Tuesday February 10th, 2015

Why did Rece Davis replace Chris Fowler on College GameDay? Well, if you want to traffic in sports broadcasting conspiracy theories, here you go: ESPN management asked Fowler to choose between hosting GameDay or calling the showcase Saturday primetime college football game. Knowing he would choose play-by-play duties, the GameDay spot was then available to lure upcoming free agent Davis to stay at the network. Another theory? Management thought Fowler was too busy juggling both assignments in 2014 and moved him out of GameDay for Davis. Want one more? CBS or another broadcast entity was making such strong inroads with representatives for Davis that ESPN needed to act quickly on Davis to avoid losing him, and they did what needed to be done. 

All of these theories are plausible, but this much is clear: After interviews with multiple ESPN staffers last week, as well as interviews with Davis and Fowler over the past three years, I think ESPN management figured out a solution (it helps when cash is part of the solution) to keep two longtime staffers challenged and happy, and most of all, in-house. And that’s what matters in the end.

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“It doesn’t always work out this way in our business,” said Davis, in an interview last week. “A year and a half ago I thought maybe this would be a challenge but from the very beginning [ESPN president] John Skipper and [executive vice president] John Wildhack said they would find a way to make it all work out. I think when you are part of an organization like ours and you have as much invested in college football as we do, you want to have the best teammates you can possibly have. I am delighted that Chris and I are on the same team in some capacity because I have tremendous respect for his ability. We want the best people to work for us on our sport. I’m delighted he’s happy. I know I am happy. Hopefully everyone else is too.”

So why would ESPN change the staffing of its most successful studio show in the history of the network? First, Fowler giving up GameDay is not a shock. He told SI.com in 2013 that he wanted to focus on live events heading forward and when he signed a nine-year contract extension last March, he used the leverage he had with ESPN management to morph from the studio into the broadcast booth.

“I really have a passion to document live events as they happen,” Fowler told SI.com at the time. Hosting is wonderful and remains really satisfying but the joy for me is calling big matches and it was very hard for me to give up calling Thursday Night Football [he preceded Davis] on ESPN. It became too much to manage with GameDay's increased schedule and travel. But giving up calling football in the booth was the toughest decision I have had to make. That remains something I am drawn powerfully to.”

Lee Fitting, the longtime senior coordinating producer of GameDay and one of Fowler’s closest friends at ESPN, said that Fowler knew doing both jobs would be a lot of work but it was more of a preparation grind than even he expected. “

“Chris was like, “I tried it for a year and now I will focus on the game and Rece Davis is more than capable of coming in,” Fitting said. “The Saturday Night ABC game is our prime property as far as college football and for Chris to put all his focus into that game makes the most sense.

Fitting continued.

“I’ve been around Rece a long time,” Fitting said. “I used to produce the College GameDay basketball show and Rece has a lot of similar characteristics to Chris in terms of how they operate on air. Both are smooth, overly prepared, professional, and they want to serve the sports fan. It’s not to serve the company or our partners first, but to serve the college football fan first.  You know very quickly when you work with someone whether it will work or not and I am 110 percent convinced that this will work with Rece Davis.”

As part of a new multi-year deal with ESPN that runs through 2021, Davis will also host the college football playoff studio shows and give up his role as game-caller for ESPN’s Thursday primetime game. With his contract coming up for renewal, Davis and his CAA representatives were in a very strong negotiating positioning given the anchor’s reputation as a quality studio host and game-caller. There was also the potential for interest from other networks. CBS eventually must replace Verne Lundquist on its SEC Game of the Week package, and Davis, an Alabama native with a passion for the SEC and admirers at CBS, would have been an interesting candidate.

Asked how he would classify interest from other networks, Davis said, “That would probably be something that I’d rather keep private. I don’t know that it serves me what level of interest there was on the outside. I would hope that my work has been good enough that people would find me an attractive candidate. But my first choice from the beginning was to find a prominent role at ESPN and I’m glad it has worked out that way.

Davis had frequently stated that he wanted to stay with ESPN for the longterm. He said the talks he had with ESPN’s top management -- and talks management had with his agent -- made it clear to him that they wanted him to stay. (Worth noting: Davis has already hosted College GameDay. With Fowler on assignment at the Breeders Cup in 2006, Davis filled in when the show traveled to College Station for Oklahoma-Texas A&M.)

“It has been my professional home for 20 years and I’m delighted that we found as attractive an opportunity as there is in college football to continue,” Davis said. “It’s the definitive show in college football and I have clearly stated by desire to have as prominent a role as possible in college football because that’s we’re my passion lies. I think our chemistry will be exceptional because I feel I have really good relationships with all of the people both on camera and off that work on that show.”

Davis confirmed that he and Fowler spoke prior to the announcement last week and that Fowler had been “extraordinarily gracious” to him.

“I have the utmost respect for Chris Fowler,” Davis said. “He is a consummate professional and I consider him a friend. I have a great deal of respect and admiration not only for him as a person but him as a broadcaster. He has hosted that show as well as possible as it could be done. He has had a great run of success hosting GameDay and had a tremendous season in my judgment as the lead play by play announcer and I know he will continue to have success in that role and with tennis. “

Fitting said nothing will structurally change with GameDay, nor will there be any rehearsal shows prior to the first show Davis hosts next September. “I like things as spontaneous as they can be,” Fitting said. “It may take a couple of weeks, a season or two seasons for the chemistry truly to come out but we are not going to force anything.”

Fitting described the show as bigger than any one staffer and one of the reasons he thinks the transition will be seamless is because of Davis’s relationships with the show’s current staffers – he has worked at some point with all of them on assignment including at this year’s Rose Bowl. A big part of the GameDay chemistry, Fitting said, comes from the group going out to dinner together on Thursday and Friday before the show and traveling together on Saturday morning to the site. Still, after working with him for 15 years, Fitting won’t fully escape Fowler’s presence.

“I will be hearing Chris’s voice in the back of my head as long as I am doing the show,” Fitting said.

The Noise Report

1. Documentary filmmaker Jon Hock has become the MVP of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, and on Sunday he delivered another gem with “Of Miracles And Men,” which offered the Soviet perspective of losing in ice hockey to the Americans at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.  You can watch the film if you missed it the first time on Feb. 21 on ABC from 2-4:00 p.m. ET. The film will also air on ESPN on Feb. 22 -- the 35th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice game -- from 3-5:00 p.m. ET.

I was curious how Hock was able to get the Russian players to talk so I emailed him on Monday. “I conducted interviews in Moscow alongside our Russian co-producer, Kristina Piseeva,” he said. She had worked in the US Embassy in Moscow for 16 years, coordinating all sporting events, so she knew all the old Soviet players personally. I would ask the questions in English, Kristina would translate, and they'd look at me and deliver the answer in Russian and I'd listen, then wait for her to translate. After a couple like this (including Boris Mikhailov and Vladislav Myshkin, I realized they'd really just prefer to talk to Kristina, so starting with Vladislav Tretiak, she sat in the big chair and I'd feed her questions and interrupt as little as possible. That worked out much better.

Mikhailov really didn't want to do it, gave Kristina no end of grief right up until he sat in the chair, but did it as a favor to her. Myshkin was happy to be included (he is less of a national figure there than the other players we interviewed, who are all essentially Hall of Famers and heroes). His interview was amazing to me: "No one can undo our mistakes. Only the net can catch them." whoa. And his sigh, when talking about Mike Eruzione's goal, felt like it lasted about ten minutes in person, and carried 35 years of regret with it.”

Slava Fetisov, the soul of the film, and fellow Russian hockey icon Igor Larionov were at a screening of the film last week in New York. Hock said Larionov told him ESPN should release it in Russia and that it would be a big hit “because no one knows this story, they've never really talked about it there.”

1a. Highly recommend this SC Featured piece (produced by Danny Aruda) on Michigan basketball player Austin Hatch.

2. NBC announced Monday that Marv Albert, will serve as the blow-by-blow announcer for Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) on NBC. His debut card is March 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET and features Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero, and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina Jr. Albert previously called boxing on NBC from 1980 to 2003, including three Summer Olympics assignments. His analyst will be six-time world champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Al Michaels will be the host. The March 7 primetime show is the first major boxing match on NBC in primetime since May 20, 1985.

2b. Via New York Daily News hockey columnist Pat Leonard: Advanced analytics are coming to NHL.com.

3. I asked Davis if he felt any kind of pressure taking over the host role of arguably the best or second-best studio show ever behind Inside The NBA? “I’m going to say we are ahead of Inside the NBA with all respect to the great job that Ernie, Charles, Kenny and Shaq do,” he said. “But I don’t really feel any pressure. I love the sport, I am passionate about what I do, and I know I will be prepared and ready to go. I don’t mean that to sound cocky but I am confident in my abilities. At the end of the day, the way I want to live my life is this [work] can’t be first. It is something I do but not who I am. From that standpoint, I will pour every ounce of effort into it and make sure we have great chemistry on and off the air and we will have a lot of fun delivering insight and information in innovative ways.”

3a. Davis said he one of the few college football sites he has yet to see in person is Nebraska. He hopes GameDay will make its way to Lincoln in the near future. “Hopefully Mike Riley will have the Cornhuskers strong enough to have us host in the next few years.”

4. Here’s the Daily Tar Heel front page tribute to Dean Smith.

4a. This column on Dean Smith by Yahoo!’s Pat Forde is terrific.

4b. The line to get the Daily Tar Heel edition of Smith’s passing.

5. I asked Albert what he made of so many older broadcasters getting (or maintaining) prominent roles in sports. 

“Even though is more opportunity for sportscasters with the regional and cable channels and so many good young guys, if you look around the networks, I believe there is a trust factor because most of the big events are being done by guys who are older without naming names,” Albert said. “People are working longer, and as long as you are healthy and at the same level you always were, I think that will continue to happen. I think this will be the case for a long time and in Bill’s [Walton] case it is just wonderful. He has done such a great job with college basketball and has just a terrific sense of humor. I think it is a great team and will be terrific.”

5a. Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films, passed away on Monday at age of 98.

5b. I never met Dave Goldberg in person but he reached out to me via email and Twitter on many occasions over the past couple of years. I greatly admired his work; he was a 41-year veteran of the Associated Press who stood for clear and concise reporting and standards in sports journalism. He passed away Sunday at age 73 and will be missed. I’d encourage you to read the AP obituary on his life.

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