Ernie Johnson Talks NCAA Tourney As Turner Sports-CBS Relationship Begins Seventh Year
Even before becoming one of the primary studio hosts for the NCAA Tournament, Ernie Johnson loved March Madness, and considered it one of his favorite events in all of sports. With the Turner Sports-CBS relationship for full coverage of the tourney now in its seventh year, Johnson feels the collaborative effort is in a "rhythm." Johnson: "The first year was kind of a challenge because you really didn’t have any way to gauge it." First-round play gets under way today -- part of what Johnson calls the "two busiest days of my sports year" -- and he took time to chat with THE DAILY about his prep work for the tourney, issues facing college hoops and what to expect from longtime studiomates Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith.
Q: What's your process for prepping for the Tournament?
Johnson: When it’s November, I am watching a little bit of college ball. December, I need to sit down and watch games more closely and look at players. Then you ramp it up into January, February and into March. I have been keeping individual team files ever since we started this. I probably have files on 200 teams right now who could make it or did make it in the past. So, you have that to draw from, and then you're kind of in a situation where you're updating your notes on each of these teams and what players are there, who has left and what players went to the NBA early. It really is a gradual process through the years. The Monday after the Selection Show, you sit down in the morning and you go through every team in the bracket, you draw from the stuff that Stats Inc. has given you about the teams and you're getting nuggets about the players and teams. Then you’re pretty much ready when Thursday gets here.
Q: What is your favorite part of March Madness?
Johnson: What's great about it is it shrinks the world a little bit. It brings everybody together. You really have to have a will of iron to be that guy who's not going to take part in the bracket at your work. You don’t even have to be a basketball fan. It puts people at the water cooler talking about whether they think Middle Tennessee can make a run. Maybe these are folks who never would have spoken in the past, but now they have this common ground. Game-wise, it's tremendous theater. It means so much to every player who's in it -- especially those who may be putting on the uniform for the last time. You can’t forget about that aspect -- even when you look at a game on a Thursday where it might end up being a 35-point blowout. Somebody in there will be playing for the last time in a meaningful basketball game. I am always struck by the player-coach relationship at a time like that, because some of the best things you hear are from coaches who have to explain a loss or describe what it feels like to move on. You see a bond between player and coach that you really don’t see all the time in the NBA. It’s really powerful stuff.
Q: What would you say is the biggest issue that college basketball currently faces?
Johnson: The one and done, I am not a huge fan. It makes life easier on coaches if you know you have kids for a couple of years. Kids also are more prepared for the NBA. I would love to see a two-year deal. It would make our prep easier, too. We wouldn’t have to keep asking how many freshman aren't on a certain team anymore.
Q: Is there any big difficulty in switching from your NBA host role over to an NCAA one?
Johnson: In the NBA, you’re dealing with 30 teams, and then suddenly you’re dealing with 68 teams and the possibility that somebody else might go in, so you have to be ready for those teams too. And then you do all the research on this team and you think, "Oh, I have those guys down pat," and they lose by 30 and you put their file away for another year.
Q: How much attention do Barkley and Smith really give to college basketball?
Johnson: Kenny and Charles go at their pace. But when they’re not working the NBA, they're watching college ball. We all love the game. It’s not like we’re saying, "Alright we’re going to be knee deep in the NBA season and then were going to cover curling." On a night off, you're going to watch college hoops. For the two weekends of the tournament, we also have Clark Kellogg in the studio, who has been immersed in college basketball all year. It's a really good mix and we use Clark effectively. It really isn't a seismic transformation going from the NBA to the college game, because in the end you’re talking basketball, and Kenny and Charles talk basketball as well as anybody.
Q: What grade would you give the Selection Committee this year?
Johnson: So many people are breaking down what happened on Selection Sunday. But if all the talk comes down to "Hey, so Syracuse didn’t make. Should they have made it?" When you’re in a situation like that, then they get an "A." There will always be issues, but sometimes we go out of our way to make something an issue.