“This game is still tied. That’s a good sign, Sean,” ESPN play-by-play man Joe Tessitore dead-pans right before he and his partner Sean Farnham go on the air with the Ohio State-Northwestern broadcast. Seventeen seconds later, DeShaun Thomas catches a pass and drops in an easy layup from the baseline against Northwestern’s zone to break that scoreless tie. When Lenzelle Smith makes three consecutive long distance shots before the game gets to the first break, the rout appears to be on.
Northwestern had lost the previous three games by 20 or more points, and was ravaged by injuries to several key contributors. “How bad are the injuries for Northwestern?” Farnham jokes, right after the camera scans the sullen faces at the end of the Wildcats’ bench, “even the student beat writer is on crutches.”
That natural wit is one of the reasons – but just one – that Sean Farnham has moved into one of the top eight college basketball assignments on ESPN at age 35, calling the Big Ten for the first time this year in the Thursday Night Showcase. He is part budding artist (both of the trick shot and graphic variety) as well as an interesting mix of Dick Vitale, Bill Walton, and his partner Joe Tessitore. Literally.
During the pre-game final preparations, while the crowd was beginning to seep into the old barn Northwestern calls home, Farnham regaled us with impersonations. It started with Dickie V (“Look at Kelly Olynyk, he’s putting on a clinic, baby!”) and went to fellow Bruin Bill Walton, in a disdainful nasally tone (“You’ve got to feed the post, where’s Farnham? He knows how to feed the post. Come on.”) to an impression of his broadcast partner Joe Tessitore, complete with hand gestures and facial grimaces. He also took some final minutes before the broadcast to sketch funny pictures on the telestrator. “I do that for a reason,” he explained, to test the sensitivity of the screen before each broadcast. It doesn’t hurt that it can also entertain as well.
Farnham’s traveling trick shots have been another form of entertainment this season. Two weeks earlier, he bounced one from the upper seats at Williams arena. Welsh-Ryan Arena, home to Northwestern, did not have the same alignment that would allow an upper deck shot, so we debated the possibilities. I suggested he try the cheerleader flip shot from half court, but that was a piece of showmanship too far. “I think I am retiring from trick shots, because that one can’t be topped,” he laughed.
When you look at the California kid who played college basketball at UCLA, with his blonde hair and bright eyes, you might be tempted to think he is straight out of central casting in Hollywood. The truth, though, is that Farnham is more foothills than Beverly Hills.
“My go-to song right now is Jason Aldean’s ‘The Only Way I Know’,” Farnham explained as he talked about growing up in a 5,000 person town north of San Francisco with main attractions of a gravel road and a double wide trailer as its City Hall. Farnham attended UCLA where he played basketball from 1996-2000. He went to UCLA as a preferred walk on, rather than take a scholarship at a school where he could have played earlier, because he wanted to be part of “something bigger than me” and play for a national championship contender (UCLA had just won a title two years before Farnham went to Westwood). “That song to me embodies so much of what you have to do in life, just roll up your sleeves and keep working, keep working and keep grinding,” said Farnham. The lyrics seemed particularly apt as we met on the last day of February.
Full throttle, wide open * You get tired and you don’t show it * Dig a little deeper when you think you can’t dig no more * That’s the only way I know
* * *
Farnham, Tessitore, and producer Jeff Dufine arrived at Welsh-Ryan Arena about 10:30 Thursday morning, minutes after the Ohio State entourage took the floor for the morning shootaround. By the time he arrived, Farnham had slept just a few hours on the flight from Bristol to Chicago, having worked the studio show the previous evening. Wednesday night featured the Michigan upset at Penn State, followed by overtime after overtime. Farnham tried to grab a break for a soda late in the evening; when he looked up from the ESPN cafeteria, he saw Myck Kabongo sinking a tying shot against Oklahoma. Colorado and Stanford almost went to overtime in a game that started at 11 p.m. on the East Coast. UCLA and Arizona State did go to overtime in a vital Pac-12 game 30 minutes later. By the time all the college basketball action had concluded and the final highlights were done, it was almost 2 a.m.–not worth the brief rest and the risk of a missed flight before moving to the next game on the schedule.
He was described to me as “high energy,” so perhaps he was a little down, but you wouldn’t know about his lack of sleep from observing him. Farnham bounced effortlessly around the gym. This morning’s practice session is the domain of basketball junkies. No suits and ties to be found. Music blaring loudly. Energy coursing through a building built long before most of us were born. Grown men running around with athletes half their age. Chris Jent, current assistant and former Buckeye who came within a shot of sending Ohio State to Final Four back in 1992, was raining three pointers. Fellow assistant Jeff Boals whipped passes around to Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams, then charged out to guard them, loudly counting off the makes and misses.
Farnham is a gym rat, in his element wearing his jeans and tennis shoes while watching this frantic movement. Everything he got as a player came through hard work, effort, and determination. He earned minutes by practice effort, setting screens, and playing help side defense. His path to working for ESPN began at an otherwise empty Pauley Pavilion in 1998, when the Fox Sports West crew was getting ready for a broadcast of Arizona State at UCLA. Farnham was in the gym shooting baskets by himself. Possessed by the hubris of youth, he walked over to Bill McDonald (now the voice of the Lakers) and told him “Oh, you’ve got the easiest job in the world,” to which McDonald replied, “Really, how would you do it?”
Farnham recounts that start as if he was still there in the moment, so many years later:
“‘Welcome everybody, to Pauley Pavilion, tonight the Bruins take on the Arizona State Sun Devils, and while the focus is on Lazor, Batiste, and Veal, the one guy I’d be concerned about if I was UCLA and Steve Lavin is Eddie House. This kid can flat out score. In high school, he had 52 points’–and I knew Eddie, so it was easy–so I just ripped off a little thing, and I said, ‘see, easy.’ The executive producer with Fox Sports West at the time was in the truck. Now, he couldn’t see me, he could only hear me, because the mike was actually open. He was like, “who the heck was that, who was that guy?” So they developed this thing every week – and I couldn’t get paid for it – it was called Farnham Files. I would interview teammates, I’d show people where to hang out on campus at UCLA, it was all personality driven stuff, but what it did was allow me to feel very comfortable in front of a camera.”
The best announcers do make it look like the easiest job in the world. That old saying about not working a day of your life if you do something you love? It applies to men and women who get to talk about orange balls and iron rims and hardwood. The amount of preparation that goes into the production of one game, like Ohio State-Northwestern, is much broader than most realize.
“I did my preparation work for this game by Monday,” Farnham told me. That work includes watching at least 4-5 recent games on each team, and going through the team statistics and news in preparing the game sheet. Farnham’s game sheet is color coded for each team, with photos of each player, and meticulous notes on each of them. The preparation also includes background work on features and graphics that will appear during the broadcast.
For example, Farnham and his producer worked on a feature on Ohio State guard Aaron Craft, isolating plays demonstrating his defensive prowess both on the ball and as a help side defender. This feature, by the way, never made it into the game broadcast, an example of the work that goes in behind the scenes just in case the ebb and flow of the game dictates its use.
Farnham also spoke with Craft after the shootaround on Thursday, asking him about how his role changed with this year’s team. It was an opportunity for Farnham to see Craft and the Ohio State Buckeyes for the first time since they, along with Marquette University, participated in a basketball camp for his charity, Hoops From Home (detailed by ESPN’s Dana O’Neil last May). “I was very thankful in having a guy like Aaron Craft, who has a personal tie to the military, speaking to kids, with his brother serving our nation, that was a moving moment there,” Farnham stated. Craft’s older brother, you may recall, was deployed to Afghanistan last year, just prior to the Elite Eight matchup against Syracuse. Farnham also credited Mike Broeker, associate Athletic Director with Marquette, for spearheading that effort in getting a NCAA waiver to participate in a camp involving youth, as the charity initially was going to rely solely on NBA players.
Hoops for Home put on three events in its inaugural year, with total expenses of $5,000, the costs held down mainly due to all the volunteers, like the college teams, that participated gratis. The goal is to expand the camps and to move to some overseas venues for children stationed abroad, and Farnham has set a goal of $50,000 for next year.
That kind of aggressive goal-setting comes naturally for Farnham. The year after he graduated from UCLA, he set a goal and vision of working for ESPN. First, though, he was the youngest full-time college basketball assistant in 2001 when he took a job under Jan van Breda Kolff at Pepperdine. Van Breda Kolff left suddenly for St. Bonaventure the next offseason, and Farnham faced a choice: move across the country to follow his previous coach, or look for different employment.
In the end, love won out. He had just started dating his (now) wife, who was still then a college student, and knew that moving four time zones away would be the end of the relationship. He made a call to his old contacts at Fox Sports West and asked if they would start paying him where once he had worked for free. He started out doing sideline reporting at high school games. Much like thousands of journalism and communications majors around the country breaking into the business, he edited and prepared his own features. He even roughed it by working on a Lakers Girls preview, before moving up to doing some play-by-play work and then into an analyst role for the network.
Farnham credits that experience with teaching him the differing roles, how to work with a partner, and develop and understanding of how to “stay in his lane.” He also moved into a radio show, which proved invaluable for developing contacts in the coaching ranks.Big Ten coaches like Tom Crean appeared on his radio show at past Final Fours, and those relationships have eased his transition while moving from the West Coast to games in the Midwest.
“My wife, I’ve got a very supportive wife, the travel this year has been excessive (California to Big Ten Country and in some weeks like this one, also to Bristol), but it’s what I love, he said. “It’s what I want to do. I’ve already done the coaching thing for a year, I know what coaching is about . . . I like this.”
That does not make the travel and time away from family easy for a father of three. Once, he returned home after midnight following a week on the road, and accidentally left the hall light in. When he awoke to a shadow moving in front of him, he was disoriented and thought someone was breaking into his hotel room, and began shouting. It was his four-year old daughter.
The road commitment means parenting is done through less traditional means during the season. In the short window between the morning sessions with the team, sports information directors, and the production meeting, and the lead-up to the game itself, game partner Joe Tessitore had a parent-teacher conference where he participated by phone. Farnham gets photos of spelling homework from his wife, and goes over the second grade spelling lists at night, checking the work through Skype or Face Time. He sends photos home for the kids, one from a climb to the top of a mountain at Arizona State; another of that rarest of creatures in Southern California: a snowman.
The two hour window gives the announcers the chance to touch base with home and get prepared for the frenzied activity that follows. The broadcast crew returns to the arena two hours before tip-off. “Having the same consistent crew week in and week out, has made it so much easier for me to have confidence,” Farnham says. He credits his producer Jeff Dufine with being a calming influence and counterbalance to the high energy that both he and Tessitore bring to the broadcast. His confidence is also such that he bestowed a nickname on his director, Bonnie Reilly: Megatron. Reilly is from the Detroit area, and “catches everything I throw at her,” hence the Calvin Johnson reference. Earlier this year, Farnham even dropped the Megatron inside joke reference after a dunk at Michigan.
On this particular Thursday, the morning and early afternoon preparations end just a little bit earlier, as Northwestern does not have a formal shootaround session, due to a school policy and conflicts with class schedules due to the earlier game start time (6 p.m. local time). The only other time this happened this year? Illinois, for the game against Indiana.
That game was perhaps the defining moment for this broadcast pairing. When Illinois trailed by nine late, Tessitore and Farnham felt that the game was still in doubt, warning the viewer coming out of the under four minute timeout. Illinois closed on a 13-2 run, with the final score being one of the most memorable moments of the season – Tyler Griffey’s wide open layup off the inbounds play. The ability to meet that moment – true reality television – comes about through preparation.
“I treat every game the same,” Farnham tells me. “There is no difference between Indiana-Illinois and the last place game at the Diamondhead Classic that I called earlier this year that only appeared on ESPN3.” Tessitore also has high praise for his broadcast partner and that consistent preparation. “Joe Tess” is a workaholic himself, ranging from boxing and horse racing to college football and basketball. He has worked with hundreds of people in his various ventures, and sees the work that goes in to making the successful ones. “I think he has tremendous upside,” Tessitore gushes, “If I was to buy a stock right now, I’m buying Sean Farnham. The reason why the guy is successful is not any secret formula. He works very, very hard, and he never turns it off.”
That hard work goes into overdrive for the closing moments leading to the start of the broadcast. Tessitore goes through the various graphics and scripts, rehearsing previews for Miami-Duke on Saturday, and for Big Ten Player of the Year Twitter polls, and Conference Standings. Farnham holds a meeting with all the cameramen, going over what he anticipates will be key shots during the game, including how the Buckeyes might use Deshaun Thomas on offense. These thoughts prove wise, as Thomas is a mismatch when used in the high post late in the game.
After going through his final run, Tessitore sits silently on the front row of seats directly behind the media tables. I sit down next to him, and he tells me how he is bothered by not being able to see Northwestern earlier in the day. Seeing the players at practice allows him to familiarize himself with the players – how they move, how they interact on the floor. Basketball isn’t as hard as football, Tessitore tells me, but he often can identify a player without seeing the numbers by how he looks in pads or how he moves.
When Northwestern emerges from the locker room twenty minutes before game time, Tessitore bolts up, swiftly navigates through the opening in the tables, and positions himself on the faded purple sideline containing the phrase, more hopeful than assertive, of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” From that vantage point, Tessitore studies the Northwestern players intently from about ten feet away as they move around the right side of the court. Farnham, meanwhile moves around the court talking with each of the referees.
“One of the things I do, I’m not just a guy that calls games, I’m a fan of the game,” he says. He watches about 30 games during the week, not only for the basketball teams involved, but to listen to his colleagues and learn new things – how to phrase something or describe the action. He singles out several of his fellow analysts, including Fran Fraschilla, whom he describes as having a “very unique eye” for the game.
Farnham displays his basketball acumen when he notes a key play at the end of what was a dominant first half for Ohio State. Northwestern’s Dave Sobolewski drove to the basket for a layup as time was expiring. OSU’s Deshaun Thomas was initially in good defensive position to stop him, but vacated to defend his own man. My untrained eye focused on the dribbler and his immediate defender, but of course, reviewing the tape, Farnham is right on with what happened on the play and how DeShaun Thomas violated a key principle–”the man with the ball is the most important one on the floor.”
Farnham also immediately sees Thad Matta get very angry when Evan Ravenel bounces a ball in anger, on a play where he should have drawn a technical. Matta signaled for someone-anyone-to go in the game for Ravenel, as the lead was slipping away, a lead that would disappear a few minutes later.
When Kale Abramson bangs in a running one-legged fadeaway three-pointer just before the shot clock expires to give Northwestern its first lead of the game, the crowd erupts and Tessitore and Farnham respond with matching intensity. Did Sean Farnham envision Northwestern rallying to make it a nervous affair when Ohio State started the game so hot? Earlier in the day, he laid out various scenarios that he had gone over for how the wounded Wildcats would compete in the game, and added, “I’m never going to tell the audience that I didn’t see something coming. It’s my job to see what is coming.”
His analysis of how Ohio State used Deshaun Thomas was an example of seeing what is coming. Ohio State went small after Ravenel’s tantrum, and Thomas proved too quick operating in the middle of the Northwestern zone. A late spin move back to the middle by Thomas, set up by previous successful drives, proved decisive as the Buckeyes pulled away again late.
Another successful outing for the Thursday Night crew, with one more big game coming when Wisconsin and Michigan State meet this week. Tessitore hopes that the pairing will continue beyond next week. He also puts Farnham in good company when he draws a comparison to a current NFL analyst.
“I see Sean Farnham as being similar to where Mike Mayock was four to five years ago,” Tessitore tells me, noting how the hardcore fan and insider is aware of him, but he may not be as recognized by the casual fan . . . yet. Farnham is already working his dream job for ESPN, moving from the West Coast Conference to Big XII and Pac-12 games on ESPNU, to now the Big Ten. He’s started a charity that fills a role in helping children of military families, a need he saw as being unfilled and needing someone to step in. He’s going full throttle, the only way he knows. We’ll see where he is in four years, but wherever it is, I’m not going to tell you I didn’t see it coming either.