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"This Is Show Business, Babe": A Day With Brent Musburger, Fran Fraschilla, and the Big Monday Crew

Musburger and Fraschilla at Kansas

“So Fran, I thought Boeheim was the most ridiculous thing I watched. I was shocked. I mean, come on, Jimmy, the game is still up in the air,” Brent Musburger said, leaning into the table.

“He lost his mind, he did,” Fran Fraschilla replied.

“If you want to accost that referee in the hallway afterwards, that’s one thing. But this, you had a chance to win the game,” Musburger added.

I was looking live at McAlester’s Deli in Lawrence, Kansas, an empty dining room save our presence, a far cry from the atmosphere that would approach jet decibel levels in a few hours in Allen Fieldhouse. Brent Musburger was sitting over an Italian Chopped Salad as Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe ate turkey reubens, and basketball talk flowed. 

This was where the personality of the Big Monday Broadcast would round into shape. The afternoon lunch, wedged between the shootarounds for Oklahoma and Kansas, is part family affair, part sports bar discussion, and part planning session; sometimes all of those things get blurred. This lunch session included producer Aaron Stojkov (and his father visiting for his yearly Big Monday game), director Mike Roig, sideline reporter Holly Rowe, Musburger’s longtime statistician/spotter/compadre George Hill, plus the announcing team of Musburger and Fraschilla.

Boeheim and Michael JacksonWith Musburger’s opening into the Boeheim tantrum, the conversation was off. Boeheim and his actions at the end of the Duke game occupied the talk for several minutes. The general consensus was that it was a 50/50 call, and that Boeheim’s post-game comments about people remembering him went too far. Rowe also brought up the humorous Boeheim/Michael Jackson photo that emerged on Twitter.

The conversation then bounced a variety of directions–the job that Jim Crews was doing in St. Louis, a feature on Lon Kruger and his hometown that would appear in the broadcast (“Everyone there still calls him Lonnie,” Stojkov, who made the 40 mile journey out to Silver Lake, added,) Rowe tracking down a picture of Embiid as a youngster.

A lengthy discussion of the best Big 12 players, by position, ensued. After about five minutes, Musburger summed up the views. “What I hear are Smart, Wiggins, and Embiid are on this team.” Ryan Spangler of Oklahoma got some love, though ultimately Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane received the nod.

Musburger and Fraschilla debate the first overall pick. Musburger would take Wiggins now, citing the way the game is played today with the open court and attacking wings, while Fraschilla would go with the “big guy” (Embiid). That prompted Stojkov to add “I’d take the big guy over Jordan”–launching the group into a larger discussion about big men in the history of the game. A talk about the uniqueness of LeBron’s skill set resulted in Musburger discussing Elgin Baylor. (He didn’t have to go nearly as far back as when Fraschilla asks him what it was like to cover Bronko Nagurski).

An hour into the lunch meeting, with everyone sitting over empty plates, Stojkov and Rowe come up with an idea. Kansas is playing for a tenth straight Big 12 title. What if we get Holly to get all nine of the other rings, and put them on while on the air? Four and half hours later, Musburger will send it over to “Mama Bling” at the start of the broadcast.

As that ring discussion is coming to an end, the future Mama Bling looks down, and alerts everyone that the Kansas shoot around is well underway. With that, everyone bolts back into motion.

FRAN FRASCHILLA–THE CRASH DAVIS OF ESPN

Fran FraschillaFran Fraschilla has an ability to both work the room and work the tape. Even before meeting him, I had heard about the former college basketball coach (Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico) and his basketball work ethic.

Fraschilla referred to himself as “the Crash Davis of ESPN”. I suggested he was probably selling himself short making a comparison to a career minor leaguer, and his partner would agree. “He is simply one of the very best analysts in college basketball today,” Musburger said. “I’m glad that CBS/Turner/TruTV, they don’t have him, because he would be unbelievable in the NCAA Tournament.”

Musburger doesn’t have to worry about that, though.

“If you gave me a choice of doing three weeks of the tournament, or an entire season of 50 to 60 games, It’s not even close, I’d much rather do the entire season,” Fraschilla said. “I don’t know what I would do with myself if I was only doing 12 games, even if they were the biggest 12 games of the season. The beauty of a job like mine is I get to see VCU and St. Louis, I get to see early games and see new stars.”

Fraschilla will let you know that he doesn’t consider himself a workaholic; this isn’t really work to him. The voracious appetite for basketball includes not only prepping for games, but also in-studio work in Bristol, and serving as the expert on foreign players during the NBA draft coverage. Fraschilla does his overseas homework while prepping for college games. He uses Synergy, mentioning that he watched 30 minutes on Dario Saric (a name that NBA Draft types will want to watch) in between getting ready for Oklahoma-Kansas. 

He brings a coach’s focus to his preparation, but he left the roller coaster life of wins and losses over a decade ago. After he was fired at New Mexico following the 2002 season, Fraschilla had a decision to make: continue coaching or become a broadcaster. Now, he has two sons, Matthew at Harvard and James as an air guitar and trick shot making walk-on at Oklahoma, that are playing college basketball as well. “By the way, none of that would have happened if I was coaching. My boys are just average players . . . if I were coaching other people’s kids, they would never had an opportunity.”

It’s a decision, getting back into coaching, that Fraschilla had to weigh several times since moving to ESPN. He says in the last couple of years he has really come to peace with where he is, and it came down to the quality at ESPN, family life, and less stress. “I’m playing right field and batting seventh for the Yankees. I’m not Jeter or A-Rod, but I’m trying to drive in 100 runs from the seven spot. In my role, I don’t get the same kind of pitches that a Dick Vitale or Jay Bilas gets, I’m fine with that.”

Fraschilla preaches that he prepares for every game equally, whether it is an ESPN3 game or a matchup in Allen Fieldhouse with Kansas. I believe him, because he showed no preference for a national championship winning coach over someone he had just met, the definition of a mismatch. Bill Self ended the shoot around and started walking over to the corner of the court where Musburger, Rowe, and Stojkov were already positioned. Fraschilla and I were in the seats in the corner of the arena, about halfway up, talking away from the noise of the court. Fraschilla was in the middle of a point about Rowe when this happened. I motioned that he could stop if he needed. He saw Self, gave me a wave that we were fine, and kept talking until he finished his thought.

Then we walked down and he talked “Power Touches” with Bill Self. That’s an inside joke between Self and Fraschilla, and so it shall remain inside until Self remembers to talk about it at a press conference.

HOLLY ROWE–MAMA BLING ON THE RISE

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 10.15.39 AMHolly Rowe, the Big Monday Big 12 sideline reporter since 2006, has a reputation for getting what she wants. Two weeks ago, after Kansas State beat Kansas in overtime, Rowe climbed on a table to do an interview as the crowd stormed the court. A few years ago, she went viral in a different way after Michigan’s Sugar Bowl win when a camera caught an exchange with another reporter, as she went in for the interview.

“It was a snippet, if you could have seen the whole thing happen . . . I never shoved her. I was gesturing at her with my elbow. I did like this with my microphone [demonstrates] like ‘just a minute, just a minute.’ I know what it looked like, but she and I talked after that, so we know what happened,” Rowe said.

Rowe also thinks–probably correctly–that the incident was played up because they were women. She describes the atmosphere after a football game ends as chaos, and adds “men are shoving each other all the time. You should see those photographers go after each other all the time.” (here’s an example after New England-Denver).

“You could find that stuff every single game I’ve ever done. You’re fighting for it. You don’t get the interview, that’s a big part of your job is to get the interview.”

Besides fighting for the interview, what are some of the things that Rowe provides to a broadcast? Fraschilla provided  this about Rowe.

Holly Rowe in the huddle“You watch her tonight, she’ll go from huddle to huddle, the coaches will never say a word, she can literally sit this close [motions as close as we are sitting next to each other] to Bill Self. The coaches completely trust her, because she is fair, they know she’s got a job to do. She’ll come out of a timeout, even though she’s not going on the air, and she’ll tell me, ‘Bill Self told the players that the ball better go inside to Joel Embiid on the next two possessions.’ I’m like this, I’m like, ‘You know, Brent, if I was Bill Self right now, I think the next two possessions . . .’ That’s access.”

Everyone sees the sideline reporter on TV for a few seconds at a time scattered over the broadcast, but few know the true role and value a good one provides. Rowe described herself as the “eyes and ears” of the producer and director who are in the production truck. They can only see what is appearing on camera. She is there courtside to let them know things that might be appearing off camera–a relative or person in the crowd, for example.

Rowe also goes the extra step to come up with stories. In the broadcast, they showed pictures that she got from Joel Embiid’s father, in Cameroon. All of the communication was in French over the course of several weeks, and she carries on all conversations with Embiid, and other players (she also mentioned Will Yeguete of Florida) en Francais. For the Kansas State game, she also rose to the occasion before she ever climbed on top of the table at game’s end.

Thomas Gipson had lost thirty pounds in the offseason. Rowe planned a little feature where she obtained thirty pounds of pizza dough from Pizza Hut to demonstrate this, and she put it in a bag under the scorer’s table. The game was close, the opportunity to do the bit never arose (this happens frequently in live basketball broadcasts), and the gym was heating up. The dough started rising, and Rowe had to stamp it down with her heels, as it overflowed onto the guy next to her.

Her table top interview of Thomas Gipson was the highlight of the Big Monday broadcasts so far. Rowe admits to being a little embarrassed by the attention, though. “I’m horrified. . . I don’t want that to be about me. That was a huge win for Kansas State, and I feel bad that any attention that was put on me. I think it should have been put on them, so I feel awful about that.”

That may seem falsely modest in print, but I assure you it does not come off that way in person, and it’s likely a part of why she has earned the trust of coaches. So I asked her to give us a story of something she couldn’t share in the moment on a live broadcast, but might be able to share now with the passage of time.

“My all-time favorite—and I don’t know how you would ever put this in print—is Frank Martin at Kansas State–and he had bad language anyway, but he was good in the huddles and I appreciated his candor and he was so open about stuff– but one time he was drawing on a white board and he was telling a guy how to come off a screen, and he said, ‘you can’t dipsy-[expletive]-doodle off the screen, I want you to go right down at that [expletive].’”

“I can’t say that [on the air], but that’s the funniest way I’ve ever heard the F-word used in real life,” Rowe said.

Well, we solved how you put it in print, and I don’t think we’re breaking any news with word that Frank Martin is a world class creative cusser.

BRENT MUSBURGER IS STILL A SHOWMAN, BABE

Brent Musburger has been with ABC/ESPN since 1990, and one man has been next to him during that entire time: George Hill. Hill, in fact, works with two announcers: Al Michaels and Brent Musburger. You think he’s got some stories? “In 1977, I got a call asking me if I could do stats at a football game, and I lied and said yes, and the announcer was Al Michaels.” Three years later, Hill was also with Michaels for the call of the “Miracle on Ice.”

How does Hill get the opportunity to work with two of the biggest names in sports announcing for so long? The guess: he has the lovable grandfather feel, is a quiet type who takes in everything and listens and observes what is going on around him. And he’s trustworthy and consistently on point, every time. Musburger refers to him as his compadre.

“My job is to supplement what they are saying,” Hill explains. In the first half of the Big Monday game, after Oklahoma has rallied to make it a game, Musburger adds, right after a Kansas pass went out of bounds, “This is a stat to think about. Kansas has turned it over six times, Oklahoma has not turned it over once in this game.”

Three seconds earlier, Hill had scribbled and flashed one of his many quick 3×5 cards to Brent, noting “turnovers, Kansas 6, Oklahoma 0.”

I joke with Hill that he must go into his contract negotiations and insist that they bring Brent along too. Hill, though, tells me that “I’m going to work as long as my announcers work. I’m lucky that the people I work with, I get to see the best games.” Musburger’s contract is up at the end of this season, and so far, the sides have not agreed on an extension. Musburger was famously let go by CBS right after the Final Four in 1990, in part, because he “has outworn his welcome in a young-face business.”

That quote is particularly amusing, considering that Musburger, despite his age, is seen as fresher than the guy who replaced him, Jim Nantz, 24 years later. Hill, in fact, attributes Musburger’s continued success to him being “very young at heart.” “What’s interesting now, when we go to college campuses, how much more the college students seem to become interested in him. He’s not quite a rap star, but he’s in that icon category,” Hill explains.

Image (1) brent-musburger-katherine-webb-poster.jpg for post 251694That same theme came from everyone. “Energy and interest — he has so much juice and so much interest in a regular season middle of the year game as he does in the national championship,” Rowe told me when I asked what he brought to the telecast each week. “What I love about him is, when they made the switch and I went back to Big Monday, I’m having the time of my life because he doesn’t take himself seriously,” added Fraschilla. “He has a great sense of humor, we laugh and joke every week.”

Musburger also chooses not to live in the past, calling it a big mistake to do so.

“What are the best things you ever do? I hope it’s tonight, I hope that this game goes five overtimes, with a buzzer beater to end it. I’m more interested in how Oklahoma is going to stay in this game from the get go.”

“If—if—I was not interested, you would be conducting this interview over the telephone, with me touring some exotic place with my wife, like Singapore—I throw that out because I’ve got in my mind I might want to go there—and I would not be around. If I was not interested, then I’m not around you, I’m out. The day I say I’m not interested in whatever event I’m covering, then I’m done, okay. I’m out. For me, the biggest thing on my mind is tonight.”

He has stayed fresh and current, whether it be with references that I’m guessing your grandfather does not make about bling, or his quips about the point spread. When Oklahoma took a lead in the first half after falling behind early, he pointed out, “Sooners up by 2, double digit underdog here tonight.” Later in the game, as Oklahoma kept it close, Fraschilla added, “they’re not always right, those people.” Musburger responded, “more often than not.” We’ll leave it to the imagination who those people are.

When asked if he threw in those references, aware that people got a kick out of it on social media platforms like Twitter, he responded, “Yeah, it’s, you know, I’m kind of amused by it. I’m certainly aware of it, because of enough people who monitor Twitter talk to me.”

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Before I arrived, I was curious to see how involved Musburger would be. Last year, when I followed Sean Farnham around, I learned just how long the day of preparation is. We were at Allen Fieldhouse by about 12:30, and other than the brief jaunt for lunch, Musburger was there until after the broadcast. He was, well, everything you hear on the broadcast, for ten hours. Before we chatted, after the shoot around, but before the crowd began trickling in, he went for a solo walk around the arena, walking among the seats and around the aisles, taking in the views from different angles. I asked him about that, which launched him into quintessential Brent Musburger humor and commentary.

“I walked the upper reaches, checked out all the views. This might be the best old arena in college basketball. I like Cameron, I love the Crazies, but I think this overall might be a better arena. There’s better views, more seats, but for a broadcaster, it’s not close. The worst broadcasting location in sports–period–is at Duke. Period. Nothing comes close. All the way up, in the rafters, off to one side. It’s the worst.”

“Vitale pretends like it’s the second coming of the Yankees’ Stadium press box. Give me a break, Dick. If you had put the heat on Krzyzewski many many years ago, we’d be down at courtside where we should be.”

Another way that Musburger stays young? He never thinks he has it all figured out. “I guess my father taught me at a very young age. It’s what you learn — after you think you know it all — that matters. And I’ll learn something tonight about one of these kids.” He specifically cites his change in opinion of Andrew Wiggins, a player he thought was unprepared and overhyped at the start of the season, but now sees as ready to start in the NBA.

He also shows off that humor when discussing the pre-game preparation that includes chatting with the officials before the broadcast. “With Bob [Knight], a couple of them would come over, and there might be one go hide in the corner somewhere [laughs]. With Fran, they all come over.”

He didn’t want to talk about how long he could do this, or envision what it would be like to retire. “I’ve been married fifty years now. My wife will tell you it’s more like twenty-five because I’ve traveled so much. I’m not sure that she would be able to tolerate me around the house, 24/7 every day.”

It isn’t work when you love what you do, and Musburger still loves every event. “It’s energizing, and wherever I go, like I spent the week in Vegas doing the Vegas game, got a lot of friends in that town, a lot of people I like to talk to, and, listen, if I wasn’t doing these games, I would be watching them on TV anyway, so why not go out and get paid for it?”

Musburger has kept that young spirit and has a natural feel for what constitutes entertainment and understands what pays the bills. There was a brief storm over the Katherine Webb comments a couple of years ago–very brief and overblown–but let’s be honest, Musburger was spot on recognizing the flow of the game and what the viewing public would talk about. He also recognized Rowe’s recent climb for a table top interview for what it was: great entertainment. “All of a sudden, I see a couple of guys helping Holly up, and I’m thinking, this is gonna be great TV, which it was,” explains Musburger. “It was awesome, she could have kept it up there for thirty minutes and it would have been great as far as I was concerned.”

When we discuss Rowe’s reticence about her role, and how it was something beyond the game on the court itself that brought in viewers and attention, Musburger closed with this.

“The short of that is—this is show business, babe. There’s no business like show business.”

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