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“How did I get into this? I’m the guy that didn’t play football!” Meeting Chuck McDonald...

In my first blog on Saturdays Feed My Soul, I wrote about my passion for watching college football and the joy of discovering the traditions, rivalries and nuances that make it such a unique game. It’s an apprenticeship for the NFL, but a pure spectacle in its own right.

Having the opportunity to pick the brains of a man immersed in college football for twenty-five years and counting was almost too good to be true. Chuck McDonald is the Lead Game Producer for FOX Sports College Football. FOX Sports broadcast their game of the week from campuses ranging from Austin, Texas to Columbus, Ohio and from Los Angeles, California to Norman, Oklahoma. In the theatre played out in the biggest college football games every Saturday, he is pulling the strings. Yards aside from the stadium, he is in a production van, looking at the multiple screens that define the story of the unfolding drama taking place on the field.

Quite simply, he loves the game. His enthusiasm is infectious. Chuck was kind enough to share an hour of his time earlier in the close season. I could have listened to him all afternoon. There was so much to relate that I’ve broken it into three parts. In the next, we’ll talk about the tradition and excitement of the rivalries and in the third instalment, the increasing trend of player transfers and a look at the season ahead. First, we talked simply about his passion for college football.

So, what is it he loves about the college game in particular?

“I think the thing I like the most, first of all, just the passion of it. I love the NFL, but the NFL feels more corporate. You can go to Green Bay, and they’re crazy, and Kansas City. I’m from Dallas and a Cowboy fan, but it’s just not the same. I went to (Texas) A&M and the whole weekend is about it.”

Other sports can reach similar levels of anticipation with those games your team simply can’t lose. Packers-Bears in the NFL, Duke-North Carolina basketball, or Red Sox-Yankees baseball, for example. The nervous energy, excitement of your team potentially winning and particularly the dread of them losing. Big-time college football is filled with anticipation of these great games every week. Chuck added: “In Ann Arbor (Michigan) or Columbus (Ohio State), for the week of the game it’s all everyone’s thinking about, talking about, everyone’s wearing their gear. You know, the whole states are into it for those big games.”

Chuck has been with FOX Sports for twenty-five years, what keeps him so passionate about it?

“If you have the opportunity, and find something you like, it’s not work. I work with a bunch of people who have no problem putting in 20-hour days, because they enjoy what they do. I got into the right business because I’m passionate about sport, and football in particular, from a TV perspective. Just enjoy it, that’s the key.”

Chuck McDonald, Lead Game Producer, in the FOX Sports College Football production truck

Following careers is like being a parent

“It starts with the passion for football in general, but I really like that you get to watch someone’s career start.” We chewed over the finest of lines between those players whose careers explode and those who just don’t make it. Few places have seen this so evidently played out than Ohio State and their quarterbacks. Tate Martell, Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow in recent years, for example. “You just never know. I mean, you just brought up Tate Martell, huge, huge prospect, gets signed, looks like he could be the future and it doesn’t work out. Then you see a guy who comes from nowhere, Dwayne Haskins a couple of years ago, had an off the charts year.” Martell now has an opportunity at UNLV so it will be interesting to see how he develops this season.

He tries not to fixate on their NFL careers. Watching college football players is like being a parent. You watch them from their late teens, their wins and challenges played out in front of thousands of baying fans in the most partisan of stadiums and millions on TV for up to four years. Then they flee the nest, hopefully for the NFL.

“You know, Johnny Manziel, we covered him the year he won the Heisman. And being an A&M guy, from Texas, he was an enjoyable guy to watch, but it didn’t matter that he wasn’t (in the NFL) …he’s still a college football legend. You just get (former Ohio State QB) J.T. Barrett. J.T. Barrett had one of the most amazing college careers anyone’s ever had. It doesn’t matter that he’s not a pro.

Probably the craziest, just iconic game we ever did was the (2013) Cotton Bowl, Manziel’s Heisman year against OU and he just put on a show. You just don’t see a player have that kind of game. All the hype, all the expectations, going against (Coach Bob) Stoops, who had a month to prepare for him, and just absolutely put on a show.”

“I kinda just enjoy watching these kids, you know, come in to their own.”

Watching these players through college and then reach the end of their careers is like watching a great movie thriller, what happens to these guys next is fascinating.

“It really is, and the cool thing about college is that Johnny Manziel’s gone, or RGIII’s gone, Baker (Mayfield) left (to the Browns as No.1 pick), but there’s going to be somebody else. Baker Mayfield leaves and you get Kyler Murray…

We covered Sam Ehlinger for four years at Texas, awesome kid, and just loved being around him. Even as an (Texas) A&M fan, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching these kids… (Chuck’s phone rings, he screens and decides not to answer) … growing up, you see them mature, you meet them as a freshman and then see them as a senior right in front of your eyes. It’s like you said, it is a little bit like a parent, it’s cool to watch these kids. And you can’t root for a team, but you do find yourself rooting for these players. We do Red River (the rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma) a lot, I liked Baker and I like Sam. I didn’t really care who won, but I wanted them to play well. I hate to watch a kid fall on his face because they’re not professionals.”

The difference between college football and the NFL

The biggest difference between college football and the NFL really is just the level of play. Chuck describes the pro game as “perfection”, adding that “the way a guy slaps a hand off on a receiver’s release could be the whole play. The subtleties and intricacies of play are what makes the NFL amazing.” The college game by comparison, he feels, is more about the coach’s scheme and X’s and O’s. “It’s the one thread that goes through Oklahoma or Ohio State - Lincoln Riley’s offense or Ryan Day’s offense. It almost doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, if they can run Lincoln Riley’s system, then it’s going to work. At the pro level, it doesn’t quite work the same way. Depending on who you drafted, the offense is going to change and look different.” In college football, the coach dictates the personality and what that brings to the team, “Urban Meyer vs. Ryan Day is a different kind of team.”

I get the impression he relishes the behind-the-scenes insight his work gives him. With his team being privy to some really confidential information, he is clearly very careful with and highly appreciative of that trust. “The better relationship you have with the team, the more you’ll know.” He talks of Ryan Day sharing 80-90% of his game plan the day before kick-off and knowing early that star defensive end Chase Young was going to miss one of his games at Ohio State. “It helps us a ton to prepare. It’s not necessarily for broadcast but helps us know what to expect.”

A typical weekend

Chuck and the team fly to the home college’s campus on a Thursday, depending on when they practice. If they practice in the afternoon, typically the case at Oklahoma, Texas and Ohio State, they will tend to go and watch. Michigan, he notes, are usually too early for them. Later that night, they go to the facility and meet with the coaches and players. A little bit of the fan in him creeps out. “It’s really cool”, he adds. As a fan listening to him, I feel like I’m getting the inside scoop.

The FOX College Football crew. Chuck is second right. (L-R: Joel Klatt, Rich Dewey, Jenny Taft, Chuck McDonald, Gus Johnson)

USC are very accommodating and very good with player access, he says. Oklahoma tends to shut down their players from Monday onwards, so the team have less interaction with them. “It’s just what works for them” and Texas, he adds, were “really good about letting us hang out with Sam a lot.”

“Some places don’t let you meet players at the college level so it’s a bit hit and miss. We’ve done a lot of Ohio State recently, they’re awesome. They basically go let us sit in the lunch room. Gus (Johnson) and Joel (Klatt) just go around and do whatever they want for an hour.” He is careful, as a producer, to strike the right balance. If a coach is chatting to Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt, he tends to stay back so it’s more of a private conversation and people feel they can open up more than him “lurking”, as he puts it. “I’m the truck guy, not the announcer.”

FOX’s premier game tends to kick off at noon Eastern Time, so although FOX covers the Pac-12 along with the Big 12 and Big 10, the noon show would mean a 9am kick off for Pac-12 teams on the West Coast, a little prohibitive for colleges there. He and his team cover a lot of Big 10 games. “Ohio State are the Dallas Cowboys of college football” he states, up there with Alabama, “it’s guaranteed ratings and big audiences, which FOX is in it for.” The Big 12 is typically Oklahoma, Texas and whoever plays their way into the top of that conference. Iowa State’s shock win over Oklahoma last season propelled them into the spotlight of a national TV audience, similarly to TCU a few years ago and Baylor under (now Carolina Panthers head coach) Matt Rhule.

Teams, unless they are traditional powerhouses, earn their way on to the TV schedule: “The Iowa States, the Nebraskas, the Wisconsins …it’s based on how they’re playing. Going into the season, I know we’re going to be covering Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and based off the current rosters, Iowa State and Wisconsin. Penn State and Michigan will be near the top of the list unless they’re just not good.” It’s an interesting insight into the brutal competition of college football, huge stakes and a fine line between your team being on the national stage to be in with a chance of selecting the best talent, or in a cycle of mediocrity, trying to break into an elite group with millions of dollars at their disposal year in and year out.

A fan at heart

I can’t help feeling envious of his job but also excited to see someone who is clearly a fan immerse themselves in a world they love to be in. Chuck’s eyes light up when he talks of working with former college players who have written themselves into the annals of college football history. Brady Quinn, the former Notre Dame QB and Cleveland Brown and USC’s Rose Bowl winning duo QB Matt Leinart and RB Reggie Bush, of Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints respectively, are part of his crew. Working with them, he says, “is amazing”.

FOX Sports Big Noon Kickoff lineup (L-R: Rob Stone, Brady Quinn, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Bob Stoops) (Image credit: FOX Sports)

He says while he admired Leinart and Bush as players (“how could you not?”), as a Texas fan, he rooted against them. “USC were the enemy”. “It’s great to be around them, they’re great dudes”, he added and while the professional in him enjoys talking about college football, “as a fan, it’s a little surreal to be sitting around a table all having dinner and drinks, thinking there’s Brady Quinn, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Urban Meyer”. When covering the NFL, Chuck was “hanging out with John Madden, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw”, more of that to come in the next two instalments.

He almost seems in disbelief when he sits back and exclaims: “How did I get into this? I’m the guy that didn’t play football!” For a guy that didn’t play football, Chuck McDonald is living the dream.

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