Q&A: Dari Nowkhah, Maria Taylor & Peter Burns
This week we had a chance to catch up with SEC Network’s Dari Nowkhah, Maria Taylor, and Peter Burns. We discussed life at the network, their thoughts on the first-ever College Football Playoffs, and what it’s like being in the heart of college sports’ craziest fan base!
You’ve been with the SEC Network since its launch last August. What are some of your overall thoughts on how things have been going for the past nine months?
Taylor: It’s been above and beyond my expectations. I didn’t know how much man power they were really spinning from Bristol; the people that I work with have worked on SportsCenter, they’ve worked in the NFL, they’ve been on NBA shows or college football shows so everyone has a ton of experience. I think it’s so important to know how much resources and manpower ESPN has thrown at us to make it [SEC Network] a success; it didn’t just happen overnight and people have been working insanely hard. I’m excited to celebrate the one-year anniversary because of all the back work that’s been put into it. It’s pretty extraordinary to be a part of.
Burns: This is the first time I’ve worked underneath the ESPN umbrella and I kind of wondered what it would be like working for the worldwide leader. What I really enjoyed is it’s [SEC Network] almost like a startup environment because we’re starting up the network, but there’s so much collaborative effort. Whether it’s myself or Dari or Maria or the head of the network or just one of our production assistants, everyone has an equal say. There’s not really much of a hierarchy here, which I think has helped us develop an atmosphere of opportunity, which has led to us creating some great content.
Nowkhah: I’ll be honest, it’s exceeded my expectations. For one, on opening night we were available in as many houses as we expected to be in five years down the road. Secondly, though I don’t deal with the budget, I did not expect for us to do as many things on the road, even on the studio level, as we’ve done. It’s a really cool way to make a statement to our viewers that we can be anywhere at anytime and we want to bring the great atmospheres that we all get to see everyday into your living room, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
You all have such different paths that led to your positions at the SEC Network. What was the biggest adjustment you personally had to make in your transition there?
Taylor: When I gave up on being an athlete and decided to invest fully in broadcasting, it was definitely a struggle. When I would do games, it would be hard not to be on the court. There was a time I didn’t even want to watch on TV because I missed it so much. Now I’m at the point where I want to watch it because I know these girls, I want to watch because I want to see great collegiate athletes. The biggest transition I think you go through as an athlete is trying to figure out what that next step is. There’s no way to prepare for it because it’s such a part of your life and ingrained in you, but you have to start thinking a little bit differently. You have to turn your brain from identifying as ‘I’m an athlete’ to ‘I’m a broadcaster’ and so now the story is all about somebody else, and it’s a great story to tell.
Nowkhah: It wasn’t much of a transition for me, to be honest. Maybe a little bit more studio-based travel but I’m still doing the same amount of play-by-play, and the same ESPN Radio show Saturday mornings. I’m working with a lot of people I worked with when I was in Bristol doing SportsCenter. I’m working with a lot of the same CP’s, producers, and directors, so that influx of Bristol has made the transition pretty smooth, and has helped our product on-air and behind the scenes in every way imaginable.
Burns: I was always a radio guy, so my first month and a half on TV was all a blur. My first priority was to make sure that I didn’t have any video clips that were going to end up on YouTube as a — what do you call it? Meme? But it’s been great. It’s definitely different going from the spoken word to all of a sudden people can see when you make a mistake, but I think if anything it’s made me focus a little bit more. The only big change now is that I never had to wear makeup in the radio world. It’s actually funny when I think about it now – why don’t we wear makeup on radio? It look better, I mean come on, this is fantastic! But really the talent around the office has been awesome, they really helped teach me the ropes.
Have there been discussions as to how the SEC Network will evolve over the next year or so?
Nowkhah: Not really, no. College baseball is actually pretty big in this part of the country. In fact, I think six of the top seven or seven of the top eight attendances nationally are out of the SEC for baseball. The fans love it, so we’ll be at the SEC Baseball Tournament which is at Hoover in Alabama. There haven’t been talks of what we’ll do if an SEC team is playing for the National Championship as one of the last two in Omaha, but given what else we’re doing I would be surprised if we didn’t go. We’re making it pretty clear that we will spend the money to put on good programming away from Charlotte and they haven’t been shy about it yet.
Burns: I think the key thing we did was launching a very manageable amount of shows so we can stay really focused and churn out great content. As opposed to saying, ‘hey, here’s 75 people we’re throwing at you,’ we have a key dozen that will be with us from start to finish. It’s a small knit community because that’s what the SEC is – a small knit community. So I think the natural growth of the network is more personality; right now we are doing games, and we’re doing news and information with SEC Now, but there hasn’t really been a whole lot of diving into the culture of the SEC. Those are ideas we’re pitching right now that I think viewers are really going to like because I think the lifestyle of this great fan base is some of the most interesting stuff.
Taylor: I think that’s a great idea because it’s [the SEC’s] so different from anywhere else you’ll be. I mean every single team has a fan that’s been going there for 50 years, tickets get passed from great-great grandfathers down to their great-great grandkids. There are some extraordinary stories out there to be told. We’ve also had a really positive response with our female-based sports, specifically our Friday night gymnastics coverage. It’s always an SEC school going down to the wire for the National Championship, and this year Florida took home the title. Sports like volleyball and gymnastics are rarely covered outside of the Olympics, but what people don’t realize is that many of the collegiate athletes have already competed internationally. When I played [for Georgia], we had two girls that left the Olympics and joined our team literally the next week. They’ve been at their peak, they’ve seen it all, and now they’re sharing it with us. Most of those athletes are past their prime as far as competing on a national level but they’re still doing it for their school. It’s great seeing those athletes getting the representation they deserve on a network that represents them.
There’s been talk about the network’s ability to remain unbiased towards the SEC. Have you struggled with or taken notice of that at all?
Burns: Actually that’s a good question because I think that’s one of the things that kind of shocked me when I first got here. I wondered if there would be any pushing aside of uncomfortable story lines, but from the day we got there it was obvious that would not be the case. If there are touchy subjects, such as a player getting in trouble, that’s public knowledge and we cover the story and talk about its impact, just as any reporter would. I think the way that we’ve approached it has surprised me in the fact that we definitely hit on some topics. If a [SEC] team’s not playing well, we’re going to highlight what they are doing wrong and how they can go ahead and fix it. That was a pleasant surprise because I was worried we were just going to be holding pom-poms for every single one of the 14 [SEC] schools.
Taylor: I think that, for the most part, people around the nation respect the SEC as a conference, they respect what they’ve done on the football field, respect what they’re doing with the network. They were a leader in the BCS [Bowl Championship Series] program, so it’s hard to say there’s a bias when they’re just someone at the front of the pack. I think the SEC does a great job of setting an example.
The SEC conference has arguably the most crazed fan base in college football. What’s that experience been like for you?
Taylor: I think I have a unique perspective because I played in the SEC [University of Georgia]. I live in SEC Country, grew up there. It’s a place where not everyone identifies with a pro team, but everyone identifies with a collegiate team. There’s a kind of a passion that burns inside of these fans and I knew as soon as the SEC Network was launching that I wanted to be a part of it because it hits so close to home. It’s kind of surreal to even be mentioned in the same breath as the network of a conference that means so much to me.
Burns: I grew up in the south so I was familiar with the passion of the SEC, but it wasn’t until I started traveling that I realized the impact that the network has already made, both in the south and at the schools in particular. We were just down in Starkville and every single place we went into was showing the SEC Network. I check into my hotel in Knoxville and they’ve got the Paul Finebaum Show running. It’s become much more than a network that broadcasts games; its becoming a kind of way of life. I’ve been blown away by how well the network has been recognized and celebrated right off the bat. That’s what people don’t understand when we talk SEC from outside of the SEC footprint. A lot of people pull for teams but they don’t necessarily pull for a conference; the SEC has the only fans in all of college sports that hate their rivals but at the same time, all kind of pull for each other in a kind of a weird fraternity-type environment.
Nowkhah: It’s been evident to me that I made the right decision in jumping over to the SEC side [from ESPNU]. It was a huge priority for me to be at a network…where the fan bases are more passionate than anywhere else in college sports. They don’t casually or passively watch the network, they watch and they listen. And they’ll let you know exactly what they think about what you’ve said, which I think is great.
What are your overall thoughts on how the college football playoffs went this year, and how it’s going to evolve in the coming years?
Burns: I hated the first year because Alabama didn’t win… but really, I think it went great. Four teams are just the proper amount to where if you do lose a game it could end your season and your shot at it. To me, the beauty of college football is that every single game has to matter. If we evolve into more of an NFL type structure, where there are more teams in it, it really reduces the amount of emphasis on the regular season. I think its perfect right now so I hope that we don’t change it for a very long time.
Taylor: I think they went really well. When teams were selected by a computer, the biggest question was always if we really crowned the champion. Ohio State probably wouldn’t have played for a National Championship if we were still using the old format, so it’s extraordinary to think how far we’ve come. And there’s huge excitement surrounding the extra week of college football; there’s a great buildup, and I think it showed in the numbers and the amount of people that actually tuned in this year. Having said that, I don’t think it should expand. As long as we’re not paying these athletes, you can’t tell me that adding another game is the best thing for them. It’s the best thing for a lot of other people, especially for the viewers and the networks, but when I think of the student athletes themselves, and I think about that all the time because I was one, I don’t think it’s good for them.
What are your thoughts on SEC Basketball, and specifically, Kentucky’s one-and-done recruiting style?
Burns: It’s just incredible how Coach Cal turns out program after program. It’s almost weird in that as exciting as each season is, Big Blue Nation is equally as excited to see which McDonalds All-Americans and future NBA players are coming next. Lexington has basically become a minor league of talent before they make it to the NBA. I think SEC basketball is on the cusp of — dare I say — greatness again. I mean, Kentucky is going to be good, Arkansas has been solid, LSU has the number one recruit in the country who right now would probably go as the number one pick in the NBA Draft. We’ve got Ben Howland [former UCLA coach], Rick Barnes has come in, and now we have Avery Johnson. I think the network itself has really helped. I know Frank Martin at South Carolina told me that it’s a huge advantage that he can sit in a recruit’s living room and tell his parents that they’ll be able to watch every single one of their son’s games since they have a network dedicated to our schools.
Nowkhah: Anybody that says anything negative about it — like Bo Ryan did with Wisconsin — it just indicates to me that they are unable to get those kids, because they would take every one of them if they could. Personally, I don’t like the one-and-done idea, but Coach Cal plays it beautifully. They’ve established a tradition of getting their guys to the NBA — that’s what kids out of high school want, to be able to make money professionally. He’s established himself as the best at that, and if they [Kentucky] win a national championship along the way, that’s great.
What are on your list of must-visit stadiums in the SEC?
Burns: I’m normally holding down the fort at the studio and babysitting all of our analysts like Booger [Mcfarlane] and Greg [McElroy], but I have knocked out about half of them. Tennessee is really fun right now because there are a lot of people that are excited about this program. The swamp [Gainesville] is another one that will be exciting because it’s a situation where you’ve got a first year head coach and people are excited to see what they’re going to do. But unless you’ve been to Alabama, you really haven’t seen the SEC. It’s just one of those things, you just smell the food in the air and, well, it’s hard to explain.
Taylor: The most underrated stadium is definitely South Carolina on game day. It doesn’t matter how many wins and losses they’ve had so far in the season, the crowd never stops, they never sit, they are pumped the entire time and not every school has that. I love going to Knoxville because there’s 100,000 strong in that stadium; I just did their spring game and there was fifty-something thousand in the stands. Every single fan knows who’s coming back, who’s not, what their needs are, honestly they know every single storyline. LSU is also on that list; I covered them at home for the first time this past season and it totally lived up to every single thing anyone has ever said about Baton Rouge.
Nowkhah: It would be hard to top Rupp Arena to be honest, but I’ll say even better than that is being at the SEC Basketball tournament in Nashville. Rupp Arena is 24,000 people strong, but when you are in a Nashville arena that seats 18,000 and 16,000 of them are Big Blue Nation, I mean, it’s incredible. They’ve done it in Atlanta, they’ve done it in New Orleans and they do it in Nashville. It’s an incredible thing to comprehend how their fans travel and own the building that they’re in. That is as cool of an environment as I’ve ever been in in this conference.
How has it been working with each other so far?
Nowkhah: Oh I love them [Peter, Maria]. I love both of them but I don’t get to work with them as much as I’d like. Right now a lot of our shows have been one-anchor shows. Even when they are two-anchor shows, very rarely are we on the same set at the same time. One of us will be on set with a sports analyst and the other one will be on a different set with a different sports analyst. We get to hang out together in the newsroom working on the show, but it’s funny because it often doesn’t feel like we get to work together very much. I wish we got to work together more because they’re both awesome, they’re both just really good quality people. I hope the three of us will be together for a while because I think we make a pretty good team.
Taylor: It’s great but everyone has such hectic schedules it seems like we’re never in town at the same time. During the fall I’m mostly paired with Dari once a week and I traveled most other days. Lately it’s basically been Peter and me because Dari was out doing a lot of basketball and now he’s in the baseball season. Anytime I have a question I call up Dari because he’s been in the business for so long and I know he has the answers on how to approach certain things. I call him the godfather because he knows everything going on in my mind. So we do have a great support system and it’s always fun to get the crew together.
Burns: Maria Taylor has been a rock star! There’s this factor when she walks into the studio or on the field that is like magic. She commands respect, she’s great at what she does, she’s fantastic behind the scenes. And Dari, he’s just so smooth…we call him the godfather of the SEC Network. He’s really helped show me the ropes. I’ve been doing television all of 8 months, so to be paired with somebody who can be there as a coach, supporter and just as a friend has been huge. We’ve got a great crew out there.