As the fans at Rentschler Field in East Hartford enjoy their tailgate parties, the Huskies football team begins to prepare for game day, and hoop fans prepare for tip-off before men’s and women’s basketball games, another UConn team already has its own game plan in motion.
The WTIC/UConn Radio Network provides Husky Nation with pre-game, play-by-play, and post-game coverage during the football and basketball seasons. Now in its 20th year, the radio network’s broadcasts have provided a consistency and unique insights into Husky games through a network of local Connecticut radio stations.
“I think we still have a place in people’s lives,” says Wayne Norman, veteran analyst for both football and men’s basketball games and the morning host on WILI, a network affiliate, since 1971. “There is a following on the radio for pre-game and post-game that TV is not doing. People tell me that a lot of the time we’re talking about the game when the TV guys are not. That’s what people want to hear.”
Bob Joyce has hosted the football pre-game show since 2003 and is in his sixth season as the play-by-play voice for women’s basketball broadcasts, where he also handles the pre-and post-games. His preparation for football pre-game shows begins with weekly media sessions conducted by the Big East, so beat reporters and broadcasters can talk with opposing coaches, and UConn’s own weekly local media opportunity with head coach Paul Pasqualoni and student-athletes talking about upcoming games.
Norman and Joe D’Ambrosio, play-by-play voice for football and men’s basketball, also conduct interviews for various segments they produce for the broadcast. Kevin Nathan, sports director for NBC CT, completes the on-air team, with his sideline reports during the game and as host of the post-game call-in show.
“The pre-game is pretty well formatted,” Joyce says. “Joe, Wayne, and Kevin meet before the broadcast to talk about storylines. We have an opening segment, snippets of player and coach interviews, and highlights of games in progress, if it’s a late start. Joe and Wayne review the last game, look ahead to the next game, and do an athletics update for other UConn teams. Then I talk with two [newspaper] beat reporters. It’s very well structured.”
For games at Rentschler Field, the WTIC broadcast begins at 5:30 a.m. on ”Ray At The Rent,” with weekday morning host Ray Dunaway and sportscaster Scott Gray, before Nathan takes over at 9:30 a.m. for the one-hour “Tailgate Show” that he produces. Joyce then hosts “UConn Football Magazine” until kickoff. Before road games, Joyce broadcasts from the WTIC studios in Farmington.
Timing is everything during a radio broadcast, so Joyce tracks each segment and talks with his on-air partners during commercial breaks to make any necessary adjustments.
During games, D’Ambrosio’s call of the plays moves listeners up and down the field. He describes the offensive and defensive formations, and follows the ball on the ground or through the air, his voice rising and falling with the action.
“You always hope the team you’re broadcasting for wins because it makes a better broadcast,” says D’Ambrosio, now in his 20th consecutive year calling UConn games. “But if the team you’re broadcasting isn’t playing well, or the other team does something spectacular, you have to give the credit. That’s the only way the broadcast has any balance. We’re there to tell the story, to tell you what’s going on, on the field. I don’t think, in 20 years here, there has been anyone who talked to us about being pro-UConn, because they trust us as professionals.”
After working with D’Ambrosio for so long, Norman instinctively knows when he can jump in to provide his commentary, adding background about a player, an update on game statistics, or insight to a play based on conversations with coaches during the week. Meanwhile, Nathan is viewing the action on the field, walking the sidelines to offer further details on specific plays.
“I have to listen intently [to the broadcast],” says Nathan, a former Division III All-American defensive back at Dickinson College. “I have to be ready for when [Joe] does come to me. The other thing is I try to give a different perspective than Wayne has given. Sometimes I can pick up coverages because these guys are looking [at the play] generally. I can look for specifics.”
“I think the average fan would be stunned by the amount of preparation work we do,” says Norman, who has worked UConn broadcasts since 1981. “I grew up [in California] listening to [Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play man] Vin Scully. He said it’s just like doing a final exam. Maybe you’re only using 30 percent of your material, but you’re prepared [for anything].”
While a football game is in progress, Joyce is also deeply involved in the proceedings, tracking plays at home games with site producer Eric Davis or for road games in the WTIC studios with producer Joey Bourgoin, marking key plays for sound bite highlights used during the post-game broadcasts.
After the game, Joyce recounts the day’s events, and provides updates about other Big East and national games, including UConn game highlights, before turning over the microphone to Nathan, who hosts a live call-in show for fans, which can be best described as a high-wire act without a net. Fans who are driving home from games, or have just finished watching on television, call in with their views on how the Huskies fared. Some call in with praise, others with strongly voiced criticism.
“I love the passion from the fans. It makes for good radio,” Nathan says. “The fact is, if they weren’t so passionate and didn’t care so much, they’d make people like me obsolete.”
He says that when the call-in show first aired in 2003, most calls were complaints about parking and fans leaving the game early. Now, he says, the calls are about the game.
“The metamorphosis of UConn football is that now almost all of the calls are about the game,” Nathan says. “I look at it as the more negative the callers get, it just tells me the more passionate the fans get, that they care and it’s a growing thing.”
Even having broadcast so many games for so long, when asked about their most memorable moments, the answers come quickly, centering on basketball.
D’Ambrosio: “The first men’s basketball championship game [77-74 over Duke in 1999], because we knew everyone was hanging on every word.”
Norman: “77-74 also. The other two title games had special elements – the margin versus Georgia Tech [82-73] in 2004, and the incredible defense versus Butler last year – but the first is always the best.”
Joyce: “I guess the most fun [women’s basketball] game I’ve had would be in Maya Moore’s freshman year . They played Carolina here and rallied from 10 back at the half. Gampel was just electric and it was fun.”
Nathan: “The Notre Dame [football] game two years ago. My grandfather went there in the 1920s, so I was a big Notre Dame fan. Just going there alone was the thrill of a lifetime, but to watch UConn come from behind in double overtime was just unbelievable.”