincinnati game might just be hours away, but work for Saturday is already under way.
"You really have to be organized,'' James said, laughing. "I remember there was a game a couple of weeks ago and I was about to say something about a team that likes to run a hurry-up offense. And before I said anything, I thought, 'Wait, is that this team or am I thinking of the game I'm calling on Saturday?' There's a lot going on for all of us during the week.''
To get some inside dope, the broadcasters had a conference call with Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly on Tuesday and met with USF coach Jim Leavitt almost as soon as they arrived in town Wednesday. By kickoff, they know the teams as well as the most die-hard fan.
"You better know them that well,'' Fowler said, "because if you make a mistake, those watching will know it. We have to be experts. And not only do we have to know the teams involved in the game, but because it's Thursday night, we know most of the teams and coaches in the country are watching and we're looking ahead to the weekend.''
• • •
Three hours before kickoff, Dean (the producer) and Mike Schwab, the 43-year-old director, meet in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium with their 13 cameramen.
They each get a cheat sheet with names, numbers, major story lines for the game as well as mug shots of the coaches because, after all, the coaches don't wear numbers. If Dean or Schwab needs a shot of, say, USF's defensive coordinator, the cameramen better know what he looks like. The meeting wraps, and the cameramen either head out to the parking lots (to shoot tailgaters) or the field (to shoot warmups).
Then Dean and Schwab head to one of the three massive air-conditioned trucks that arrived two days earlier and will serve as ESPN's production studio for the game.
One truck houses the audio equipment and operators. Another is where replays, statistics and graphics are put together.
Dean and Schwab take seats in the main truck in between technical director Bijan Vin and assistant director Wayne Edwards. These four men are in charge. Their seats face a wall that holds 87 TV screens. That's right — 87.
Each camera inside and outside the stadium, including the blimp, has its own screen with a number and the name of the operator underneath — 1 is "Joker,'' 2 is "Tom,'' 3 is "Orloff,'' and so on. Screens holding replays are listed by color — gold, red, blue.
So later, when Schwab calls out, "Camera 1,'' the shot being taken by a guy named "Joker'' is what we all see at home.
When he calls for "blue,'' that means the replay on the screen tagged blue is the replay the viewers see. Two larger screens in the middle of this bank of screens show what is actually going out over the air.
And so throughout the night, Schwab is like an auctioneer, calling out cameras and replays at a rapid pace. Every single thing the viewer sees and hears — every change of camera, every replay, all the music into and out of commercials, every graphic that comes up then goes away — doesn't happen unless Schwab orders it to happen.
Schwab says it, and Vin punches it in. Meantime, Edwards is in constant contact with ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., determining when commercial breaks are taken and yelling out "over the ball'' every time the offense lines up. This way Schwab, who might be directing a replay or a shot of the crowd, knows the next play is about to start. Airing the snap is a cardinal rule not to be broken.
Dean, meantime, is in charge of the overall broadcast, making sure all the stories are covered. He is in constant contact with the broadcasters in the booth as well as Andrews on the sideline. Whenever Andrews has an update, she says to Dean through a headset, "When you have a minute … '' Dean tells her to go ahead, and she passes along the information she has ("Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike is leaving the field with a wrist injury,'' Andrews said on one occasion) and Dean tells Fowler through Fowler's headset.
After the next play, Fowler says on the air, "Let's go to Erin for an update on Tony Pike." It all happens quickly and seamlessly. All the homework about Cincinnati's backup quarterback, Zach Collaros, pays off when he becomes the star of the game.
Not everything goes as smoothly. A wrong replay goes up. No one has the name of Pike's father in the stands when he's shown on screen. A few camera shots are a little too loose to pick up the action. But with veterans such as Dean and Schwab in charge, there is no screaming, no four-letter words, just firm reminders and, at most, a couple of moments that could be described no worse than "snippy.''
For an intense environment, the mood is focused yet relaxed. There's even an occasional laugh. But mostly, it's three hours of concentration.
"There's no such thing as a perfect broadcast,'' Schwab said.
"But we certainly try for one,'' Dean said.
All in all, it's a good night. No major gaffes and a decent game as Cincinnati pulls away in the second half for a 34-17 victory. You could feel the crew inhale during the countdown to start the game and now, as Schwab counts down to close the broadcast, you can feel everyone exhale.
"3 … 2 … 1 and we're out,'' Schwab says. "Great job, everybody, great job.''
And you think it's over.
"Okay, everybody,'' Schwab says, "five minutes and we go live for SportsCenter.''
Tom Jones can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8544.