Sometimes, the best games are made for TV

Originally Published: September 11, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Televised college football comes to us through the iconic voice of Keith Jackson, the bar-stool repartee of Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, the fetching sideline sight of Jill Arrington. But televised college football is brought to us by the men behind the scenes who create, manipulate and relocate games for our viewing pleasure.

It's brought to us by guys like Loren Matthews, senior vice-president in charge of programming at ABC who held the same title at ESPN for most of the 1980s and '90s. It was Matthews who cajoled Miami and Florida State out of October and onto Labor Day night (until Hurricane Charley forced a delay).

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And it's brought to us by guys like Dave Brown, Matthews' successor at ESPN. It was Brown who helped make USC-Virginia Tech happen in the BCA Classic to open the season, and it was Brown who helped seal the deal on Oregon State-LSU Sept. 4 (which he said was the network's highest-rated September game since 1998).

And given the convulsions in conference affiliation and resulting scramble to sever old contracts and create new ones, the influence of match-making programmers is probably at a peak. As one college administrator recently said, "With the conference changes, (Brown) might be the most important guy in the country when it comes to scheduling."

Got a game you're trying to get out of? Call the TV guys for assistance. Got a game you'd like to get into? Call the TV guys. Or they might be calling you with the Opportunity of a Lifetime.

"I'm talking to people right now about 2005, and some moves there," Matthews said.

Teams that are willing to have their schedules massaged by TV are repaid with enhanced exposure and revenue, but it's not always an easy trade. Steeped as they are in tradition, college football powers are not the most receptive entities to change.

Matthews recalls trying to get Michigan to play a night game.

"They said, 'Over my dead body,'" he said. "I said, 'Does that mean no?'"

He also remembers trying to get old-school programs like Nebraska and Penn State to play night games in the 1980s. He finally succeeded in getting Nebraska to play UCLA on prime time, when Troy Aikman was quarterbacking the Bruins.

"You would have thought the sky was falling in," he said. "Then they do it, and they call me and say, 'Hey, that was great. What do you have for next year?'"

Matthews was at ESPN when it launched what now is a college football staple, the Thursday night game. He said former CFA head Chuck Neinas first approached him with the idea. Matthews' response: "What have you been smoking?"

"But the sky didn't fall in," Matthews said. "Teams liked the attention, liked the exposure. And as we got better teams and better games and better cooperation from the conferences on scheduling, it seemed to take on a life of its own."

Matthews loves teams like Florida State and Miami, who schedule adventurously and are willing to play outside the traditional Saturday afternoon box. After a couple of years of work, he was able to get the Seminoles and Hurricanes to do what few teams will do: play a big-time opponent to open the season.

"I told them, 'Somebody is going to lose when you play it in October, so play it in September instead. You'll have five more weeks to make it up if you lose,'" Matthews said.

The only thing the TV guys love than flexible schools are schools that win. Whoever is on top and drawing ratings is their current love interest.

For Matthews, that means USC. Defending national champions, major TV market, broad national appeal, sensational individual players ... they're a programming dream.

"USC, by contract, I can put them on six times," Matthews said. "And you can bet, they'll be on six times. I guarantee it.

"When I say my prayers at night, I include USC in them. But it wasn't too long ago that I didn't have much interest in USC. We're with them win or tie.

"I tell everyone this: television's a front-runner. All we want are the highest-ranked teams, the undefeated teams, the high-profile games."

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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