Jon Schaeffer announces college basketball games. Not just any games -- NJIT games. The broadcasting veteran of over 1,000 games is entering his second year as the Highlanders' announcer, and he called every and ever home contest of the team's 1-30 season in 2008-09. He was previously the play-by-play voice of another transitional program, following Longwood from coast to coast for three seasons. In 2004-05, in the Lancers' first Division I slate, the team posted a 1-30 record -- and Mr. Schaeffer described all 30 of those losses for the folks at home. So don't call Jon a front-runner or anything. We caught up with him this week on the electronic chatterbox, where we discussed the current state of affairs at NJIT, his memories of the endless road at Longwood, and how to stay positive and philosophical while describing loss after loss. Along the way, we also talked about the new Great West Conference, Jon's summer job as a baseball announcer for the Phillies' AAA affiliate, and his broadcasting heroes.TMM: I haven't been at the Fleischer Center for a few years. What's it like now? Still as well-lit? JS:
There are very few venues in Division I basketball similar to the Fleischer Athletic Center. It is the definition of a no-frills gym - with bleachers on just one side (potentially the only such occurrence in Division I) and no bells or whistles at all. Quite simply, it's just a gym and one of the smallest in the nation at that. However, the building did undergo a renovation in the summer of 2006 with the installation of a new court, new lights (!), sound system, bleachers and more. Interestingly, NJIT also plays a handful of home games in downtown Newark at the $375-million Prudential Center.TMM: That's quite a contrast, playing home games at both a place I used to refer to as "Ikea Arena" and one of the most state-of-the-art sports palaces on the east coast. What have the NJIT games at "The Rock" been like?JS:
It really is a remarkable contrast. The buildings are obviously polar opposites. NJIT's campus is only about a mile or two from downtown Newark, so the opportunity to play at "The Rock" is significant. It's the nicest arena I have ever been in - with similarities to the Galen Center in L.A. or the JPJ in Charlottesville - but on a much larger and even grander scale. This season, they will play a pair of conference games at the Prudential Center (vs. Houston Baptist, 2/18 and vs. South Dakota, 2/25) and there will probably be a couple of thousand people in the building. It's obviously not like a New Jersey Devils game (the primary tenant of the Prudential Center) but against the right opponent, I think they could put a decent crowd in the building. They also play as a road team at the Prudential Center against Seton Hall this season on November 30. As some may know, Seton Hall plays all of their home games in the Prudential Center and the two schools are only a few miles apart. I would imagine that those two schools could hook up on a somewhat regular basis based on the proximity and the local interest level. I am eager to see the announced attendance for that one, too.TMM: NJIT was able to really blow a team out last weekend, a 96-54 win over St. Joseph's that might have made a few scoreboard-watchers do a double-take until they saw the (N.Y.). What was that like?JS:
St. Joseph's-Brooklyn competes at the Division III level and, remarkably, had never battled a Division I foe in any sport prior to Monday night. For NJIT, it was an opportunity to gain some confidence while also getting the opportunity to play some younger players (they have played just one upperclassmen in their first two games) and they took advantage of the situation.TMM: So NJIT has now equaled its 2008-09 win total in just one week. Tell me about that Bryant victory last year on Jan. 21. That must have been incredible for a program that had waited almost two years to win a game.JS:
I remember walking into the gym prior to that game and thinking that the place feels different and that the team was fed up with losing basketball games. I think they truly believed that if they were able to put together 40 solid minutes, they would have a chance to win the game. They got a terrific performance from Jheryl Wilson - a Newark product that scored 20 of his season-high 26 points in the first-half - and kept the Bulldogs at arms length virtually the entire second half. Afterwards, I don't even remember what happened. It was one of those nights where you didn't have to say anything to anyone, you just smiled and they knew what you were thinking.TMM: Give me your perspective on where the NJIT program stands now, and where it's going.JS:
People have to remember that entering Monday night's game, NJIT had won a combined one game over the previous two seasons. Every victory, regardless of the competition, is a big step forward for the program. I think Jim Engles was a terrific hire because he knows the area with 18 years of Division I coaching experience at Rider, Wagner and most recently, Columbia. He and his staff have made it clear that they are going to build the program the right way and I applaud them for it. I believe that this program is going to take a significant step forward this season and will be surprising people as soon as next season. For those that get a chance to see the Highlanders this season, they will see an undersized group that does an excellent job defending the basketball and makes up for their lack of size with above-average athleticism. I believe their lack of height will cause match-up problems (because of their speed) for some people, too.TMM: What's your opinion of the Great West Conference?JS:
I like it because it allows the kids in these programs to compete for a conference championship and even a post-season bid (with the winner being awarded an automatic bid into the CIT). The importance of conference affiliation is crucial in recruiting and allows the players and coaches to prepare for the conference season, tournament, etc. Certainly, I would imagine that NJIT would rather be in a more regional affiliation, but this is the first step in a lengthy process to build the program. Make no mistake, there will be good teams and good players in the Great West. David Holston was one of the most complete players in the nation last year -- and he played at Chicago State. South Dakota already has an extremely impressive victory over Texas A&M -- Corpus Christi and I truly believe there aren't many teams in the nation that would have a ton of success playing on the road against Utah Valley in Orem, Utah. The programs may be relatively unknown from a media perspective but I think the conference has a chance to be more competitive than expected.TMM: You're starting your second year at NJIT... you weren't there for the historic 0-29 season of 2007-08. But you hold the rare distinction of having called two one-win seasons... you were there for a 1-30 campaign at Longwood in your first of three seasons calling Lancers games. What was Longwood like back when they first moved up to D-I?JS:
I have the utmost respect for Mike Gillian and his staff at Longwood University in Virginia because they have taken a program from its infancy to 17 wins last season with victories over George Washington, James Madison and Gardner-Webb. They have really done an excellent job -- even better when you consider the fact that they do not have a conference. I'll be honest, it was difficult to watch them go through the 2004-2005 season. When you put in all of that work and you come away with only one win (against Howard in Farmville by the way...I remember it like it was yesterday) , that's difficult. When I put in work for what I do, I like to see results immediately. Unfortunately, that's not how Division I basketball works.TMM: Tell me about that Howard win. JS:
It was a special night and one that I will remember for a long time because of the pure joy that I saw from the players and the coaches. There aren't words to describe that type of raw, unversed emotion. I have probably called over 1,000 basketball, baseball and football games in my career, none are more special than the NJIT win last year or the Longwood victory over Howard in '04-'05.TMM: What kind of town is Farmville? What are the best things about that campus? I really liked the architecture when I stopped by.JS:
Farmville is a charming, small, college-town filled with some wonderful people. Central Virginia is a beautiful part of the country and Longwood University has a number of buildings inspired by Jeffersonian-type architecture. I wouldn't trade my time in that part of the country for anything.TMM: Both Longwood and NJIT have had to travel a lot for games as independents, to places like Orem, Utah and Edinburg, Texas and the Dakotas. Do you ever travel with the team to call games; what effects have you observed on the squads as a result of all this flying?JS:
I traveled for three seasons with Longwood but currently only do home games for NJIT. Take a look at this 2004-2005 Longwood schedule.
You can't make this stuff up. The Washington Post had a great article and wonderful graphic about their '04-'05 campaign, highlighted by a 16-day road marathon road trip that involved seven games, 8,477 miles in the air and 850 miles by bus. I was with them on that trip and it is something that I will never forget because your forge great relationships and memories.
On that trip, the Lancers played at No. 1 Illinois (featuring Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown), a few nights later played then-No. 17 Cincinnati in Las Vegas. On that trip, Longwood also played at Northern Iowa, Utah Valley, Northern Colorado, Quinnipiac and Hartford. I can't imagine many programs have ever had a similar trip. Those trips aren't even fathomed by programs with a conference. The goal for Coach Gillian, his staff and Longwood University was to raise the profile of the program and the school and they certainly accomplished that.TMM: You've been courtside for a lot of college basketball losses these past few years. As this is, in part, a website about losing, let me know if you allow yourself room for philosophy in all of this.JS:
Nothing that's worth anything comes easy. It's true in life and it's true in basketball. That's kind of my theory on all of this. In every game, someone has to lose, don't they? The key is, don't allow yourself to accept that feeling as normal.TMM: What kind of things did you do, or mention, or note, to keep you from getting down on the air during a 30-point loss? JS:
My job is to describe the action that occurs in front of me and make it understandable and interesting for the listener. It can be difficult in certain situations, but for the most part, it isn't as hard as you would think. Numbers don't lie. If a team is shooting 18% from the floor I don't need to tell the listener they are struggling from the field -- they can figure that out on their own when I give the field goal percentages, etc.TMM: For whatever reason, the sports internet is a place where anonymous fans top each other with clever comments about losing teams. I occasionally wonder if it's our basic, default nature to make fun of losers. Do you ever fight the urge to insert color commentary into your broadcasts?JS:
No, not all. These are student-athletes. Somewhere along the line some people lost sight of that. First and foremost, these young men and women are trying to earn a college degree. Those that are critical of a school in a position like NJIT (newly reclassified, new conference, etc.) don't understand the process of building a basketball program at the Division I level. It doesn't happen overnight. If you are willing to be realistic with the process, there is a lot to be gained (both on and off the court) in a relatively short period of time.TMM: You're not just about ball and hoop. Tell me a little about your other job, announcing games for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs professional minor-league team of American baseball (AAA, Philadelphia).JS:
Everyone in broadcasting says this: when I was little, I knew I couldn't play sports professionally. My big thing was I used to listen to the Phillies on the radio when I would go to sleep because I couldn't stay up past a certain hour when I was little. And I listened to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, both of whom have since passed. I would just soak it in. When they were out west, I would listen to the entire game on the radio. To now have the opportunity to call games for the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate is a dream come true. I currently work about an hour from where I grew up in one of the most beautiful Minor League ballparks in America -- Coca-Cola Park. I really couldn't ask for much more.TMM: Who are your basketball announcing heroes?JS:
I think the Sixers have an excellent radio broadcaster in Tom McGinnis. He is very descriptive, has great energy in his voice and knows the game extremely well. He is the type of basketball broadcaster that I strive to be.
Growing up, I used to love hearing Kevin Harlan do a game. I still do. I will hear his voice and keep the game on. He makes it interesting to me. Very few broadcasters have that ability. Gus Johnson does, too. I listen to Gus Johnson do basketball on the radio and I can't imagine it being done much better. They are both so highly skilled that they make it sound so easy. I promise you, it's not as easy as it sounds. They do a lot of preparation. They have called a lot of games. They have done a lot of homework. That's what makes all three of them so good.TMM: You sure do keep busy during the winter, also doing NJIT and Seton Hall women's games. Judging from our mailbag, we have a lot of broadcasting aspirants in the audience. In closing, any advice for them?JS:
Get experience. No one is a great broadcaster the first time they get behind the mic. Call games. And I mean a lot of them. High School, NAIA, Division I, II or III... it really doesn't matter. There is nothing more valuable than the experience. Secondly, be willing to go anywhere for a gig - especially when you are starting out. Those are the sacrifices that are necessary to succeed in this business.Thanks, Jon. Hoops Nation can keep up with the Highlanders by tuning into the broadcasts at NJIT's website. You can hear a couple of Jon's calls here and here.
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