The Big Ten Network will begin its first Maryland football broadcast at 3:30 Saturday afternoon with a voice instantly recognizable to Terrapin fans. Maryland Athletics Hall of Famer Johnny Holliday — who has done the school’s radio play-by-play for more than 35 years — will be shown inside Byrd Stadium, talking about his connection with the school, about the team’s history, its past stars and great moments.
“But today we make some new memories right here in College Park, that live on forever at our new conference, the Big Ten,” Holliday says in the 60-second piece. “You better fear the turtle.”
Then Holliday removes his headphones, the intro ends, and the network’s Maryland-James Madison game coverage will begin.
But the faces and voices who follow the Terps icon will remain familiar to local viewers. Washington Capitals play-by-play man Joe Beninati will call Saturday’s game. Former Maryland quarterback and radio sideline reporter Scott McBrien will join Beninati in the booth. And local sports-radio staple Frank Hanrahan will handle sideline duties.
Starting Maryland’s first Big Ten season with an all-local crew was a conscious decision by the network, which made a similar move when Nebraska joined the conference and is doing the same for new member Rutgers. If the past few years have been disorienting for local fans used to the ACC, the TV broadcast should at least sound like home.
“To us it just adds credibility to have those local names and faces. It localizes our coverage, and I think fans just get a comfort level when they see and hear people that they know,” said Mark Hulsey, the network’s senior vice president of production. “Being in the Big Ten is certainly a change for Maryland, and having people on the air that are familiar names and faces we think will make the transition easier for fans that are watching BTN this year.”
Beninati, McBrien and Hanrahan will also work Maryland’s second home game, Sept. 13 against West Virginia; analyst Chuck Long will join Beninati and McBrien in the booth for that game. Once conference play begins, the network attempts to assign “neutral” crews to games, featuring broadcasters “that don’t have a direct correlation to a particular university,” Hulsey said.
But for nonconference play, a focus on the Big Ten school is expected. And so Beninati has been to Terps practice at least once or twice a week all summer. He and McBrien have held private sessions calling games together to learn each other’s habits, their cadences and pauses; “turning the sound down and making believe,” as Beninati put it.
Beninati has called plenty of college football games across the country, doing Mountain West and Pac-10 games for Versus and CAA games for Comcast SportsNet. He hopes to work his way into the BTN’s regular rotation, calling games throughout the conference. But he understands why the network decided to feature local voices for Maryland’s debut.
“I want the network to feel comfortable that they can send us anywhere in the conference, that we’ll make a very good impression both on the fans here and anywhere we go,” he said this week. “But to have that instant recognition — the name, the voice, the style of broadcast — that’s a good thing.”
(The network also prepared a “BTN 101″ sheet for Maryland fans unfamiliar with the network. The document encourages fans to go to the online GameFinder to locate your channels by zip and provider, and for information about overflow stations and the BTN2Go feature. In addition to JMU and West Virginia, the Maryland-Michigan State game on Nov. 15 will be on the network; other games will be selected either six or 12 days before the scheduled dates.)
The local voices won’t just apply to football coverage, either. Washington staple Dave Johnson will call soccer games for the network. Gary Williams (who previously worked for the Big Ten Network in his first post-retirement gig in 2011-12), Drew Nicholas and Christy Winters-Scott will contribute to the network’s basketball coverage. Beninati has covered hockey for the network in the past, and hopes to move into other sports as well.
And in news that should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him, Beninati has put in the time to make sure that his football broadcasts will shine. He traveled to Big Ten media days on his own, went on the road to check out a James Madison practice and organized the dress rehearsals with McBrien.
“I have to credit this to Joe,” said Hulsey, who was familiar with Beninati from his own time working in the NHL. “He’s been in that market a long time, he understands college football, and he’s really done a terrific job preparing for the season.”
Beninati’s schedule, of course, gets considerably trickier as the fall goes on and Caps season begins. But he said he’s missed doing big-time college football, and Maryland’s new conference affiliation offered a perfect in. And just as it will for the Big Ten Network itself, Saturday’s broadcast will give Beninati a chance to earn himself some new fans.
“You want to make the best impression possible,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been working in the market for a long time will hopefully ease the transition, and then we need to do good TV. We need to do strong television work, and that’s going to happen starting on Saturday.”