From Living Room Broadcasts to the Big Leagues, the Journey of Russ Eisenstein
July 25, 2015
By: Amari Dryden, @Amari_Dryden
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Russ Eisenstein, Director of Broadcasting at Ohio University. After growing up in a home with sports information all around, Russ was destined to work in the sports business world. He credits his success to the many aspects of broadcasting he has learned at a young age. He was gracious enough to offer up his wisdom about sports broadcasting such as the differences between calling different sports at multiple levels and how his family had a huge impact on his journey through the broadcasting world.
What has your journey been like going from a graduate of Southern Illinois University to now being the Director of Broadcasting at Ohio University?
It’s really been an amazing journey that hopefully isn’t over yet, to go from Carbondale and staying a year after there and broadcasting in southern Illinois to working at West Virginia for just a couple of months then back to Illinois for two years with a great radio station WJBC in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
Then getting the biggest break of my life at that time was to broadcast in the NBA as a studio host and TV host and radio host for the New Orleans Hornets who went up to Oklahoma City because of Hurricane Katrina. That was odd because it was a juxtaposition of just a horrible time for so many people from New Orleans and Mississippi and that being one of the biggest parts of my life. So you had to deal with those emotions a little bit but that was huge to broadcast in the NBA at 25, 26 and 27 years old and all the other add-ons there, to be around great people, and a great organization and to be there for Chris Paul’s first two years and Byron Scott, their head coach at that time. Just so many great people, so many great stories, great state of Oklahoma, great state of Louisiana and Mississippi as well. That really was the springboard.
Then to do minor league baseball in the summers there. That was really fun. Just recently this past week, the ballpark that I broadcasted in, in Eugene burned down. It was one of the oldest ballparks in the country. It was all wood and it just burned down so that kind of brought some memories back to the forefront of me broadcasting in the minors and to broadcast some of the games of guys who are still in the big leagues today, Eric Sogard who plays for the A’s, Mat Latos who pitches for the Marlins and some others.
For the first summer I went back to Oklahoma, my second season in the NBA there added on talk shows and a lot of really cool things there, I got to meet people, and great broadcasting there, then went back to the minors, then Idaho State where I lived in student housing in Pocatello, Idaho where I didn’t make a lot of money. I was the voice of a university for the first time in my life which was one of the career goals that I had when I was four five years old. I worked for a great athletic director there who has moved on since. His name is Paul Bubb. He brought me there and we changed some things and we had a lot of fun. Then Ohio opened.
It was a summer where some other jobs opened but I found out about the job when I was actually going to a couple of games in Cleveland. A buddy of mine and I were on a trip to Cleveland and I met up with some other people and the Ohio job opened and I’ve been there ever since going into year eight now as the voice of the Bobcats. It’s been an amazing journey with a lot of great stories for the air, for this interview and a lot of great stories that probably shouldn’t be said in this interview or on the air.
I’ve lived in six states. I’ve gotten the chance to broadcast high school sports, minor league baseball, college athletics, seeing games in the NBA and broadcasting in the NBA. I’ve done obituaries. I’ve done weather coverage. I’ve done crop reports. I’ve done a little bit of everything really and I’m 35 years old so I don’t think of myself as old but in the confines of the business I’ve done a lot and hopefully I can do a lot more.
What inspired you to work in the sports business profession particularly in broadcasting?
My father was a broadcaster. He grew up in Chicago, went to Northern Illinois where I went, went to Southern Illinois, didn’t graduate but went to radio trade school so he a testament to the fact that you don’t need a college degree to be successful in life. He really inspired me when I was really young. I was four years old when I started talking into a microphone. I think my mom still has some of the cassette tapes from the tape recorder that I used to do play-by-play or sports reports or whatever else I would talk into the microphone I would learn at a very early age.
There were times when my dad was home on a Saturday and he’d be cooking dinner and it’d be a college football Saturday and I’d write down the scores when I was five or six years old and then we’d do a sports report together and I would say now for more with the Mid-American conference here’s my dad and he would get on the mic and he would show me how to do it in a professional way so that helped.
He never got that big break as a sportscaster unfortunately but it’s a tough business and so he left broadcasting, met my mom and they had me so I guess the rest is history but from the broadcasting standpoint and from really a sports standpoint too my family was vital because I grew up in a sports household. I went to hundreds and hundreds of games as a kid all over the country, driving to these games and seeing the campuses that I broadcast at now as a little kid. I had the greatest collection of college t-shirts that any kid should ever have. I knew the players and I knew their names and growing up and going to games in Northern Illinois was big for me and to get a sense of what it was all about and how it all worked.
My house was like a sports information department. We had all the information readily accessible whenever we needed it and this was before the internet so I learned how to be a smart sportsperson, a smart broadcaster at a very early age and I was destined to do this hopefully destined to do it at a very high level. A lot of folks talk about their background put my background without having an immediate connection to a coach or a player as my father or mother up there against anybody with a background that was really conducive for me doing what I do now.
It was pretty cool to go to all these places as a kid to see all these different stadiums and to understand how conference affiliation and alignment worked, learning the traditions of these schools at a very early age. I drew these college logos as a little kid. I remember back when Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan still had Native American nicknames and mascots, they still have the nicknames now some of them, but I drew those logos as a little kid and if there was a way to go fast-forward a little bit with technology, just think about all the things I could have done on Youtube or with computer editing as a little kid if I grew up now. It would have been amazing. I wish I grew up now because the things I did then I dreamed about doing the stuff now with the technology so it would’ve been really cool to see what could have happened with it at a very early age.
It’s important too that my mom was a big part of it even though I talk about my father a lot and I should but my mom deserves a great deal of credit too because she was one of the smartest sportswomen I’ve been around. She sits through all these games with us. She knows how it all works too. She allowed me to stay up late and watch a west coast game on ESPN or listen to a game on the radio. As long as my grades were good it was fine and they were thank goodness so I was able to do all these great things because my family allowed it and it was a family bonding thing and it of course laid the foundation for what I do now.
What qualities does a person need to have to be successful in your field?
There are a lot. You have to be incredibly verbal. You have to have a curiosity. You have to understand what it is that people want from a sports broadcast but you also have to introduce things that they might not be aware of. I think somebody might listen to one broadcast and think they’re getting everything that they need but then they might listen to another broadcast and their eyes and ears just open up and it’s a great revelation that they can follow a game that way or understand a game in a different way. I think understanding your audience is incredibly important but I think that the combination of communicating, knowledge of the game and the ability to entertain is important.
There are a lot of ways to track a game nowadays. There are a lot of ways to follow any game from any sport. I think it’s very important that broadcasters give the listeners or people tracking the game a reason to follow it through them. So from my standpoint, I want Ohio fans to know that they can get something perhaps that they can’t get from a national broadcast or from a game tracker or some other thing. All those things are great and they have their own special place in how to follow a team or a game but I want people to say I want to listen to Russ because he’s giving me something others can’t. That should be everyone’s goal, to do it better than others. It’s not a competition thing necessarily and it’s not a mean spirited thing, it’s just raise your level to a point where you hope that the listeners are getting everything they need to know from your broadcast, be it TV, radio, even interview, be it anything.
I think it’s incredibly important that self-evaluation occurs. I think it’s incredibly important that goals are incredibly high. My goal is to be the best broadcaster in the country. My goals are to be the best that I can possibly be. So if you set out on those goals and if you prepare, and if you do the things the right way and if you’re honest with yourself, you have to ability to reach those goals. Obviously there are lots of other things that separate themselves with the goals that they have but if you do everything that you can, then at least you’re giving it your best shot. You’re giving your listeners, viewers and followers the best shot that you can.
I think all that kind of stuff is incredibly important for broadcasters now and in the future because it’s only going to get harder. There are so many different ways to follow a game, follow a sport, and follow a team. You’ve got to give them a reason. You’ve got to be true to all your goals and dreams and all that. It sounds easy but that’s what I believe.
What are some of the challenges you face in your field?
Nowadays, the dreams that broadcasters have are so high so the market itself is oversaturated with such great talent that it’s sometimes hard to reach the dreams that you have. There are no limits to the songs if there’s a musician out there who wants to be discovered, they can write that song and sing that song because there’s no limit to how many songs that can be out there. There’s no limit to how many great actors can be out there but there is a limit to the number of high major division I NCAA department teams. There is a limit to the number of teams in the NBA or MLB or NHL or any professional league so it’s very hard for sports broadcasters to get in. I’m very fortunate.
I have one of 100+ jobs in the country where I’m the play-by-play voice for football, basketball, and baseball at a division I institution. That’s very rare. You’re strapped at that point to how many NBA teams or MLB, NFL, NHL teams are out there. There’s a small window of opportunity and it’s such a small field for potential jobs so that’s difficult. It’s difficult to try to advance so that’s a challenge.
There are challenges nowadays too to be honest with fans but also have the athletic department’s sports teams’ best interest at heart. That’s a constant struggle these days. I’m employed by the athletic department and by IMG. I have to balance maybe descriptions of criticism or just accounts of an event. If I worked for a radio station, I think there’s the ability to report what is happening all the time. There’s sometimes where you work for a team or an athletic department and you have to be careful with some information that you might know that they might not want out or might not have full disclosure. I’m not saying that always happens but in a very rare case you do have to think about that kind of stuff when you work for the team or an athletic department as opposed to an outside media outlet.
If you’re working for the outside media outlet, you have to have that balance of how you deal with coaches or players or administrators or owners or general managers nowadays because the sensitivity level is that much heightened now. Yes the information is out there and much more accessible but I think over the course of time it’s been kind of skewed away from hardcore, very tough, nuts and bolts journalism that you might have seen in the fifties, sixties, or seventies or even very early eighties.
There are challenges. You have to balance it all. You have to have fun with it but you also have to keep in mind some of those factors. Like at Ohio State or any school across the country, any play-by-play voice that works very close with the athletic department nowadays, you have to be very mindful of all factors. The old saying, “think before you speak”, certainly is pertinent now because if you say something now it could go everywhere and played over and over and over again. It’s a little more cautious now maybe more than ever and it’s only going to continue to be that way in a greater level.
What are some of the differences between calling different sports?
You have to get into different words and vocabulary and different pacing. My basketball play-by-play is much faster than that of a baseball call. Football is different from basketball call so the toughest times I think to broadcast those and to call play-by-play is when the seasons overlap because sometimes you are in the vocabulary of another sport when you’re broadcasting another sport. You just have to on it a little bit more.
I enjoy baseball play-by-play perhaps more than any other sports because that’s a time where you can weave tremendous play-by-play together with great stories whether it is about the game, whether it’s about the city that you’re in. The time between pitches, the time between at bats, all of these things are just conducive to doing a really special broadcast each and every time and that’s what I enjoyed when I did minor league baseball and what I enjoy now with college baseball. To the credit of Ohio baseball, I had the chance to do a lot more baseball this year because won the MAC championship. I got to call a no-hitter for the first time in my career. I got to go to the NCAA tournament so that was really fun.
Basketball pacing is fast for me but you have to be able to boil it all down in a concise manner and give the listener everything they need to know and when they need to know it. The challenge with football is that the field is so big, that it’s very hard to boil that down just to a couple of words as to where the ball is, the location of the play, you have so many players on the field too, there’s eleven on each side, so there’s a chance you’re leaving some things out about how a tackle was made. If there are four or five there immediately when the ball gets there, how do you convey that kind of stuff.
From a TV standpoint, you’re more so a storyteller and need to be able to keep the stories going throughout the course of a game. I think the challenge for any sport at any time on radio or TV is to be entertaining, informative and fun. If you can intertwine some of your personality in it too I think that’s incredibly important. Our listeners know my personality may be more than other broadcasters because I do weave in things about my personal life a little bit, not necessarily the deepest darkest details but they know me a little bit and I think that’s important too because that’s a challenge too to be able to forge that bond between your listeners. These are all challenges sure but you can overcome them if you do it the right way and hopefully I’ve been doing it the right way and will continue to do so at an even higher level.
What are some of the differences between calling high school, college and professional sports?
There are a lot of differences between the levels just simply in the fluidity of a play. Obviously the high school level may be a little choppier than that of college and it might be a little choppier than that of the pros. You’re watching a game that might be a little different moving along. The accessibility of information is harder at the high school level than it is on the pro level. You might need to do a little bit more work at the high school level to have stats available throughout the course of your broadcast whereas in major league baseball it takes work but you might find the answer a little quicker than if you were on a high school level.
But it all boils back down to time and score and where the ball is on the floor or the court or whatever the field of play is. But if you follow that sort of mantra, then you’ve got the bare bone basics for a broadcast and then you weave all the other stuff in. Again, there are challenges and differences between every level but some of the stuff that you could do on the high school level or on the minor league level or on the college level can help you on the pro level too.
I’m a better broadcaster because I did news. I’m a better broadcaster because I remember the struggles of doing high school sports and then minor league sports and then going through all the tech issues as well. We don’t have a board opp onsite producer at Ohio so I set everything up and so if there are any problems I have to troubleshoot that so I’m jealous of guys at say Virginia Tech or at Ohio State or other places that have that because they can just settle in and call the play.
I remember my buddy and network manager at IMG, his name is Tony Castricone was our onside engineer and producer for our NCAA tournament run in 2012 and that was so huge for me because I was just able to call the game. I’ve never done a better stretch of games from a play-by-play standpoint in my life. All of those factors allowed me to be in the mode to call a good game and hopefully I did and that’s something I’m proud of.
What is the most memorable game you’ve called?
There have been a lot of them but I would have to say Sweet Sixteen 2012 Ohio vs. North Carolina perhaps is one of the more remarkable games I’ve ever called and perhaps the best broadcast that I and we as a team at Ohio had. It was really amazing because Ohio was a story and then you get to the Sweet Sixteen and these blueblood programs are there: North Carolina, Kansas, and North Carolina State. They were programs with incredible tradition on the super national level. Ohio’s tradition is incredible and Ohio basketball has done so many things and then to be on that stage with them and to broadcast that game with them.
Ohio got down. Ohio had to keep fighting. Ohio had to scratch and claw to get back into the game and when they took the lead, I get goosebumps thinking about it now, it was one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen because I loved that team. I loved those guys. John Groce went along to Illinois and he’s done great things and hopefully even greater things at Illinois but the whole feel was just something I will never forget. To turn around and see thousands of Ohio fans, Ohio cheers, Ohio cheerleaders, Ohio’s mascot and to see that right in front of me and to convey what was going on to people that weren’t there. That was very special to me and I just wish Ohio was able to win the game but it went into overtime and Ohio lost. Ohio had a shot at the end of regulation that was just a couple of inches off. DJ Cooper threw up a half court shot that nearly won the game and if it went in, I possibly would have sworn on the air.
That is still one of the moments I will always remember because that team I believe deserved to win that game. North Carolina played better in overtime but with everything that went along with that season, with that story and with that game was one of the greatest things I’ve witnessed as a broadcaster, that and being able to call a no-hitter this year.
That was a cool thing too. We could go on and on about a lot of great games but that Sweet Sixteen game was a culmination of a lot of things for me and we’ll see where my career goes. I have a lot of aspirations and goals in broadcasting and we’ll see where it all ends up but hopefully I’ll get to add some great games to my career but I remember that Sweet Sixteen game. I think about it a lot.
Any parting wisdom?
I think the most important thing and this goes for everything, it doesn’t matter if you’re a broadcaster or a janitor or a CEO of a company, have as much fun in life as you can, be as good of a person as you can, live by the golden rule and hopefully that comes back to you. I want to have as much fun as I can as a broadcaster. I want to have as much fun as I can so hopefully other people can enjoy being around me as much as I love being around them.
If you just live life the right way regardless of all the separating factors we might have, if we’re just good people and have fun hopefully the world will be a better place. I’m being as good as a broadcaster as I can. You never know when it’s going to end. Life’s too short, but if we can all have fun with it hopefully we can get to where we want to go and have a good time.
You can check out some of Russ’s best calls at the videos below!