ATHENS, Ga.-- It is two hours until the tipoff of Vanderbilt's road game against Georgia in Athens. At courtside inside an almost-empty Stegeman Coliseum, Commodore Radio Network engineer Bob Horner is unloading a trunk full of electronic equipment in preparation for the afternoon radio broadcast. Just in from Nashville, Vanderbilt's three-man radio crew is feverishly gearing for another basketball broadcast over the ISP Sports Network.
Since today's game will not be on television anywhere, radio play-by-play announcers Joe Fisher and Tim Thompson will serve as a lifeline for thousands of Commodore fans around the world who are unable to follow this road game any other way. Tuning in over flagship station WSM-FM 95.5 or on the Internet at vucommodores.com, fans will hang on every word spoken by Fisher and Thompson.
It's Horner's job to insure that every word is heard, loud and crystal clear.
Fisher, meanwhile, is meticulously reviewing notes and preparing for the broadcast. Besides familiarizing himself with the elaborate statistical charts, rosters and score sheets taped to the table in front of him, Fisher must make sure that every sponsor who has paid for a commercial spot gets its allotted time on the afternoon broadcast.
Someone, after all, must pay for these road trips.
One hour before tipoff, the proper connections are made with "Troy" back at the network studios, and "Commodore basketball is on the air." Fisher and Thompson must deftly fill an hour with talk about the upcoming game, scouting reports, scores and highlights, and squeeze in an interview with Assistant Coach Jeff Jackson. As he gabs away, Fisher references a helpful, 30-page handout conveniently provided by Vandy Media Relations representative Brent Ross, and another provided by Georgia Assistant SID Tim Hix.
T-minus-15-minutes and counting... it's time for the pre-game interview with Head Coach Kevin Stallings, which has been recorded and canned before the trip. While the recording plays, Fisher and Thompson remove their headsets and make a dash for the tunnel. It will be their last chance to use the rest room or grab a bite to eat until the broadcast is complete.
They're back now. The noise in Stegeman Coliseum is building to a fever pitch as the time nears for the introduction of Jim Harrick's Bulldogs.
Fisher is halfway through reading the starting lineups when the arena suddenly goes pitch black, and he is momentarily unable to read from his notes... but Horner produces a handy MagLite flashlight that he's brought along for just such emergencies. Fisher never misses a beat.
"Seems like all the gyms are doing that these days," says Horner of Stegeman's theatrics. Like a good boy scout, Horner is prepared for every kind of technical emergency.
Just before tipoff, Fisher says, "The Commodores really need something good to happen early this afternoon." An understatement-- Vanderbilt is coming off three straight games in which they've trailed by double digits at halftime.
Horner, the most invisible yet indispensible member of the team, is in his 22nd year as engineer for both football and basketball broadcasts. He's worked with every play-by-play announcer since Charlie McAlexander in 1981. "Only been to one bowl game," he grouses good-naturedly.
To Horner's undying regret, he was absent for the Commodores' biggest football win of the last 22 years, a 28-21 win over Tennessee in 1982. Horner was in Anchorage, Alaska that Saturday with C. M. Newton's basketball team, working the Great Alaska Shootout.
Though never heard on air, Horner's contributions are nevertheless essential, as Fisher and Thompson are quick to attest. During the game Horner wears headphones, monitors the sound mixer, and cues the commercial spots. He points out subtle statistics to Fisher and Thompson that they may have overlooked. He is also responsible for recording the broadcast on a digital recorder and choosing one radio highlight for the postgame as the "Sherwin-Williams Play of the Game."
On the table in front of Fisher is a computer monitor that shows continuously updated game statistics... but midway through the first half, Fisher notices it's not working. Horner quickly pages Hix, who stares at it but can't fix it. Sigh... it's always something. Hix promises that he will get an updated stat sheet out to the crew as soon as possible at the half.
As Matt Freije leaves the game with his third foul in the first half, it seems as though an unfamiliar crew of SEC officials is attempting to turn the game into a sloppy foul-fest. "In fact, Tim Thompson has just been called for one foul," jokes Fisher. "I think their lips must be getting a little tired of blowing the whistle."
But the Commodores are turning in one of their better road performances, and they trail only 33-28 at the break.
"Tim, not a pretty first half, but if you're Kevin Stallings, you've got to be pleased with the defensive intensity the Commodores have brought thus far," says Fisher.
"They've not been hitting a lot of shots, but they've offensive-rebounded, and they've played good defense," adds Thompson.
The golden-haired Fisher, a Nashville native, worked his way up through the ranks in order to become the first Vanderbilt play-by-play announcer who is also a full-time employee of the school. A former president of his class at Antioch High School, Fisher grew up listening to play-by-play voices like Paul Eells, John Ward and Cawood Ledford, and as a young boy imagined himself one day sitting courtside calling the action. Today the silky-smooth Fisher is in his fifth year of calling Vanderbilt football and men's basketball, from the seat once occupied by legendary voices like Eells and Larry Munson.
Thompson, a former Commodore player from the Wayne Dobbs era, is in his second year as color commentator for basketball. By day a Marketing Representative for Nike, Thompson's job allows him the flexibility to travel with the broadcast crew. His signature phrase: "You just can't have that!" after a poor play by the Commodores.
As a former combatant in SEC wars, Thompson points out little things that typically go right past average observers-- as when Julian Terrell scores late in the first half on a breakaway layup. "It was Scott Hundley's bump on Rashad Wright that gave Terrell a clear path to the basket," chips in Thompson.
Like almost all modern radio broadcasters, Fisher and Thompson do their broadcasts with the Vanderbilt partisans in mind. "Mario for three, good!!" chimes Fisher excitedly as Moore lets a long one fly. When Freije picks up his fourth foul on a light touch, Thompson grumbles, "When you think of all the stuff in the lane they haven't called, and they call a little tap foul like that!..."
Early in the second half Stallings is assessed two technicals for jawing with referee Tony Greene, and is forced to disappear into the locker room. "That was bizarre," remarks Fisher. "Those were the calmest two technicals I've ever seen."
Vanderbilt will put up a good fight, but ultimately finish with its fourth straight loss. Brent Ross goes scrambling to find the "American Ace Player of the Game"-- which tonight is Terrell.
Fisher and Thompson must quickly recap the game, isolate the key statistics, and capsule the game into a few succinct thoughts. "From an energy standpoint and an aggressiveness standpoint, after Stallings left the game, I think the players rallied," says Thompson. "You saw them gather at midcourt, hunker down a little bit and really get after it."
"'Hunker down' is probably not a phrase you should use here," notes Fisher with a chuckle, referring to a vintage Munson-ism.
Meanwhile Fisher quickly composes a list of questions which he will pose to Kevin Stallings in the postgame interview. Coaxing answers out of Stallings is sometimes not easy after a loss-- Stallings hates to lose, and it has shown in recent postgames. Tonight, however, Stallings is more lucid than usual. Since there is no media room in the Coliseum, Stallings comes out to the courtside broadcast area for the interview.
"How did it feel to spend the last few minutes in there listening on the radio?" asks Fisher.
"Given [the ejection], how do you feel they responded?"
"Julian played a great game, I thought-- 13 points and 11 rebounds."
"Does it give you a good feeling to see the intensity back that seemed to have been missing for a few games?"
It's a wrap. At last Fisher signs off, says goodbye to "Troy", and the three-hour-45-minute broadcast is in the can. Horner is already breaking down the setup for the five-hour trip back to Nashville.
There's no rest for the weary.