BRISTOL, Conn. – In Times Square – just more than 100 miles from ESPN’s Bristol campus – a ticker rolls along the bottom of a massive video board on one of the buildings, displaying the top football recruits in ESPN’s 2017 class rankings and their college choices.
A similar video board is in Orlando at the ESPN World Wide of Sports. Even Wrigley Field in Chicago had a video board for National Signing Day.
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What those screens have in size, they lack in numbers. ESPN’s coverage of National Signing Day starts in a small control with roughly 100 monitors and computers in Bristol. The amount of technology vastly outnumbers the actual employees crammed into the dimly lit workspace, but it serves as the hub for the 11 hours of coverage across several ESPN networks.
Each staffer has a role, whether it’s putting graphics on the board, knowing when to cut to any of the 16 reporters stationed across the country on college campuses or counting down from “5” before the show returns from commercial break.
It’s standing-room only in the control room, with producers glued to their seats in the front, facing a wall of video boards. One section of the wall has the high school athletes set to commit on national television, while another has each of the network’s reporters on camera, waiting to grab a coach or team official for a quick interview.
The crew in the control room must have quick reflexes, ready to switch cameras at a moment’s notice. Producers calmly call out instructions from the front of the room to the host of technical experts perched at work stations behind them.
In the most literal sense of the phrase, it’s a beautiful organized chaos.
Just as noon ET strikes and after four hours on the air, the production team receives word that Damion Daniels and Chevin Calloway – two top recruits from Bishop Dunne in Dallas — are about to commit live. The crew jumps into action, switching the cameras from the ESPN set down to Texas, where the camera is focused on the podium where Daniels is set to make his decision.
The 6-1 defensive lineman lumbers up to the microphone and begins to explain his commitment. There’s a moment of silence in the control room before the team dives back into their monitors, each digging away at their respective duty.
When Daniels pulls out a Nebraska hat and announces he’ll be a Cornhusker, the graphics team immediately flashes a corresponding notice on the lower third of the screen.
Social media flares up with notifications and the in-studio analysts begin to break down Daniels’ decision just before Daniels’ teammate Calloway hops to the podium to announce his commitment – and the ESPN team does it all over again.
In total, Daniels and Calloway are among 11 commitments that ESPN broadcast on National Signing Day this year from locations around the country. This year’s group took ESPN to California, Texas three times, Georgia, Illinois and Louisiana.
After 11 years of running the “marathon” as its referred, the crew has the coverage down to an art form.
The control room isn’t all pressure and deadlines, however. One employee lays back in his chair towards the back of the room and peers up at a TV monitor above his head to peek in at “The People’s Court.”
He turns to one of his colleagues, “Do you know much money Judge Judy made last year?” he asks rhetorically. “$53 million. That’s absurd!”
Well, it can’t be all football for 11 consecutive hours, right?
Two floors above the control room, in Studio G, the set has a rotation of personalities. Joe Tessitore, Mack Brown, Les Miles, Mike Bellotti, Joey Galloway, David Pollack and Tom Luginbill sit around a desk and discuss the day’s signings and interview recruits and coaches remotely. Matt Schick hosts the final two hours on ESPNU.
Brown, Miles, Bellotti, Galloway and Pollack all take shifts hopping on and off the broadcast like hockey lines, as they flawlessly exit and enter the studio during commercial breaks when need be.
Luginbill is the only member of the broadcast team who stays on air for the entire 11 hours – a streak that is several years running.
He had lunch delivered to him and ate it at his seat. The only break he received was the occasional time during commercials when he gets up to stretch.
“I’m sitting here losing feelings in my legs,” Luginbill joked on air.
Tessitore hosts the program, and while there is a set structure to how they’d like to operate, commitments can come at any time and can easily change the schedule.
“We have these rundowns that are as big as a phone book,” Tessitore says, holding up a binder stocked with information on recruits and a loose schedule of the day will go. “Forty minutes in, and we don’t even use them.”
While the in-studio talent has years of experience in front of the cameras, the various high school athletes who join the program do not. A.J Dillon, a Boston College commit and the No. 38 running back in the country from Lawrence Academy in Massachusets, took the trip to Bristol to discuss his college choice on air, in the studio.
“There was a couple of nerves,” Dillon said about being on national TV. “Like when I first started talking … but once I got going, I kind of mellowed out.”
Dillon understands the honor of being in the studio. National Signing Day includes a mass of players nationwide committing to colleges, but very few get to join the ESPN team for it.
“Words can’t really describe it, I’m overjoyed right now,” he explained. “Ever since I was little I always watched ESPN. Being up here today and getting the opportunity to be here is amazing.”
Despite the hours on air, the on-air talent does a good job of keeping it light when the cameras are both on and off. Pollack aired some of his grievances on coaches discussing their recruiting classes and said, “I just want one coach to come on today and say, ‘You know what? We struck out today.’”
Just minutes later during a commercial break, Pollack had the rest of the crew laughing as he went on a fast food tirade. “If you don’t like Popeyes biscuits, you’re not American.”
Brown might have had the line of the day after Marvin Wilson, the top-ranked defensive tackle, committed to Florida State.
The conversations between the anchors can range from ridiculous – like Popeyes biscuits – to friendly. Tessitore and Mack Brown discussed the former head coach’s grandchildren, while Les Miles talked about his son Ben’s commitment to play football at Nebraska. As promised, Miles donned a Nebraska hat during the broadcast to salute his son.
Wednesday marked Miles’ first time on the broadcast side of National Signing Day, after spending 16 years at the helm of Oklahoma State, and then LSU. While his football knowledge rivals anyone’s, the natural cues and subtleties of television are what he’s trying to learn.
“The timing of the conversation and the flow of what goes on back there are kind of what I need to learn,” Miles said. “I think it’s something I could have fun doing.”
Mastering the art of television is still a work in progress for Miles, but he’s already learned one thing: Have fun out there. Like his co-hosts, Miles is quick to crack a joke between breaks, and has a good on-air demeanor.
“You have to have fun. Remember it’s sports,” Miles said. “It’s not the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to compete, and enjoy, and it should be fun.”
National Signing Day is more than just a day. For players, it’s a culmination of a life’s work that culminates in their signature on the letter of intent. For coaches, it is defining moment often in several years of building relationships with a player, and not all those players will come to that school. For those in front of a camera, it’s a marathon of knowledge, news and the grind of feeding the ever-hungry sports fan.
“I think this is a wonderful day for so many people,” Miles said. “So many guys come from families that can’t afford a college education, it allows them to go off to college and get a degree and pursue an NFL career, and have a great long-term plan. I think it’s great for our country, and it’s great to be a part of.”