Kevin O’Connell spent a sunny San Diego Labor Day indoors studying video for his debut as the CBS television analyst for Army football when the Black Knights meet Buffalo at noon Saturday at Michie Stadium.
O’Connell is only two years removed from the NFL and one season from his rookie year as an ESPN game analyst last year. The TV work is in addition to his growing reputation as a quarterback coach working alongside QB guru George Whitfield with his high-profile clients at San Diego camps.
The voice that answered the phone as video ran on his screen was both familiar and different.
It’s familiar, because O’Connell always was at ease discussing what happened on the field as San Diego State’s four-year starting quarterback. KOC – as San Diegans know him -- never took the credit for a win and often took too much of the blame for a loss.
“I’ve learned what it takes to prepare to make sure I do the best I can for the teams, the players and the fans,” he said. “I want to connect with the fans so they understand what’s happening on the field.”
It’s different, because he is finding the authority of a TV voice that is developing with experience.
“From all my experiences through playing in the NFL, I loved the X’s and O’s of the game – offensive and defensively,” he said. “Even special teams, I like to break down. I feel I can watch a game in real time and explain things in a way the highest football expert watching and the fan watching a game for the first time can equally understand. That’s where I want to take this.”
It makes you wonder what Kirk Herbstreit, Jim Nantz, John Madden and other athletes and coaches who turned broadcaster sounded like before they found their TV voice.
As O’Connell’s NFL career wound down, he attended NFL broadcasting camps at NFL Films in 2011 and 2012. That led to his ESPN job in 2013. He worked three games as an analyst for the Longhorn Network on ESPN and nine games for ESPN 3.
His improvement was noticed by CBS. The network hired O’Connell away from ESPN for the 2014 season. O’Connell said he reluctantly left ESPN and the people that he praised to help him get his start, but he said he couldn’t turn down the chance to work Army football on CBS.
“I’m really excited about being a part of this TV package and the combination coming aboard at CBS,” he said, referring to play-by-play man Jim Holden and sideline reporter Courtney Fallon. “You can tell from Day 1 it’s a very important package to have Army and Navy for the CBS Sports Network.
Some past Army analysts whose resume included playing big-time college football and in the NFL sometimes sounded like they were doing Army fans a favor with their presence. That attitude won’t surface with O’Connell in the booth.
“It also means a lot to me to be covering the players who will be the leaders of our country,” he said. “They are the next crop of special people who are going to be Generals and CEOs. Some of the most special individuals in our country we have ever had have come out of those institutions."
“Growing up in San Diego, a military town, it’s always been a part of me. It’s special to get a chance to meet these guys who are trying their best to be as good as they can be at college football while they also are expanding on other things that drive them and the passion they have to serve our country. I’m super lucky, and I want to make sure I do my preparation to tell their stories of these guys each and every Saturday. They really are special, and they deserve it.”
O’Connell, 29, has already demonstrated he has some muscle in the San Diego TV market. He pitched to the local Fox station in San Diego a football show with San Diego State head coach Rocky Long.
“Fox Sports in San Diego has done some more local programing, and I fought like crazy to get a coach’s show, especially with the recent success of four straight bowl games,” he said. “I have a good relationship with Rocky, and I want to give San Diego fans a closer look at what’s going on in that building (the Fowler Athletics Center) and the great people they have working there.
“I want to highlight the players and breakdown the X’s and O’s. I want it to be the real deal – a quality show.”
If his TV career isn’t promising enough, O’Connell’s spent the off-season working with 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in his preparation for the NFL draft and Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, the MVP of the Big Ten Championship game and Rose Bowl as a sophomore last season.
O’Connell laughs at the thought of describing him as a quarterback guru.
“That’s the crazy thing – I don’t focus on fundamentals as much as George does,” O’Connell said. “I really stress getting in the classroom. The first thing I do is I tell these guys I don’t want to teach anything different than what you’re being taught. I don’t want to learn your playbook."
“We break down protections and protection rules. We figure out those protections and how as a quarterback they can be in complete control of what’s going on at the line of scrimmage. We’re breaking down the defensive fronts, pressures, blitzes, coverages, situation on third down or in the red zone; we’re working how those things change and the mindset you must have to play that position.”
The more O’Connell emphasizes instruction, the more he says he realizes how little he knew when he arrived at the New England Patriots’ mini-camp as a third-round draft pick in 2008.
“I tell George this all the time – I’m not really in the business of fundamentally being a guru or the Hank Haney of quarterback coaches,” he said, referring to the famed golf swing coach. “I always wished I had a little more time X’s and O’s-wise s learning the game at a graduate level before I got thrown into rookie mini -camp at Foxboro.”
On Saturday, O’Connell holds his first X and O classroom for Army football fans.