5 things I took away from spending 30 minutes with Gary Danielson
NASHVILLE — Before last week, a head nod in the bathroom at the 2018 LSU-Florida game was the lone in-person interaction I’d ever had with Gary Danielson. To be honest, I’m not even sure he saw me. Danielson is a big dude, and I’m 5-8. To say it even sniffed “memorable interaction” status would be a lie.
But at SEC Media Days in Nashville, the opportunity presented itself to have an in-depth chat with the longtime “SEC on CBS” color commentator. Go figure that it came as he enters his final season calling SEC games with the conference making the full-time switch to ESPN in 2024 (the Big Ten will take the primetime CBS afternoon spot beginning in 2024). So naturally, I started rifling through possible questions and things to talk about.
“Is he aware of the hate? And if so, does he care?”
“Does he listen back to himself?”
“Does he have any regrets about a specific call?”
“Can I convince him to not compare KJ Jefferson to Cam Newton?”
“What’s his future?”
Those things were all addressed in a half-hour conversation with Danielson. Here were the 5 things I took away from it:
1. He’s well aware of the criticism
Obviously. It’d be weird if he didn’t know about being public enemy No. 1 in the minds of some.
“I do know it’s there. I’m aware of it. I don’t dwell on it,” Danielson said. “I don’t dwell on it not because I don’t care what the fans think. It’s actually almost the opposite. I don’t want to dwell on it because I don’t want it to affect how I call the game.
“Everybody likes to be liked. So if you dwell on it, then you start playing to the fans. I don’t want to play to the fans. I want to call a game based on the way my opinion sees it.”
Danielson shared what he has written on the back of every game plan he has for a broadcast.
“Everybody when they start out, they say what they believe to be right. Everybody tries to do that. But after awhile when you get in it, you end up believing everything you say is right,” Danielson said. “I’ve always been humble in understanding that I don’t know it all. I’m calling it in my opinion. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I’m calling what I see and trying to make sense of the game and honor the game by being prepared. Yeah, I mess up names. We all make mistakes. That’s not it.
“But I don’t think anybody would argue that I don’t know what I’m talking about or that I’m not prepared for the game. I’ve never ever not put in a full week’s worth of work to do the game.”
Danielson added that in the 17 years that he’s been calling SEC games, “I’ve never been disrespected publicly by anyone.” He’s never had a bad airport/restaurant/coffee shop interaction with any naysayer.
Oh, and yes, he’s critical of himself, too. Danielson said he watches games back to break down his own performance. Sometimes, he’s right there with his haters.
“I’ll turn on games and review them afterwards, and I’ll go, ‘Jesus, Gary. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say.’ I say that about myself, too,” Danielson said. “I mean, I’m flying fast and I’m saying stuff. I accept all of the criticism.”
2. There is, however, 1 thing about the criticism that bothers him
It isn’t that his name shows up on a weekly basis on sites like ours.
“It’s that it’s all about me. Our crew is fantastic. We’re very proud of our presentation. We understand how important college football is to what we’re covering. And it just sets me personally off that when our (CBS) people flip on their phones after a game, all they read about is Gary, Gary, Gary,” he said. “God, it’s 70 people. We have some of the most skilled people in all of college football. Our camera men are the same 12-15 people that cover The Masters … we understand how important college football is. I just don’t like it to be about just me.”
It’s a fair point. Even the biggest Danielson hater on planet earth can acknowledge that the product of SEC on CBS is elite. From a production standpoint, you can’t ask for a better “big-game feel.” The drums, the camera angles, even the voices … you can’t manufacture that.
Danielson’s gripe that signaling him out takes away from the CBS crew is justified. We do tend to forget in the midst of watching a game that a color commentator is just 1 of dozens of people responsible for the finished product that we see on Saturday afternoons.
Yeah, Danielson is now considered a “lame duck” entering his final season calling SEC games. But in Nashville, he told ESPN/SEC Network analysts Greg McElroy and Cole Cubelic that he wants CBS to set the bar high before turning all SEC games over to ESPN.
“We’re gonna try to kick ass again this year,” Danielson said. “I want so bad that the year we leave for people to go, ‘You guys are terrible compared to CBS. CBS did it better than (ESPN).’ That’s our goal.”
3. He loves and misses Verne Lundquist just like the rest of us
No disrespect to Brad Nessler, who has been excellent since taking over play-by-play duties for SEC on CBS, but Uncle Verne was a legend. About a decade ago, Danielson went on “The Paul Finebaum Show” and pushed back at the narrative that Lundquist was over the hill. He’s as big of a Lundquist fan as there is.
I asked Danielson for his favorite Lundquist story and he spent 5 seconds thinking and smiling before giving me this answer.
“We didn’t do the Army-Navy game at first. We did the SEC Championship. It was the same week as the SEC Championship, so we didn’t do Army-Navy. Then they moved it to the standalone game. After doing the SEC Championship and the intensity of that game, we had to do Army-Navy,” Danielson said. “I was just complaining about it. I was like, ‘I don’t wanna do this. It’s the Wishbone. I don’t know these guys. It’s a lot of work.’ It’s more work than 3 SEC games. You start from zero … and I was like, ‘I hate doing this.’
“Verne got really mad at me. I said, ‘Just bring back Todd (Blackledge) to do the game with you,’ and he steamed out. And then our first game was spectacular. Now I’ve done more Army-Navy games than anybody has ever done … it’s my favorite game of the year. I always have to tell Verne that he was right and I was wrong … it’s funny because he was so mad at me. I thought he was gonna quit.”
Thankfully, he didn’t.
Danielson still talks to Lundquist about once a month or every other month. Lundquist turned 83 years old last week. What if he came back for the final SEC on CBS game, even if was just to join Danielson and Nessler for a series or 2?
I know Danielson wouldn’t oppose that.
4. The call he regrets the most was …
… when he didn’t realize that photographer Chamberlain Smith suffered a concussion after getting run over by Brian Herrien during the 2019 Auburn-Georgia game. As medical personnel tended to Smith, Danielson talked right through it while play had stopped.
Yo. Gary Danielson. For real? Do you not have any sympathy for another human being who is in serious pain and/or seriously injured? What about this poor girl’s suffering is funny, exactly?
You owe Chamberlain Smith an apology for laughing at her injury. pic.twitter.com/gu3NCb3qeU
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) November 17, 2019
Danielson explained the circumstances surrounding that, and why he made the mistake he did. From his perch high above Jordan-Hare Stadium at the 18-yard line, the play happened on the complete opposite side of the field. The problem was that Danielson doesn’t use the in-booth TV monitor. He works with a producer to break down a replay and figure out what he needs to highlight. It proved costly.
“I was completely immersed into who made the tackle, who got the ball, who the blocking was and I wasn’t listening to what was on TV. I wasn’t even aware of it,” Danielson said. “The only thing that’s ever hurt me in all my years is that people who knew me thought that I didn’t care that somebody got hurt. That’s ridiculous. I didn’t see it.
“It’s my job to see it. I get it. I didn’t. That’s the way I do the game. I go from the game, to the replay. I think that’s why we get better replays than everyone else because the truck can’t see what I see so I’m part-analyst, part-producer when I do a game. … I don’t use the monitor hardly at all. But it’s a bad mistake, and I paid dearly for it. I felt terrible.”
Danielson apologized a week later during the broadcast, which was the only time he ever issued a formal apology for an on-air mistake.
5. He’ll be calling Big Ten games, but maybe not for long
I don’t know. Read this answer Danielson gave about what his future looks like and tell me this is someone who plans on doing this job for another decade.
“I don’t really worry about (my future), honestly. I might if I was 50, but I’m Nick Saban’s age. I’m 72. This is my 34th year,” Danielson said. “I’ll roll with it. Listen. I’ll be doing Big Ten games. It’s not a bad gig. There’s a lot of intensity there. Great football. I’ve been charmed. … I’ve had great games, I’ve had Hall of Fame partners, I started with Brent Musburger and we did 2 national championships together. I chose to come to the SEC … it’s been a monster.
“It’s been great to be a part of it. It’s been a great ride.”
“I’ve had consequences for games for 17 straight years. That’s why you get that fever pitch. College football is a game of opinions. The fanbases, they’re all in. When you say something that’s not good to their ears, it’s like you’re talking to their brother, or their sister, or their mom or their dad. They’re upset,” Danielson said. “The demographics have moved to the South, and that’s been a benefit. When I was growing up, the demographics favored the Big Ten. That’s where the steel mills were. That’s where the car factories were. That’s where the players were.
“The real hidden strength of (the SEC) is the demand of the fanbase. You have to produce. You, Saturday Down South, have to produce. You can’t lollygag and give them crap. You’ve gotta produce … we all have to produce. It’s been great. That’s the way it should be.”
Danielson is right. The fanbases — the same ones who skewer him on a weekly basis — make the conference unique. It’s why he enjoys it. Will that same passion be there in the Big Ten? Even as a Big Ten graduate, he sounds skeptical. And if that’s not the case, maybe he’ll go enjoy retirement back in Fort Meyers.
My guess? Saban outlasts Danielson in college football.
An even better guess? Saban outlasts all of us.
Oh, and 1 more thing …
The @DanielsonCBS Twitter account isn’t his. Somebody made that up.