In our city of Wichita, tractors are commonly seen and their value to the economy of the area and stomachs of the world is never underappreciated. In the fall of 2012, a group of WSU students enrolled in COMM 660W, discovered a tractor can even take a young man from the fields of Kansas to Madison Square Garden.
Gary Bender, a WSU alumnus who reached the pinnacle of the sports broadcasting world, returned to campus last fall to instruct an intensive course on the craft he spent a lifetime perfecting.
"The class was a big commitment for Gary and for the students," said Lou Heldman,
interim Director of the Elliott School of Communication. "This isn't a class you come to for an hour and take a test at the end of the semester."
Bender would only agree if he knew the students would take it seriously and could get something out of it. Eric Wilson, a professor in the Elliott School, handled the logistics of the class and worked out a schedule.
"Gary was apprehensive that he could fill two or three days," Wilson said. "He has very high expectations. He wanted it to be fun but wanted there to be a strong curriculum."
Eventually the class got off the ground and the kids were not the only ones to get something out of the experience. On the first day, an energized Bender dove right in with a four-and-one-half hour lecture that caused him to nearly lose his voice.
"I really fell in love with the students," he said. "They responded amazingly. What really encouraged me was the improvement."
The three students who participated in the three-day course were treated to lectures from Bender as well as practical, "real world" experience. The lab in this case, however, was Koch Arena. The course culminated with the live broadcast of a WSU men's basketball game against Western Carolina on Nov. 15.
"It was an unbelievable experience," Tyler Gann, a student in the class, said. "Having only three guys and an entire basketball game to ourselves to call was incredible."
The basketball team, of course, was on its way towards the Top 25 but the students quickly learned how much time a single broadcast warrants.
"You can't do enough studying and prepping for the event you're going to be calling," Gann said. "And that was just for a non-conference men's basketball game that really didn't mean that much at the time."
The three students took turns calling play-by-play and providing color commentary to give each of them a well-rounded feel for each aspect of the broadcast. The next day, Bender played a recording of the on-air product.
"It was rough, listening to it for the first time," Gann confessed. "But I still go back and listen to clips to critique myself and see what I can improve on."
Bender was impressed with the improvement he saw in a very short amount of time. So much so, he expressed that with perhaps a few more weeks the turnaround would have been even more dramatic. As much as anything else, Bender's raw desire to teach the course guaranteed its success and he did not hold anything back.
"It was a one-hour class and they earned every bit of it," Bender said. "I unloaded my saddle bags of 45 years of broadcasting."
Heldman contends it was more than 45 years, given the genesis of Bender's love for sportscasting.
"The truth is, he was student of broadcasting long before he got to the university," Heldman said. "He talks in his book about being a kid sitting in a tractor and broadcasting games from Madison Square Garden as if he were actually seeing them. So he really has 60 years of experience to draw from."
Bender, of course, eventually made it to the real Madison Square Garden after earning his undergraduate degree in journalism from Wichita State University and his master's from the University of Kansas. He performed play-by-play duties at the network level for the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the Olympics, college football, and several NCAA Final Fours.
Ever humble, Bender is quick to credit those who helped him along the way. Mentors such as Tom Hedrick at KU and Monte Moore, the radio voice of the Kansas City A's, took time to work closely with Bender. He felt teaching the class at WSU would give him a chance to have a similar impact on a young broadcaster's career.
"After all these years I want to give back a bit, like Tom and Monte did for me," Bender said. "There are not many places in this business a young broadcaster can go to get an honest critique."
The sportscasting class is not the only way Bender is giving back to WSU. In 2009 Bender created a broadcasting scholarship at WSU. He also serves on the professional advisory board for the Elliott School. His participation in Communications Week eventually led to the serious talks about starting the sportscasting class.
On top of Bender's expertise, the COMM 660W class was also the first group to take advantage of a new digital learning lab space in the Elliott School. Fundraising for additional technology in the lab space is currently underway.
"I think there is an interest in sports journalism here," Wilson said. "We have talked about making this a one-week class, maybe in the spring where they could catch a basketball game and baseball game. I think we're going to have some initiatives to strengthen sports journalism offerings in the Elliott School in the next few years."
Technology already played a part in the sportscasting class. The students used the video function on iPads to record themselves giving a mock sportscast. They were then immediately able to watch and critique their performance.
"The technology makes all of us potential broadcasters," Heldman said.
Bender pointed out that there are more opportunities to broadcast games than when he began but, perhaps to echo Heldman's observation, believes there are more qualified broadcasters than there are chances to make it in the business. Because of that, "If I see someone with the ability, I try to nuture it," Bender said.
What does it take to "make it" in sports broadcasting? A few key traits stand out to Bender.
"First, you have to decide, is this really what you want to do? You have to have total tunnel vision. Second, there has to be something in your psyche that says you have something special to offer. I think we are all a little bit crazy. We are the eyes and ears of the people who play fantasy sports, video games and what it comes down to is we are privileged to bring each game to them."
Both Bender and the Elliott School have left the door open to offering the class again in the future.
"It didn't matter if it was one student or 25, I was going to prepare the same way and give it all I had," Bender said. "I proved to myself that it can work and can be a factor. I hope it isn't one-and-done and we have another chance to do this."
Heldman, too, could not have been happier with the results.
"This happened because it is inline with what we are trying to do at the Elliott School and WSU with experienced-based learning. It is a great bonus when we have a WSU graduate like Gary who has achieved national stature is willing to come back. Any Communications program in America would be thrilled to have Gary and we had him right here at WSU."
After the class ended, Bender thanked Heldman for believing in the class and allowing it to happen. Heldman responded simply, "That's what drives us, what keeps us teaching."
Bender noted, "For the first time, I understood it."