Flight issues lead to unique Arkansas-Alabama broadcast

ESPN announcers Jimmy Dykes (left) and Jay Bilas are shown prior to a game between Arkansas and Alabama on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The failure of a Federal Aviation Administration computer system had ripple effects across the U.S. on Wednesday. 

Reverberations were even felt at Bud Walton Arena. 

The ESPN2 broadcast of the basketball game between fourth-ranked Alabama and 15th-ranked Arkansas — an 84-69 victory by the Crimson Tide — was unique because it featured two analysts and no play-by-play announcer. Karl Ravech, the veteran ESPN play-by-play man who was supposed to call the game, was unable to fly to Fayetteville after a connection flight from Chicago was delayed. 

Ravech called a game Tuesday night in Lexington, Ky., with Jimmy Dykes, the former Arkansas player and former head coach of the Razorbacks’ women’s basketball team who lives in Springdale. Dykes took a different flight out of Kentucky and was able to make it back to Northwest Arkansas late Wednesday afternoon, just in time for he and Jay Bilas to call the game. 

“That was thrown together literally about seven hours before tip when I got the call that Karl Ravech couldn't get there,” Dykes said following the game. “The only thing we were challenged to do is just be two guys talking basketball — Jay’s not play-by-play or analyst, you're not play-by-play or analyst. You just sit down and talk ball like two guys who know basketball, and you're watching the game together. I think we pulled it off.

“There's no one better in the business than Jay Bilas. He’s a pro and made it easy for us to sit down together and do it for the first time.”

Dykes' initial flight out of Lexington with a connection in Chicago was delayed early Wednesday, but he was able to find a flight home through Charlotte, N.C.

Just before he boarded his flight in Lexington, he received a call from his boss at ESPN who asked if he expected to be back in Arkansas in time for the 6 p.m. tipoff. If so, could he call the game? 

Dykes said he landed at Northwest Arkansas National Airport at 3:50 p.m., changed back into the suit he had worn the night before and drove straight to the arena. He arrived one hour before tipoff. 

“I wore a hat all day,” Dykes said. “I stuck my head under the sink at XNA airport, dried it off with paper towels and was like, ‘You know what? It is what it is. Let’s go.’” 

It was a much different ending to the day than Dykes had envisioned. Wednesday was going to be a rare night at home during the season. He had plans to host a Bible study at his house.

"I just pulled into my house at 9 o'clock tonight to go in, hug my wife, get something to eat and go to sleep," Dykes said. "What a day."

The broadcast was produced by Scott Matthews, Dykes' producer for ESPN "Super Tuesday" broadcasts. Matthews arrived in Fayetteville from Lexington on Wednesday morning. 

“He knows me," Dykes said. "He knows when I want to see a replay, what I'm looking for. He's worked with Jay before, so it was the perfect storm. Ultimately we had the perfect team on the back end.”

The Dykes and Bilas commentary had a somewhat similar feel to that of a “Manning Cast” — the alternative broadcast that features brothers and former NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Eli Manning offering commentary during some Monday night football games on ESPN2. Dykes called it a "more buttoned-up" version of that concept.

“An analyst’s dream came true tonight,” Dykes joked early in the broadcast as he and Bilas spoke about not having a play-by-play announcer to work alongside. 

Afterward, Dykes said it was the second time in his career that he had called a game without a play-by-play partner. He and Fran Fraschilla, another ESPN analyst, were the only announcers on the call of a Gonzaga-San Francisco game in February 2020. 

The Arkansas-Alabama game was at least the second ESPN-affiliated broadcast this basketball season not to include a play-by-play man. In November, analyst Daymeon Fishback, a former Auburn player, called a game between Texas Tech and Louisville at the Maui Invitational after his play-by-play partner lost his voice. 

Bilas, the former Duke player and assistant who began his ESPN career around the same time as Dykes in 1995, called his first game at Walton Arena on Wednesday. He arrived in Fayetteville the day before.

“It’s been a bucket-list item for me to come to Bud Walton,” Bilas said beforehand, "so I’m thrilled to be at this game.”

Bilas called two of Arkansas’ games at the Maui Invitational in November. 

“Obviously I’ve done a fair amount of Arkansas games over 27 years,” Bilas said. “There just had been a quirk in the schedule where I’d never done an Arkansas home game until now.

“But this was a game I had circled to do.”

Dykes called Alabama’s victory over Kentucky last Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but had not called an Arkansas game this season prior to Wednesday. He said he was prepared to call the Razorbacks, though, because he has been at some of the team’s practices and watches Arkansas’ games whenever possible. 

“Really, as an analyst, our job is to watch the game,” Dykes said. “We shouldn't be looking at notes anyway, so it was all good.”

Bob Holt contributed