Producing Excellence – Bill Bonnell, ’83

It was the fall of 1981 and Bill Bonnell was driving to the OCC campus for his first day of college classes. He didn’t have music blaring with the windows down. He wasn’t carpooling with any fellow graduates of North Syracuse High School. Bonnell was driving to campus with his mother, Janice Bonnell, whom he had made a deal with. “She was working as a nurse at Course-Irving Hospital but was a few credits short of getting her degree. I convinced her to come back to school with me and finish her work. How many kids go to college with their mom?”

Bonnell’s mother has been a central figure in his life. He lost his father to cancer when he was a freshman in high school. Bonnell’s three older siblings were out of the house by then, so it was just him and his mother. “She had to be my mom and my dad. She was always very supportive of me in every endeavor. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her never ending support.”

Bonnell while working for NBC at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Bonnell while working for NBC at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

 

Where Bonnell is today is at the top of the television sports producing profession. He’s coordinated coverage of practically every major sporting event you can think of. If you’ve watched Super Bowls, Olympic Games, professional tennis tournaments, pro football or college football, you’ve seen his work. Bonnell has won more than a dozen Emmy Awards throughout his career – a career that started when he was in high school and blossomed while he was a student at OCC.

Bonnell often uses the word “serendipitous” when describing his career journey. Every opportunity has introduced him to people who have led him to future opportunities. It started as a student at North Syracuse High School where a severe ankle injury sidelined him from playing basketball. He dreamed of becoming a sportscaster, so he decided to contribute by being the public address announcer for home games.

Bonnell (center) with his Saturday Night Football team of Chris Fowler (left) and Kirk Herbstreit (right).
Bonnell (center) with his Saturday Night Football team of Chris Fowler (left) and Kirk Herbstreit (right).

Back in those days, Syracuse public broadcasting station WCNY televised live high school sports events. One night they showed up at North Syracuse for a basketball game with their big production truck and a large crew of workers. “To see that truck and all of those people come into your school was a big deal.” Bonnell introduced himself to the person in charge, told him he wanted to work in the industry and a career was launched. He started working behind-the-scenes on statewide broadcasts of Syracuse University football, Empire State Games, wrestling, lacrosse, basketball and more. “They really took me under their wing. For a kid like me it was unprecedented to get that kind of experience.”

Bonnell loved working behind the scenes on what is known as the production side of a telecast. “I learned very early in my career doing graphics (the words and pre-produced pictures you see on your screen) was the ground level of production. I worked hard to learn graphics.”

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In July of 1981, a month before Bonnell would start taking classes at OCC, he went to the Carrier Dome where ABC was televising the National Sports Festival, a multi-sport competition created by the United States Olympic Committee to showcase Olympic sports in Olympic off-years. Bonnell introduced himself to people working for ABC. Two months later, he was working on ABC’s Monday Night Football.

When Bonnell started taking classes at OCC he was going non-stop. There were classes during the week, Syracuse football broadcasts on Saturdays and on Sundays he was flying to wherever the Monday Night Football game was. “The people in the Radio & TV major were very understanding and great to work with. I loved my professors, Vinny Spadafora, Cathy Hawkins, Tony Vadala, who was very new at that time, and all of those people. They knew the importance of me getting experience. I still had to do all of the work but they helped me juggle all of these things at the same time.”

Bonnell worked for legendary sports producer Roone Arledge (above) during the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Bonnell worked for legendary sports producer Roone Arledge (above) during the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Bonnell earned his degree in 1983. “Going to OCC was a great experience. The classes were small. It was very intimate and personal. It felt like family.” He transferred to Syracuse University and continued his busy work schedule outside of class. In the summer of 1984 he would get the biggest break of his career. ABC hired him full time to work at the Summer Olympics. Bonnell spent a couple of months preparing in New York City, then flew to Los Angeles for the games. He was the graphics production assistant for ABC’s prime time shows, working under legendary sports producer Roone Arledge. Bonnell’s experience was so positive he considered not returning to Syracuse University.

Former colleague Bob Iger (above) convinced Bonnell to stay in school and pursue his degree. Today Iger is in charge of the Walt Disney Company.
Former colleague Bob Iger (above) convinced Bonnell to stay in college and pursue his degree. Today Iger is in charge of the Walt Disney Company.

While working in Los Angeles he found himself having life discussions with a co-worker named Bob Iger. “Bob told me ‘You’ve got to go back. You’ve got to finish. Get your degree. ABC Sports will always be here.’ Based on what I considered to be his fatherly advice I went back and finished.” It was good advice from a successful businessman. Today Iger is well-known in his role as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company.

Bonnell graduated from Syracuse University in the summer of 1985. As he was finishing his last class, he was hired by CBS Sports to work on their National Football League coverage that fall. The list of sports events he’s covered and people he’s worked with since the 1984 Summer Olympic Games are as impressive as any you will find in the broadcasting industry:

  • CBS Sports broadcast associate assigned to the Chicago Bears during their 1985 Super Bowl season.
  • Joined ABC Sports in 1987 where he worked in the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary as assistant to the producer. It was the final Olympic Games produced by Arledge.
  • Went to ESPN in 1989 to work on its Sunday Night Football telecasts.
  • Moved to NBC Sports in 1990 where another legendary producer, Dick Ebersol, hired him to work on the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Ebersol would become his mentor and they would work side-by-side for 10 years. During that time Bonnell worked on Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Notre Dame football and major tennis tournaments.
  • In 2002 he was hired at ESPN as a coordinating producer, where he works today. For the last 10 years he has been in charge of the Saturday night prime time college football games broadcast on ABC. He’s also overseen Grand Slam Tennis Tournaments and high-profile ESPN events including the NFL Draft, the College Baseball World Series and the ESPY Awards. Bonnell has produced the last 10 college football Rose Bowl games and the last seven national championship games. You can see him discuss pre-event coverage plans for January’s title game between Ohio State and Oregon here.
Katherine (left) and William (center) spend some quality time with their dad.
Katherine (left) and William (center) spend some quality time with their dad.

As Bonnell’s career has flourished so too has his personal life. During one of his trips home to Syracuse to visit his mother in the late 1980s, he dropped in on her at Crouse-Irving Hospital. “I saw this lady who worked with my mother running around and asked my mom, ‘Who is that?’ She said, ‘That’s Mary Beth Dennis.’ I tried for months to get her to go on a date with me and she kept saying no.” Dennis eventually gave in and they spent their first date enjoying dinner at the Sherwood Inn in Skaneateles. “When I got home that night my mother said, ‘You have dots all over your face!’” Bonnell had chicken pox and two weeks later his new girlfriend would too. Despite the virus their relationship survived. They married in 1990. Today they have two children: 14-year-old William and 12-year-old Katherine.

Bonnell at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
Bonnell at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

While the children enjoy some down time in the summer, Bonnell’s is filled with work. In July he produced ESPN’s ESPY Award Red Carpet Show. Ten days later he was producing the Special Olympic World Games in Los Angeles. He loves coordinating coverage for sizable events. The one he dreams of working on the most has nothing to do with sports. “I’d love to produce the Academy Awards someday. I love big events. I love entertainment. I’ve worked on Olympics, Super Bowl’s, national championship games. The Academy Awards would be a tremendous accomplishment.”

Accomplishments are what Bonnell and his family are all about. His mother earned her Nursing degree from OCC in 1982. His wife is also an OCC grad. Mary Beth earned her Math & Science degree in 1985. Even one of Bonnell’s brothers, Robert, has a diploma from OCC. He graduated in 1977 with a degree in Business Administration. “I really love OCC and the experiences I had there. I know the Electronic Media Communications Department is in great hands with Tony Vadala’s leadership. OCC has been a big part of my life and always will be.”

Eye on the World of Sports – Andy Italiano, ’85

Andy Italiano discovered his passion at OCC. His desire to succeed has literally taken him around the world.

When Andy Italiano started taking classes at OCC in the fall of 1983, he was an ordinary student, unaware he had an extraordinary talent. Like many 18-year-olds, Italiano wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. His father Joseph taught Astronomy at OCC, but Italiano didn’t see his future in the stars when he graduated from Syracuse’s Nottingham High School. During his first semester at OCC everything abruptly came into focus. “As I was walking down the hall I passed the TV department and realized you could ‘do TV’ and make money at it,” Italiano said. In the last three decades he’s done much more than make a living at it. Italiano’s ability to operate a television camera at some of the biggest sporting events have literally taken him around the world.

Italiano (right) with EMC Department Co-chair Tony Vadala, '83.
Italiano (right) with EMC Department Co-chair Tony Vadala, ’83 in the control room of OCC’s television studio.

 

Italiano got his first break shooting live sports while he was a student at OCC. Tony Vadala, ‘83, who was an instructor’s assistant in what was then called the Radio TV department, remembers when he met Italiano. “He said to me, ‘I want to be the person up there on the scaffolding running camera at big sporting events.’” Italiano said it to the right person. When Vadala wasn’t teaching he was working on local cable sports telecasts. He got Italiano a job running camera during high school football games. “Tony gave me an opportunity. He trusted me. He put me in a situation where I succeeded, and it gave me the confidence in myself to know I could do it. He was so generous and gracious with me,” said Italiano.

Italiano continued shooting local live sporting events through his graduation in 1985. He transferred to SUNY Fredonia, where he majored in Communications Media and would graduate two years later. He returned to Syracuse and got another break, working for CBS when the network would come to the Carrier Dome to televise big Syracuse University basketball games. He was doing whatever was needed: running and getting things for people, hanging banners, helping in any way possible. It wasn’t operating a camera, but it was a foot in the door and a chance to make contacts.

Regular work, however, was hard to find, so Italiano packed up his car and headed west to Los Angeles. “I had enough money for three weeks. If I didn’t find a job, I planned to return.” After two weeks without any solid prospects, he took a job installing carpets so he could make money and stay in California longer. In his spare time Italiano kept making contacts in the television industry, either by phone or by knocking on doors. Eventually he was hired to work in a television studio, “Heart of the Nation,” which focused on religious shows. He did everything there from sweeping floors to running cameras to technical directing.

Italiano got his big sports break a short time later when someone who was supposed to work on a television crew covering boxing called in sick. “I wound up holding a microphone all night. At the end of the night the woman who hired me told me, ‘Andy don’t beat anybody up, work hard, and you’ll get a job again.’”

From there his sports career took off. Eventually he wound up where he was most comfortable: behind a camera. Today he is one of the most-sought after sports cameramen in the world. His annual calendar is a sports fans dream:

  • Every two years he operates a camera at the Olympics for NBC, most recently at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
  • Live photographer at the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament for CBS.
  • All San Diego Padres (MLB) home games for Fox Sports West.
  • Weekly NFL games on CBS, which require him to be in a different city every weekend from September through January.

Italiano has run camera at multiple Super Bowls, World Series, Baseball All-Star games, NBA Finals, and Olympic games, which are his favorite. “The whole world is represented there and the whole world is watching. There’s a real sense of brotherhood at the Olympics.”

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To accommodate his busy schedule, Italiano has homes on both coasts in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and San Diego, California. Despite his globe trotting and world-renowned success, which has resulted in him winning five prestigious Emmy Awards.

Italiano has never forgotten his roots. In between working the Winter Olympics and the NCAA Tournament, Italiano recently visited Onondaga and spoke with students in an Electronic Media Communications class. He gave them valuable advice:

  • Be persistent.
  • Always work at your craft.
  • Respect the job you have by acting professionally.
  • Embrace fear and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You’ll do your best work when you are really on the edge.

Students listened intently to Italiano’s message and were impressed with what they heard:

  • “I learned it doesn’t matter where you come from. If you work hard, you can accomplish anything.” -Jake Zahn
  • “It was very impressive to hear that he started at OCC and now is doing all of these amazing things.” -David Breur
  • “I was inspired when I found out he graduated from the same high school as me.” -Traevon Robinson

Robinson’s dream is to be a professional music video photographer. Ironically, it’s shooting music which Italiano says helped him improve his skills exponentially when he stepped away from sports for a year-and-a-half and went out on the road shooting exclusively with heavy metal band Metallica. “With music there are no rules as long as it looks good. I really got to know the camera and its capabilities better than ever before. When I returned to sports I was able to be more creative in the way I was shooting. It definitely made me a better photographer.”

The man who gave Italiano his start in 1984, Tony Vadala, is now Co-Chair of Onondaga’s Electronic Media Communications department. “Andy is very down to earth. None of this has gone to his head,” said Vadala. “Seeing him come back, share his stories and wisdom with students, and knowing it all started here is remarkable. It really validates everything we do.”

One of Italiano's five Emmy Awards.
One of Italiano’s five Emmy Awards.

Italiano has won five Emmy Awards for excellence in the television industry:

  • 2011 World Series, FOX
  • 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing, NBC
  • 2008 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, Beijing, NBC
  • 2004 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, Athens, NBC
  • 2002 Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City, NBC

In 2014 Italiano was named one of the College’s “Alumni Faces” for his professional achievements and contributions to the College and the community. “It’s a tremendous honor,” said Italiano. “To be recognized at the place where everything really started for me is a great feeling.”

Italiano was named one of the College's Alumni Faces in 2014.
Italiano with his Alumni Faces plaque.