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    SEC Traditions: T-Minus 13 Months And Ticking...

    By: Ron Higgins
    SEC Digital Network

    Justin Connolly’s official title with ESPN is senior vice-president, programming for college networks.

    But if you gave him a football position, he’d be a free safety.

    Because as the man in charge of the new SEC Network, which will debut in August 2014, Justin has to be able to sit back, scan the field and see what’s coming at him. He has to roam from sideline to sideline, keep his head on a swivel, anticipate the unexpected and adjust on the run.

    And he has to play every minute of the game.

    “I told my wife I could work every hour from tomorrow to the launch of this network,” Justin says, “And there would still be a list of things to do. My most frequent answer right now is, `I don’t know yet. I’ll get back to you.'

    “The key is to prioritize what needs to be done and try to include as many people as possible pushing and operating pieces on parallel paths and go from there.”

    All Connolly has to do in the next 13½ months is find more national distributors to televise the SEC Network while figuring out how to annually fill 8,700 hours of programming. He also must balance 450 live events on the network and 550 events on a digital platform, assuring airtime for all 14 league members in more than 20 sanctioned sports.

    Would somebody please get the man a jumbo-sized bottle of Tylenol?

    “It’s like I’m drinking out of a fire hose,” Justin says. “I can jump from a conversation about live programming, to discussing the resources on how we build network sites at each campus, to talking about what our studio facilities in Charlotte look like.

    “I’m fortunate that we are well-sourced at ESPN. I’ve got so many people I can call that can help us to understand how to do something and do it well.”

    On the surface, it appears Justin has no SEC ties. A native of Boston (yes, he loves the Red Sox because it must be a city ordinance) he graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics in 1998 and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2003.

    But Justin spent his freshman year at Vanderbilt where he joined a fraternity, put on a coat and tie and went to football games.

    “A group of us even traveled to Athens for the Georgia game,” Justin recalls. “I still have a good bunch of friends from Vandy.”

    Since joining ESPN in 2003, Justin had primarily been involved in affiliate and distribution negotiations. But last December when he was named to his current post, he now leads ESPN’s college networks.

    “What makes the SEC Network such a different opportunity are its 14 schools that perform at the highest level with depth that doesn’t exist in any other conference," he said.

    With one national championship yet to be decided in baseball – Mississippi State is still in the College World Series – the SEC has already won six 2012-13 national team titles.

    Alabama won championships in football and golf, Arkansas in men’s indoor track and field, Florida and Texas A&M tied for first in men’s outdoor track and field, Florida in women’s gymnastics and Georgia in women’s swimming and diving.

    “Sometimes, football overshadows the success and level of play of every other sport,” Justin says. “When you’re going to program a network with 450 live events, we want all that quality across the board.”

    Football, of course, will get its share of exposure on the SEC Network. But what excites Justin are the programming possibilities in the other sports.

    “I think one of the interesting areas will be in the winter in figuring scheduling flexibility on men’s and women’s basketball,” Justin says. “We want to do it responsibly, but it’s about how we create some more windows to expose all the other sports, such as gymnastics.”

    “In the spring, baseball and softball will work well for us, because it’s a lot of weekend series stuff. Softball is a great TV sport in terms of the speed of the game and the speed of play.”

    One of first things on Justin’s to-do list is already underway. Visits are being made to each SEC campus by ESPN operations teams to assess each school’s video production capabilities.

    “The first phase for us is getting into the guts of the control rooms and seeing what video production equipment is in place,” Justin says. “Our second phase will be to visit various venues on each campus and to see the logistics involved doing a live event from different stadiums and arenas.

    “We’ll take that information, sit down with the schools and use everything from high tech equipment to duct tape and rubber bands to see how we can produce as many events as possible.”

    It’s a good time to be a broadcast journalism major in the SEC, because Justin says the network will involve students on every campus in helping produce content.

    “I know other conferences have done this and done it well,” Justin says. “We’ve had student-led productions on ESPN3 and we love the idea of taking it to all 14 schools.

    “Ole Miss has been one of our test cases, and they’ve figured things out. They did some very creative things with graphic machines, and some of our guys have said, `I didn’t know that piece of hardware can do that.’ Students get creative and feed us ideas.”

    It’s obvious that Justin wants every school in the SEC to contribute, and he believes the family atmosphere created by league commissioner Mike Slive will make the network a success.

    “The entire conference office is an impressive group of folks, but the camaraderie in the conference starts with Commissioner Slive,” Justin says. “He is a conference-first guy. When we get in conversations, whether it’s about content or building the live event schedule or otherwise, his view is what’s in the best interest of the conference. He doesn’t single out schools. It’s `let’s figure out a way to get everyone on an even playing field and go from there.’

    “That’s what we’re going to set out to do. Get the vibe of all 14 schools up on screen.”

    And speaking of vibe, Justin believes the SEC has one that sets it apart.

    “This league is highly competitive,” Justin says, “but at the end of the day, everyone can step back and do things that are in the best interest of the conference. I’m not quite sure that exists everywhere else.

    “The analogy I use is that I grew up with an older brother. He used to beat on me, and I’d try to give him my best punch. But if we were ever on a playground or on a basketball court, if someone picked on me, my brother had my back. If someone picked on him, I had his back.”

    Justin was first under the impression that attitude was just reserved for athletic administrators and athletes in the SEC, but he discovered it extends much farther.

    “I met a woman who’s a Georgia fan,” Justin says. “She said it literally pained her, but she rooted for Alabama in the national championship game against Notre Dame, because she said `that’s what you do when you’re in the SEC.’

    “That’s unique and that’s exactly the wind in our sails as we go out and launch this network.”


    Ron Higgins Bio

    •  Ron Higgins of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis has covered the SEC for more than 30 years.
    •  He’s a 1979 graduate of LSU and son of former LSU sports information director Ace Higgins.

    •  He is a past president of the Football Writers Association of America and an eight-time honoree as the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Writer of the Year.

    •  Working for The Commercial Appeal, Tiger Rag Magazine, the Shreveport Times, the Shreveport Journal, the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge and the Mobile Register, he has won more than 150 national, regional and state writing awards. He has also written and co-written two books.
    •  Higgins is married to the former Paige Blanchard, also an LSU graduate, and has two sons, Carl, a Southeastern Louisiana University graduate who is serving in the military, and Jack, a high school student.