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Watching any football game on TV, you notice the announcer’s uncanny ability to know who made a big tackle, provided the key block, or recovered a fumble.
You might ask: How do they know?
Well, most of it is skill and experience.
But they also have help. At BTN this is where Mike Rudolphi comes in.
Since 2017, the University of Illinois journalism alumnus and former News-Gazette intern has served as a talent spotter/stats provider in the network’s college football and basketball coverage.
In football, Rudolphi has worked primarily this season with 28-year-old play-by-play voice Connor Onion, a rising star in the profession. During basketball season, Rupolphi pairs up with Dave Revsine, the face of BTN.
“I’m a second pair of eyes for comedy,” Rudolphi said.
It’s a fun bonus gig for the 51-year-old, whose day job is as a consultant at Seattle-based Cap Gemini.
Rudolphi gets paid for his spotting/statistics work, and the network handles all of his travel expenses.
He was at Memorial Stadium for Illinois’ overtime win over Indiana on Nov. 11 and spent last Saturday in Evanston for the Northwestern-Purdue game.
This week he will travel to New Jersey for Rutgers-Maryland.
He works a football game every weekend and has 15 basketball games scheduled.
History of origin
How did Rudolphi get into spotting?
In the early 2000s he worked part-time at maxsports.com and I met a guy named Mitch Smith.
Smith worked for the St. Louis Rams, managing what they call special statistics. The person tracks relevant statistics throughout the game, whether it’s quarterback pressures or yards after contact.
Rudolphi helped out with the Rams whenever asked, earning $75 per game. He got more work thanks to Smith. If Smith (now spotter for Fox lead announcer Kevin Burkhardt) had a conflict, he would recommend Rudolphi.
“That’s how I started with Big Ten Network,” Rudolphi said.
His first game with Revsine was the Illinois-Western Kentucky football game early in the 2017 season. Former Illini J Leman was an analyst that day.
“Evidently I must have done something right, because Dave then recommended me to BTN. I’ve been watching Dave’s basketball games ever since,” Rudolphi said.
For football, at Revsine’s recommendation, Rudolphi became a spotter for Cory Provus. Most recently, he joined Onion.
It’s a labor of love.
“It keeps me focused on what I’ve always wanted to do,” Rudolphi said.
He likes the people he works with at BTN, both the on-air talent and the people behind the scenes.
Rudolphi has a good relationship with Revsine.
“Dave is the best you could ask for,” Rudolphi said.
Feel the same for Provus, Onion and all the others.
Another favorite is BTN basketball announcer Brandon Gaudin, who has also been the voice of the “Madden NFL” video game series since 2017.
“That’s how good Gaudin is,” Rudolphi said. “A few years ago, I referenced how all my kids love ‘Madden.’ Every year he sends out a copy of “Madden.”
Gaudin went above and beyond with Rudolphi’s son, Owen. In a joking way.
“He texted on his birthday last year, talking about how he heard he was bad at ‘Madden’ and that he needed to work on his game,” Rudolphi said.
Before the game, the announcer prepares a board with the names and numbers of the players on the roster.
Before the snap, by pointing to the numbers on the board, Rudolphi lets the announcer know who is in the backfield and what type of formation is being used.
If there is a change in position, it is his job to inform the announcer.
Alerts the announcer if there is a penalty flag on the field. Some observers use yellow cards as an indicator. Rudolphi goes with a wave of his hand.
“No two observatories are the same,” Rudolphi said.
When the play starts, Rudolphi calls the receiver, runner or tackler.
“On turnovers, I have to be precise,” he said. “On a fumble, who caused it and who recovered it.”
On punts, Rudolphi indicates the number corresponding to the length of the shoe.
Knock on wood, there were no glaring errors on Rudolphi’s part. He tries to be particularly careful when it comes to giving out the number of an injured player.
There are other great stories. Earlier in the year, Rudolphi was on top of an interception return. The announcer was grateful.
Rudolphi uses binoculars to get a closer look at the action.
“In some places we are so high up that you have to do it,” he said.
What are the keys to the job?
“You have to be quick and do it right,” Rudolphi said.
Rudolphi would like to move on to the NFL at some point, even though there is no longer a team close to home after the Rams moved back to Los Angeles.
“It’s all timing,” he said.
Away from the stand
Rudolph’s background is in the news. During college, he worked at the Daily Illini all four years, serving as sports editor the last two. After graduating from UI in 1995, Rudolphi went to work for the Danville Commercial-News as a reporter. He stayed there for two years, then worked at the Daily Southtown for a year and spent time in Gary, Ind., before leaving journalism in 1998.
He moved to St. Louis and began working in corporate for Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
Mike and wife Kim have been married for 26 years. They both grew up in Chillicothe and started dating after college. Kim is an alumna of Eastern Illinois University and has spent years in the fashion merchandising industry.
They have two children: Owen, 20, attends the University of Missouri. Justin, 16, attends Eureka (Mo.) High School and plays soccer.
Appreciate the effort
In January 2021, Onion and Rudolphi began collaborating together. Most of the statistics and spotting assignments were on Zoom.
“I worked with Mike 20 to 25 times remotely before working with him in person,” said Onion, who lives in Chicago.
What is Rudolphi’s most important job?
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint it to one thing,” Cipolla said. “The most important thing is a second pair of eyes. We both read your work during the week when we come to a game in Champaign or read the game notes when we go to other places.
“I think we both have a pretty good idea of the statistics and the trends and the people we want to focus on. Since Mike is a great teammate and trusts me to guide him on what I want to talk about, it’s kind of a fact check and that reminder, ‘Hey, here’s something we talked about during the week and maybe you’ missing knowing how the game is going…’”
Onion said Rudolphi prevented him from making misidentifications.
“Especially considering the amount of defensive linemen that come in and out of the game,” he said. “If we’re doing an Illinois game, he’s very good at saying ‘Johnny Newton is out of the game.’ The defensive line will look a little different.’ He’s really good about injuries.
In football, Onion works with analyst and four-time Super Bowl champion Matt Millen.
While Millen has a wealth of knowledge about his alma mater, Penn State, Rudolphi knows the Illinois program inside and out. And the rest of the Big Ten.
“It’s sort of an encyclopedia that goes back even before he was born,” Onion said. “That’s another thing he helped me with. He has a catalog of information in his brain without having to look things up.
Onion said Rudolphi’s history as a reporter helps with its detection and statistics tasks.
“It’s very valuable,” Cipolla said. “Mike has been involved so much and he comes from that sports media background where I don’t think he scares him as much as someone who comes from an outside background.”
“I was trained on how to watch a game and what things to look for,” Rudolphi said. “It’s definitely an asset. Many people who do this work were not journalists and are also very capable.”
Rudolphi’s versatility in the booth is a plus. He works as a spotter for Onion in football. For basketball he takes care of the statistics.
“If Illinois is going on a 10-0 run and Marcus Domask has eight of those 10 points, he’s going to slip me a note,” Onion said. “The people behind the scenes deserve far more credit than they get for helping us do our jobs.”