Capturing History: How CBS Sports Director Steve Milton Called the Epic Iron Bowl Finish
“Just sit on your hands.”
Steve Milton has learned a lot in his two decades as a sports television director, but as the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide lined up to attempt a 57-yard field goal to beat rival No. 4 Auburn in one of the more exciting college football games of the year, this was the one lesson he found himself repeating in his head.
“Put your hands under your butt, Steve.”
Milton, his producer Craig Silver, and the SEC on CBS production team were prepared for almost anything: a made field goal with a Bama celebration, a missed field goal and overtime, a blocked field goal. The list of possibilities got crazier from there. None of it was going to matter. Milton was not going to leave that shot.
There were nearly 20 cameras deployed around Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn on Saturday, but Milton would need only one. The high–end-zone camera tracked as Alabama’s backup kicker Adam Griffith let the attempt go and it fell short into the back of the end zone and the arms of Auburn’s Chris Davis. The rest was college-football history: Davis swung to the sideline and returned the kick 109 yards for the touchdown with no time left on the clock.
“I learned early in my career, on big moments, don’t get in the way,” says Milton, who has been directing the SEC on CBS since 2003. “I was thinking that while the field goal was about to be kicked. On that end-zone angle, I sat on that because, if you cut to anything else, you’re going to disorient the viewer and they’ve got two seconds to catch up with a new angle. I stayed on that, and, luckily, it ended up being a pretty great perspective because you see how tight it was on the sideline and you can see the tacklers pursuing him.”
Milton learned to K.I.S.S. [Keep It Simple, Stupid] nearly 15 years ago when directing a basketball game. Busy grabbing as many crowd shots as he could, he didn’t get back to the action on the court for the game’s final play until after a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer was already in the air.
“It didn’t go in, thank God,” he chuckles. “We all make mistakes early in our careers, and you learn a hell of a lot when you first start out.”
Back at Auburn, inside F&F Productions’ GTX-16 production truck, there was less chaos than one might think following the Davis return. Instead, more of a sense of disbelief settled in. Was this even real?
“No one had ever seen anything like this in their careers; I think it took a lot to process,” says Milton, recalling how the truck had erupted a week prior following Auburn’s shocking victory over Georgia. “You’re not rooting; you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on here. I didn’t hear all of Verne [Lundquist]’s call, but I did hear, ‘No flags,’ and that’s always important to me because, once you hear that, then it’s reality. It was over.”
Once the kick had played out, the production team took over from there, grabbing all of the reaction shots they could, from the Actioncam aerial system tracking the runback to the airplane camera above the stadium capturing the thousands of Tigers fans swarming the field.
“After that, it was everything we learn in this business: happy guy/sad guy/happy guy,” says Milton. “There’s lots of juxtaposition on that instead of favoring one side or the other, because there’s so many emotions especially in a game like that. There’s those at their very happiest and those at their deepest despair, and the contrast in that is really what came out.
“I couldn’t find a bad shot. It’s not like I’m directing, even. At that point, you’re just cutting pictures.”
Like many in the aftermath of the game, Milton is attempting to run through his memory to see where exactly Saturday’s game ranks in his career. Lundquist has already put it on par with one of his top events, Jack Nickalus’ historic win at the 1986 Masters. Milton also has it up there with his favorite Masters moment that he directed, Tiger Woods’s famous chip-in on 16 in 2005. As for this Iron Bowl, its place in history remains to be seen.
“I always like to put a lot of time between it,” he says. “Sure, it’s getting a lot of hype now; then six months from now, it will find its ranking. Plus, if Auburn wins this weekend [in the SEC Championship Game], it’s even bigger. If somehow they manage to get into the National Championship Game, it gets even bigger. Right now, though, it’s way up there. It’s no doubt a top-five moment in my career.”
When recalling such on-point execution of a historic moment, Milton is quick to thank those who helped make it possible.
“I’ve got a great crew, and it can’t happen without them,” he says. “I’m only as good as they are, and they were very, very good that day. It might have looked very different without this great team.”
It has been a wild season for the traveling SEC on CBS production team. Nearly all of their games have been nail-biters, and many have been just flat out huge, starting with the massively hyped season-opener between Texas A&M and Alabama and the last two weekends at Auburn.
Does Milton expect a game that wild again this weekend when he directs the SEC Championship Game between Auburn and Missouri for CBS? Probably not. But then again, with the way things have gone…
“Somebody’s living a charmed life,” he cracks, “or somebody sold their soul.”