BY DAVID GEFFNER
Director Suzanne Smith
In many ways, the career of CBS Sports director Suzanne Smith embodies that old sports cliché: “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” The Westchester, N.Y., native, whose three-decade run at the network includes broadcasting live NFL, NBA, NCAA and PGA events, has seized on a flurry of game-changing opportunities that would make any broadcast pro fist-pump.
A star athlete in high school, Smith was awarded the first-ever women’s volleyball scholarship to Temple University in 1976, a school that happened to have an outstanding communications department. As a senior, Smith scored an internship with the Philadelphia Phillies baseball station, WPHL-17 TV, and when her boss started his own remote broadcast firm, he invited her along.
“I hired crews and made sure all of the equipment was on the truck,” she says. “I was handed a great chance to learn the business at a young age.”
Right place, right time again when CBS Sports, needing to fill airtime during the 1982 NFL strike, came to Atlantic City, N.J., to cover boxing. Smith was already there for a Philadelphia station. “I met [producer] David Dinkins Jr. and he urged me to come to New York to interview. Thirty years later, I’m still at CBS,” she laughs.
This month marks the 20th consecutive year Smith has been in the truck directing rounds one and two and the regional finals of what’s been called the greatest sporting event on the planet: the NCAA basketball tournament. “March Madness,” as any hoop fan knows, is packed with a barrage of emotional eruptions that seem spontaneous. But each peak and valley seen on the court, the bench, and in the stands, is a decision made by gifted DGA directors like Smith.
In fact, there’s so much emotion come tourney time, the perennial challenge for sports directors is when and where to cut. “There are five seconds left in the game with a kid at the free-throw line,” says Smith. “What do you show before he shoots? The coach, his family in the stands, the bench—all of the above? Just because you have 15 cameras doesn’t mean you cut 15 times.”
Smith’s craft was severely tested during a 2005 Memphis-Louisville game, which Louisville won 75-74. “There was no time on the clock,” she remembers. “A freshman guard on Memphis, who was a 72 percent free-throw shooter, had three free-throws for the win. He made the first shot, so we cut to as many other faces on both benches before going back and staying tight to capture his emotion.
“When he missed the next two shots, the other team stormed the court, and we immediately cut to the camera under the basket. It felt like we were on the kid for a long time, as I saw the other team running and cheering on the monitors. He collapsed to the ground and his teammates came over and picked him up. It was one continuous shot; if I felt the emotion in the truck, I know the viewer did.”
Hoops are hardly the only lights on Smith’s scoreboard. On any given Sunday during football season, she works closely with producer Bob Mansbach, play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle, analyst Dan Fouts, and a technical posse of camera operators, graphics, and replay ADs, to whom Smith pledges undying loyalty and credit. No matter the sport, Smith says she is “team-first,” guiding her crew to find “the story behind the story.”
Other career game changers for Smith include directing her first NFL game while still an AD, because the director was out sick, and then having the game go into overtime so the whole country saw her coverage. And her very first NFL broadcast happened to be the home debut of a rookie sensation named John Elway in Denver.
MAKING HER POINT: Smith maximizes the emotions of a game, like this NCAA round two Ohio State-Dayton matchup she directed, with split-second decision making.
“I was driving the [work] van to the practice and all anyone talked about was getting an interview with John Elway,” she says. “No one said a word to me! Why should they? I was a young, female PA who didn’t grow up on a football field.”
Once at the stadium, Smith went far down the sideline, “to do my work by myself, since I didn’t really feel like I belonged.” Then her close friend from Temple, Steve Watson, a wide receiver with the Broncos, spotted Smith. “Steve ran all the way down the field to give me a big hug and congratulate me on my new job,” she laughs. “He said, ‘You gotta meet my friend—John Elway.’ Afterwards everyone came over asking why I hadn’t told them I was John Elway’s friend! From then on, I was part of the team.”
Although she’s the only woman directing NFL games at any network, and was again the only woman directing any of the eight regional telecasts of this year’s NCAA games, Smith is reluctant to say she’s part of a club that remains dominated by one gender.
“Would I love to be the first woman to direct a Super Bowl?” she says when asked about a glass ceiling. “Of course I would. But that’s one game, once every three years [for CBS]. On the other hand, I am aware of my unique role in this industry—to be able to inspire and mentor other women with a passion for this craft would be a wonderful way of giving back.”
Smith attributes much of her success to two iconic Guild mentors—Joe Aceti (who received the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Direction in 2006) and Larry Cavolina. “I learned so much about pacing and timing from Joe,” she recalls, “and how to treat every person on the crew with value and respect.”
Smith recalls how Cavolina used to draw pre-game diagrams of a football field on a huge dry-erase board. “He explained where the cameras went,” she says, “and more importantly, how, why and when to use them.”
Smith is so grateful to the giants of her craft that her voice quivers with emotion when recalling an experience with Aceti in 2008. “Joe was retired, living in Seattle, when I came there for a Patriots-Seahawks game,” she begins. “His health was declining, but I managed to convince him to come to the game. Every single person on the crew came over, and Joe held court—just like in the old days. Even those who had never worked with Joe came over to pay homage. I felt like it was my small way of giving back for all he’d done for me.”
And like any good sports story, there’s a surprise ending. “After the broadcast, I was in the car going to the airport, when the phone rang. It was Joe telling me how much he liked when I went from camera eight to camera six on one of the sequences, and added in an extra shot,” Smith says, smiling.
“I said, ‘Joe, I learned that from you.’ And he said, ‘A lot of people have learned from me, but you were one of the special ones. Smiff of Television [his nickname for her],’ he said, ‘you done good.’
There’s no higher compliment in this business.”