The decision to cancel this year’s NCAA Tournament may have been made in a matter of days, but the move wiped out nearly a year’s worth of planning by those who broadcast the games.
Bob Dekas, an 11-time Emmy winner who served as the lead producer for college basketball at CBS Sports for nearly three decades, recently gave the Journal-World a look at the work that goes into putting America’s favorite tournament on television.
While the cancellation of the 2020 tourney left a void in the hearts of basketball fans everywhere, Dekas also found himself thinking about the 150 or so employees who put on the event and the hundreds of hours of meetings and planning that went into preparing for it.
“People think you just push the button and it’s pictures flying through the air,” Dekas said in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. “But there’s a great deal of thought that’s put into all of this.”
The planning process for any given NCAA Tournament actually begins nine months earlier, in the summer, when the 13 venues used for the following year’s event are first scouted by someone like Dekas.
“I always went out and surveyed all 13 sites, all of the arenas, and I did that for 28 years,” Dekas said.
Often joined by the top technical manager at CBS Sports, Dekas carried with him a checklist of things he needed to figure out.
Where do they put the cameras? Which seats do they have to kill? Where do the trucks park? Where do the cables go? Where do the dishes go?
All of those questions, and more, were on Dekas’ to-do list as he crossed the country to prep for March Madness.
Dekas did his last Final Four in 2012, but still can recall in great detail the specific set up of several arenas and often thinks about them while watching games on television today.
After the scouting, Dekas and the rest of the CBS Sports crew got together, usually in July, for their first big planning meeting.
Dekas called this process “a look back,” and its focus was to review the previous tournament and begin planning for the next one.
“We wanted to look at what we did well, what we didn’t do well and how we could improve,” Dekas said.
During the next few months, Dekas spent most of his time putting together what he called “booklets” on each of the 13 sites — eight first- and second-round venues, four that hosted the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight and one more for the Final Four.
The booklets included everything Dekas learned about the venues, from camera placement and sightline concerns to seats that needed to be blocked off and equipment concerns.
“That way, everybody was on the same page,” said Dekas, who delivered dozens of the booklets to CBS Sports employees, arena workers, ticket offices and more at the winter meeting — “a look ahead” — each December.
Once plans were in place for how to set everything up, Dekas could turn his attention to preparing for the tournament and the games themselves.
According to Dekas, the CBS Sports “roster” was made up of eight different teams.
Each team included a producer, director, play-by-play announcer, color commentator, two broadcast assistants, an associate director and a reporter.
In all, each site had roughly 60 CBS Sports employees on hand, the eight team members joined by dozens of cameramen, audio technicians, researchers, replay crews and more.
For years, Dekas had the luxury of working with much of the same crew for the entire college basketball season. That included regular-season games in January all the way through the national championship game at the Final Four.
More importantly, Dekas’ team included the broadcast duo of iconic play-by-play voice Jim Nantz and tell-it-like-it-is color analyst Billy Packer, along with director Bob Fishman.
Together, that foursome worked 17 consecutive Final Fours and their chemistry, talent and camaraderie made them the premier crew in the sport.
“It was very obvious to anyone in college basketball back then that if you had Bob Dekas, Bob Fishman, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer working a game then that was the game of the weekend,” said former KU administrator Jim Marchiony, who also worked for the NCAA for 18 years prior to coming to KU.
The preparation Dekas’ team put into every game, postseason or otherwise, was relentless. And yet they always seemed to turn it up a notch when the tournament rolled around.
Nowhere was that more evident than at the third big planning meeting for the NCAA Tournament, which Dekas said typically took place about a week before the conference tournaments in late February or early March.
For two days in New York, all eight of CBS’s “teams,” a total of roughly 150 people, met for a seminar to plan out every detail of the upcoming tournament.
“We were basically on call 24 hours a day,” Dekas said. “When I say it was stressful, it was good stress. There was excitement and we were all so grateful to be in that room. We always started the seminar off with, ‘Is there anywhere in the world you’d rather be than in this room?’”
At that point, the production was put on cruise control, with putting out fires, repeat setups, meetings and high-profile games all a part of it.
Most years, CBS Sports held the rights to the Big Ten Tournament, so Dekas and his crew were usually at the Big Ten tourney on Selection Sunday, awaiting the release of the bracket like the rest of the college basketball world.
Dekas was one of just a few people in the world who actually got to see the bracket before it was released to the public.
He said he never gave it to Nantz or Packer until the Big Ten title game was over and they were off the air.
The reason CBS got the bracket 60-90 minutes before the general public was because the broadcast crew needed extra time to prepare for the turnaround from calling the title game to breaking down the bracket on national television. But Dekas always treated the responsibility of seeing it first as if he were in charge of a highly classified government document.
“In the old days, we had somebody guard our fax machine and I put everybody on high alert that this was really confidential stuff,” he said. “I can look God in the eye and tell him we did not give the announcers the bracket. But it was always a running joke during the commercial breaks, ‘Dek, do you have the brackets yet?’ Sometimes I would tell them the truth and sometimes I would pull their leg a little bit.”
It was at that point each year, Dekas said, that it felt like they were on the road to the Final Four.
“And we were already fried by that point,” he added.
For the next three weeks, sleep was hard to come by, work consumed nearly all of their waking hours and Dekas and his team often had the prime assignment of each round.
He and Nantz did their part to make sure of that, taking the night of Selection Sunday to enjoy a good meal, just the two of them, and break down the possible roads and the teams and games they would like to cover.
“We had the best job in America,” Dekas said. “Every weekend we went to the best college game that was happening.”
Even when it did not look like that would be the case, things still had a funny way of working out.
Take the 1992 NCAA Tournament, when Duke’s Christian Laettner hit his legendary shot that beat Kentucky to send the Blue Devils to the Final Four.
Dekas and his team were in Lexington, Ky., that year, following Michigan’s Fab Five team, and they missed out on the Duke-Kentucky game. While Laettner’s shot still stands as one of the biggest moments in NCAA Tournament history, the game Dekas produced — No. 6 seed Michigan knocking off top-seeded Ohio State — actually delivered higher ratings because the game went to overtime and featured Michigan’s Fab Five freshman class that changed basketball.
The calendar also played a small part in all of this. Dekas said his team always requested the Friday/Sunday sites so they could have one more day of preparation. Dekas said Packer was particularly fond of the extra day of prep time. And Dekas said the entire CBS family liked having Nantz in place to close the action on Sundays.
“We always wanted Jim’s voice to be the last voice that people heard before '60 Minutes,'” Dekas said.
After the final game at each site, the process started all over again. The trucks were packed and sent to the next town. Nantz, Packer, Dekas and Fishman examined what was left of the bracket and made their pitch for where they wanted to go next. And CBS crews across the country referred back to those booklets to get things set up at the next site. It all worked like clockwork, although Dekas had a more colorful way of describing it.
“We were like a circus,” he said. “We got the elephants in the truck and it was on to the next round.”