Gary Danielson is at the forefront of perhaps the most recognizable college football broadcasting brand in sports, the SEC on CBS. Most fall Saturdays at 3:30 ET, he and play-by-player Brad Nessler preside over the marquee conference match-up where “it just means more!”
Nessler is in his third year with CBS, while Danielson has been with the package since 2006. Nessler and Danielson were no strangers to one another. They had worked together at ESPN in the 1990s. And indeed, the two have worked smoothly together again, right from the outset on CBS.
Not everyone was so confident. There were those who were concerned about how the new duo would be embraced. Remember, Nessler in particular was faced with a tall order. He not only had to click again with Gary and immediately so. More challenging perhaps was that Brad had to follow the beloved Uncle, Verne Lundquist on play-by-play.
Danielson, who quarterbacked Purdue in the 70s and played in the NFL for over a decade, transitioned into broadcasting in the Detroit area while still playing for the Lions. After his NFL days ended, he garnered a role as a lead analyst for ESPN.
We spoke to Danielson about his career origins, how working with different play-by-play partners influenced his development as a broadcaster, and how the SEC on CBS has helped grow the conference into a national power.
He told us that he and Nessler always remind one another that the game is bigger than they are. This comes off in Danielson’s broadcast style. Fueled with unbridled enthusiasm, he channels his passion through a keen eye for details of the game and how teams execute their game plans on the field.
The SEC on CBS will air a doubleheader tomorrow, September 21, when (8) Auburn visits Kyle Field to take on (17) Texas A&M at 3:30 ET. The game will be called by Carter Blackburn, Rick Neuheisel and Aaron Murray.
Then, in primetime at 8 ET, Danielson and Nessler, along with rising star Jamie Erdahl on the sidelines, will have the call of (7) Notre Dame at (3) Georgia.
What stimulated you to broadcast when you were finishing up your playing career?
For one thing, I think I was always intrigued by television. Born in 1951 I kind of grew up with it. TV then was what the iPhone is today. TV was somewhat novel then. The announcers like the players were the stars.
When I had the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL (Detroit and Cleveland), I was asked lots of questions by the press after every game, win or lose. The interaction and communication with the media, led me to do some broadcasting in the Detroit area.
How did you end up at ESPN?
I heard about an ESPN job opportunity as a sideline announcer. I applied, and they brought me in for an audition on an August 1. They then called me back, and hired me to be the lead analyst for a primetime game less than a month later. And there I was, teamed with Ron Franklin. It was jarring because I had never done a game before, and there I was, doing Nebraska and interviewing Tom Osborne less than three weeks after I was hired.
You worked with Brad Nessler, your current CBS partner, at ESPN. What was that like?
ESPN said, we have an opportunity to pair you with a guy who we think would really be a good fit. It’s Brad Nessler, the Big Ten and the noon game, The Big Ten, was the powerhouse in those days, much like the SEC is today. Brad and I developed a really solid rapport.
Why the switch to the SEC on CBS?
Having a prime national game every week at 3:30 and the opportunity to work with Vern. Everything seemed to fit. I felt that the SEC was emerging. It did, of course.
How would you compare Brent Musburger, Brad Nessler and Verne Lundquist? You’ve worked with all three.
Brent kind of controlled the broadcast a little bit more. He brought a stronger personality, more in the Howard Cosell mode. On-air, Verne and Brad let the game speak for itself.
What did you learn working with different play-by-play partners?
When I worked with Verne, I noticed right away that I had to fill a few more holes. I also remember some of the things that Brent would say to make me better. And now that I’m working with Brad, I have the advantage of having worked with both Brent and Verne.
How has the growth of the SEC on CBS influenced your profile and changed your life?
First, the SEC benefits by a 3:30 game carried nationally. Remember, the footprint of the Southeastern conference is regional. For the league, Verne and me, the benefits were mutual and they continue so today. Verne and I were considered network broadcasters, so we helped give the SEC a national persona. Regional voices wouldn’t quite have worked. I’m not pretending that we made the league, but I think we were an important part of the league’s growth. And of course, all the visibility helped us personally too.
When you leave the booth, how do you assess your own work?
Sometimes, as hard as you prepare or play as a player, you weren’t good enough to win on Sunday. That rarely happens in a broadcast. You usually come away feeling you’ve done a good job. There are 22 guys moving out there. If I can point things out that viewers might not have caught, I take a lot of pride in it.
What was the best game you covered?
Maybe the last one, the SEC Championship, when Jalen Hurts, who had been banished to the bench. He came back to save Nick Saban and Alabama.
What are some of the difficulties you’ve had in dealing with coaches?
I tell all of them If you don’t want to answer questions, that’s fine. If you don’t want us at practice, that’s fine. I’ve had fingers pointed in my chest and I’ve also had coaches call me up afterwards asking me to help them get jobs. I’ve experienced all the emotions. I’ve gone to practice and they said we don’t want you here, we’re putting in something new. I’ve had coaches like Bobby Bowden and Tom Osborne invite me up onto their platform where they watched practice and chatted with me the whole time. I’ve played catch with Steve Spurrier during practice. Every coach is different.
Does Nick Saban give you a lot of pushback when you ask questions?
Yup, they all do. I ask very pointed questions. They bristle sometimes. And I will always say, it’s just a question. You don’t have to answer it.
Where do you see the SEC going this year?
In 2018, there was a major gulf in the SEC, the biggest I have seen since I’ve been around the league; between the top two teams, Alabama and Georgia and everyone else. In fact, I won’t tell you who the coach was, but one of them basically told us that when the rest of us play each other, it comes down to the team that sucks less wins the game. I believe that the gulf has narrowed this year.
Which games are you looking forward to broadcasting this year?
Well, I really think the Florida-Georgia game will be one of the best we’ve had in a long time.
For me, a game I’ve grown really close to is Army-Navy. It has become a national treasure. CBS made a genius like move giving the traditional showdown its own Saturday. I’ve told people, I’d give up calling the SEC Championship game before I give up Army-Navy.