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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, that's where Mike Rudolphi steps in.
Since 2017, the University of Illinois journalism alum and former News-Gazette intern has served as talent spotter/stat provider on the network's college football and basketball game coverage.
In football, Rudolphi has worked mostly this season with 28-year-old play-by-play voice Connor Onion, a rising star in the profession. During basketball season, Rupolphi is paired with Dave Revsine, the face of BTN.
"I'm a second set of eyes for the play-by-play," Rudolphi said.
It's a fun bonus gig for the 51-year-old, whose day job is being a consultant with Seattle-based Cap Gemini.
Rudolphi is paid for spotting/stat work, and the network handles all his travel expenses.
He was at Memorial Stadium for Illinois' overtime win against Indiana on Nov. 11 and spent this past Saturday in Evanston for the Northwestern-Purdue game.
This week, he travels to New Jersey for Rutgers-Maryland.
He works a football game every weekend and has 15 basketball games coming up.
How did Rudolphi get into spotting?
In the early 2000s, he was working part time at maxsports.com and met a guy named Mitch Smith.
Smith did work for the St. Louis Rams, handling what they call specialty stats. The person tracks pertinent statistics during the game, be it quarterback pressures or yards after contact.
Rudolphi helped out with the Rams whenever asked, earning $75 per game. He got other work thanks to Smith. If Smith (now the spotter for Fox lead announcer Kevin Burkhardt) had a conflict, he would recommend Rudolphi.
"That's how I got 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 analyst that day.
"Evidently, I must have done something right, because Dave then recommended me to BTN. I've done Dave's basketball games ever since then," Rudolphi said.
For football, with a recommendation from Revsine, Rudolphi became a spotter for Cory Provus. More recently, he joined with Onion.
It is a labor of love.
"It keeps my finger in what I always wanted to do," Rudolphi said.
He enjoys the people he works with at BTN, both on-air talent and behind-the-scenes folks.
Rudolphi has a good relationship with Revsine.
"Dave is as good as it gets," Rudolphi said.
He feels the same about Provus, Onion and all the rest.
Another favorite is BTN basketball announcer Brandon Gaudin, who has also been the voice of the "Madden NFL" video-game series since 2017.
"This is how good of a guy Gaudin is," Rudolphi said. "A few years ago, I made a reference about how my kids all love 'Madden.' He sends a copy of 'Madden' every year."
Gaudin went above and beyond with Rudolphi's son Owen. In a joking way.
"He sent a message for his birthday last year, telling how he heard he was terrible at 'Madden' and he needed to work on his game," Rudolphi said.
Before the game, the announcer makes up a board with names and numbers of players on the roster.
Pre-snap, by pointing to numbers on the board, Rudolphi lets the announcer know who is in the backfield and what kind of formation is being used.
If there is a position change, it is his job to inform the announcer.
He alerts the announcer if there is a penalty flag on the field. Some spotters use yellow cards as an indicator. Rudolphi goes with a hand signal.
"No two spotters are alike," Rudolphi said.
When the play starts, Rudolphi calls out the receiver, runner or tackler.
"On turnovers, I've got to be spot on," he said. "On a fumble, who caused it and who recovered it."
On punts, Rudolphi points out the corresponding number for the length of the boot.
Knock on wood, there have been no earth-shaking mistakes by Rudolphi. He tries to be especially careful when it comes to giving the number of an injured player.
There are more good stories. Earlier in the year, Rudolphi was on top of an interception return. The announcer was grateful.
Rudolphi uses binoculars for an up-close look at the action.
"Some places, we are up so high, you have to," he said.
What are the keys to the job?
"You have to be quick and get it right," Rudolphi said.
Rudolphi would like to move up to the NFL at some point, though there is no longer a team located close to home after the Rams moved back to Los Angeles.
"It's all timing," he said.
Away from the booth
Rudolph's background is in newspapers. During college, he worked at the Daily Illini all four years, serving as sports editor the last two. After graduating from the UI in 1995, Rudolphi went to work for the Danville Commercial-News as a reporter. He was 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 doing corporate work for Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
Mike and wife Kim have been married 26 years. They both grew up in Chillicothe and started dating after college. Kim is an Eastern Illinois University alum and spent years in the fashion merchandising industry.
They have two sons: Owen, 20, is a junior at the University of Missouri. Justin, 16, attends Eureka (Mo.) High School and plays football.
Appreciates the effort
In January 2021, Onion and Rudolphi started teaming up together. Most of the stats and spotting assignment were over Zoom.
"I worked with Mike 20 to 25 times remotely before I worked with him in person," said Onion, who is based in Chicago.
What is the most important job for Rudolphi?
"I don't know if I can pinpoint it to just one thing," Onion said. "The biggest thing is a second set of eyes. We're both reading your work throughout the week when we're coming to a game in Champaign or reading the game notes when we're going to some other places.
"I think we both have a pretty good idea of stats and trends and the people we want to focus on. With Mike being such a good teammate and him kind of trusting me to guide him along on what I want to tall about, he's kind of that fact check and that reminder, 'Hey, here's something we talked about it throughout the week and maybe you're missing with how this game is going ...'"
Onion said Rudolphi has kept him from making identification errors.
"Especially with how much defensive linemen go in and out of the game," he said. "If we're doing an Illinois game, he is very good about 'Johnny Newton checked out of the game. Defensive line is going to look a little different.' He is really good about injuries."
In football, Onion works with analyst and four-time Super Bowl champ Matt Millen.
Whereas Millen has great knowledge about his alma mater, Penn State, Rudolphi knows the Illinois program forward and backward. And the rest of the Big Ten.
"He's such an encyclopedia going back to even before he was born," Onion said. "That's another thing he's helped me with. He has a catalog of information in his brain without having to look up stuff."
Onion said Rudolphi's history as a reporter helps with his spotting/stat duties.
"It's very valuable," Onion said. "Mike has been around it so much and comes from that sports media background to where I don't think it fazes him as much as somebody who comes from an outside background."
"I was trained in how to watch a game and what things to look for," Rudolphi said. "It's definitely an asset for sure. A lot of people that do this job were not journalists, and they are very capable, too."
Rudolphi's versatility in the booth is a plus. He works as spotter for Onion in football. For basketball, he handles the stats.
"If Illinois is going on a 10-0 run and Marcus Domask has eight of those 10 points, he's sliding me a note," Onion said. "The behind-the-scenes people deserve a lot more credit than they get in helping us do our jobs."