A Weekend Well Spent Surfing

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 2:15 PM

With 22 college football games available in the Washington television market on Saturday, with the World Series, the Breeders' Cup and a full slate of NFL games also broadcast over the weekend, the three hours I spent in the gym over those two days were totally nullified by at least a dozen hours on the couch, mostly in the prone position. Still, I took lots of notes.

Wisconsin vs. Illinois: My Badgers ended a four-game losing streak, but the only reason for a non-alum of either school to pay attention was the presence of Pam Ward handling the play-by-play on ESPN's Big Ten game of the week.

Ward is a Maryland graduate who cut her sports teeth doing updates for the original WTEM sports talk radio station in Washington long before Daniel Snyder bought out the previous ownership last year.

These days, she's also the only woman broadcaster doing big-time college football play-by-play on a regular basis. Based on her performance last week and any week I ever catch her act, at some point she's going to get a meaningful gig, maybe even a chance to become the first woman to do weekly NFL games for a network. She's always prepared to the max, knows her Xs and Os inside and out and sets up her analyst partners beautifully. She's a pro's pro and deserves better assignments, the sooner the better.

By the way, loved the little in-game feature on the ice-cream making operation run out of Babcock Hall on the UW campus, a Madison institution for decades. Nice touch to a fine broadcast, sort of a cherry on top of the "Berry Alvarez" flavor of the month, named for former Wisconsin head coach and current AD Barry Alvarez, of course.

Virginia Tech vs. Florida State: When your son goes to Tech, you have to pay attention to all things Hokie, though ABC/ESPN play-by-play man Ron Franklin kept calling Frank Beamer's team "Texas Tech" during the broadcast.

Franklin and analyst Ed Cunningham also pulled their punches when talking about Tech's lack of depth at running back and wide receiver. Both ranks have been thinned not only by graduation, but also serious off-the-field problems that included several top players essentially being kicked off the team for various transgressions over the last two seasons.

That was never really talked about by the broadcasters, and Franklin also used some questionable judgment in his choice of words when he said of Frank Beamer, "if anyone has some excuses for not having all the bullets in the pistol" it was the Hokies head coach. Considering the tragic campus massacre in Blacksburg two years ago, he should have known better.

Breeders' Cup: I channel surfed all over the dial Saturday, and caught most of the races on the card from Santa Anita.

I also caught a dreadful feature from ESPN's Kenny Mayne, who was trying to get some cheap laughs by importing three USC cheerleaders -- no, make that "song girls" -- to the race track for a totally ridiculous feature that made absolutely no sense.

That piece was offset later in the show with a moving story reported by Tom Rinaldi on Travers champion Colonel John, one of the entries in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The horse was named for an Army officer friend of the horse's owners, Bill and Susan Casner, under tragic circumstances. Their daughter, Karri Casner, then only 23, had been killed in a terrorist bombing in Bali in 2002, and Lt. Col. John Geider, a long-time family friend, had accompanied them when they went to Indonesia to try to identify her remains. Colonel John finished well back in the pack, but Rinaldi's compelling story was a big-time winner.

As for the races, Jerry Bailey, the now retired Hall of Fame jockey, has become a truly gifted analyst since he traded in his silks for far more natty suits and gaudy ties. And with author and long-time sportswriter Bill Nack providing equine essays throughout the telecast, ABC/ESPN generally provided outstanding marathon coverage of racing's greatest two-day show.

LSU vs. Georgia: Didn't see much of this game, but when Georgia scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter for a 21-point lead, CBS analyst Gary Danielson actually called the successful quarterback draw play ahead of time just before the snap. "I just knew it was coming," Danielson, a former journeyman NFL quarterback told viewers. Good for him. Better for anyone watching the game.

The Jim Zorn Show: Zorn may be a rookie head coach, but he spews clich├ęs with the very best of his veteran colleagues every week on Channel 4. Then again, when he said of the upcoming game against the winless Lions on Sunday, "it's going to be a real battle," who knew he'd be exactly right.

The good news here is that semi-retired George Michael gets a lot of camera time hosting the show along with long-time sidekick Sonny Jurgensen. Neither man is shy about asking the occasional tough question, and needling an extremely affable head coach who often gives it right back to his two inquisitors, usually with a twinkle in his eye. When you're 6-2, why not?

The World Series: First a flashback to Fox's opening montage before Game 1 last Wednesday night. The network showed footage of the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the aftermath of 9/11 to illustrate a theme that baseball historically has helped make the American public forget the real world for a few hours.

Maybe so, but if anyone thinks a World Series between the Phillies and Rays is going to make anyone forget about the current economic meltdown, not to mention our shrinking 401ks and retirement accounts, they're totally delusional. For one, hardly anyone is watching, save for the fans of the two teams. And after a 90-minute rain delay Saturday night, how many eyeballs made it to the ninth inning that ended shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday.

The games start too late, they take too long, and they finish far past any reasonable hour for anyone having to get up and go to work or school the next day. Until baseball and their network partners do something about it, dismal ratings and second billing to King Pro Football will continue in perpetuity.

Ohio State vs. Penn State: ABC had "elevator-cam" in action to air gripping pictures of Penn State coach Joe Paterno riding a golf cart and then limping into a stadium elevator to watch the game from the press box. The network also kept pointing another camera at Paterno sitting up there with a headset on, doing absolutely nothing. For all we know, he might have been listening to his IPod play list. He certainly didn't look to be doing any coaching.

Still, it's hard to be critical of any big-game broadcast that includes Brent Musburger calling the action. I know he has plenty of detractors out there, but I'm not one of them. I love his infectious enthusiasm and an energy level that never wanes from opening kickoff to final gun, even in a deadly dull, defensive snore of a game for viewers hoping to see more points on the board.

Kirk Hirbstreet, his analyst partner, went to Ohio State, one reason he's probably never bothered to go to the dictionary to look up synonyms for the word great. Expand your vocabulary Herbie (as Musburger keeps calling him), assuming you're one of the few Buckeye graduates who can read anything beyond a football scoreboard.

Notre Dame vs. Washington: When I surfed over to ESPN2 on Saturday night, the first picture I saw was Irish Coach Charlie Weis on the Irish sideline wearing a grey hoodie sweatshirt, size XXXXL. Weis is a former Bill Belichick assistant, but until he wins three Super Bowls, or even a national college title, he ought to try to show a tad more class, maybe a coat and tie on the sidelines, or a nice sweater. Surfed in, and immediately surfed out with the Irish up 17-0 over a winless patsy.

NFL pregame show on CBS: Don't expect former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher to get an interview when Jerry Jones fires head coach Wade Phillips at the end of the year, if not sooner. Now a somewhat outspoken analyst, Cowher is not at all shy about expressing the sort of strong opinion he offered on the inconsistent Pokes on Sunday.

"First it's the distractions," he said. "They have the situation with Pacman Jones with all his issues off the field and then you have to deal with (Terrell Owens) on the field. But I will say this, Dallas has always had a little bit of the circus atmosphere to it. So, I don't think this is a big issue because I think you understand that when you play down there. Another is team dynamics. You've got to have one voice. In this situation you have Jerry Jones, who is on the sideline when they're winning. When they're losing he is talking to the team. Talking about the status of the quarterback and Wade Phillips has to listen to Jerry, because right now he has to know what he's saying as well. But even Wade has his own issues."

Redskins vs. Lions: Play-by-play man Tom Brennaman offered a lame opening based on the old Motor City theme, as in "the Redskins come to Detroit clicking on all cylinders, meanwhile the Lions are stuck in neutral." Actually, at 0-6, the Lions were probably stuck in reverse, but enough with that drivel. Let's shift gears and talk about analyst Brian Billick.

This rookie broadcaster has a future in television if he decides not to go back to coaching. This is the first full game I've listened to with Billick in the booth, and I surely hope it's not the last. Unlike many of his old coaching colleagues, Billick really does offer illuminating insights to the game, both on and off the field.

Commenting on all the fuss over Brett Favre talking to former Lions team president Matt Millen before Detroit was going to play Green Bay earlier this year, Billick said simply, "these kinds of conversations go on all over the league. I promise you." End of story.

In the fourth quarter, with the Redskins nursing a slim lead, he said "this is the part of the game where you test the will of your opponent by pounding away." Sure enough, the Redskins kept pounding away with Clinton Portis and you could see the Lions' will dissipate with each grinding yard.

One other positive. The announcing crew, particularly sideline reporter Charissa Thompson, was all over the Zorn-Portis dust-up on the Redskins bench, a very big story that easily could have gone unreported. Thompson did a fine job letting viewers know what had happened, exactly what a sideline reporter ought to be doing.

Giants vs. Steelers: Speaking of sideline reporters, the most entertaining moment of a weekend in the suppine position came at the start of the second half. Fox's Pam Oliver, a veteran of the genre, was summarizing the three things New York Coach Tom Coughlin had told her needed to be improved as he left the field before intermission. But Oliver could only remember two of them when she had a brain-freeze moment on national television.

She got the first two right, then went totally blank.

"I forgot!!!" she said.

Back up in the booth, Troy Aikman and Dick Stockton laughed a bit, and then, after a few seconds, went back down to Oliver, who had obviously checked her notes and dutifully reported the inanity that had slipped her mind.

Oliver is usually first-rate on the sidelines, and after years of mostly quality good work, she'll get a free pass on this one.

Still, the worst moments in sports television occur when a sideline reporter stops a head coach at the end of the half and asks a puffball question or two of a coach who wants no part of it, but knows it's in the TV contract so he better cooperate. Can anyone ever remember the last time a coach ever offered an honest answer in that situation?

But really, it's time to eliminate the practice and use sideline reporters strictly to provide relevant in-game information on injuries, position changes or any other nuggets they can mine, like Portis-Zorn. Sadly, it rarely happens that way these days, and several networks no longer even bother.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.

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