Johnson, Davis partner up at FOX
They came into the stadium as strangers. They left as partners.
Veteran sportscasters Charles Davis and Gus Johnson arrived at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday to film a public service announcement. It was the first meeting for the new stars of FOXSports’ college football broadcasting lineup.
"It’s going to be fun," Davis said. "We’re men of the same age that have some similar experiences. We appreciate the purity of the college game. I don’t think it will take very long for us to develop a chemistry. As a matter of fact, I think we’ve already developed it in seconds, with the first handshake."
In between takes for the shoot, Davis and Johnson sat down and shared some strong opinions on amateurism, why Lane Kiffin is so polarizing and why college fans outside the South just don’t understand that whole "SEC thing.”
"It’s a different mind-set in the South," said Davis, who played defensive back in the SEC atTennessee. "In a lot of ways, football is how they define themselves. Football is what helped move the South up in terms of how people view the South. It’s like, ‘Hey, you may think we’re a bunch of hicks, and we’re this and that and everything, but we just kicked your behind out there.’"
"Football is what we see, what we think about, what we live and breathe, and it’s just different," Davis continued. "In the South, you’re defined as who’s your school, and if you’re an SEC person, that comes in right behind it. There’s a saying in the South: God, family, football. And on Saturdays, (that) order might get changed."
Johnson, like Davis, has spent a lot of time in the South, so he also has a good feel for why the fans are seemingly so much more passionate about their football than fans out West.
"I lived in the South," said Johnson, who has made his home in North Carolina and Alabama and also has obviously broadcast games in the region. "There’s a lot of tradition in those parts of the world in terms of the fiber of who those people are.
“Whereas, look at the weather out here in California. There’s a lot to do, man. There’s the beach, you got the ocean, palm trees, beautiful weather . . . there are other distractions."
Johnson and Davis agree one venue in the new Pac-12 is starting to gain momentum as a hostile place to play — but not before giving the SEC another shout-out.
"The Swamp is pretty good," Johnson said. "Steve Spurrier had it going (when he coached the Florida Gators there). That’s another tough place to play because you know they will beat you by a hundred. If at all possible, their goal was to beat you by a hundred.
“I’m starting to get the feeling just watching Oregon over the years, that (Autzen Stadium) is becoming a similar type situation."
"Autzen is intimidating as heck," Davis said. "Who’s gone in there in recent years and come out and gotten beat? Oklahoma’s gone there and gotten beat (34-33 in 2006), Michigan’s gone there and gotten beat (31-27 in 2003) — teams in the past didn’t even think about it but nowadays; you have to think twice about going there."
Oregon, like so many other high-profile programs, is under the NCAA’s microscope, but Johnson and Davis agree the scandals that seem to permeate college football — specifically ones involving players receiving impermissible benefits — aren’t getting worse.
"It’s always been there,” Johnson said, “and will always be there." Added Davis: "This is not new."
Nor is the controversy over whether players should be compensated.
"College sports are college sports," Johnson said adamantly. "They’re amateur sports. If you want to play professional football, play professional football . . . if you want to play professional basketball, play professional basketball."
"I think the universities do a great job in investing in the kids with a four-year scholarship, giving them also the training and the exposure to go on, to do better in life, not just to do better in life in terms of athletics but better in life as a human being (and) as a graduate of a university. We need to protect the sacredness of the young student-athlete."
Johnson scoffed at the notion athletes should be compensated.
"Of course not, that’s ridiculous," he said. "They are being compensated. You’re getting a free education. You’re getting an opportunity to get coached by some of the greatest coaches in the world. You’re also getting some of the greatest exposure in the world. On top of that, you’re getting some of the greatest experience in the world. Experience is invaluable."
Johnson and Davis will be calling Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and, possibly, some Conference USA college football games for FOX.
But calling a USC game, whose head coach previously coached at Davis’ alma mater, Tennessee, has its intrigue. Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, formerly at Tennessee, has taken a verbal beat-down from Vols fans and the media, while former embattled Vols basketball coach Bruce Pearl has not.
So what’s the deal with the fans in Knoxville?
"Lane Kiffin gave all he had while he was at Tennessee," Davis said. "They played hard. They were well-coached and they won some games they weren’t expected to win. Tennessee has always viewed itself as the destination capital. This is not a job where you take a job and now you’re going somewhere else — even if it is a USC.
"Tennessee doesn’t concede to anyone. ‘We’re Tennessee. When you come to Tennessee, you’re gonna stay awhile. Unless we run you out.’
"One year and you’re going somewhere else?" Davis asked rhetorically. "Bruce Pearl — he didn’t leave on his own accord. Bruce Pearl left because of some mistakes that he had made. If Lane Kiffin had decided to stay, he would’ve been embraced."
And with that, FOXSports’ new duo had to get back to filming their public service announcement for the Dream Foundation, the first national wish-granting organization for adults suffering life-threatening illness.
As they walked toward the green grass of the Coliseum, I asked Johnson — known for catch phrases such as "Rise and fire . . . count it!" and "cold-blooded"— if college football fans could expect any new "Gus-isms."
"If these kids get up and down this field, start making plays, I’m sure something’s going to come out," he said, laughing.
And what about Twitter? Is there a possibility of Gus Johnson tweeting?
"A couple of drinks . . . a computer . . . late night . . . on Twitter, and I’m bagging groceries again," Johnson said. "So I’m not interested."