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VOICES OF THE NEXT GENERATION The stories of SIBN alumni

by Connor Walters '09 for the Fall 2018 issue of Saint Ignatius Magazine

Seasoned Cleveland sports fans know the names Mike Hegan, Jack Corrigan, and Greg Brinda. Each has had professional sports broadcasting gigs for local sports; each is also an alumnus.

One of the things that has changed at Saint Ignatius over the years is the amount of new opportunities available to students—opportunities those alumni probably never imagined.

The Saint Ignatius Broadcast Network (SIBN) is one great example. Its young broadcasters, writers, social media managers and cameramen are ever-present at Wildcat sporting events. The young men learn valuable skills in communication, teamwork, creativity, writing, leadership and responsibility. It’s work that doesn’t feel like work.

But for some SIBN alumni, it is now their work—and it’s also a great adventure. Pay attention to names like Brendan Gulick, Mike Watts and John Fanta. They are the voices of sports broadcasting's next generation.

LIVING THE DREAM

Brendan Gulick '09

If there’s a Founding Father for the SIBN, it’s Brendan Gulick. The Strongsville native began calling Wildcat basketball as a junior using a dial-up internet connection, after then-assistant Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick ’88 got him some equipment.

“It was effective, but it was so rudimentary,” Gulick says. “We had no video; it was all internet radio. You look at what those kids are doing now and they have no idea what we were doing 10 years ago. I give Rory a ton of credit for getting me pointed in the right direction.”

A lifelong baseball player, Gulick faced a curveball during his junior year when he got sick with mono. He missed the cut for the team and filled the void by calling more games. The work became fun, and so Gulick sought to turn his passion project into a fully-fledged club. Fitzpatrick introduced him to Jeff McCormick ’83, Saint Ignatius Director of Development and Planned Giving, who had some college broadcasting experience and agreed to serve as moderator.

One thing led to another, which led to another, which led to another.

Gulick brought in friends from Student Senate, Declan Murray ’09 and Anthony Valletta ’09, and soon club membership began to grow. Even after he successfully returned to the baseball squad as a senior, Gulick remained involved with the SIBN. As he discerned which college to attend, he looked at universities that would allow him to call more games. In doing so, he passed up a chance to walk on to the baseball team at Ohio University and instead enrolled at John Carroll, where he got broadcast experience as a freshman.

“I had had a great year and had good grades and good experiences and was just all in,” Gulick says. “I thought, ‘Hey, I love what I’m doing here. Even if I don't make a career out of this, I’m having a blast—but maybe I could make a career out of this.’”

He secured an internship with the Lake County Captains, the Cleveland Indians Class A affiliate. It was there that he learned to be versatile.

“One of the common themes in minor league baseball is that a lot of the broadcasters were asked to do other things: radio, media relations, or ticket sales, or corporate sales,” Gulick says. “They told me, ‘If you’re not selling these packages and making money, if you can’t do that then we can’t put you on the radio.’”

Since college, Gulick’s versatility has been tested with eight moves during the past four years.

There’s a saying in the industry that aspiring broadcasters need to “go to Boise”—which is to say they will learn the most from jobs in small-markets. For Gulick, that opportunity was in Durant, Oklahoma, at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

“I’ve always told people it’s important to spend some time in a smaller market,” Gulick says. “The expectation is not as high as it is in larger markets. I could make mistakes in Durant that weren’t going to cost me my job and those mistakes might cost me my job in a bigger market where there’s more pressure.”

Gulick’s primary role was actually managing the TV traffic and billing for a local cable company, which contracted with the university for his play-by-play. Unfortunately, four months in, the cable company lost the contract, and Gulick lost his job. It was another curveball, but experience had taught him to be ready for it.

Since then, he has traveled the country, calling everything from minor league baseball to professional soccer to an enormous range of NCAA sporting events. These days, he is freelancing for various outlets throughout Ohio, including 92.3 The Fan, Spectrum Sports Ohio, and recently signed on to call field hockey and men’s volleyball for The Ohio State University.

“I’ve met a lot of really great people, some on-air and some in production,” Gulick says. “It’s led to some lucky breaks along the way. I was able to call eight NCAA championships over the last couple of years.”

“I’m kinda living my dream right now,” he adds. “I have bigger goals, but this is what I want to do with my life and I'm doing it. I’m so unbelievably happy.”

LOVE AT FIRST CALL

mike watts '11

From his earliest days, Mike Watts was a student of sport.

As a kid growing up in Shaker Heights, he watched the Cleveland Browns play on Sundays with “The Plain Dealer” spread out in front of him so he could identify players and track their stats. He amassed a collection of baseball cards. He announced the performances of players he controlled in video games—a fact that still elicits jokes from family members to this day.

During his early days at Saint Ignatius, Watts played football, but he spent more time observing than making plays.

“I played football as a freshman and JV,” he says, laughing. “And by play I mean practice, and by practice I mean I watched the scout team.”

Shortly thereafter he was introduced to Gulick, who looped him into the SIBN, which was still in its infancy. Watts began by calling baseball games that spring and football the next fall, as a junior.

“It was love at first call,” he says. “It was so clear that that was what I was supposed to be doing in the first place.”

His studious nature helped him prepare for his first student broadcast—Saint Ignatius soccer—a sport with which Watts was unfamiliar.

“I knew nothing about soccer until Mike McLaughlin’s team was first in the country when I was a junior,” he says. “The first game I ever called was Saint Ignatius versus Dublin Coffman on Wasmer Field. Before that game, I was checking to make sure I knew what is offside. It was total ‘square one’ knowledge. That's sort of where the love of that sport began.”

After Ignatius, Watts enrolled at Fordham University, home to a fraternity of sports broadcasting legends like Vin Scully, the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers caller, and Mike Breen, ESPN’s NBA play-by-play commentator. It was there he joined the school’s renowned radio station, WFUV, while majoring in finance.

The decision to attend Fordham was a compromise between Watts’ keen interest in business and stocks, and his love for broadcasting. Outside the classroom, he pursued careers in both through internships and his work with WFUV, which is affiliated with National Public Radio and therefore receives credentials to professional sporting events.

“I was credentialed to the Red Bulls and the Rangers and Knicks and Yankees and Mets before I even left college,” he says. “You kind of get that first experience around pro athletes where they’re not quite so intimidating. That was a lot of fun.”

Then, the United Soccer League came calling—for their championship game.

“It was one of those moments where you sort of realized that your next biggest game was right on the horizon,” Watts says. “With them, I’ve done 250 USL games in the last three years and it’s purely reps and experience and just doing the same thing over and over again to get better at it that has allowed me to take a lot of the steps that I’ve taken.”

Perhaps the biggest of those steps occurred this fall when Watts called three preseason games for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“At 25 you just don't really think it’s all that probable or even possible that you’re going to get that gig this early,” he says. “Someone was willing to give me the opportunity. It was jaw-dropping that they’d sort of take that risk, that gamble on me. Everything I thought it could have been—it was just a little bit more.”

What made his first NFL gig even more special was having his best friend, Mark Szwejkowski ’11, as his spotter in the booth for those games.

“To have my best friend from Ignatius that I had met 10-12 years ago in SEP Group 32 and who was in my first period freshman Computer Sciences class and just all the way through, that was the coolest thing.”

For now, Watts is a full-time freelance broadcaster, and he estimates that he will call 200 games this year; ESPN and the USL account for about half of those. The rest are split among the National Women’s Soccer League, CONCACAF (a major international soccer league), and several NCAA Division I schools, including Fordham.

“I know this is kind of whimsical, what I do for a living, but the concept of Jesuit education permeates the whole thing,” Watts says. “It’s knowing the players have a deeper background than their stats. Trying to get a little bit more than other people do kind of goes back to the standards and expectations that came from Saint Ignatius.”

IT'S A FANTA-TASTIC LIFE

John Fanta '13

After freshman football at Saint Ignatius ended, John Fanta had one week to relax. He made it to his home in Westlake by 3:30 p.m. every day. Then his father, Jerry ’86, told him that things had to change.

“My dad said to me at the kitchen table, ‘You’ve gotta find your calling. There are so many things going on at that school; you need to be on that campus and take full advantage of that Ignatius experience,’” Fanta says.

The next thing Fanta knew, he was talking to Rory Fitzpatrick, who sent him to Jeff McCormick.

“I ended up sitting and talking with Jeff for two hours and a relationship was built right there, and from that day forward I was in the SIBN,” Fanta says.

The next four years were, in a word, “Fanta-tastic.”

It’s not a stretch to suggest that Fanta did more than any other student to expand the output and offerings of the SIBN. He took initiative, tried out new ideas, invited friends to participate, and built up sports coverage to include additional teams.

“I asked the question, ‘Why aren’t we doing more?’” he says. “I really enjoyed the host side of things. I liked calling the game. But we’ve got access to these coaches and players and we can talk throughout the week. Ignatius is the school in Cleveland, and I said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Fanta started a radio program at a local Panini’s where he spoke with coaches and athletes mid-season. Together with Greg Ziton ’13 he grew the “Across the Table” YouTube series discussing Wildcat sports. He blogged, Tweeted and provided full-fledged coverage and analysis of countless Saint Ignatius athletic events. Fanta read the morning announcements, signing off with his signature line: “Have a Fanta-tastic day, Saint Ignatius.”

So significant were Fanta’s contributions to Saint Ignatius that he became the first-ever solo recipient of the Conor J. Murphy ’98 Bellringer Award.

His decision to attend Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, was almost an after-thought. Director of College Counseling Linda Gabor encouraged him to visit while on a trip to see Fordham; for Fanta, it seemed like the right fit.

“I woke up one morning and my gut just told me something different,” he says. “The one selling point, like Ignatius, is that Seton Hall told me you can get involved right away; you might be behind the scenes or camera, but you can get involved right away.”

He began as a cameraman for women’s soccer, but was quickly tapped to broadcast a game when a pair of veterans was unavailable. He called 110 minutes of a scoreless draw—by himself. He missed Thanksgiving to cover the Big East volleyball tournament in Milwaukee, where the Pirates made the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry for the first time. Fanta followed the team to Tempe, Arizona, which soon led to future road gigs covering Seton Hall sports, including high-profile men’s and women’s basketball.

As a kid, Fanta conveniently “got the flu” on the first day of March Madness. As a college student, he was hired in 2014 to work for the Big East, which allowed him to witness March Madness in-person, including two national championships for Villanova University in 2016 and 2018. Fanta was on the court as confetti was falling and players were celebrating; he interviewed coaches, players and conference commissioners.

“It’s amazing to call that a job,” he says. “That three-week ride is unlike anything else. It’s a thrill. It’s unbelievable. Two years ago—the buzzer beater—I don’t think I’ll ever know how invaluable it was that I was there to see it in-person and do the interviews in-person for the Big East.”

His work has been handsomely rewarded.

Prior to graduation, Fanta received Seton Hall’s Student Most Valuable Pirate Award, an honor traditionally reserved for student-athletes. The Big East Network signed him on full-time for his own program, Big East Shootaround, which covers all things Big East basketball throughout the week. Beginning this fall, he will be doing play-by-play for men’s basketball on FOX Sports.

“I always had the belief that what you put in something is what you get out of it,” Fanta says. “I’ll put in everything because this is what I want to do professionally.”

“What happens at Ignatius is: You know the bar that’s been set at the school,” he adds. “There’s incredible history, and so you want to be a part of that history. You want to do whatever it takes to be part of that.”

From high school state championships to collegiate national titles, Fanta has already called his fair share of historic moments—and he’s likely to do so for the next 50 years.

Predictably, these three young alumni share a lot in common. Each professed enormous gratitude for the opportunities and education he received at Saint Ignatius.

“The fact that they allowed me to run with something that they didn’t have and didn’t tell me ‘no’ and empowered me to start this club, that was huge for me,” Gulick says.

He, Watts and Fanta also proclaimed appreciation for McCormick, who has moderated the SIBN since its inception, providing steady leadership, advice and support.

“It’s a credit to Jeff and to the school for putting the assets and resources forward to allow students to succeed,” Fanta says. “It was, and still is, and is going to be a cutting-edge program.”

Lastly, they have formed a strong friendship with one another, allowing them to develop their careers together. These results are what Gulick dreamed of when he invited his first friend to join his new club 11 years ago.

“I look at how Mike and John in particular have been able to call games with the SIBN and found a passion and a love for doing it and then parlayed it into a career,” he says. “That was exactly what I had hoped for when I started the group.”

As coincidence would have it, Sportscasters Talent Agency of America, better know as STAA, named Mike Watts as one of the Top 30 Sportscasters Under 30 for 2018. John Fanta and Brendan Gulick made their “others to watch” list. All three from the same high school - all three SIBN alumni.
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Connor Walters
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