It is no secret that I am a fan of Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery's work calling college basketball games on CBS. I know many of you are too. You know by now that they'll be in Buffalo with Villanova and Saint Joseph's, which will make those broadcasts even more fun to watch.
Earlier this week, I got a call from someone on CBS' media relations staff asking if I wanted to talk to one of the people who works behind the scenes with Lundquist and Raftery: director Suzanne Smith. She sits in one of the lead chairs in the production truck, calling the shots on cuts between cameras and other such things.
As it turns out, Smith has a tie to Philadelphia beyond just her many trips here over the years. She's a Temple alum, and a former two-sport varsity athlete for the Owls. The New York native played softball and volleyball on North Broad Street, and won the first athletic scholarship for volleyball ever awarded by the university. In 2008, Smith was inducted into Temple's School of Communications Hall of Fame, and was honored with the Excellence in Media award.
This year is Smith's 30th directing coverage from one of CBS' NCAA tournament coverage sites. Her milestone joins many others for her crew: the 15th of Lundquist and Raftery working together, the 30th of Lundquist calling NCAA tournament games, and the 50th in Lundquist's overall year as a broadcaster. It's also the 10th year of Smith, Lundquist and Raftery being on the same crew.
Those of you who follow my writing on other sports know that in the past, I've written behind-the-scenes features on Major League Soccer, the English Premier League and the Winter Olympics. Although I haven't yet gotten to spend time in a CBS production truck, it's nice to finally be able to add college basketball to the list.
What was your path like to get from Temple to where you are now with CBS?
I graduated from Temple in 1980. I was in the School of Communications and majored in radio/television. I had a couple of jobs and an internship at WPHL-17. One thing led to another, and I started freelancing for different networks. While I was working for a remote company called Video East - we had one truck with a couple of cameras and I was part of the crew - I learned the business there. Then I started working at Channel 48 [also in Philadelphia], which was UHF station WKBS. It went out of business in 1983.
The funny story I will tell is yesterday, I was watching CBS Sports Network, and they were watching the brackets and talking about the possibility of Villanova playing St. Joe's. [Former Wildcats coach] Steve Lappas said they should bring it back to the Palestra. The first basketball game i ever directed was at the Palestra - I forget the teams, but it was while I was back at channel 48, in winter of 1983.
When the NFL went on strike [in 1982], I had been doing boxing in Atlantic City as a stage manager and various other things. The networks came down and I met a few people. A guy named David Dinkins Jr. - the former [New York] mayor's son, but it was before Mr. Dinkins was mayor - took me under his wing, and he said why don't you come to New York and interview.
The good thing about being in Philadelphia is I got a lot of experience. I freelanced for the 76ers and Phillies and worked on the DiamondVision board at veterans stadium. I interviewed in the spring of 1983, and in August I started [at CBS].
When I went to CBS, they wanted me to start as a production assistant. I was a young kid and thought I knew everything. First I thought I wasn't qualified enough to work at the network, and then when they offered me, I thought I deserved a higher job. But I was from New York, and had always wanted to move back and work at a network - especially CBS, because they had such a strong sports tradition. Now, years later, I'm doing what I love doing.
What has changed the most in your 30 years of directing NCAA tournament games?
The technology has changed the most. I think in every aspect of our lives, that's probably been the biggest change we've all gone through. Now you're able to show and document things better - if a guy's foot is on the three-point line, if there's a last second buzzer beater. You can see the clock, you can synchronize it with the horn, see when he released the ball. The replays are instantaneous now.
But the thing that hasn't changed with the NCAA tournament is you're still telling the stories of the games. I think CBS and Turner have done a good job to not let the technology get in the way, and still show the purity, if you will, of these athletes and the event. If you just take a step back and - particularly in this event - [focus on] the game and the kids and the families and the coaches, you get the emotion and the drama from them. That tells the story.
You talked there about letting the game speak for itself. That is something CBS has won a lot of praise for over the years. What goes into that philosophy?
It's good that people do notice. There's a lot of ways to do a lot of things, and different networks do things differently. It's not for me to say which is better or worse, or good or bad. But I do like that CBS lets the event tells the story and not to let the technology get in the way, or different sponsorships or gimmicks.
I think for people at home, that's what they want to see. And as the director they don't want to see how many cuts I can make in 30 seconds. Can we make that happen? Of course. But it's more important to be patient and let the event tell the story instead of us trying to over-produce it.
How much has your work changed with games spread across four channels now, instead of being all on CBS and regionalized? I would think you aren't having the studio host jump in and out of games to interrupt the broadcasters anymore.
It definitely has changed things for us, because what would happen before is you'd get interrupted often for different updates. The Duke-Syracuse game is coming down to the wire with 10 seconds, we're going to break in [to your game]. That would definitely interrupt the flow for us.
Now with the four networks, CBS doesn't have to interrupt the broadcast as much as they used to. I do think we still do bring viewers up to date, which is great, but it's more timely because the games are being seen other places. So they can do it in "really important places." And I'm not saying it wasn't important before, but the only way you were going to get it was for CBS to interrupt the broadcast.
Now, Verne, Bill and I can get into the flow of the game with fewer interruptions. And hopefully, the viewer likes that we don't have to interrupt as much as we did in the past.
Alright, now for the big question. What's it like to work with Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery?
It is absolutely a privilege to work with Verne and Raftery. You see them on the air, but what people don't always see is what they're like off the air and behind the scenes. They are just two of the best people you'll ever meet. They're gentlemen.
Behind the scenes, one of the many things I love when I work with them - this is my 10th consecutive year doing the tournament with them - is the day before the tournament, we sit and watch all the practices and meet with the coaches and sports information directors and gather all the information for our work. T
he players love coming over and talking to them, whether they imitate Raf and his "Onions!" or wanting to talk to Verne about his famous calls from the Masters, or being in Happy Gilmore. It's great for me because they are two of the older guys out there and these are 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds who are playing this game. They are always so gracious.
And constantly, people in the stands want to take a photo. Every tournament they could not be nicer to go over and take a photo or take the time and talk to somebody. Maybe to some people it doesn't seem like a big deal, but I've been around some people - whether athletes or commentators - who just can't be bothered. Everybody in the crew, they make them feel important.
The flip side of that is they work hard. If you really listen to Raftery, he knows these players, the leagues, the history. He's great breaking down plays, in addition to how nice it is with the stories Verne tells and Raf's expressions.
The last thing I'll say about them on the air is they always have fun, but they never make fun of the game or the players or coaches. They make fun of each other, but they know how to balance this stuff and are respectful of the game.
Lundquist is famous for saying that he likes to keep a "Raf-to-English" dictionary handy to deal with all of Bill's expressions. Does it take you a minute sometimes to figure out what Raftery meant by somehing he said?
I don't dare imitate Raftery, because everybody does - he's just so good. Yeah sometimes [I don't get a reference], but it's usually after you've left, you were like, "What does that mean?" But as I said, he's never making fun of anybody.
Is there one Raftery-ism that stands out?
The ball is tipped and every single time Bill says, "Verne Lundquist, St. Joe's goes man-to-man!" All of us have fun with it. But in the end they're just really good at what they do. It's not just a two-man comedy show out there.
This past Sunday, you guys had a terrific little feature during the St. Joe's-Virginia Commonwealth Atlantic 10 title game on Phil Martelli's grandson. How did that come together?
We went back in the hallway and coach Martelli was talking to some people and said to Verne, "I want to introduce you to my grandson." Verne doesn't have to talk to Martelli, but they do. and that's how the story came out. I didn't see it in the papers or get it from the sports information directors.
So we went into a little side room and coach sat down with Verne and started talking about it, and Verne told us all about it. We talked about how we were going to cover it and everything else. I had no idea it was going to be so popular this week. That came out of us taking to those guys and Verne talking to the kid.
There was a particular point when you cut back and forth between grandson and grandfather in quick succession, and both of them were stroking their chins in just the same way. Did you call that sequence of cuts?
Yeah. And I think it was after a free throw. We had one camera on the coach and one camera on the kid. That's what I do. Verne and Bill are telling the story and I'm trying to give them video to support what they're talking about. I did tell Martelli I went to temple and he didn't like that.
How many people are in the production crew at a NCAA tournament site?
We get around 75 credentials for the first weekend. For the second weekend, you add a couple of people and a tape machine or two.
This week, for my purposes, what happens is the amount of cameras and tape machines you have this week are across all of our sites. Then next week when we have half as many sites we increase the equipment level. I have 15 cameras this week, and then a couple are added next week.
Is it different to broadcast a basketball from a football stadium instead of a traditional basketball arena?
You still have the court that's the same size. The cameras will hopefully be put in good places. The football stadiums that we use now are set up for us - we go in ahead of time to build platforms and such.
One difference is capturing the crowd. We were at the Carrier Dome last year at Syracuse. We had Georgetown-Syracuse at the end of February.* I sent a handheld camera all the way to the opposite end of the football setup to show what those fans were seeing. But as far as game coverage it's basically the same.
* - That was the last game at the Carrier Dome in the series before Syracuse left for the ACC. It drew 35,012 fans, which up to then was the biggest on-campus basketball crowd in NCAA history. The record fell this past season when Syracuse-Duke drew 35,446 fans.