Q&A: Looking at ‘The Drive’ with producer Michael Tolajian

After two seasons of shooting football, the Pac-12 Networks’ “The Drive” docu-series is trying to focus on basketball for the first time — jumping around the conference to focus on its various teams. Tonight’s episode, which airs at 9 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks, is focused on UCLA and Oregon State.

“The Drive” crew shot the Bruins’ loss to Oregon State on Jan. 22, their win at home over Colorado on Jan. 31, and some of the practices leading up to each one. It also focused on the respective coaches, Steve Alford and Wayne Tinkle, as well as Bruin freshman Kevon Looney and Oregon State’s Gary Payton II.

I caught up with senior coordinator Michael Tolajian to ask him how the experience of shooting the two sports compared, as well as his thoughts on Alford and Jim Mora.

How did you pair teams together for episodes? This is the first episode that isn’t arranged geographically (i.e. Arizona State and Arizona, Colorado and Utah). Was it a factor that UCLA and Oregon State are teams have underachieved and overachieved, respectively?

Michael Tolajian: We weren’t set in stone with doing the local teams. We did it sometimes. A lot of it had to do with what the programming lead-in was going to be. … Ideally, there would be a live UCLA game or live Oregon State game going in. we weren’t able to do that every time, but that’s a good way to get audiences to tune in.

The other aspect was talking to the coaches and talking to the school. A lot of the times they had preferences. There was no set formula. It was kind of a combination.

We kind of set this early. We didn’t really know (who was good). Other than knowing Arizona would be good and maybe Utah. Really, the rest of the Pac-12, you could throw them in a hat. Any given night, you don’t really know. We shot with Cal. They started off well, went in the toilet, and then now they’ve won a few in a row. … It’s really been hard to predict. Like any documentary type programming, you just have to be there and follow along. Sometimes the stories contrast nicely, and sometimes not.

How does it compare to shooting “The Drive” for football the past two seasons? Do you lose a bit of depth in favor of breadth versus depth compared to the football format? Are there any advantages to being able to dabble around the conference through the season?

Tolajian: Unlike football, where it’s kind of episodic, you’re following along each and every week. You’re tied in every week. With basketball, we’re bouncing around the conference. More than it being about the narrative of the team, it’s really taking a step behind the curtain, hearing from some of the players, hearing how the coaches run the teams. … It’s really sights and sounds and process, rather than trying to tell some overarching story.

It’s just a different type of animal. It’s the same — it’s “The Drive.” Tt’s the same type of thing as far as access and cinematography. Access at the game and in the locker room. With one team, you do gain that episodic thing where you kind of get attached to the team and you want to find out what happens next. But with one team, you end up speaking mostly to UCLA fans.

We’re going to hit each and every team. It kind of spreads the love across the conference. It’s also a good goodwill tool because it allows coaches and SIDs to get to know us.

How does Steve Alford compare to other Pac-12 coaches? Has anything from his practices stood out in particular?

Tolajian: I think with Steve, he has such a wealth of knowledge from being a star in Indiana, a high school star and playing for Bob Knight. I think he just has a great perspective. Just from one practice, you could see him as a teacher. Really getting out there. I saw a lot of teaching. Not really teaching particular plays, but also fundamentals of the game. I think some coaches pass that off to assistants a lot of the time. But I was pleasantly surprised to see him in there. Maybe that’s just his love of the game and being a player himself. He really enjoyed it.

I don’t know if it was just because we were there, but he was really friendly and positive. Seeing him on the sideline, he’s not afraid to give it to his team and be a disciplinarian, but even in the loss to Oregon State, he pointed out what they did wrong, but he tried to instill a silver lining and encourage the guys the keep playing better. … I think he realizes that it’s a long season, and if you get hot at the right time, you never know. Especially in the Pac-12 this year — after the first two teams, it’s up for grabs.

How does access compare to football? Is there less time for basketball coaches to review the footage the way football coaches do?

Tolajian: We are owned by the schools, so everything we do is a partnership. We want this show to continue very season. We would only be doing a disservice to be including something that the coaches didn’t want in. It is very much a partnership. It isn’t “REal Sports.” We’re not looking to out anybody or break news. We’re trying to expose who these players are, who these personalities are.

With basketball, the teams do get to see a rough cut, but to this point (the edits have) been pretty much negligible. … I think with football, when you’re with one team all year. You kind of after a few weeks know what to expect. SO the review process becomes almost moot after a while. You know a coach would rather us not focus on this or that. With basketball, we’re only doing it once.

Has anything that has surprised you in particular about shooting the basketball series?

Tolajian: It’s a different sport to shoot. I think our cinematographers have made their bones in football. Coming to basketball, in some ways it’s harder because the action is so much closer and faster. I think they took some time to get adjusted. But I think they kind of like it, with the fans being right on top of the court. …

You don’t have that period when you’re hanging out with the team. A lot of times, they’re on their best behavior. (But) a lot of these coaches, they put the mic on, I can’t tell that they’re changing their attitude or their personalities in any way. From Sean Miller to Cuonzo Martin to Alford, they seem to be very genuine and in the moment. We appreciate it.

What did you learn from the first two seasons of shooting “The Drive” for football?

Tolajian: Having two teams is interesting because you can always kind of compare and contrast within a show. It was interesting to see how they dealt with that … With UCLA, it was really following that one team. What that allowed us to do was to dig deeper and do bigger stories. You could do a feature that was six, seven minutes long. I think that allowed us to do better storytelling. So that was pretty neat. It’s hard to say again, whether it’s one team or two teams they both have their pros and cons. I think it’d be difficult if you only had one team and that team really had a bad season. … Having two teams kind of protsects you. Fortunately for us, UCLA had a good year.

A lot of it comes down to the characters. Jim Mora, he’s good TV. He’s driven. He’s a motivator. You have guys like Brett Hundley, Myles Jack — charismatic guys. Then kind of under-the-radar guys like Marcus Rios. When you have good teams and good personalities, then that one-team format is ideal.

Have you decided whether or not you’ll focus on one team or two for the next football season?

Now that Signing Day’s over, we’re kind of talking about how we want to proceed. I think all the schools are really intrigued by it. I think they see the value in expanding their brand. I think it helps recruiting … We’ll see. But I think also, the coaches have to look at their teams. It’s an added element, and they have to see if their team wants to take that on or not.