“The Spring Game to be decided right here! Snap, rolling right, (Austin) Kendall looking end zone, looking, stops, looks back left, looks right, throws in the end zone and it’s incomplete! Adrian Peterson’s Team White has won it by the score of 10-9!”
That was just one of the many moments heard inside the Oklahoma football radio booth on Saturday afternoon, as play-by-play voice Toby Rowland gave the action during the OU Spring Game in Norman. But that moment didn’t come without a large amount of time and preparation. In fact, you have to rewind two days prior to Thursday afternoon, to see when the preparations for the broadcast actually began.
Inside an empty Gaylord Family Oklahoma Stadium, on-site engineer Michael Dean is inside the radio booth to start his game day set up. A process that usually takes close to two hours, Dean also needs to coordinate his wireless microphones with the Trace Adkins concert that’s to take place before the game on Saturday. Any interference, would cause his sideline analysts problems and leave them unable to participate in the pregame show.
Though Dean is used to spending several hours setting up a broadcast, he’s not the only member of the team that spends multiple days getting ready for the football game on Saturday. Spotter boards, audio drops and a detailed study of the roster, are just a few of the things that fill the week for the majority of the 8-man crew involved with the Sooner Sports Network.
Inside the booth on the bottom of the two level room, Greg Blackwood (spotter) occupies the seat on the far left. To his right, sits Rowland (play-by-play voice) followed by Dennis Kelly (statistician) and Merv Johnson (color analyst) in the seat furthest right. Up top, sits Dean (engineer) alongside all his equipment to keep the Sooner Radio Network on the air. Down on the sidelines, the remaining three members of the team stand as Teddy Lehman (sideline analyst) and Chris Plank (sideline analyst) are joined alongside Tom Shores (parabolic microphone).
Oklahoma football has never been a stranger to success. However, the same can also be said for the Sooner Radio Network. Legendary figures such as Walter Cronkite, Bob Barry and John Brooks, are just a few of the voices that have told the tale of OU football through the years. Though the names have changed, the success has not. During the 2017 season, the Sooner Radio Network was ranked as the No. 1 most listened to college sports broadcast via TuneIn on three separate weeks. In Learfield’s end of the season list of Most Listened to Teams via TuneIn, the Sooner Radio Network ranked No. 3, making it one of the most popular broadcasts during college football weekends.
But how does it all work? I went inside the booth and asked those questions to several members of the broadcast team.
On-Site engineer Michael Dean
TM: How early do you show up on a game day?
MD: On a normal game day, I try to get to the stadium about 6 hours before kickoff. For home games, I’ll come down Friday and do my set up. So when I get here Saturday morning, everything is already in place and it’s just a matter of turning stuff on.
MD: If I’m in a hurry, I can do it in a couple of hours. When we’re on the road, and we get to the stadium at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning for a 2:00 kickoff, that gives me a couple of hours to put everything together, to where I’m not pushing it and ready to go. There’s two, great big cases that hold all the paraphernalia for the setup. It’s amazing how much the technology has changed with equipment. When I started in 1991, the technology seemed to change every 3 or 4 years. What we’re doing today, you couldn’t imagine doing that back then. It’s incredible.
Statistician Dennis Kelly
TM: Are you keeping a full stat sheet during each game?
DK: What we found is everyone has access to the game stats these days. So I tend to focus on trends. How many passes in a row have been thrown, how long the drive has been, how many yards or how close to a record someone is, that’s what I’ll focus on. We always have a stats monitor in front of us. When I have something, I write it down and pass it to Toby.
Spotter Greg Blackwood
TM: Since you’re pointing out every single tackle, run and catch, does that mean you have to be familiar with every single player that participates in a game?
GB: Normally, Toby will send me a picture of his spotter boards for that given week, around Thursday or Friday. I pretty much know everyone that plays for OU, but it’s getting to know the opposing team. What I like to do, like, for receivers, I put them on a Post It note, just their number and last name. So when the ball is in the air, I’m immediately able to find who it is and point it out on the spotter board.
TM: I also see an OU Band-Aid and a Band-Aid for the other team. What’s that for?
GB: It’s just something I came up with. Whenever there’s an injury, I point to the player as well as his team’s Band-Aid. That lets Toby know who’s hurt and what team he plays for.
TM: Do you and Toby have any special hand signals for communication?
GB: Oh yeah. I’ll just say, hey, for a substitution I’m going to do this (wiggles his thumb and pinky finger). A lot of the time, I’ll say a player’s name in the headset. That way he hears me, but it doesn’t go over the air.
Sideline analyst Teddy Lehman
TM: You’re one of two sideline analysts (Chris Plank being the other) and you’re usually standing away from each other on the field. Most broadcasts don’t have that. How are you guys able to coincide without stepping on each other?
TL: Toby has a certain rhythm with the way he calls the game. He sets up the play, describes it as it happens and then gives you the result and the upcoming down and distance. You wait for that pause and then jump in with a quick comment. A lot of times it can be difficult, because if you have something to say that’s relevant to that play, sometimes, the offense is going up-tempo and they’re right back up to the ball. You have to get the info out and let Toby get back to calling the next play. It’s just a feel. I kind of know when Plank is going to come in. It’s usually after an injury or in between a series. Usually, during an actual series, that’s when I feel more comfortable coming in with something without stepping over Plank. But it does happen. When you have all the live mics we have, we probably have more than any other broadcast, it’s going to happen.
Play-by-play voice Toby Rowland
TM: How long does it take you to make a spotter board every week?
TR: It’s kind of hard to say, because I work on it every day throughout the week. So, like on Monday, I’ll enter all the information and then as the week goes on, you kind of add info to it. The whole process is probably a few hours. I just work on it all week, keeping adding stuff to it and by the time Saturday gets here you hope it has everything that you need.
TM: Why two sideline analysts? You’re one of the few ones to do it, so why two?
TR: Plank is great at getting all the information like a sideline analyst should be. Injuries, interviews, and all the things you’d expect. So with Teddy, we basically have an extra analyst, except he’s on the field instead of the booth. A lot of times, he gets stuff that we wouldn’t get if he was in the booth, because he’s down there. We tried it a few years ago, just threw it against the wall to see if it would work, and after the first game, everybody looked at each other and said ‘holy cow that was pretty awesome.’ What you’re starting to see now is some other places around the country try it, which is flattering. What Teddy gives us down there is gold. We have an analyst that can see from the booth and another that can see from the sideline. Between those two, we pretty much have it covered. The only tricky part is figuring out when to talk and not step on each other. I think we’ve done it long enough now that everybody had figured out the cadence. During the commercial break, we’ll often work it out to where we’ll tee each other up. It’s a nice chemistry.
TM: Something came up today that sparked this question. There was a number switch to a particular guy that wore a different number last season. Is that tough when you go a whole season identifying a guy as a certain number and then he switches the next year?
TR: They should really call us and ask our approval before they do things like that (laughs). It would really be hard if the player that wore that number last year was still on the team. Thankfully, you have a Spring Game to work it out. A lot of that stuff is why you go to a practice or two before the season starts. Like, next year, we’ll catch a practice or two before the season starts and the only intention is to see body shapes and numbers. You can act like you’re calling a play and mumble to yourself on the sideline, so you get used to that player with his new number. From the radio booth, you can’t always see the number right away. Like if it’s a wide receiver and he’s turned weird. But I can tell if it’s a single digit jersey number. If that’s the case, you’re identifying the player based on body size and movement.
TR: Naturally, you get more excited if your team is making the big play. Everybody does it different. Some people are super depressed on the air. I think the natural thing for me, is wow that was a giant play to win the game. They need a call that fits winning the Rose Bowl. Even though it wasn’t us that was the decisive play of this event. So it should have a pretty big call to it. But look, if we had made that play to win the Rose Bowl, I would have pulled a hamstring. It didn’t match the level of call to what I would have sounded like if OU had won. That’s just a preference. Every guy does it differently.
TM: What kind of hand signals do you and your spotter use during a game?
TR: There’s a lot of non-verbal communication between us. He can talk in my ear, without it going over the broadcast. But we try to limit that as much as possible, just to make the distractions less. If I don’t immediately recognize a receiver, he may say in my ear “Brown.” Just one word. But most of the time we prefer to communicate non-verbally. He has a hand signal for who the lead blocker was, who applied the pressure, there’s a number of different signals that we have to be on the same page with. That’s just been developed over time over 7 years.
TM: The process to setting up a process can be long. Even for you, is it stressful on a game day until you know everything is up and working correctly?
TR: I don’t think I stress at all about any equipment or the setup process. My plate is full enough that I don’t have the time. I’m stressed enough that my spotter boards are ready and I’m about to call a game. I 100 percent trust Michael Dean and need to. I assume every time we show up at the stadium that everything is going to be ready to go. There’s a bunch to do. We have a bunch of people on the air, so there’s a lot that goes into it, but I’m not stressed about it at all.