Breaking down the BCS national title game broadcast
This was a blowout, a beatdown, Tyson over Spinks, Reagan over Mondale. Prior to Alabama's 42-14 victory over Notre Dame on Monday night, Bill Bonnell, who produced the BCS championship game for ESPN, talked about the vagaries of broadcasting a title game. "You go through your plans over and over again and what you think is going to happen always ends up not happening," he said.
There's nothing sports television people hate more than a rout. And while Alabama entered Monday's BCS clash as nearly a double-digit favorite, no one expected that the Tide would lead the Irish by four touchdowns heading into halftime. Any hopes ESPN harbored of recording record viewership numbers were squashed before the clock struck 10 p.m. on the East Coast.
If you stayed with the broadcast for the duration -- excluding diehard Alabama fans -- you deserve a fruit basket from ESPN. You also ended up with an apology from the network but more on that later.
Game announcers Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit grinded out a solid performance in calling their fourth national championship game on television (and sixth overall, if you include radio). The broadcast was in sync early, particularly when Musburger informed viewers about an important piece of information following Alabama running back Eddie Lacy's 20-yard touchdown run that opened the scoring. "Folks, that's a story," Musburger said. "Notre Dame has not allowed a touchdown drive of 75 yards this season and the Tide rolls for 82."
ESPN added extra cameras for the game -- the network had 39 in total -- and it paid off for viewers. Before kickoff, the broadcast showed an interesting shot of Alabama's players coming out of the tunnel ahead of Notre Dame's. There was also an interesting tidbit in reporter Heather Cox's pregame interview with Irish coach Brian Kelly, as Kelly told Cox: "The first two minutes are going to be crucial. We've got to settle into the game."
The Irish didn't, though the announcers did. Musburger was forceful when discussing one of the key plays -- if you can call any play key in a blowout of this magnitude -- after a Notre Dame punt in the first quarter, when Alabama punt returner Christion Jones signaled for a fair catch. Notre Dame's Matthias Farley appeared to avoid contact with Jones while Alabama's Deion Belue hit Jones, causing him to fumble. Officials flagged Farley for kick-catch interference -- a 15-yard penalty -- and Alabama retained possession.
"Horrendous call," screamed Musburger. "It should be Fighting Irish football. What is going on here?"
ESPN quickly brought in NCAA national officiating coordinator Rogers Redding, who contradicted the broadcast team and said that it was the correct call. That was a good moment for viewers, and Alabama soon scored to make it 14-0. Also, give Herbstreit credit for picking up on Notre Dame's defensive tackling issues early. He repeatedly pointed out the Irish's missed tackles from the beginning.
Alas, late in the first quarter, things hit a rough patch -- and Notre Dame wasn't the only group that looked desperate to please. Musburger and Herbstreit gushed over Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the former Miss Alabama USA. Their conversation went as follows:
• Musburger: "Now when you are a quarterback at Alabama, you see that lovely lady there, she does go to Auburn, I want to admit that, but she's also Miss Alabama and that's AJ McCarron's girlfriend, okay. Wow, I'm telling you, quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women. What a beautiful woman."
• Herbstreit: "Wow. AJ is doing some things right in Tuscaloosa."
• Musburger: "So if you're a youngster in Alabama, start getting a football out and throwing around the backyard with pops!"
That exchange straddled the line between amusing and unsettling. Naturally, ESPN focused on Webb again after Alabama took a 28-0 lead, which prompted the social media crowd to explode. The most cutting of the lot might have been Yahoo! Sports MLB columnist Jeff Passan, who tweeted, "Sources: A.J. McCarron's girlfriend to seek restraining order from Brent Musburger at halftime."
Remarkably, and a bit of an overreaction to the steam Musburger's comments generated, ESPN issued an apology to viewers on Tuesday afternoon for the broadcaster's words about Webb. "We always try to capture interesting storylines and the relationship between an Auburn grad who is Miss Alabama and the current Alabama quarterback certainly met that test," ESPN PR said in a statement. "However, we apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that."
After the fourth Alabama touchdown, for those who had not moved on to CBS' Hawaii Five-O or ABC's Castle, Musburger concisely summed up the on-field action. "If this was a prizefight, they would call it," he said.
The second half was little more than extended garbage time, but Bonnell and director Derek Mobley provided the requisite pictures. Herbstreit questioned why Notre Dame inexplicably kept challenging Alabama All-America cornerback Dee Milliner ("There are a lot of defensive backs out there other than Dee Milliner") while laying out the harsh reality surrounding the Irish D. "[The Tide] continue to embarrass the Notre Dame defense," Herbstreit said after Amari Cooper's 35-yard touchdown reception made it 35-0.
As Alabama wrapped things up, viewers saw a nice double box of Alabama coach Nick Saban getting showered with Gatorade while play continued on the field. And after the game, ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi even got the usually stern Saban to laugh during a postgame interview. Rinaldi asked if Saban would allow himself more than 48 hours to celebrate a national championship. "Well, in two days I'm going to start on next year," Saban said. "We got a 24-hour rule around here."
Rinaldi also correctly asked Alabama center Barrett Jones to explain what happened between him and McCarron, as the two were seen jawing at each other late in the fourth quarter over a line call. The result was a great sound bite. "We are both perfectionists, he's an emotional guy and we had a snap count difference," Jones said. "I was right, but whatever. We love each other."
During the Jones interview, ESPN experienced serious mic issues and not all of his answers came through cleanly. That's one they probably want to have back.
Unable to resist, ESPN did get one last camera shot of Webb before it left the air, as cameras stayed with McCarron when he found his family and friends in the crowd. Said Musburger, with relish: "There is Miss Alabama, with the victory kiss."