The People Behind the Voices

Many Maryland basketball (and football) fans have grown up listening to the voice of radio play-by-play announcer Johnny Holliday, now in his 25 th year of broadcasting Terrapin games.   During the Terps game with UNC-Greensboro earlier this season, I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes with Johnny and the radio team to learn more about them and how they actually make a broadcast happen.

The crew consists of Johnny, analyst Chris Knoche, statistician Brett Bessell, and engineer Tom Marchitto.   Watching the interaction between them helped me see why they work together so well.  

Any good team is bound together by supporting each other.   After the Terps' home loss to NC State, I asked Knoche what the problem was.   "I blame the stats guy," he told me.

Another key is having the mutual respect of one's co-workers.   When Holliday brought up during a recent broadcast that his picture would soon be added to the Maryland Walk of Fame at the Comcast Center, his partner Knoche reacted enthusiastically.   Knoche urged fans to rush out and see it because, "Marchitto will be there with a stepladder and a sharpie in a heartbeat," apparently ready to add his own artistic impression.

Confidence is also a crucial part of a broadcaster's personality.   During a timeout of the UNC-Greensboro game, Holliday turned to me and said, "You know, we have no idea what we're doing."

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Holliday's work begins two hours before tip-off when he records the pre-game show with Maryland Coach Gary Williams.  

Johnny's style, honed over 40 years of interviewing rock stars, athletes, coaches, and other divas, is one that puts his guest at ease.   Rather than feeling that an adversary is grilling them, Holliday's relaxed conversational approach makes the interviewee feel comfortable, even when difficult questions are asked.

The rapport between Holliday and Williams, nurtured over Gary's 15 years at Maryland, is very relaxed and comfortable.   The pre-game show, as well as the televised coach's show, sounds like two neighbors leaning over their fence, taking a break from yard work on a Saturday morning.

 

Holliday makes this work because he still poses the questions that need to be asked.   If the team is not playing well, or if there has been a problem with a particular player, Williams is asked why and what he plans to do about it.   Johnny is such a polished pro that no one ever cuts an interview short, storms away in anger, or starts spewing profanity that needs to be edited.

The man who really has to deal with pressure before the game is engineer Tom Marchitto.   There is no fixed broadcast unit on the floor at Comcast Center, requiring the radio wiring and equipment to be put up and torn down for each game.   While Johnny finishes his interview with Coach Williams, Marchitto focuses on his task with an intensity that Williams would love to see in his players.

Before the games, analyst Chris Knoche has the task of interviewing the opposing coach.   Knoche, who was a coach himself at American University, still approaches the game as a coach would.   As a result, his pre-game interviews often sound like two coaches sitting down talking about the opponent over a beer (although none is actually served).   Rather than an exercise in "coach-speak', these segments come across as cordial but informative conversations.

The last member of the radio team to arrive for a game is statistician Bret Bessell.   Proclaimed "All-ACC Stats Man" by Holliday and Knoche, Bessell uses a very low-tech approach.   Upon arriving at the scorer's table, Bret sets up his tools for the game.   They include paper, pencils, and pens but, to my astonishment, there is no sign of a computer.

Bessell uses two stat sheets during every game.   His primary one, for which the format has evolved over the years, includes all of the primary statistical information for every player on both teams.   Bessell also uses a second sheet where he keeps a running score.  

His system, which includes different colors for each half (he has five so he can keep up to three overtimes separated) and combinations of circles, slashes, and hash marks, would be indecipherable to an ordinary mortal.   It comes very naturally to Bessell, who then feeds stats to Holliday and Knoche through their headsets during the game.   When Johnny reports during a game "Maryland is on a 12-2 run", that information has usually been relayed to him from Bessell a second earlier.

After hooking up and testing all of the equipment, Marchitto's primary concern is making sure Holliday and Knoche are in position for the start of the broadcast.   The biggest obstacle to that is Johnny having to tear himself away from the steady stream of friends and well-wishers that make their way down to courtside before a game.

There doesn't seem to be anyone Johnny doesn't know, from local media, long-time Maryland supporters, former players, and out-of-town broadcasters.   He always has either a personal connection to them that he can talk about, or he just brings out his sharp wit.   The night I was there, Comcast Sports Net analyst Glen Consor walked over before the game to say hello to Holliday, who responded by saying, "You're not going to wear that tie during the broadcast, are you?"  

Anyone is fair game for Holliday, who has been doing comedy and impressions throughout his 40+ year broadcasting career.   After watching him record some public address announcements in the video control room at Comcast Center, I was entertained by his dead-on impression of Howard Cosell ordering dinner at an Italian restaurant.   Like nearly everyone who is fortunate enough to come in contact with Johnny, I was left smiling.

Once the game starts, the broadcast team locks in and gives their typical professional performance.   Marchitto is the traffic cop, timing commercial breaks and coordinating pre-recorded segments.   Holliday is so smooth that he can be talking with someone only seconds before a break ends and roll back into the broadcast right on cue, regardless of the anxiety that creates for Tom.

Marchitto has been a radio engineer for 35 years.   Most of his time was spent working at ABC Radio, where he met Johnny.   Tom did it all at ABC, working events such as presidential press conferences and State of the Union Addresses.   He has also traveled from Sarajevo to Sydney covering the Olympics.  

Holliday approached Marchitto about working with the Maryland broadcast crew and, eight years ago, Tom decided that it was a good time to do so.   Having moved up into a supervisory position at ABC, he was doing less work in the field and had enough flexibility to fit Maryland football and basketball games into his schedule.   Recently retired from the network, Marchitto continues working Maryland games because "I enjoy the challenge of doing a live broadcast."   Although not a big sports fan, he "enjoys the college game because of its unpredictability."

Once the game starts, Bessell is intensely focused on recording stats and relaying trends to Johnny and Chris.   "There are times", Brett told me, "when the action is at such a fast pace that I don't even have time to look up from my sheet.   I rely on Johnny's description to keep up with the game."

Brett, now a real estate appraiser by trade, was working in the marketing section of the Maryland athletic department 20 years ago when he approached Johnny about working with him.   At the time, Holliday was broadcasting games of the Washington Federals football team in the USFL and needed a spotter.   Bessell offered his services and Johnny accepted.   The only problem was, Brett did not have the foggiest idea what a spotter did during a football game.   Holliday helped him figure it out, and Bessell was a quick learner.

Brett spotted for Johnny at Maryland football games for three years before he began keeping stats, something he has done for 17 seasons.   He became the basketball stats man during the 1983-84 season, which was the last time the Terps won the ACC Tournament.   Bessell is now very much in demand, working games for ESPN and Fox Sports in addition to his schedule of Maryland contests.

Knoche is responsible for telling listeners why something has happened (or why it didn't) and anticipating how the next few minutes of a game will play out.   Again, he effectively puts on his coach's hat to do this.   Chris, who joined the Maryland team prior to the 1999-2000 season, obviously does his homework but, like when he coached, has few notes in front of him.

Knoche played for Gary Williams at American University during the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons after transferring from Colorado.   He later became an assistant at American and ascended to the head coaching position, which he held for seven seasons (1991-97).   Would he ever return to the sidelines?   "I don't think you ever completely lose the coaching bug once it bites you," he told me "but I'm very happy doing what I am right now."

He relies on the knowledge of teams and players he has committed to memory and analyzes game action as if he was still standing on the sideline.   Knoche even offers commentary on officiating during broadcasts, making sure to keep it G rated for the listening audience. His recognition of different defenses and offensive sets brings a level of understanding to listeners that they would be hard pressed to get elsewhere.

On this team, Holliday is the quintessential point guard.   He is the person who sets the tone for his teammates and helps make them look good while deflecting credit from himself.  

Holliday seamlessly works in advertising live-reads, entertaining anecdotes, background on players and coaches, and get-well wishes to Terrapin supporters during his play-by-play.   Unlike Knoche, Johnny makes notes during his pre-game prep that he refers to during the broadcast.   He deftly inserts little nuggets of information into his description of the game.   Keeping with the low-tech theme of this crew, Holliday has his live read information on printed cards that are organized before the start of the broadcast.   When he reads one, he simply tosses the card on the floor underneath his work area.  

After the final buzzer, the post-game show begins with a brief summary of the action and an interview with Coach Williams.   At home games, it is broadcast over the public address system at the Comcast Center, and Williams often addresses the fans directly.  

Williams is the only coach I know of who does this so quickly after the conclusion of the game, never more than five minutes after the final buzzer and always before he has gone into the locker room.   After a tough loss and with different broadcasters, this could be a volatile situation.   The mutual respect Holliday, Knoche, and Williams have for each other prevent any problems.   Johnny and Chris are also smart enough to know how far to go with questions and professional enough to not draw attention by provoking an explosion from Coach Williams.

The post-game is usually concluded with a player interview, then a review of the game's statistics.   At this point, Marchitto unplugs and meticulously organizes his equipment, and Holliday cleans up the mess underneath his work area.   Johnny then visits with another wave of friends, acquaintances, and any family that was at the game before calling it a night.

The opportunity I had to sit with the radio team reinforced in my mind what already came across so well on the air; these men have a great time doing these broadcasts.   They genuinely enjoy the work and being in each other's company.   All of them are at a point where they aren't doing this for the money, so why invest the time and effort into it?   Tom Marchitto summed it up quite well, "There's no point in doing it if you aren't having fun."

The next time you listen to a Maryland basketball game on the radio, just remember that as much enjoyment as you get from listening to the broadcast, the crew probably gets more from doing it.

To learn more about Johnny Holliday and his illustrious broadcasting career, I highly recommend reading his book "From Rock to Jock" available online or at your favorite bookstore.

Thanks to Johnny, Chris, Brett, and Tom for allowing me behind the scenes with them, making me feel so welcomed, and taking time to talk with me about what they do.

Please leave your feedback on the message board or send e-mail to terpwriter@aol.com.

Photo courtesy: (AP Photo/Al Behrman)


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