As a sports-obsessed teenager growing up in Westhampton Beach in the late 1980s, Chris “The Bear” Fallica devoured the sports section of the paper every day, soaking up any available info about the New York Jets and his other favorite pro sports teams into a mind that seems tailor-made for storing an endless stream of statistical information.
But before he read the game articles, Fallica said he always flipped first to the box scores tucked away in the back end of the sports section. Something about analyzing the seemingly endless stream of numbers appealed to him. If he went to a Yankees game, he was armed with a pencil and paper, keeping score on his own, always looking for the story behind the story that the numbers—if given the proper attention—can tell.
The 1990 Westhampton Beach High School graduate parlayed that obsession into a dream job: working as one of the top researchers and also as a sports betting analyst for ESPN. He is one of the sports media giant’s go-to guys for statistical research and analysis in a variety of sports, from horse racing to soccer to golf to college hoops, but he is best-known for his work on ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” show, where he serves not only as its top researcher but also is a regular on-air contributor, talking both stats and sports betting.
Fallica returned to his alma mater early last week to be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, and was recognized during an awards ceremony Monday night, honored by athletic director Kathy Masterson and given a plaque recognizing his place in the school’s history as a success story.
After the ceremony, Fallica sat down with several school administrators and a few of his former teachers, regaling them with stories from his years working with the popular hosts of “College GameDay,” Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso.
During that casual conversation, it was clear why he has been so successful. Aside from having a gregarious, outgoing personality, with a gift of gab and particular knack for storytelling, Fallica is also one of those people whose penchant for remembering minute and perhaps mundane details about games and players from across decades is, frankly, ridiculous.
He rattled off the specific dates of matchups from more than 10 years ago, including player names, individual stats, and even individual plays from the games, with a nonchalant casualness, as those around him laughed and shook their heads in disbelief.
He is a numbers guy, through and through, with an astonishing talent for recall to boot.
“I was the kid who was grabbing the paper and reading the box scores and looking at players and numbers,” he said. “It’s the way my brain is wired. The numbers, the math, the story behind the story—that was always appealing to me.”
The story of how a self-described “sports-obsessed” kid from Eastern Long Island became one of the most reliable numbers guys at the biggest sports broadcast company in the world has as much to do with good old-fashioned gumption as it does with a natural passion for what he does.
Fallica’s earliest foray into sports research and broadcasting began at Westhampton Beach High School, where he played football and also wrote for the student newspaper and hosted the student-run television show “Hurricane Watch,” which gave him the outlet he was seeking, and the opportunity to talk about sports on TV.
Fallica, who grew up as an East Moriches resident, said he chose to attend Westhampton Beach High School as opposed to other schools that East Moriches students could attend—Eastport and Center Moriches—because it was the only one, at that time, that had a football team, and opportunities like the “Hurricane Watch” show.
Fallica and other students who worked on the show would take the early bus several days a week and arrive to school at 7 a.m. and work on the show before attending classes. During football season, he’d be at practice after school. It made for a long day, but Fallica was passionate about both extracurriculars, and didn’t mind putting in that time.
He moved on to the University of Miami, where he continued to pursue his dream of working in sports research and broadcasting by working with the school’s sports information department. His big break came when he got a gig doing statistical research for a New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat NBA game for WFAN, the New York-based sports radio program, during his junior year of college. When it was over, he made the bold move of asking the show’s host at the time, Mike Breen, if there were any summer internships available at WFAN.
“He said, ‘Call me when you get back, and we’ll take care of you,’” Fallica recalled.
Fallica interned at WFAN in the summer of 1993 and, shortly thereafter, one of the show’s producers moved to ESPN Radio, which was in its early days. Fallica took a job there and before long was asked if he’d be interested in the “College GameDay” research position.
“I said yes—I don’t care about the hours or the salary,” Fallica said.
Being bold enough to put himself out there is a large reason why Fallica had made it to where he is today. He showed that trait even as a high schooler, writing and mailing a letter to longtime, super-popular football host Chris Berman, asking him if he could answer a few questions for a story he wanted to write about him in the Westhampton Beach student newspaper. Berman wrote back—and Fallica wrote the article, although he says he did not save the letter.
Seven years later, he found himself sitting alongside Berman doing research work for his “Monday Night Football” show at the ESPN Zone in New York City.
Fallica has provided his statistical research expertise on an increasing number of shows, and for an increasing number of sports for ESPN, in the more than 20 years he’d worked there, but he is primarily known for his work on “College GameDay.” He fits right in with the hosts and the raucous, off-the-cuff, fun atmosphere that has become a trademark of the show, thanks largely to the outsize personalities of its hosts, including Corso in particular.
It was Corso who gave Fallica his nickname, “The Bear.” It was in 2002, when Fallica and Herbstreit were eating breakfast before the national championship game between Ohio State and Miami. Corso came back from a morning walk, took a look at the impressive spread of food on the table, and said, “Look at you, Fallica. You’re just like a big bear. All you do is eat, sleep and shit.”
Of course, in between those pursuits, Fallica is doing his job, and he does not have a day off during the season, working on research and providing stats for the show, while also writing a weekly column, hosting a podcast, and doing several spots on other ESPN programs.
Any graphic element that appears on screen during College GameDay (and other shows he works on, for that matter) come from the diligent, detailed research work he does behind the scenes. The days leading up to the show are long and arduous; work that is done early in the week sometimes has to be tweaked or changed if a player gets injured, or someone says something provocative in a mid-week press conference leading up to the game.
But Saturday, when the show airs, makes it all worth it.
“The show is just three hours of fun,” Fallica said.
He clearly enjoys the experience of criss-crossing the country and meeting coaches, players and the always excited students from various college campuses. He lists the University of Oregon, in Eugene, as one of his favorite spots, along with his alma mater, Miami, and reigning national champion Clemson, in Georgia.
He said he enjoys visiting Division I-AA programs like James Madison University and Williams College, adding that for the students at those smaller schools that aren’t nationally recognized, having “College GameDay” visit “is like the Super Bowl” for them.
Fallica’s role with the show expanded to on-air segments in 2013, when it was expanded to three hours. Prior to that, he’d made spotty appearances, but didn’t have a regular routine like he does now. He said he was hesitant to go on air initially, but the producers convinced him, saying that passion and outspokenness he expressed in staff meetings would translate well to the show.
“I didn’t want to come across as the stat geek rambling on and on about numbers,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the New Yorker, the Long Island guy talking with his hands and getting loud and worked up and coming across as an idiot. But to their credit, and, I guess, mine, it’s worked out well.”
Indeed, it’s been a career that continues to work out well for Fallica. He has become one of the most respected employees at ESPN in terms of behind-the-scenes work—evidence of that was in his invitation to work the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a major event for the network. He said being in South Africa for six weeks, watching people from all over the world with the same passion for the game, and also experiencing the rich history of the country, standing in the same stadium where Nelson Mandela spoke to the crowds after his release from prison, was one of the greatest experiences of his career.
Despite how far he has come, Fallica said he still has those pinch-me moments on the job. He cited one of them from last spring, when he had just finished up working alongside Dick Vitale at the Final Four. After watching Virginia pull off the upset in a thrilling national title game, he boarded a plane to Georgia to go cover the Masters.
“I got to the course at Augusta, and I was just sitting there, and it was one of those weird moments,” he said. “I thought, if I could go back in time and tell 14-year-old Chris Fallica, ‘Okay, you’re going to work with Dick Vitale at the Final Four, and then you’re going to get on a private plane with Sean McDonough and go to the Masters, and that’s gonna be your April,’ you wouldn’t’ believe it. You really are living what you had dreamed about.”
He has simple advice for anyone who, like him, is devouring box scores and ESPN highlights, dreaming of working in sports broadcasting or journalism one day.
“Just find something you’re passionate about, whether it’s sports or something else,” he said. “It’s just about getting an opportunity, asking the right people, getting experience. And if someone says no, just moving on to the next person. You just have to get out there and do it, and make connections.”