Chris Fowler is in the middle of an 11-day stretch in which he'll call a College Football Playoff semifinal game in Miami, an epic Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Utah, today's NFL finale between the Chiefs and Broncos, and the College Football Playoff championship game. Then he'll jump right into preparation for the Australian Open. Like an accountant in April, this is his crazy time of year.
The versatile and venerable ESPN voice joined The Big Lead for a conversation about his busy schedule, enjoying the moments, the unusual circumstances surrounding the last title game featuring Alabama and Georgia, and the search for relaxed energy.
The Big Lead: How do you view your role in these historic events, whether it be the college football games that matter most or a championship match at a Grand Slam?
Chris Fowler: The games or matches when they're at that level are part of the history of the sport. I view that as a responsibility to document that chapter in history. Not that my call is historic but what we're watching is, so you do your best to document that.
That just sets apart the play-by-play role from the pundit's role or the host's role. When you document something, it's not about your opinion or your personality. It's about what's happening on the field or court. To me, the ones that have done that well are the ones I respect the most. Obviously, you're going to put your personality on it, you're going to bring to bear your experiences but ultimately it's about telling the viewer what's going on.
TBL: What drives your desire to do disparate things? Is it the challenge? It seems like college football and tennis could not be more different in terms of the vibe and energy. Is it fun to drive your car different speeds?
CF: It's the fun and the challenge. First of all, they're my two favorite sports. I was a tennis fan as long as I was a football fan. In 1974, along come Jimmy Connors and Chrissy Evert and they win Wimbledon. I'm 11-years-old and kind of an average player and I fell in love with tennis. It was the early tennis broadcasts, the one Dick Enberg did that made me begin to realize the specialness of Wimbledon and how cool these championship tennis matches were. That happened before I ever wanted to call college football.
I've wanted to do this job since I was 10. My grandmother was a sports fan, my earliest experiences were listening to games with her on the radio in the Chicago area in the late 1960s and sort of figuring out in that moment, wow, what could be better to do with your life than convey the excitement of a live sporting event to other people? People who were just as excited, and like me, sitting out there listening to a transistor radio with my grandmother in the backyard while she was in a folding chair scoring every Cubs game. Those early voices of Chicago sports were most influential to me in terms of wanting to do this job.
Fast forward, getting a chance to do college football and tennis, it's not an accident, I navigated in this direction and I was lucky we got all the rights to tennis grand slams and the Playoff. You get a chance to take on a challenge, you want to do it because you understand how rare the opportunity is, how many people would like to be in your position.
The sports are very different. When you call a tennis match and a big football game you're documenting the event each time but how you do that is very different and the mechanics of the job are very different because the sports, as you said, are nothing alike.
TBL: So do you think of your audience at all? Do you consider how to make a football game special to someone in rural Alabama or a U.S. Open match special for someone who maybe lives in Manhattan and this is the one sporting event they watch each year?
CF: You're aware of the audience more in tennis than in football because when we do a Serena Williams match or a Roger Federer match you're aware the majority of your audience is heavily invested in one player. It's almost like they have a home team. Because that's a fact and you owe it to the audience — you need to be fair to both players of course — but they're going to filter it through a Serena lens or a Roger lens. Sometimes Roger losing is a bigger story than the other player winning and you frame it that way.
It's not that you gear it incredibly differently. I would say you're more conscious of your audience when you're doing the Australian Open in the middle of the night here or you're doing Wimbledon and it's the morning. You're aware that the energy you bring should line up with the experience of the people watching the match. You don't do a Wimbledon match at 9 a.m. ET the same way you do a U.S. Open match. The energy is a little different, your presentation is just different.
You're not preoccupied with it, though. You still need to document the event. In football the audience is much broader. I don't do a broadcast for someone in Georgia or Alabama or California or on Mars. You just do it the best way you can.
TBL: You had the Rose Bowl a few days ago, which was incredible and almost as good at the Penn State-USC one a few years ago. When you get a moment like that and the sun is hitting the San Gabriel mountains and all those clichés, does it still feel special? What moments still stand out to you after all these years and still feel like the first time doing it?
CF: The gratitude. I'm very present when I work a Rose Bowl or Wimbledon. You're very aware of how lucky you are there, you're aware of the energy of the place and a lot of the people have the exact same feeling. Nowhere else they'd rather be than right here, right now and a lot of them have waited their whole life to be there.
When I'm doing the Rose Bowl, most of them have been very close, coming down to one score. Three of them have been all-time classics if you count the Georgia-Oklahoma playoff game. USC-Penn State is one of the most enjoyable broadcasts I've ever had because it was not Armageddon! Title on the line! It was just a beautiful football game with a lot of star power and scoring, back and forth, in a perfect setting. It was pure fun.
The only sad thing for me is one team has to lose. Ohio State-Utah was close to that game. I'd put it just a half-step behind in terms of the drama of it but it was incredible and I think Utah brought a freshness to it. Ohio State's resilience was pretty cool and that game, in terms of postseason games that were not playoff games, those two are in their own category.
TBL: If I'm not mistaken, the last time Alabama and Georgia played for the title you were pretty sick.
CF: I had the flu. I felt worse and worse through the day. I got a bug and had a sore throat and headache, fever, chills and all that. It got worse during the game, to be honest with you. What I remember about that is when Alabama's kicker missed a field goal to win it. You set it all up. Here's the story. Alabama is going to come from behind to win it and break Georgia's heart. He misses the kick so the game goes to overtime.
I remember thinking 'uh-oh, my fuel tank is empty.' Mentally and physically I somehow have to keep going now. Adrenaline gets you through it but overtime is a very unique thing in college football, especially if a championship is on the line. It could be a once-in-a-career thing and it can literally end on any play. It requires another level of focus and concentration.
You're not just thinking of documenting, you're thinking of 'if it ends here, what's the right thing to say?' Your focus is pretty divided and I didn't have much focus left at that time. If you remember, Alabama gets it and Tua gets sacked. He took a 16-yard loss. It's disastrous, the worst possible start to an overtime period for a team. Now, that's a monstrous play. All of our camera angles and Kirk Herbstreit's expertise, it's all coming into play. We need to analyze what could be the decisive play. At that point, it's an emergency for Alabama.
Because we had to document that play, we got back to the live shot just before the snap. That's not ideal. You wouldn't have pointed out DeVonta Smith pre-snap because he hadn't done much all year. He wouldn't have been the wide receiver you targeted there, but you might have seen the DB across from him was in single coverage because that was a guy they picked on a lot. We didn't have time to set the stage, but then again, who knew? Who knew he was going to chuck it to the end zone and the season was going to be over five seconds later?
That's the challenge of the championship moment, which has very rarely happened in the sport. When you march down for a game-winning field goal or it's a goal-line play, there's a rhythm to it. Deshaun Watson against Alabama: he wins it, they move down the field. We've done a good job chronicling that drive. Now they're down inside the 5-yard line and you know that this play is make-or-break. Very different than what happened in Atlanta.
You do the best you can on the fly to describe the play and then you have to lay out because the season's now over. One side is ecstatic and the other side's crushed, so the best you can do it let that unfold. It was a very unusual call because it was an unusual circumstance. At the time I just screamed 'touchdown, Alabama wins' because that's the most important thing to say, right? Normally what you'd do is follow up, identify the receiver and get some information out there that would be beneficial in documenting the play. But the pictures just said shut up.
When you think of the great calls that have been done in championship games in football -- Keith Jackson when Vince Young runs for a touchdown to beat USC in the Rose Bowl -- that was a drive that was unfolding. The drama was set. Vince Young was trying to be a hero and he does it singlehandedly scrambling and it happens like a movie. That is a more conventional game-winning play. It was wild what happened in Atlanta and it's why I don't think it's likely to happen again even if I do this a long time. It was just such a unique situation.
TBL: But you're feeling good now, right? They're not working you too hard with this schedule?
CF: I feel great. [Laughs] Nothing's more important than taking care of yourself in life and especially this. Rest. Hydration. Food. Exercise. That's as much a part of this kind of thing as looking at your chart, making phone calls or watching tape. None of that matters if you're not right and I've learned that now. It's an important lesson: don't burn it at both ends, save yourself for what's most important.
If I have a regret about that championship game it's that I wasn't able to enjoy it. Honestly, it should be pure enjoyment. When you're lucky enough to have that assignment, you hope to have your fastball, have relaxed intensity. [Laughs] And I just couldn't get there. There was just no way, I felt so sick I wasn't enjoying it. I plan to enjoy every play of it Monday night.
One thing I want to say is that what I do isn't an individual sport. You're surrounded by quality people. I have Kirk. If I'm feeling bad, he's there to pick me up. I had to do that for him last year. He missed the semifinal because of COVID. He was in his living room calling Clemson-Ohio State, an enormously important game for him and the sport. We were working together to make it as good as we could.
TBL: Honestly, I was really surprised how smooth that one came across. That was sort of a last-minute thing too, right?
CF: I got a text that said 'can you talk?' and I thought 'this isn't good.' We had done it once in the regular season. Thankfully we had some practice. I'm very proud of that because a lot of broadcasts like that were split up like that, more than people realize. Twenty-six seasons together is how you're able to do that. The connection that we have from studio shows, from Thursday night games is pretty good. That got us to the championship game and Kirk wasn't good for that one either. He's talked about this, it's not anything I'm sharing out of school. You help each other out, try to be as sharp as you can, bring your energy for your partner because that's what they do for you.
If it's a bad game we lean on each other a lot, that's what you have to do. You're working together, not to create artificial excitement, but to try to engage the viewer, many of them who are as disappointed as you are either because their team is losing or they wanted to see a great game. Like everyone who wasn't a Georgia fan the other night. That's where the truck helps and the spotter and the stats person. Everyone works together.