For the ninth year in a row, Ernie Johnson is pulling double duty for Turner Sports. The 62-year-old is midway through his annual three-week stint covering March Madness on top of his usual NBA on TNT duties, the sort of transition between sports that has become almost second nature throughout three decades at Turner.
Earlier in March, Johnson talked to Front Office Sports about his March Madness studio work, his advice for college students looking to get into sports business and the one event he’d love to broadcast, among other things. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Front Office Sports: It’s been nine years of Turner Sports’ March Madness partnership with CBS. When you first got into it, was there some concern about how you would be able to cover the college game while covering the NBA all season?
Ernie Johnson: I don’t know if there was really concern. I just kind of wondered how it would play out. Will the preparation that I had done be sufficient to what I’ll need on a day-to-day basis? It was more uncertainty about how this whole thing would play out than anything else. I’ve kind of got it into a rhythm now. How I prepare, when I start really focusing on the college game while still doing the NBA. So yeah, all systems go. Everything is on schedule. I love this time of year, and I just think it’s just one of the greatest times in the sports world all year long.
FOS: What have you learned about the aura around the college game?
EJ: It’s different than the NBA. I think the emotional tie-in between player and coach and some things that you see in the college game, you don’t see as much in the NBA. The finality of when you lose a game in the Tournament and that’s maybe the last time you ever put a uniform on if your college career is coming to a close. You can see laid open the bonds that coaches and player feel. When I’m on a team gets knocked out and the coach says ‘I’ll never coach this kid again’… You can see it on Senior Day. I was watching Michigan State on TV and it’s Senior Day and Michigan State’s going to the tournament, but Tom Izzo had tears in his eyes because he’s watching one of the seniors walk off their floor for the last time. That’s powerful stuff.
FOS: You wrote “Unscripted” two years ago, and you really opened up to people. How have people opened up to you after reading that and feeling comfortable and talking about their own lives with you?
EJ: I didn’t really know what to expect when I wrote it, but what’s cool is I’ll get spotted in an airport and it won’t be somebody saying, “Hey, where’s Charles?” It will be, “Hey, my dad was just starting chemotherapy, and I gave him your book.” Because that’s the thing, what I wrote about in the book was about things that we’ve experienced, whether that’s adoption or raising handicapped children or going through something like cancer or just the relationship between father and son. The real gratifying part about it has just been hearing from people who have read it and have had different parts of the book impact their lives or help them through a difficult time. I had a guy come up to me, and he said, “My dad and I hadn’t spoken in about 10 years and he gave me your book for Father’s Day and it opened up our relationship again. And I said, “You couldn’t have said anything more impactful to me.” That’s the reason I wrote the book in the first place is because I hoped it would speak to somebody on some level.
FOS: So many people are trying to get into sports business, sports media and whatnot. What is your advice to people trying to start a life in sports?
EJ: Well, persevere. Be the hardest-working person in the classroom or at the work site. My dad’s best advice to me was be yourself. I think you can never change that. You have to be who you are. You can’t just be who you think somebody wants you to be. Being yourself is important. I also think your work ethic has to be unbelievable. You can’t think you’re going to bluff your way through. I’ve tried to always realize that, even now at 30 years here, I know that the world is filled with college graduates who look at me on that show and say, ‘I could do that now. Why has he been there for 30 years?’ Well, that keeps me working hard. That keeps me looking at tapes of our show and saying, “I could’ve done this better.”
FOS: Why do you think you’ve been there so long?
EJ: That’s an excellent question. I want to think that I’m working hard and knowing my role and being able to facilitate conversations and not taking myself too seriously and not trying to make the show about me. I think those all help. You’d have to ask the first person who hired me and the subsequent bosses who didn’t fire me why they wanted me there. That’s not my decision. But it’s been 30 years and I’m not close to wanting to stop.
FOS: You’ve done so much in sports. People don’t know things like you did studio work for the 1990 World Cup. If there is one sporting event that you still wish you could cover that you haven’t covered what would it be?
EJ: It’d be fun to do The Masters. But I never focus on what I haven’t done. I just count the blessing it’s been to do all the things that we have done from the British Open to Wimbledon to the PGA Championship to baseball, you name it. I’ve gotten to do everything a guy who loves sports would want to do. But, yeah, calling the action at Augusta National, that might be fun. But it’s not going to break my heart if it never happens.
FOS: Have you been to a Masters before?
EJ: Yeah, I used go down there and cover the practice rounds and that kind of thing, and I played the course once with my dad back in 1998. It was the most awesome day of golf of all time. That was the one time you play a round of golf that you wish would go slower. Most of the time, you say, “Come on, speed up.” But that day, it was like, “Slow down. Let’s enjoy this.”
FOS: What’d you shoot?
EJ: I broke 100. I think it was like 97. My dad shot 95 or something like that, but it was awesome.