BTN turns 10: Dave Revsine reflects on the Big Ten Network's beginnings
“You should just go in and tell him,” the doctor said to me. “We truthfully don’t know what people who are sedated can hear – it varies. But you need to say it either way. It will make you feel better.”
So, I took a deep breath and walked into my father’s Chicago hospital room, where one of the smartest, funniest, most dynamic people I had ever known was nearing the end of a valiant 14-year battle with Leukemia. I took his frail hand.
“Dad, can you hear me?” I said, fighting back tears.
“Dad, I have news for you. Michele and the girls and I are moving back to Chicago. I accepted a job at the Big Ten Network. I’m going to be their lead studio host.”
Silence. If there was one piece of information that would have put his mind at ease, this was it. He’s alive. I’m holding his hand. And yet, I can’t get the information through to him. Why had I allowed it to get to this point? I tried to explain it to him. To the antiseptic walls. To the tubes and wires and machines he was hooked up to. And most of all, I tried to explain it to my guilt-ridden self.
“I actually first met with them about a month ago, and I’m so, so sorry I didn’t tell you. I just wasn’t really looking to leave ESPN, and I didn’t want to feel the pressure to take it just because it’s in Chicago. But, they blew me away in our meetings. The people are incredible. The network is going to be a really sizable operation – much more than I envisioned. They made me a really nice offer on Friday. We were going to tell you after the weekend, thinking you had plenty of time, but then the doctors put you under, and….”
My voice trailed off. “So, we’ll be here, Dad. We’ll take care of Mom. She’ll be OK.”
I really couldn’t handle any more. No one would have been more excited about this development than my dad, an accounting professor who had spent his career teaching at Illinois, Wisconsin and Northwestern, an avid college sports fan, and a doting grandfather. In fact, my mom told me later that when he read an article in the Chicago Tribune in 2006 about the plans for BTN, he had told her, “If the Big Ten Network knows what it’s doing, it’ll hire Dave. He’d be perfect for this.” Oddly, when I first heard about the plans for BTN, I quickly dismissed it. Who leaves ESPN? Not me.
So my father understood the potential for the network long before I did.
He had told me many times that life wasn’t always fair. This was one of the ultimate unfair moments. He deserved to share in this time. He deserved many more years of enjoying his family without having to get on an airplane to do it. He deserved to be there for his grandkids’ softball games and theatre productions and graduations. He deserved to see his son happy and fulfilled personally and professionally. He had worked so hard to get to this point: an immigrant’s kid from the West Side of Chicago who had risen to become one of the most prominent people in his field, but had never lost sight of what was truly important. He deserved it, but he didn’t get it.
After the funeral, I spent a couple of weeks in Chicago. ESPN was great – “Take all the time you need,” they said. Michele and I found a house. Eventually, I went back to Connecticut to tie up loose ends. The split from ESPN could not possibly have been more amicable. They kept me on the air for my final few weeks. My last night was the NBA Draft, June 28, 2007. I co-hosted a draft show on ESPN2 with Rece Davis. They aired a nice tribute video of my eleven years there at the end, and Rece shared some very kind words. And off I went, into the great unknown.
And it truly was unknown. Remember, ten years ago no one had done a conference network. There was no blueprint for this. It could be anything we wanted it to be. I remember being in a conference room where we brainstormed about our nightly show, Big Ten Tonight. What was our vision for it? How much of each sport would we show? How did we want to break up the analysis segments? What should the show open look like? It was thrilling to be able to draw it up from scratch, but it was also a bit daunting. What if we got it wrong? What if it wasn’t any good?
When news broke that I had accepted the job, I had done an interview with the Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein. “What will your first words on the network be?” he asked. Until that point, it hadn’t even dawned on me that I would speak the first words on the network. Talk about pressure. Though I was asked about it a couple of times subsequently in the office, the decision for those words was left completely up to me. No one on the management team asked to see them or approve them – a precursor of the trust that has been placed in me for the entire ten years. After a couple of days of playing around with different possible directions in which to take it, I decided on:
“Eleven schools, 252 varsity teams, one great network to cover it all. Welcome to the Big Ten Network, your ultimate source for Big Ten sports, featuring the games, passion and tradition of the nation’s foremost athletic conference.”
I still feel good about those words, aside from the obvious numerical changes. The tradition part speaks for itself, as the nation’s oldest college conference. And the passion? We’ve witnessed plenty of that over the last ten years. Those words are immortalized on a sign that you see as you enter the network, so I guess they couldn’t have been too bad.
As for the “games” part of that quote, two days after the launch, we had our first football Saturday, starting with Appalachian State against Michigan. I think we all know how that one came out. It’s funny, but on that day, above and beyond any we’ve ever had at BTN, from where I was sitting, the game itself took a backseat to some more practical concerns – like “What the heck are we doing?”
You have to understand, everything was new that day. We had never done a pregame show before. We had never done a halftime. I was in an unfamiliar studio with analysts I was still trying to feel out and a producer who spoke a different “language” than I did. For instance, he called the toss to break a “tease” while I called it a “bump.” (At ESPN, the “tease” was the voiceover at the beginning of SportsCenter, right after the “Da, da, da… da, da, da.”).
When he told me at the end of a segment that the “tease” was next, it took me a moment to process just what he meant. And that kind of stuff happened all day. It’s a tough way to do live TV. We were so focused on simply getting on the air and doing a clean show that it took a while to realize, “Holy cow – Michigan may actually lose this thing.”
I’m honestly not sure the enormity of it completely sunk in until the end of the night, when a bunch of the management team and analysts Gerry DiNardo, Howard Griffith and I went out to Carmine’s in Chicago to “celebrate.” Once we got past the, “I can’t believe we launched a network today,” the conversation turned to the game. Was it the biggest upset in college football history? It might just have been, we concluded. And we had it on our air on the first day of a new network – a network that some had argued wouldn’t have anything worth watching.
So much for that argument.
Except that argument didn’t go away. It’s impossible to talk about the first year of BTN without talking about the distribution battles. As you may recall, a number of major cable companies in the region originally refused to carry the network. It was tough. I got asked about it all the time in radio interviews, newspapers editorialized about it, friends pestered me about the fact that they couldn’t get the games, one prominent coach in the conference referred to the network as a “PR nightmare.”
I can’t say enough about the job that BTN President Mark Silverman did in that first year, helping to keep us focused on our jobs. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d say. “It’ll get worked out. Just go out there and do the kind of great shows that make people feel like they’re missing out if they don’t have the network.”
And so that’s what we did. And, despite my generally pessimistic nature, I absolutely believed it would work out. I knew it was a network that I would watch as a Big Ten fan, and I was confident the groundswell of support would ultimately move the cable companies to pick us up, which eventually happened in the summer of 2008.
But “doing great shows” was easier said than done. One of the big challenges when you’re starting off like that is building chemistry – and that’s an area where we really lucked out. I had worked with Gerry at ESPN, as he and I cohosted ESPN Radio’s College Gameday (along with Todd McShay), and I knew he’d be great. I was thrilled when he decided to turn down their offer of an extension and come to BTN instead.
Howard was the unknown. Before we got on the air, the three of us took a tour of the Big Ten together, traveling to every school to meet the coaches and watch practice. What struck me immediately about Howard was how seriously he took it. He’d be the first to tell you that he didn’t know the league all that well in 2007. It’s hard for guys coming out of the pros to dive back in to the college game. But Howard really cared – and, man, he knows football. It didn’t take him long to get up to speed.
The best part of it, though, was the bonding on the road. While touring the conference, Howard, Gerry and I went out to dinner every night and really enjoyed each other’s company. By the time we got to New Orleans for the National Championship game, I really felt like we had hit our stride as a trio. We had an all-time great meal together at one of Gerry’s favorite spots, Jacque-Imo’s, an evening that included the three of us modeling an Elvis mask that the owner, Jacques, somewhat inexplicably brought over to the table. Ten years later, we’re still eating dinner together every night on the road, completing each other’s sentences, laughing at each other’s jokes, and giving each other no end of grief.
In the ensuing decade, the three of us have discussed what a significant milestone that game was for our coverage of the league – not so much for what happened during it, but for what happened afterward. As you may recall, Ohio State blew an early 10-0 lead and ended up getting beaten by two touchdowns in a game that truly didn’t even feel that close. It was ugly. It was the second straight year that Jim Tressel had taken a No. 1-ranked team into the title game only to be beaten soundly.
Gerry, Howard and I were in the midst of doing a postmortem on the field when we got word from Ohio State that Tressel would come join us for a post-game interview. Keep in mind, he was under no obligation to do so. But he came out and answered all of our questions as graciously and professionally as one possibly could under those circumstances. After the interview, in the commercial break, we thanked him for taking the time to speak to us. His response was something to the effect of, “Of course. You guys have been great all season, and you’re the conference network.”
For our trio, which had worked so hard in the past few months to build those relationships, it felt like a small piece of validation – validation we’ve built on in the subsequent ten years.
Though the basketball team from year one hasn’t endured ten years like the football crew has, I’d say we lucked out there too. Shon Morris has been with us since Day 1. He already had a ton of credibility in the conference and is as good a guy as you’ll ever find to work with. I’m in awe of the four liters of Diet Coke he consumes daily (a conservative estimate, by the way). And I’ll never forget Shon’s screaming, “OOOOHHHHH!!!!” as Blake Hoffarber canned the most memorable shot of that year’s Big Ten Tournament.
Joining Shon in that first year were Jimmy Jackson and Gene Keady. Jimmy’s story paralleled Howard’s – transitioning from the pro game back to the colleges. Like Howard, he worked diligently at it, fostering relationships with coaches, attending every shoot-around when we were calling games together, and making sure he knew all the storylines.
Watching Jimmy watch his son Traevon compete in two straight Final Fours for Wisconsin is one of the memories I cherish the most from our first ten years. We had a real heart to heart the night before the 2015 National Championship Game. He told me he was moving on to Fox, gave me a big hug and told me, “The thing that drove me early on was how hard you worked. I knew I had to know my stuff because I didn’t want to let you down. Thank you for showing me how it’s done.”
It got a little dusty for me in that restaurant that night.
And then, there was Gene Keady. What a fascinating experience. I’m going to come clean here. When I was in college, sitting in the opposing student section watching him coach, I was convinced he had to be one of the most miserable people on earth. Stomping around, perpetual scowl on his face, looking more and more like the Boilermaker mascot with each passing year – the thought that he would someday become a friend of mine would have seemed utterly laughable.
As it turns out he was the ultimate case of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Coach Keady is an absolute teddy bear – quick to laugh, a fantastic storyteller, and a devoted husband. He lost his wife, Pat, to cancer in 2009. To say he adored her would be an understatement. Given those long-ago impressions of coach, it was a bit surreal sitting with him while he poured his heart out about her health struggles.
That’s not to say he’s not a bit gruff around the edges, though. I vividly recall watching a Purdue game with him that first year in our green room. A bunch of BTN employees were in there, including one who had graduated from the school the Boilers were playing. Gene was living and dying with every hoop. The opposing team hit a big shot, the BTN employee cheered, and Gene glowered at him with a mix of frustration and shock and barked, “You’re not rooting for Purdue!” as if he had never considered the possibility that other fan bases existed.
It’s funny, but that first year is so much clearer in my mind than some of the ones that followed. The ensuing nine years were filled with great memories, but nothing can touch that first season. Everything was so new, and we were all so proud of it. And I’m still proud of it. We’ve certainly had some missteps along the way. I’d like to have our coverage of the first few days of the Jerry Sandusky scandal back, for instance.
But moments like that have been few and far between. I think we’ve gotten it right far more often than not. It’s so gratifying to go on the road and have fans come up to me and thank me for our coverage. Of course, I turn right around and thank them for watching and for trusting us to cover their universities. And that’s the biggest thing that has struck me in this decade – how personal what we do is to so many people. The pride that Big Ten fans have for their schools is overwhelming. They care so deeply. I’ve always felt an obligation to treat each and every school with the same reverence those alums do. To make sure they know that, though I might not have attended their university, I “get” their university.
The first decade came full circle for me this past spring. I covered Northwestern’s first-ever NCAA Tourney game for BTN, and, around my wrist, was my father’s watch. Northwestern was his school – his alma mater and the place where he taught for the bulk of his career. My father would have loved that team – and I wanted a piece of him to be there for the Wildcats’ big moment. He embodied the passion that has made BTN great.
I only wish he had been here to see it.