In his new job as head of all ESPN college programming, Ilan Ben-Hanan can no longer be the USC fan he'd grown up to be. Not on the job, anyway.
Wouldn't be smart. Wouldn't work.
But to do his job right, to make the right calls for the network that matters by far the most when it comes to covering college football, basketball and the Olympic sports he oversees, Ben-Hanan has to be a fan -- of college football, basketball and all the rest.
And do so with a national focus. Thursday he was coming from an early morning media conference call discussing the new rights deal with the Missouri Valley Conference. Last week it was the Southern Conference. Ben-Hanan clearly loves doing deals and making the right calls for college sports and he doesn't hide it.
"I couldn't have had a better preparation for this job than I got at USC," he says. And even though he's able to do the job 3,000 miles away from Bristol in his Southern California home, and just a mile-and-a-half down Figueroa from his alma mater, the focus here is without doubt a national one.
He likes the 7 to 4 schedule West Coast folks in national jobs get accustomed to. Makes for some early morning meetings but he beats rush hour and by the time he's in, Bristol has been going for an hour and the emails are ready to be answered.
Not that he pretends to have all the answers. "There are so many experts at ESPN I can call on," he says when he's looking at making the decision this Sept. 14 for the games that will play out for ESPN on Sept. 26 for the first of the 12-game windows. And there are the six-game window calls as well to be made. Kirk Herbstreit on Line 1, for sure.
"That's the beautiful thing about college football," Ben-Hanan says, "the way you can use those 12-day picks to get the best games . . . USC fans are used to that."
It's those moments "when you have to check your fan-dom" he says. But the fan in Ben-Hanan is still there. It's just that there's a separation now. That wasn't always the case.
He started reading the LA Times sports section "as a kid at the age of 5" and grew up in the Valley after his parents had emigrated from Israel when his father came to Cal State Northridge (his mother is from Brazil).
But he notes he had the bad luck to attend Van Nuys High as the ultimate trashtalking Trojan fan already willing to stake a lunch bet on the USC-UCLA game.
"I bought a lot of lunches in those days," he says of UCLA's eight-game run from 1991 to 1998 that even figured into his getting into USC.
"In my 1996 admission letter, I said I wouldn't leave USC until they beat UCLA," he tells you, still sweating at the thought that "I was going to have to go to grad school," before the 1999 Trojans came along to save him as a senior.
In those days, Ben-Hanan was thinking about going in front of the camera. How could you not, he says, growing up in this place where Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, Dick Enberg, Keith Jackson, Bob Miller and Ralph Lawler, giants of the sports world, walked the earth.
He even drew the lucky straw and got to do the first USC Annenberg telecast as the Monday sports guy in 1998. "I think we talked about the USC opener against Purdue when the temperatures on the field reached 115 degrees and the USC band members were passing out," he says, "although you better check that."
No need to. Ben-Hanan clearly has something akin to a photographic memory for sports which played out in his career, he says, in two early sports quiz shows he appeared on -- ESPN's 2-Minute Drill and Fox Sports Net's Sports Geniuses.
He made it into the final two on Sports Geniuses where his 22-year-old's competitiveness got in the way and turned a sure win into a close loss on the last Jeopardy-like question. Instead of winning a truck and two tickets to four top national championship games, he won a speedboat and a trip to Tahiti.
And that's where he realized he could do a deal or two. He was able to turn the speedboat into cash from the prize-giver and when he learned the trip to Tahiti was the same weekend as his USC graduation, he asked if he could exchange it for a trip to Hawai'i. And then when he noted Hawai'i was only half as far as the 6,000 miles to Tahiti, could they make that two trips? They could.
"I realized that I was pretty good at this," Ben-Hanan says. Although his first sports dealmaking came in USC's athletic marketing department selling tickets, putting together group sales and overseeing on-field and in-game promotions for a Trojans team in 2002 "coming off a 6-6 season . . . and a loss in the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah." He does so with a shake of his head toward his ESPN colleague Danny Chi, a Ute alum who also collected a lunch this past fall after USC's last-second loss.
But the world changed dramatically for Trojans fooball that turnaround season, Ben-Hanan says, "and whoever followed me had a much easier time selling tickets, I'm sure."
Which is why in his office, he has signed photos from Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu who led that turnaround Trojan team.
He made it, as a fan, to the Orange Bowl against Iowa that year. And remembers all the black and gold in South Beach. And how loud it was in the Iowa section to start the game and how quiet it was at the end. "They would have beaten anybody," he says of that Trojan team at the finish.
And he made it to the next Orange Bowl and the national championship game against Oklahoma. And he's four-for-four as a Trojan fan in South Bend against Notre Dame -- including the "Bush push" game in 2005.
But he'll also quickly talk of how much fun it is, as a football fan, to soak in the atmosphere at places like Baton Rouge, Clemson, Tuscaloosa, Eugene and Nebraska for the whole game day experience.
This past year, he really enjoyed a trip to Manhattan, Kan., for the Auburn-Kansas State game and "watching that town come to life." And he says how much a factor fans at places like Utah are becoming.
But then as a basketball guy, which is how he started at ESPN, he set up a trip over three weeks for back-to-back-to-back-to-back games Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, Kentucky's Rupp Arena, Duke's Cameron Indoor and North Carolina's Dean Dome just to pick up on that special feel in those basketball cathedrals.
He credits his appearances on the sports quiz shows for "getting my resume from the big pile into the small pile." But when ESPN was looking for a programming associate to handle college basketball and the X-Games, his experience with the mini-run of USC to the Elite Eight in 2001 helped out. He was covering USC basketball for wearesc.com while still a student.
And of course, as a SoCal kid, he'd know about the X-Games.
"I had three days to learn," he says before he had to be in Philadelphia for the X-Games that year. Basketball wasn't an issue. He knew it. Mention to him the USC NCAA upset loss in 2002 -- to a UNC-Wilmington team coached by someone you've known since he was a Xavier assistant -- and he immediately calls out "Jerry Wainwright."
But if there are two things he's proudest of, the first is obvious. He's been working since its original concept through its birth this past season on the College Football Playoffs.
"In my 13 years at ESPN, I haven't been around a project as big, as game-changing for a sport, as this is. It's not often you get to there for a mega event," Ben-Hanan says. "It's one of those historic moments like Super Bowl I. For ESPN, it doesn't get any better than that. We are really invested in college football. It's such a part of our DNA."
But there is one other part of his ESPN career Ben-Hanan takes great pride in -- and he thanks you for asking about it.
It happened in 2007 and he was at the annual Dicky V Gala to raise money for the Jimmy V Foundation and its campaign against cancer. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski was speaking. Ilan remembers the moment.
"He asked everybody in the audience who was a cancer survivor to stand up." Well at the time, Ilan, a young man who had beaten both thyroid cancer and melanoma, hadn't publicized that fact. Many of his ESPN colleagues there had no idea. And when he stood up, he could tell they were surprised, as was he, at some of the other people standing.
"I felt really galvanized," he says of that moment. It also gave him, as the ESPN basketball guy, the inspiration to do something big -- Jimmy V Week in connection with the basketball classic. "And by December of 2007, we had Jimmy V Week -- "a really cool thing."
After putting out the idea with a proposal that went to the top of ESPN, he got the OK. It was a go. Across every ESPN platform, they would see that famous and memorable 1993 Espy Award speech that Jimmy V made with that iconic line about his own cancer battle -- "don't give up . . . don't ever give up."
It's a lot like the "Fight On" mantra Ben-Hanan had grown up with. And now he was able to make it an ESPN-wide effort.
"It's a beautiful thing about this company," he says of ESPN, "the way they can rally around an idea."
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