Calling the Shots
by Bruce Jenkins
Dennis O’Donnell, sports director at CBS 5, and Ted Griggs, president of Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area, have the region’s game days covered.
Perhaps you've known people who charted their life's path as teenagers, never wavering, no regrets. They always seem upbeat, absolutely thrilled with their jobs. They’re the lucky ones, for whom each day presents a world of possibilities.
Two such kids roamed the SF State campus in 1980. Blessed with talent, a natural charisma and a bit of good fortune, Ted Griggs (B.A., ’84) and Dennis O'Donell (B.A., ’82) embarked on a life in broadcasting and became two of the youngest men ever to make a mark in Bay Area television. They remain best friends, and if they strike a decidedly youthful appearance, it’s the result of a path well chosen.
Griggs is the president of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, an ever-growing enterprise that televises the Giants, Oakland A’s, Golden State Warriors and San Jose Sharks games, among other widespread sports programming. He was named the most powerful person in Bay Area sports in 2008 by The San Jose Mercury News, which noted, “The television screen becomes our surrogate ballpark, arena or stadium. Griggs is the gatekeeper.”
O’Donnell is Sports Director at San Francisco’s CBS outlet, Channel 5, and earned four Northern California Emmys for on-air excellence. Most announcers spend years in the wild — Reno, Sacramento, Eureka — before landing in a major market. O’Donnell’s road led directly from the SF State campus to the big time.
Over lunch at a South of Market restaurant, the two men’s humility and their humor is on display. Griggs’ reaction to the Mercury’s proclamation: “Don’t believe everything you read,” while O’Donnell jokes, “The next morning, I opened my front door and Ted had stacked 50 copies of the paper.”
Beneath it all, though, both men have a fiercely competitive nature, which helped them barge through the broadcasting doors so dramatically.
Early on, growing up in Hayward, Griggs knew he wouldn’t be following a family pattern. His dad was a car mechanic, “and I’m the kind of guy who forgets to put oil in my car,” Griggs says. “I blew out two engines that way. I worked with him for maybe two days, at which point we were yelling at each other.”
Griggs had discovered his talent for acting, as well as modern dance (“very handy in the disco days”), and he’d always admired Van Amburg, then a formidable news anchor at Channel 7. After a brief stint at Cal State Hayward, he transferred to SF State to get into broadcasting — and he moved in a hurry. He quickly became news director for the campus radio station (KSFS), and by his second semester he’d hooked up as an intern with KRON (Channel 4).
“There was a strike at KRON at that time, a lot of people had left, so I wrote my own press release to tell them that, basically, I was available,” he says. “I guess they were impressed by that. They hired me, and the strike had left them without much talent and no sports producer. So that became my job — while I was still in college. After two days, they started paying me $250 a week, which sounded pretty good for a guy living in the dorms. I remember my roommate, Dave Oliviero (B.A., ’83), saying, “You are so rich.”
With a foot in the door, Griggs didn’t need any more help. He had a feel for news, a passion for sports and the kind of leadership qualities that cannot be taught. He was bound for a 15-year stint with Golden Gaters Productions, the acclaimed Marin-based company that produced sporting events, preview shows and documentaries. But before he left KRON in1982 and vacated his job as sports producer, he recommended that O’Donnell take over.
“I had just graduated, and I went straight there,” O’Donnell recalls. “I think I probably had seven or eight titles, but ‘producer’ was one of them. Nobody could believe some 24-year-old guy was running the department. I was far too green to be in charge of peo- ple. But I just got thrown into this thing, just like Ted — sink or swim.”
O’Donnell had grown up in the Sunset District, leaving at 13 when his family moved to Walnut Creek, and he was already determined to have a career in sports play-by-play. His father knew some key figures in the Giants’ organization, and one night the great Lon Simmons (O’Donnell’s idol) called the family home. O’Donnell picked up the phone and nervously took the initiative.
“Once I got over the shock of talking to Lon, I asked if he’d give me some advice on getting into the business. He told me to take a tape recorder to ballgames and do my own play-by-play, over and over. So that’s what I did. Announcing was all I ever wanted to do. I chose SF State because it had the best broadcasting department. Put me right in position to get a job.”
O’Donnell eventually found his calling in produc- tion and studio work, but he has always managed to satisfy his craving for play-by-play, and to this day, he handles the 49ers’ pre-season games for Channel 5, a station he joined in 2000 after 18 years at KRON.
O’Donnell looks back on his collegiate years with tremendous appreciation, realizing he couldn’t have walked into a more productive environment. “You could make mistakes, start over, meanwhile learning every aspect of the business: how to direct, how to shoot, how to write, how to be on TV, how to light an interview,” he says. “I still use the things I was taught in my SF State broadcasting classes.”
Griggs has been at Comcast SportsNet since 1998, deeply influencing the company’s progress when he became vice president and general manager in 2007. He oversaw the network’s relocation and construction of a massive, state-of-the art newsroom and office space in downtown San Francisco. He has been the executive producer of several acclaimed documentaries, including “Out: The Glenn Burke Story,” nominated for Outstanding Documentary at the 2011 GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Awards.
He can’t think of a job he’d rather have, and that also goes for his longtime colleague in the business. “I’ve run into so many people over the years, really successful people,” O’Donnell says, “but sort of disoriented, feeling they chose the wrong path because they didn’t enjoy it. Ted and I have never felt that way. I think we’re among the lucky ones.”
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