Still Going Deep

Dec. 19, 2005
Dec. 19, 2005

Table of Contents
Dec. 19, 2005

Pro Football
College Basketball
Pro Basketball
Pro basketball
  • Alonzo Mourning isn't staging the Heat's only dramatic comeback: Two years after stepping down as coach, Pat Riley is back on the bench demanding more--a lot more--from his underachieving team

College Football
Life of Reilly

Still Going Deep

No football commentator--not even that guy with the video game--packs more wisdom into his words than hardworking CBS color man Phil Simms

Phil Simms is fired up. He has seen something he must point out, so he leaps off his chair and toward the flat-screen TV in his home office, in Franklin Lakes, N.J. It is a Tuesday, and Simms is studying up for Sunday's CBS broadcast of the Broncos-Chiefs game, for which he will provide color commentary. As part of his exceedingly thorough preparation, he is watching a coach's tape of the Broncos' previous game that shows all 22 players from above, allowing him to see how plays unfold. (He also watches broadcast tapes to avoid repeating other announcers' observations.)

This is an article from the Dec. 19, 2005 issue Original Layout

"See how the cornerback breaks here," he says, indicating Denver's Champ Bailey. "He reads [Dallas quarterback] Drew Bledsoe and comes up on it!" As Simms talks, ever more animatedly, his back is turned to the coffee table, where his uneaten breakfast--egg whites on wheat toast--sits within sniffing range of Stella, his small white terrier. "If Bailey doesn't break, it's not an interception," Simms continues. "And what a play, an unbelievable--Oh, you dirty dog! You little turkey!"

Stella makes for the corner with her prize, but Simms doesn't give chase. This theme will be repeated, with half a bagel, then with the tinfoil that housed it. After each heist, Simms utters a good-natured reprimand but never stops dissecting the tape. In the world of Simms, nothing is more important than talking about football. "Football is his job and his hobby," says Jim Nantz, his partner on CBS. "I can call him up in May or June, and chances are when I ask what he's doing, he'll say, 'Watching tape.'"

It is this passionate preparation, combined with a likable goofiness, that has made Simms the top color man in the business and earned favorable comparisons with John Madden. Though not especially colorful--there is no Simms Cruiser or Simms 2006 video game--he provides insight that is short on forced jocularity and long on enthusiasm and technical expertise (box, page 37). A straight talker from Kentucky, he won two Super Bowls with the Giants and raised an NFL quarterback (his son Chris, with Tampa Bay), yet he remains, in the words of CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein, "one of the most grounded ex-football players I've ever met." Jeff Behnke, a TNT producer, says Simms has the holy trinity of broadcaster traits: "He's prepared, detailed and able to laugh at himself." CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus believes Simms is not only the successor to John Madden as the voice of pro football but says, "I could argue that the mantle has already been passed."

The irony of Phil Simms, esteemed announcer, is that he wasn't especially quotable as a player. Not because he didn't want to talk, but because those were the orders from his coach (and mentor and friend and, one gets the impression, idol) Bill Parcells. Indeed he seemed rusty as a speaker in 1995 when, after being released, he joined ESPN's studio show. "The first Sunday, 15 seconds to air, my face started twitching," he says. "If I had a comment, I'd write it out, word for word, and memorize it."

The network sent him to Andrea Kirby, a media coach. She was ruthless. "He had this really bad haircut and was dressing pretty monochromatic," she says. "He did have a talent for communicating, though. He had all this information in his brain, he just needed to decide what was important." Simms was a quick study. The next year he was hired at NBC, and in 1998 McManus made Simms his lead analyst, offering him a contract the day CBS acquired its NFL rights. Along the way, Simms refined his style, fighting what is at times an inclination to overtalk. "I try to be silent after a play at least once a half," says Simms. "But it is hard, man. Really hard."

This is probably because he has so much in his head. From the Tuesday before a game, when he starts making calls to sources and watching film, through visits with the home team (Friday) and the visitors (Saturday), he jots down thoughts and diagrams on legal pads. Before Sunday's game he rewrites his notes, like a high schooler cramming for a test. He brings a poster board with pertinent info into the booth with him. (His board at a Patriots game last year had BILL BELICHICK written above a list of talking points that included, "So unhip he's cool.")

Simms is often compared to Madden, and he does share a down-home style with the ABC announcer, but he can display a fiery side. When ESPN's Steve Young questioned the "mental toughness" of Chris Simms, saying that Chris grew up in a "laissez-faire kind of atmosphere," the elder Simms shot back, "There's one thing I know my son doesn't lack, and it's toughness." Then he went on: "You know, Steve, follow football more than one day a week and you might know some of those answers."

Still, everyone agrees that Simms calling Simms is not an ideal situation. (It has not happened yet). In a few years, he may have another potential conflict; Simms's youngest son, Matthew, is a highly touted junior at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J.

Meanwhile, Simms has video to watch and people to talk to. As a reporter left his house on a recent afternoon, Simms apologized that he couldn't talk longer (he had a doctor's appointment), even though he'd held forth on football for almost six hours, at least two of which were off the record because he became so worked up analyzing players. "Give a call if you want," he said, waving goodbye. Then he added, quite unnecessarily, "I just love talking about this stuff."

The Simms Style

ON THE AIR, Simms sticks to a few basic tenets:

Focus on quarterback play. Partner Jim Nantz calls him the "Butch Harmon of throwing mechanics." Simms is so passionate about the position that once he took a CBS researcher into the Giants Stadium parking lot to demonstrate the proper grip.

Go easy on the football vernacular. While other announcers try to dazzle viewers with coach-speak, Simms keeps it simple. "How many people actually know what 'Cover 2' means?" he says.

But be thorough and don't mislead viewers. "Every week I hear that someone throws into 'double coverage,'" Simms says, "but it's usually just the safety helping."

Don't rely on statistics. "It's not like baseball. Not everyone faces the same scenario," he says. Earlier this year, Nantz noted that Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer had completed 10 passes in a row in the red zone, six of them for touchdowns. Simms debunked the notion that Plummer was doing anything too special: "I would bet at least four or five of those TD throws are those little rollouts, and he's throwing to somebody who's open. In fact, I know a couple of them were, because I saw [them]." On the next play Plummer completed pass number 11 to tight end Jeb Putzier. It was on a little rollout.

The Brow Beat

HBO'S REAL SPORTS WITH BRYANT GUMBEL has been on the air for 10 years, but its team of correspondents--especially Mary Carillo (below), who's shown her expertise extends well beyond tennis--still consistently presents stories (such as Carillo's recent look at Mallory Code, a former NCAA golfer battling cystic fibrosis) that are fresh and riveting.

Different country, different set of housewives, same trashy-yet-addictive stuff. FOOTBALLERS WIVE$, the English import about a soccer team's players and their (sometimes) better halves, which BBC America brought to the States in July, actually predates Desperate Housewives--it began airing in the U.K. in 2002. If the culture of soccer is as steamy and sensational as it's portrayed here, the sport might catch on in the U.S. after all.

By The Numbers

That's the percentage bump in NASCAR's rights fee under an eight-year, five network deal signed last week. The $4.48 billion package takes effect in 2007. Smartest player of all, though, may have been Fox, which gave up concessions to NASCAR that allowed the organization to make the deal--and in exchange negotiated a mere 4% increase and exclusive rights to the Daytona 500.

Ice Maidens
After a slippery start, OLN is finding its footing with the NHL

If OLN's NHL broadcasts occasionally felt hastily assembled, that's because they were. The 10-year-old network agreed in August to be the league's cable partner, paying $135 million for two years' rights. That gave it six weeks to build a hockey department from the ice up. Hence, the graphics are primitive, and the studio set looks borrowed from a high school AV club. Ratings, while double what OLN used to pull on Monday and Tuesday nights, are still minuscule (a nightly average of 0.2, or 265,000 viewers). But the production kinks are becoming rarer, and studio host Bill Clement and lead play-by-play man Mike Emrick are first-rate. OLN anticipates a ratings spike when NBC begins its weekly NHL coverage in January. "The initial rush of just being on the air is over," says Marc Fein, OLN's VP of programming. "Now we're taking a step back and seeing what we can do to improve."

Show Busy
ESPN's program czar exits, but movies and reality stay in the mix

UNDER MARK SHAPIRO, who became the network's head of programming in 2001 at age 31, ESPN became more than the home of live games and witty talking heads. In 2001 Shapiro launched ESPN Original Entertainment, which in 2005 produced Tilt and two theater-worthy films: Four Minutes (right), the story of Roger Bannister, written by SI's Frank Deford; and Codebreakers, based on a 1951 West Point cheating scandal.

Shapiro abruptly left ESPN in early October to work for Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who is trying to acquire the Six Flags amusement park chain. It was a major loss to the network, which won't compound the problem by veering from the course Shapiro put it on. "We want to continue to differentiate between what we do and what other sports networks do," says ESPN vice president of content John Skipper, who took over EOE. Soon to come: Knight School (Feb. 19), a reality show in which Texas Tech coach Bob Knight (left) selects a walk-on; a second season of the Fox boxing transplant The Contender (Feb. 12); and Through the Fire (March 12), a two-hour documentary on Trail Blazers rookie Sebastian Telfair.

The Most...

Admirable Trend
What is it about a broadcast booth that lends itself to PERSONALITY MAKEOVERS? ABC's Nick Faldo went from dour, humorless golfer to quick-witted, insightful golf analyst, and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella (right) shed his crotchety demeanor to become an engaging, informative addition to Fox's postseason coverage.

Annoying Trend
The line between entertainment and news continues to be blurred. ESPN staged FAKE PRESS CONFERENCES, in which Baseball Tonight analyst (and former Mets G.M.) Steve Phillips played the role of a major league G.M. and fielded prearranged questions--from actual ESPN reporters. The journalists appeared to be uncomfortable doing it, and viewers shared their pain.

Undeservedly Anonymous Announcer
DAN SHULMAN doesn't grab your attention on ESPN's college hoops broadcasts. (The guy sitting next to him, Dick Vitale, tends to do that.) But the silky and informative Shulman, who also does baseball games on ESPN radio, has quietly become one of the top play-by-play men in any sport.

Overblown Story
The excessive face time that petulant Eagles wideout Terrell Owens (left) received was bad enough. But excessive ab time?

Welcome Return
NBC Sports president DICK EBERSOL survived a plane crash in November 2004 that killed three people--including his 14-year-old son, Teddy. Ebersol began working last spring, and in April the negotiator nonpareil showed he still has his touch. He brought the NFL back to NBC (in prime time, no less) for the first time since 1998--then he went out and lured John Madden into the booth to call the games.

Compelling Argument for Shelling Out 169 Bucks for MLB's Extra Innings Package
Besides Vin Scully? The Giants' MIKE KRUKOW AND DUANE KUIPER--two ex-ballplayers who have shown you don't need a traditional TV man in the booth to have the best broadcasting team in baseball.

Enjoyable Studio Gang
They don't barrage you with X's and O's, but TNT'S INSIDE THE NBA CREW of Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley (right), along with Ernie Johnson proffers opinions that run the gamut from solid to weirdly wise. Consider Barkley on the Lakers' reliance on point guard Smush Parker: "I subscribe to the theory that if your second best player's name is Smush, you're not going to win."