Longhorn Network in focus
Nov. 4, 2011
Natalie England, TexasSports.com
Put your eyes upon Texas -- that's what Longhorn Network allows fans to do. It's a three-dimensional eyepiece that promises to magnify the pride and spirit of Texas, the Forty Acres and the people who make it whole.
To accomplish that, ESPN and The University came together in an unprecedented partnership, and the network officially launched this past August with a live-televised College GameDay special from the campus' South Mall. In addition to all-access shows and the nightly Longhorn Extra, a UT-centric SportCenter production, LHN also produces more than 200 live events, including Football's season opener against Rice and last Saturday's conference victory against Kansas.
That fact makes it unique and also comfortable. It's a thorough, experienced production of ESPN quality, but just the second football game ever produced by LHN. The only hint of Texas is in the slight burnt orange hue -- producer Ken Menard and director Ken Dennis will make sure to show the singing of "The Eyes of Texas" in its entirety, as well as the lighting of the Tower upon a Longhorns victory.
"We want to capture the atmosphere of being here, and really show the traditions that are Texas," says Pat Lowry, LHN coordinating producer. "We're respecting our audience and bringing them all the things they would expect to see on a Texas game day."
Here's a look at how LHN, with the help of 10 cameras and three production trucks, worked to get the 43-0 Longhorns victory onto the air. The crew of 60 began assembling on Thursday and worked through the night on Saturday.
Friday, Oct. 28
The set-up crew has already been at the stadium for more than two hours, running cable and setting up the broadcast booth and GameDay sets for production.
But how viewers see and feel the action is largely determined by the on-air call team of play-by-play voice Dave Lamont and color analyst Tim Brown, the Dallas native who won a Heisman Trophy as a wide receiver at Notre Dame.
They arrive at football headquarters Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center for an afternoon of meetings with players, coordinators and head coach Mack Brown.
Tim Brown and Lamont ask about everything from trick plays to off-week conditioning drills. Lamont types notes into his computer, Brown writes on a legal pad. They'll both digest the notes into morsels that will enlighten their broadcast.
"I like to know what the players are thinking," Brown says.
After piling a heaping plate of pizza and then disappearing to devour it, a full and nourished Manny Diaz enters the conference room and soon explains his blitzing theories.
"You mostly go by feel," he says. "Pass rush is the best coverage help you have, because you must make the quarterback uncomfortable. As a defensive coordinator, you really want to just make offenses do what they don't want to do."
Brown, Lamont and Menard, the game producer, review select film from UT's previous games. Brown is particularly interested to see Diaz's blitz patterns, which Brown says can have the opposition "chasing ghosts."
The next day, UT's defense would force a shutout, while holding the Jayhawks' offense to just three first downs and 46 total yards.
Saturday, Oct. 29
Producer Ken Menard's dress indicates it's game day. He's chosen charcoal trousers and a lavender necktie, and presides over the morning production meeting in the LHN conference room.
"If you're going to be the boss, you should dress like the boss," Menard says.
Everything that comes onto a viewer's TV screen is planned and executed by Menard and director Ken Dennis, and this morning's roundtable is generally a forum to brainstorm and also talk logistics. Menard tells Lamont and Brown what time pick up is from the hotel, and to Brown's amused surprised, what time to be in the make-up chair.
Brown wonders aloud if the game being broadcast exclusively on Longhorn Network should affect his commentary or analysis. Menard is firm with his answer and direction -- "Fair and balanced, all the way."
The table discussion rolls through planned graphics and breakout points to be sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Menard also reminds everyone that the Longhorns' previous conference home victory was against Kansas -- in November 2009. It also marked Colt McCoy's last home game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Menard, with his linebacker build and freshly-shorn dome, controls the conversation but also largely just stirs the pot, asking Brown questions to get him talking. Brown's answers lead to insight which will make that evening's broadcast more educational for the viewer. Brown and Lamont point out trends that could develop into game changers, like UT's blitzes leading to pressure and turnovers.
Dennis, a veteran sports director based out of North Carolina, will have about 10 camera angles with which to bring the game into the home of the TV viewer. During the four quarters of game action, Dennis wands them into view with the orchestrated wizardry of a symphonic conductor.
He holds an afternoon meeting with his camera crew at the stadium. Every camera has a purpose and a strategy with which to attack every play. For instance, when Kansas has the ball, moving left to right on the TV screen, camera one's sole focus is on the Jayhawks' receivers and tight ends.
Menard exits the broadcast booth, where Lamont and Brown fool viewers by wearing running shoes along with their suits and ties, and heads back down to the production truck and will remain through the game.
Inside the "cave," as Dennis refers to production truck, is a sense of calm anticipation. The work has been done, the plans have been made, now it's just time to play the game -- and for these 60 people, to capture it on TV.
The late afternoon sun is fading. A cool and crisp autumn evening is ahead -- perfect weather to showcase a football game. Dennis' stage is set, and the director has stepped outside for a final cigarette before kickoff.
"The most important thing I can do tonight is not stand up in front of the fan," Dennis explains. "You want to give them the best seat in the house -- front row, 50 yard line. And then show them some sights and sounds nobody else can see. But mostly, just don't get in the way of them enjoying the game."
The Longhorn Band is about one minute late taking the field, which means "The Eyes of Texas," is about one minute late getting to the TV screen.
Such is the case with live air. For all the planning and preparation, the game also unfolds in a state of controlled chaos.
"Let's nail it," Menard says to his crew via headset
The Longhorns are rolling along, and so it's perfect timing for the Colt McCoy feel-good that Menard previewed in the morning production meeting. Prior to this Saturday, UT last won a conference home football game during McCoy's senior season, a 51-20 win against Kansas.
The entire telecast develops like that as a free-flowing dance between Menard and Dennis.
For instance, Dennis finds the best live shot to show any one of running back Malcolm Brown's 28 carries, while Menard scrutinizes the taped angles to come back immediately with a view that illustrates how those running holes developed.
The game unfolded as a rout. The Longhorns had success on both sides of the ball, recording a shutout for the first time since their 62-0 win over Baylor in 2005. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron became the first pair of UT freshman running backs ever to rush for 100 yards or better in the same game.
LHN cameras capture head coach Mack Brown trotting to midfield to shake hands with KU's Turner Gill, the breathtaking lighting of the Tower and of course, the school's iconic song.
"Cutting away from `The Eyes of Texas,' is like cutting away from the national anthem down here," says Stephanie Druley, LHN vice president for production, Conroe native and Texas Ex.
However, the game's end meant the production crew was merely beginning a new phase. What was erected on Friday had to be struck down Saturday night, and that effort proceeded into the wee hours.
The work ethic and resources that surrounded this singular football game's production is microcosmic of the merger between UT and ESPN. Through the next 20 years, Longhorn Network will grow into a digital vessel that carries The University into the next generation, illuminated by sights and sounds everyone recognizes as simply Texas.