March 14, 1981: When the NCAA tournament became Madness (cont.)
In his 2009 book, When March Went Mad, SI writer, CBS analyst and respected college basketball pundit Seth Davis posits that the 1979 Bird-Magic showdown in Salt Lake City marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the NCAA basketball tournament as a cultural and sports phenomenon. It's a powerful argument: The game is still the highest-rated college game ever. However, in James Patrick Miller's and Tom Shales's oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun, ESPN's longtime anchor/reporter Bob Ley counters with, "Yes, you had Magic and Bird [in 1979], but you can argue that was more an NBA-maker than a college-maker.'' It was certainly a giant building block for the latter.
Wherever it was that the NCAA tournament lived in the sports pantheon before March 14, 1981, it lived somewhere bigger and better afterward, someplace more significant, and certainly more profitable. Broadcast professionals took chances that day that helped make their careers. Basketball players succeeded and failed in such outsized ways that it defined their legacies. Because of what transpired that day, and where it fell on the continuum of the game, there has never been another day quite like it.
On the morning of March 14, NBC production staff reported for duty at 30 Rock. A cast of industry titans and future titans was on duty. Don Ohlmeyer, then 36, was the executive producer of NBC Sports. He had already come up through the ranks in the golden age of ABC Sports under Roone Arledge and produced Monday Night Football. He would later run NBC's entertainment division (and earn a place in pop culture history in 1998 by firing Norm MacDonald from Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update anchor spot).
Also in the room was associate producer Sean McManus, then 26, the son of broadcasting legend Jim McKay. McManus would rise to become president of CBS Sports at age 41 and is currently the chairman of CBS Sports. With them was Ken Aagaard, then 35, a broadcast operations manager in the engineering division of NBC television and a relative nobody.
Ohlmeyer was already a roaring success in the business and McManus was on his way. Aagaard's future was far less certain. The studio host, on a soundstage in a separate part of the building was Bryant Gumbel, then 32, who had already become the network's go-to anchor chair in the pre-Costas era. (Michael Weisman, who was a coordinating producer at NBC in '81 and would later head the sports division after Ohlmeyer and before Dick Ebersol, said, "At one point, we were putting Bryant courtside at games, but he had a habit of talking louder as the crowd got loud, which didn't work. But he was brilliant in the studio.'')
NBC had the customary eight regional games planned for the day. Ohlmeyer also had a brainstorm. "We decided to whip around,'' he says. "We wanted to put on as many close games as we could.'' It was no small decision. Thirteen years had passed since the Heidi game (in which NBC cut away from a seemingly decided AFL game between the Jets and Raiders to show a TV movie, only to have the Raiders improbably rally and win, off air), but few at 30 Rick had forgotten.
"The experience of the Heidi game was still part of the culture at NBC,'' says McManus. "There was no science to switching, and the media that covered our business back then pretty much only covered mistakes. One small glitch anywhere down the line and the memory of March 14 would be very different than it was.''
It's important to invoke ESPN's role in the history of switching games. When informed that I was working on a story that would credit NBC with a significant role in this vital -- and now common -- sports television practice -- one ESPN veteran said, "You're joking, right? They stole it from us.'' ESPN carried the early, weekday rounds of the NCAA tournament from 1980 to '90, before CBS took over the entire operation. In the Miller-Shales book, former ESPN executive producer Bill Fitts is quoted as saying that in 1980, "Chet [Simmons, former ESPN president] came over to me and said, 'I want you to cut in with reports on the other games.' "
Likewise, executive vice president Steve Anderson is quoted as saying, "If we were doing a game and it was in the second quarter, but another game was near the end and it was close, it seemed obvious to us to go to that other game.''
Presented with this, McManus said, "Maybe ESPN did some of that. We weren't paying a lot of attention.'' This response is typical of the three-letter networks' dismissive attitude toward a young ESPN at the time. Whether NBC "stole'' its switching strategy from ESPN is unclear. What's clear is that ESPN had done some switching -- possibly a lot of switching -- prior to March 14, 1981. It is fair to say that NBC's work on that day would represent the first time that daring switches would be attempted for a large, network audience on a major sporting event and was a springboard for the lucrative future of college basketball (as was ESPN's wall-to-wall in-season coverage).
If Ohlmeyer was the Wizard of Oz on March 14, Aagaard was behind the curtain. He had worked with NBC for eight years in Chicago, before getting a job with the engineering department in New York in 1978, at the age of 32. In the year leading to the '81 NCAA tournament, Ohlmeyer pushed Aagaard to master the art of switching games on the fly. And if Ohlmeyer pushed, you did not push back.
"Ohlmeyer was the key in all of this,'' says Aagaard, who is now an executive vice president with CBS Sports. "Don was a difficult guy to work for, putting it mildly. Very demanding. He was the guy who decided we should make the switches, but I was the guy who had to make the switches happen. And I was so fearful of making a mistake, because Don would crush me. If Don made a mistake, it was my mistake. But he made me feel like I could do anything in television.''
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