Brad Nessler on replacing Verne Lundquist: "I think I’m probably more like Verne than people realize."
Verne Lundquist is a genial man, son of a Lutheran minister, a man who collects people. Having spent time with him over the past few years I was privy to seeing how much his CBS colleagues loved him. Not liked him. Loved him. The CBS SEC production crew is a traveling family— a group of 70 or so men and women of different ages and job responsibilities who live across America and come together for 15 weekends each fall across the South—and the collective love they had for Lundquist you could see in the small details: a stage manager brushing off crumbs from his jacket in the Tiger Stadium booth, an operations manager alerting him to a curb so he doesn’t slip, analyst Gary Danielson hugging him after the broadcast.
This is the environment that Brad Nessler walked into this season as Lundquist’s replacement as CBS’s lead voice for SEC Football. The issue for Nessler was never going to be the game calling—he’s a college football pro with a tremendous three-decade resume between CBS and ESPN. What Nessler had to figure out was how to get the CBS crew to accept him as one of their own.
“I could only go and be myself,” Nessler said this week by phone, prior to calling his first primetime game this season, Alabama at LSU on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET on CBS. “I think I’m probably more like Verne than people realize. Yes, we are a different age but we have been friends for a long time and I know his personality and how he treats people. There are a lot of broadcasters in the business who just hang around with the analyst or producers but they don’t get into the crew. I get into the crew and have always been that way. And this is an unbelievably, tight knit crew that has been unbelievable in accepting me. I think they know the affection I have for Verne is true, so it has been an easy transition for me.”
Nessler said he wanted Lundquist to spend his final year however he wished. He recalled sitting with his family last December 10 at a local Outback steakhouse watching Lundquist’s final broadcast—the Army-Navy game. With the sound down on the television, Nessler’s daughter, Reis, started reading the close-captioning of Lundquist praising the choice of Nessler to replace him in his send off. “She started crying and as she was reading it and I am crying too,” Nessler said. “I thought, how cool can someone be to hand the baton to me like that.”
“I have been proud of the fact that Brad has embraced the whole transition with Verne,” said Danielson. “We have continued to try to keep Verne in our thoughts. We text him all the time and Brad has done a great job showing genuine respect for Verne and the fabulous job he did for the SEC. We all have egos but I have so much respect for Brad here. It says a lot about Brad, our crew and CBS. These things don’t always end up great but this was a two-year process that CBS and our crew worked really hard on. This crew adored Verne and Brad had to walk into that. He worked hard at the relationships. He has handled this transition so magnificently.”
Danielson said that people in the crew noticed early that Nessler was going out of is way to interact with everyone—not just the core group of on-air people and director and producer.
“The whole Uncle Verne thing was truly a love affair with Verne and our crew, especially the sound and tape guys who had been with Verne for golf during the years,” Danielson said. “These were people that protected him and made him look good. So that is a tough situation for Brad to walk into. But Brad is really good at giving out nicknames and embracing people. People notice when you embrace the lowest echelon of the crew and you remember their names. It was like he was saying, ‘I know I am not Verne but I want to respect all of you.’ That’s not an easy trick to do. I was traded in the NFL and I know what it’s like to walk into a locker room where you are taking the spot of the friend. These people on the crew are also pros and as much as they appreciated Brad embracing the crew with respect, they know talent and they immediately recognized how good he was and how much he brings to the broadcast.”
Stylistically, there is a difference between Lundquist and Nessler. Lundquist is much more of a minimalist broadcaster. Nessler, if you listen close, will call more tackles and blocks for the audience than Lundquist did. Even though he worked with him two decades ago, Danielson said there has been adjustment because Nessler will speak more than Lundquist. There is another difference that the audience will not realize while watching. Nessler has his long-time spotter (Clint Deans, who was Nessler’s college roommate at Minnesota State) sit between he and Danielson, whereas Lundquist’s spotter worked to the left of Lundquist. Danielson would often give Lundquist a touch on the arm to indicate something.
“It is different, but right from the beginning [producer] Craig Silver and I made sure that we were going to follow Brad’s lead,” Danielson said. “He could not be changing for us. Brad will call more names during a broadcast and is more aggressive on calling tackles or secondary blocks. Verne was much more of a minimalist with his pacing. Sometimes with Verne I might feel I was talking too much.”
“I might have one more half sentence when the play is over than Verne,” Nessler said. “So we are still getting used to where I may give him a look that says, ‘Sorry, for getting in your way,’ or he will do the same with me.”
Then Nessler laughed.
“But the lucky thing is our spotter Clint [who has been Nessler’s spotter for 26 years; their wives are also best friends] is relatively short,” Nessler said. “So I can look over his head and see Gary.”
SEC Football fans might be the toughest critics of sports broadcasters outside of world soccer fans. Nessler lives in Georgia so he is deeply immersed in SEC country. He said he welcomes the passion, even when people kill his on-air work.
“My SEC friends will criticize me in person so I can only imagine what is happening on social media with people who don’t like me or who still want to hear Verne,” Nessler said. “If I wasn’t doing this game, I’d still want to hear Verne. But I think the passion is cool and there is not anything else like it. Last week in Jacksonville people were yelling my name either asking for a picture or yelling my name in ways I can’t say. I am passionate about what I do and they should be passionate about how I do it.”
On the issue of why he took the CBS job, Nessler said he has always loved the 3:30 p.m. ET SEC game. He also liked the idea of returning to CBS, where he worked from 1990 to 1995. Clearly, he also liked the idea of leading a college football television package.
“First of all it is a lot of easier to change jobs when you are 35 than 60,” Nessler said. “But this time slot and game, even when I was at CBS years ago, I always loved it. If I did a noon game at ESPN, I would turn on Verne and Gary. If I was doing a night game, Todd [Blackledge] and I had the CBS game on. It was just an iconic time slot. When I got an opportunity to do it at my age, I thought, ‘That is a pretty good offer.’ It was a no brainer.”
Nessler said he texts and emails Lundquist often, more often this year than last. (Lundquist is going in for surgery this week so everyone on the crew is sending him well wishes.) One of the upcoming games for Nessler that he is most looking forward to is Army-Navy on Dec. 9 at 3:00 p.m. ET. It is one of the few major college football rivalry games that Nessler has yet to call. After the SEC season, Nessler will call a college basketball doubleheader in New Orleans on Dec. 23 (Ohio State vs. North Carolina and UCLA vs. Kentucky) for CBS and will have a regular role during the NCAA tournament.
“This group has made me so comfortable,” Nessler said. “It was one of the things that worried me when I made the move from ESPN/ABC, probably the single biggest thing. But it has not been as hard as I thought it might be. Honestly, I am having a better time in broadcasting than when I was 25 or 40.”