Brad Nessler has been one of the top broadcasters for college football for three decades, but heading into this season, there were only major two rivalry games the CBS Sports play-by-play man hadn’t had a chance to call.
Earlier this year, Nessler crossed one off his list — Georgia vs. Florida, which turned out to be a 42-7 blowout for the visitors to EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
On Saturday, here in Philadelphia, Nessler will check the final box on his play-by-play bucket list when he calls the 118th matchup between the Army Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen, which kicks off at 3 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field.
On top of the storied rivalry, the pageantry and the fact it’s the only college football game on television this weekend, Saturday’s matchup has added significance for Nessler. He’s taking over the Army-Navy reins from Hall of Fame broadcaster Verne Lundquist, who brought the 61-year-old to tears when he handed over the broadcast baton during an emotional sendoff at the end of last year’s game.
Nessler and his family watched the first half of last year’s game at home, and left at halftime to go Christmas shopping. Eventually, they made their way to a steakhouse to watch the second half. They were sitting at a loud bar when Lundquist appeared on the screen to say goodbye after calling his final football game for CBS and handed the baton to Nessler.
“I had no idea he was going to do that,” Nessler said, adding that his daughter started to cry as she read the closed captioning. “My wife and I started getting all teary and I’m just thinking, ‘This is too cool.’”
In some ways, it was easy for Nessler to take over as CBS’ lead voice calling the SEC. He had a history working with analyst Gary Danielson and had called many SEC games for ESPN and ABC, so he knew the conference well.
“Trying to win over the crew was the biggest challenge because everyone rightly loved Verne so much and still do, and always will,” Nessler said. “But it’s really been a very smooth transition so far. It’s not just doing your job; you’ve got to carry the baton. And it was a pretty heavy baton he handed me.”
So far, passionate SEC fans don’t seem to have much of a problem with Nessler. He was praised after the second game of the season for his call of Florida’s game-winning Hail Mary against Tennessee.
“Everybody says, ‘Wow, you did a great job. That was a great game,’ Nessler said. “No, it was a terrible game, but it was a pretty good eight or nine seconds.”
ARE YOU SERIOUS!????!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/CI6OdeYqgI
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 16, 2017
Nessler thinks he and Danielson did their best work during a two-week stretch calling Alabama-Vanderbilt and Georgia-Tennessee, where the combined score of the two games was 100-0.
“Man, that wasn’t easy,” Nessler said, chuckling. “Gary and I did yeoman’s work to make those games sound interesting.”
Calling Army-Navy is a different type of challenge. In most cases, passionate fans know who the best players are on most college teams. But on Saturday, many viewers will tune in without having seen a single college football game all year, much less know anything about either team.
The same goes for Nessler, who is used to walking into an SEC town and knowing the teams, the athletic directors, and pretty much every aspect of the game. Nessler acknowledged that this has been his hardest game to prepare for. He’s spent most of the past week studying to make sure his first Army-Navy game doesn’t turn into a dud.
“The style of play is so different,” Nessler said. “For instance, you’re not going to hear a lot of stories about wide receivers, because there’s not going to be any passes completed.”
Nessler has spent time this week at West Point with Army’s players, coaches and cadets, and in Annapolis with the Navy midshipmen.
Friday, he’s heading to Philadelphia, where he expects he won’t have time to do much other than prepare for the game. If he’s lucky, he hopes to catch up with the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, a Haverford native with whom he called Thursday Night Football games for two seasons.
“Everybody asks, ‘What are you going to do in Philadelphia?” Nessler said. “I’m going to grab a beer with Mike. That’s about all I know.”