Tackling a nation of games, Saunders is host with most

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Think of John Saunders and Charles Coplin as air traffic controllers, and you'll have a pretty good handle on what they do each Saturday.

Saunders, the studio host of ABC's college football shows, and Coplin, the studio producer, have a straightforward mission each week: Get the maximum coverage on the air as quickly as possible.

"Essentially, we're trying to keep track of eight or nine [televised] games at a time and scores from 107 Division I-A football teams. It can get pretty hairy," Saunders said of the O'Hare Airport-like atmosphere.

Like NBC and Fox do on Sundays, ABC provides scores and updates of football action from around the country on Saturdays. But the NFL networks have four or five games to track for replays, and ABC must watch the entire nation.

And Saunders, an alumnus of Baltimore's Channel 2, is the conduit through which it all flows. If, for instance, ABC is doing regional coverage, as it does most weeks, Saunders constantly must narrate highlights to each game site and be host of as many as six halftime shows.

"On the NFL, they have a few games, taped features and stuff like that," said Coplin. "We might have 64 scores and 20 highlights, and that's where John Saunders really excels. He's dealing with so much information, and he's so smooth and efficient."

Said Saunders: "It's like that every week. It's a juggling job, but it's almost like you're dodging bullets because anything could zTC happen. It really is the most challenging of all the studio jobs."

HBO lands effective punch

With the exception of a pretty significant stumble near the end of its telecast Saturday night, HBO once again demonstrated that it is simply the best when it comes to boxing.

From the pictures, under the control of director Marc Payton, to the words of announcers Jim Lampley, Gil Clancy and especially Larry Merchant, HBO was all over the stunning return of George Foreman to the heavyweight throne, in a 10- round knockout of Michael Moorer.

Merchant was as probing as ever with his astute post-fight questioning of Foreman and Moorer. And his ending essay, relating Foreman's triumph to the life and times of some of his entertainment contemporaries, was brilliant.

What wasn't brilliant was HBO's inexplicable failure to scrap an undisguised commercial for an upcoming pay-per-view fight ,X between James Toney and Roy Jones Jr. for additional coverage of Foreman's win, with a punch Clancy called the biggest "in heavyweight history."

That statement might have been a reach, but Foreman's victory certainly was deserving of deeper analysis than it received.

Compelling TV

Yesterday's ESPN's "Sports- Weekly" concluded with a deeply moving feature on Brad Gaines, a former Vanderbilt football player, and his ongoing tribute to the memory of former Mississippi linebacker Chucky Mullins.

Mullins was paralyzed when he hit Gaines, helmet first, while attempting to tackle him five years ago. Mullins died 18 months later, and ESPN reporter Steve Cyphers followed Gaines as he visited his fallen opponent's gravesite in Alabama.

Anchor Robin Roberts was clearly moved by the piece, and rightfully so. It deserves sports Emmy consideration.

Where do you put 'em?

Word has it that a new golf channel and two new women's sports channels are closer to fruition.

The news about the women's channels -- one of which will be operated by Liberty Sports, a subsidiary of Tele-Communications, the nation's largest cable system owner -- particularly welcome, as coverage of most women's sports lags ridiculously behind men's events.

There's just one problem for both concepts: Many cable systems reportedly are maxed out in terms of channel capacity, waiting for upgrades that would expand their lineups.

And even then, in many places, such as, for instance, in the Comcast viewing area (Baltimore, Harford, Howard counties) those channels would have to wait in line behind other outlets like Comedy Central or the Cartoon Network.

Nine days to Dickie V

In just nine days, another year of wall-to-wall coverage of college basketball, ESPN-style, gets under way, with Syracuse host to George Washington in the Preseason NIT.

Between then and the postseason NIT championship game March 29, ESPN will carry 199 games, with at least 103 different teams appearing.

The early-season highlights include full coverage of the Preseason NIT, the newly minted Great Eight, a two-day set of doubleheaders matching seven of the final eight teams in last season's NCAA tournament, and the Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 25, matching defending champion Arkansas and Massachusetts.

And then there's the Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23), which includes Maryland, Michigan, Indiana and Arizona State and the Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 24-26) with a field including Arizona, Louisville, Minnesota and Oklahoma State.

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