Monday, June 29, 2009

TOSSS Hot Seat: John Kreger (Part One)

Fresh off his award as the nation's top volleyball broadcaster, MSU volleyball play-by-play man John Kreger sat down with TOSSS for an exclusive interview. His answers, unedited, are reprinted below.

Is MSU volleyball your full-time gig, or do you do other things as well?
While it is a large time commitment during the season, I am also a producer/reporter for WDFN radio 1130AM in Detroit. I cover Detroit area sports for them, as well as for national radio networks (I am the Detroit Lions reporter for ESPN Radio, for one). I also work as a broadcast engineer for teams that come into Detroit to play, that do not travel engineers on their own. In that capacity, I have covered the NBA finals, the Major league Baseball All Star Game, the NHL playoffs, and the American League Championship series.

What's your dream gig? It really has been a dream to work for MSU for nine seasons. As a child growing up in Detroit, I had the pleasure of listening to some great broadcasters. Bruce Martyn and Paul Woods calling Red Wing Hockey, George Blaha calling Detroit Piston Basketball, and of \course MSU Football, and the Great Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey as the voices of the Tigers. For me, to serve any of those teams would be a high honor, but I'd have to pick Red Wings or Tigers Play By Play in a tie for number 1. That said, Football Saturdays in Spartan Stadium are magical, so I wouldn't mind that as well!

How did you get started in broadcasting? Unofficially, Mom has tapes of me calling games into a tape recorder at age 9 or 10, Officially, I got my start at WSDP-FM (88.1) radio in Plymouth MI. It's a high school station out of the Plymouth-Canton District. I was the sports director there for two years, and learned a great deal as a young student. Working high school sports with my good friend Denny Kapp still ranks as some of the most fun I've ever had behind a mic.

How did you get to be MSU's play-by-play volleyball guy? In the fall of 2001, I was approached by Scott Moore of the Spartan Sports network, who let me know of the opening at MSU. He encouraged me to submit a demo to Will Tieman, President of the network, and I was hired for what was then a 7 match package. We went full season in 2002, and have been ever since. I'll broadcast my 250th match with MSU November 21st at home against Minnesota. Coincidentally, the match I called as a demo match to get the job in 2001 was MSU-Western Michigan. The Broncos that day were coached by current head coach Cathy George.

Are there a lot of volleyball play-by-play guys in the Big Ten? There are nine, of which I have the third longest tenure. Eight of the schools have full season packages, Penn State has home only, and Ohio State and Norhwestern have no professional broadcast. It's here that I have to credit the Michigan State Athletic Department, lead by Mark Hollis and Shelley Appelbaum, and The Spartan Sports Network and Will Tieman. While there are 9 full season broadcasts NOW, when we went full season in 2002, we were just the third school in the conference to do so. Web streaming media was not as common as it is now, and MSU was out ahead of the crowd on that. Their decision to adopt a full season package showed a real commitment to Women's athletics, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

What's it like traveling with the team? I've gotten to see some great volleyball in some great places. The on-court action is great, and attending games at powerhouse schools like USC, UCLA, and Nebraska, not to mention the big ten has given me some great memories. What's most special, however, is the time I get to spend with our athletes and coaches behind the scenes. Whether it's the team singing in the back of the bus after a win (with "creative" harmony from some members), observing intense cribbage games between assistant coaches (Mike Gawlik is a pro), or just shooting the breeze on a bus ride. I've gotten to get to spend time with the Spartans when the pressure of competition is off. When you get the chance to know people beyond jersey numbers and statistics, you realize that what makes them great as athletes and coaches is that they are even better people. That's what makes my time on the road so special.

What's your favorite arena to broadcast from on the road, and why? OK, I've got to split this up into conference, and non-conference. My favorite non-conference arena is by far the Nebraska Coliseum. That is by far the best volleyball crowd I've ever seen, and the broadcast position is great, elevated at the end of the floor. What makes the place so special, though is the respect given to other teams. We went there in 2003, and Nikki Colson was our setter. She was from Lincoln, and when she was introduced, they gave her a standing ovation. I've never seen that for a visiting player ANYWHERE else, EVER. That gave me chills. Best Big Ten arena is a tough one. The two front runners are Penn State and Wisconsin. The positions for me are great views (although they're both in the rafters and require quite a hike to get there) The crowds are huge, and outstanding. Wisconsin gets the win for 3 reasons. 1. Live stat monitors 2. Jen Armson-Dyer is no longer with Penn State Sports information, giving Diane Nordstrom the edge in what was a stalemate between two SID's who have ALSO won Burger awards. 3. The Wisconsin band. They're just that good. Honorable Mention goes to Purdue, since Wendy Mayer does an outstanding job as their SID, and I love telling war stories with Kim Cook, who has been calling Purdue volleyball for the better part of TWO decades. It loses out though because Belin Court has the toughest broadcast position in the conference. On the floor, behind the end line, so I have to look THROUGH one team to see the other.

Walk us through a match day for you. On the road, I'm up at about 8AM, to meet the team for breakfast. I usually will interview a player for intermission after the meal. I like to help our fans get to know them on, and off the court. While the team goes to practice, I'll read over game notes, and prepare for that evening's match. Around 4, we meet for pregame meal, and then head for the gym. Usually by 5 I'll have set up my gear. At five, or as near as possible, I interview the opposing coach, and then meet Coach George to tape the Farm Beaureau Insurance pregame show. We're on the air 15 minutes before first serve, and the Spartans take care of the rest. After the match, we head to our next city on Friday, and home Saturday night. At home, I arrive at Jenison around 4PM for our 6:30 starts,and the routine is pretty much the same.

What's your favorite road trip story (aside from calling the 25-8 game during a tropical storm in Delaware, though I know that's got to be up there)? Can I give you two? First, in 2001, we went in to Penn State and won at Rec Hall. It's the only time I've ever broadcast a Spartan win there, and not many teams beat the Nittany Lions at home. Erin Hartley, who was an All American, had a great match. Our bench was electric, and I've never seen a Spartan team happier on a plane ride home. More recently, the Sweet 16 appearance in 2007 at the Wisconsin Field House. We were up 2 sets to nothing on the defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers. We didn't win, but in 15 years as a reporter, I've never seen a team at any level, in any sport, fight harder, and play with more heart. They FORCED the college volleyball world to take notice of how special they were. That was a magical night.

How does Jenison stack up against other volleyball venues from the broadcaster's perspective? Simply put, Jenison Fieldhouse is a special place. The history of that building, of the magical (no pun intended) things that have happened there, It's fun to call that home. We have some of the best fans in the nation, and they give our athletes a lift. The energy in that place is spectacular, and I've had some of the best calls of my career there. Rick Adkinson and his event management staff are top notch, and with the Athletic Communications staff, A broadcaster's job gets a lot easier. The location for me to do games is one of the best in the conference, Elevated, and on the end of the floor. In a sport with lateral movement like volleyball, it really helps to see plays develop. There are other venues in the conference that have some perks that are nice (Wisconsin and Purdue have live stat monitors, and that REALLY helps, Penn State is really good at updating out of town scores) Overall, though, in the words of Judy Garland...."There's no place like home."

For Kreger's all-time Spartan volleyball team, as well as his thoughts on Cathy George and the state of the Spartans, come back Tuesday for part two.

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