College football on TV, Part #2: The voices I heard, the real good, the good and the not too good

McDonough, Tirico and O'Brien excel; Voices off the beaten track

This is part # 2. My observations last weekend watching college football all over the dial including on video stream. For what it’s worth, here are my mouthfuls:


Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie – Virginia Tech @ Notre Dame  NBC

Wherever Mike Tirico is assigned, he does beautifully. On the football field, at the Triple Crown, the Olympics or the studio, he is silky smooth, experienced, has an excellent command of the language, doesn’t hesitate for the right word and has a wonderful sense for maximizing the vocal economies of television. In his early years doing play-by-play, Mike tweaked his style until he fashioned his own comfortable balance of flow and rhythm.

Viewers feel comfortable with Tirico because he himself appears poised and relaxed. Because he’s also quick on the learning curve, Mike brings a depth of understanding to the assignment no matter how fresh the subject is to him. He also has a good sense of when to elicit the commentary of his expert panelists. And Tirico definitely undertakes a wide swath of material from golf to car racing to all four major sports.

Watching him call Notre Dame this past weekend, I was impressed with the broad vision of his naked eyes. Most play-by-players struggle covering just the line of scrimmage. Mike sees the micro and the macro. He can focus on the ball and rove his sights sufficiently to catch developments on the periphery, those germane to the play.

Flutie is fine. Nothing special! He’ll decipher what happened and explain it in elementary terms. But he rarely shares the nuanced or what the coaches might be thinking from a strategic vantage. This past weekend NBC production brought in rules expert Terry McAulay to get an in-depth explanation about a targeting penalty against Notre Dame. McAulay said that the penalty would be reversed on replay. He was spot-on.

Sean McDonough, Todd Blackledge  Ole Miss @ Auburn   ESPN

McDonough is as underrated as they come. He inflects his voice perfectly. It mirrors the game’s emotion and game flow.  A couple non-ESPNers have told me through the years that Sean is ESPN’s best play-by-play announcer, period! Put him on baseball, football, basketball or even hockey and he’s top of class! His voice is pleasant and he rarely if ever crosses his natural voice range. His intonations are in lockstep with the intensity of each play. He tenses his voice to parallel the drama that the game presents. He should teach a course on technique. Sean can also spin a yearn and share player personality traits. Blackledge is arguably the game’s best analyst, better than that lecturer, Kirk Herbstreit. Todd adds depth without overdramatizing and without pontificating. He doesn’t miss a thing, is natural and not contrived. Unlike Herbie, Blackledge isn’t preening himself on camera for his next commercial audition. 

Roy Philpott – Kelly Stouffer UAB @ Tennessee   ESPNU

Stouffer, the one time Colorado State and NFL quarterback, made some comments that resonated, but he also talked a ton. And annoyingly, every comment had the same level of alarming intensity to his voice. It’s like crying wolf. The first time, ears perk up, maybe the second or third time too. Viewers tune out these fellows who constantly intone startlingly. Not every comment is of equal value. Modulate please. Philpott is very good. His voice is in fine fettle, a pro’s pro. I realized that this wasn’t an in-conference SEC game and that the Vols are struggling but I was surprised to see big patches of empty seats in their home stadium. The venerable and legendary Tennessee coach Robert Neyland must be turning over in his grave.

Dave O’Brien, Tim Hasselbeck   Virginia @ North Carolina   ACC Network

Dave has become the primetime Voice of the ACC Network. He’s excellent. He was feeling his way early in the season, perhaps having not done football in a while. His voice is strong and he uses it perfectly. This is his second stint with ESPN which manages the ACC Network. He left after a series of layoffs swept through the network’s employment rolls. Meanwhile, Tim’s voice is thin and it’s often a struggle to hear him. He needs to talk right into the microphone and cup it if needed so that he’s not drowned out by ambient noise. The ESPN audio people should also push up the volume on his microphone. I don’t remember very much he said, either because I couldn’t hear him or because Dave’s voice fills the room. From what I did hear, nothing stuck. Tim’s older brother Matt does Thursday night games for ESPN. Meanwhile O’Brien told a nugget that I do remember. At Virginia, he said, seniors are not called seniors. They’re called fourth years students. Remember. One nugget is more valuable than ten sets of stats.

Brian Custer, Robert Smith   Northwestern @ Indiana   FS1

I felt for this crew. They had to play the hand they were dealt and it wasn’t pretty. How about 34-3, Hoosiers! Now, good broadcasters use blowouts to share thumbnail profiles and good human interest stories. In other words, it’s a good time to dip into a bag of notes. The stadium was two-thirds empty and the road team was impossibly behind. These fellows, Custer in particular, were ill-prepared to fill holes. Brian, 48, is a boxing man who has little experience doing football. His performance in the booth was that of a deer in headlights. He froze, had nothing to share and Smith had little to add. The broadcast was ponderous, terminal, choppy and uneven. Sorry.

Smith, the former running back at Ohio State, did at times offer comments based on his own playing experience and the conversations he had with the coaching staffs of the participating teams. But once the game evolved one-sided, he needed to be a bit more assertive. Custer was soft-spoken one moment and then he unexpectedly erupted with screaming energy. For the last half hour, Brian was left with little to say other than this will be the first time in eons the Hoosiers will be eligible for a bowl game. It was obvious that neither of these fellows did their homework thoroughly. 

As a general rule, good broadcasters prepare tons of notes and anecdotes and use them sparingly, only when convenient and warranted. On most occasions, broadcasters will tell you that they rarely get to even half their notes. But Saturday night in Bloomington, these guys needed heft. They had none and were badly exposed.

Bill Spaulding,  Jack Ford   Princeton @ Cornell  ESPNU 

Like many of these fellows whom you’ll catch at the end of the subway line, I knew nothing about Bill. I never heard of him. It turns out he’s a product of that famous spawning ground, the Newhouse School at Syracuse. He got out in 2013 and has accepted work wherever it’s been offered. He’s done work for NBC on the Olympics, covering ski jumping events.

Last Friday night, his enthusiasm wasn’t tempered a bit by a poorly lit field, one you and I might have experienced in a playground, not in a bona fide college stadium. Bill and Jack had no crowd noise to work with either. The Schoellkopf Field was an extension of the Cornell Library. Silence please. Bill’s play-by-play call was silky smooth and terrific. He gave this Friday night Ivy League game, Super Bowl prep. Nice and compelling rhythm. He was flawless and did have tons of notes that he used when appropriate. But Bill needs to loosen up a bit and I hope he will end in time. Concerned that he’ll swallow the ends of his words, he purposely ends almost every one with a vocal flourish. It sounded a bit contrived. I wish this fellow luck and hope he makes it. He has the goods, the tools to excel.

Ford had a breezy sound to him and didn’t get in viewers’ way. When Spaulding read a promo for the SMU-Memphis telecast the next day, Ford jumped in with a little history, invoking the names of SMU’s former great, Eric Dickerson and ex NFL cornerback Rod Jones. Can’t say anything nasty about Ford even if I wanted to do so. He’s an attorney who played at Yale and then spent time as a legal commentator for WCBS-TV in New York and was also the chief legal correspondent for NBC News. 

You just never know what you’ll find when watching an Ivy League game.

Dave LaMont,  Jim L. Mora  Navy @ UConn   ESPN2

I’ve always liked LaMont and have listened to him for years. He’s bright, always ready, well schooled and his pipes have sonorous firmness. His style is somewhat conversational and on Friday night Dave was blessed with a wonderful partner in Mora. They worked Navy against soon to be vagabonds, UConn. The Huskies basketball team will rejoin the Big East next year, leaving the football team as an independent, at least for now.

Mora was superb. For one thing, late in the game when the score turned lopsided, ESPN’s production had Mora demonstrate an option play using LaMont as a foil in the booth. It was entertaining and instructional. Mora was frank throughout the broadcast and shared his longtime coach’s instincts with the audience. One that stood out was when UConn coach Randy Edsall had a calm conversation on the sideline with his quarterback Jake Zergiotis, just after a bad play. Mora said: “You rip players six days a week, not on game day.” Edsall didn’t.

Paul Dottino,  Rasheed Marshall  St. Francis @ Duquesne  ESPN3

What am I doing here, you ask? Thought I’d sample an ESPN3 production. Paul did a nice job. It’s tough though when there isn’t any crowd noise or visible seats! Yes, on the opposite side of the field, the side that the camera faced, there wasn’t a set of stands. There was grass, real green grass. The production was also handicapped by having only one set of low stands to station cameras. They were so low that that it was like watching a game sitting on the stub of a tree in the playgrounds. Paul did what he could in a professional manner. He was enthusiastic, descriptive, crisp and emotionally engaged. He might have overcompensated a bit, reaching to the top of his throat when he got excited. Still, he was immersed. Dottino had a strong New York accent. Years ago, broadcasters cared about such things. They don’t as much anymore. As I learned, Paul does some work for WFAN, as a football Giants reporter. Marshall, the one time West Virginia wide-receiver, made some good points.


College football on TV: The games I watched, the voices I heard; The very good, the good and the so-so

Between the family of ESPN channels, CBS Sports over-the-air and cable, NBC, Fox and all forms of streaming, there are more games available Saturday in some form of video than there were cumulatively through the entire decade of the 1960s. Count your blessings.

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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