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Michigan State’s Big Ten StudentU program pushes higher, thanks to Spartan grad

Matt McCulloch works the replay machine during a baseball stream on B1G+.
Zach Surdenik
Matt McCulloch works the replay machine during a baseball stream on B1G+.

Matt McCullough, a MSU grad, came back to his alma mater to help lead its Big Ten StudentU program, which airs most Spartan varsity sports. 

When Matt McCulloch started as a student at Michigan State over 20 years ago, he never saw himself where he is today–in his seventh year at the helm of one of the most successful student production programs in the country–Michigan State’s BTN StudentU.

McCulloch has always pushed himself to the limits, dating back to his childhood days as a world BMX champion and continuing to his everyday work.

“I’m relentless,” McCulloch said. “I work until the problem is solved. I don’t let it fail. These are three things that are inherently part of my DNA growing up, doing the things I did through my childhood have all prepared me for that. I don’t give up.”

That outlook on life is made clear by his journey.

McCulloch originally came to East Lansing to study computer science, but had a change of heart by his junior year. Even with the switches he made, it took a while for McCulloch to find his niche.

“After a long road and changing majors like five times, I finally started enjoying my classes,” McCulloch said. “I took some production classes and then one day, someone was looking for volunteers for a camera operator for a softball game, so I said ‘Yeah I’ll do it.’”

From that moment, McCulloch knew he was hooked.

He got an internship with HOMTV in Lansing, which allowed him to practice his live production skills in low-pressure situations during government meetings.

The broadcast production industry can be tough to enter with a saturated field. Yet even though McCulloch worked his way to a few local news offers after his graduation in 2000, he instead chose to bet on himself.

“I examined, ‘Is this really where I want to go with this?’,” McCulloch said. “Or do I want to take my chances in the freelance world doing sports and other types of production? I took the path of the freelance world. It was painful at first, hustling for jobs and getting on whatever crews I could get on, but over time it paid off.”

McCulloch found success in the freelance world, but needed more stability as he settled with his family, so he found some full time jobs before making his way back to East Lansing, thanks to the connections that he made along the way.

“I was encouraged to apply (for Big Ten Network StudentU director) by some of the people that actually worked here and I did.” McCulloch said. “I guess there were 60-some people that applied, but I was able to get it and I think I’ve picked up the ball and have been running in the right direction ever since.”

Since taking over as the director for the program, McCulloch has seen massive growth throughout the years.

“It’s been my project and my program to run since I got here,” McCulloch said. “I had to spend a year figuring out what it even was, doing things in the way that my predecessor had done them. There were a lot of inefficiencies. They had 48 events the year before I came in. My first year, I came in and did 79. Last year, we did 112.”

With all of the chaos surrounding his role, McCulloch needs his students to step up to help shoulder the burden within the StudentU program.

“He has a stressful job, he is doing this all by himself, he has no help,” senior Bella Gorisek said. “He’s dealing with students that it’s their first day on the job and have never touched a piece of equipment before. He’s troubleshooting everything. He’s dealing with (Big Ten Network headquarters). He’s doing so many things every second, but he’s always willing to help someone out.”

Gorisek has worked under McCulloch as part of the StudentU program for four years, starting as a freshman in 2019.

“When I started, I remember sitting down with Matt and explaining (my lack of experience) and he was the most encouraging person,” Gorisek said. “He enforces mistakes in the best way possible. Where we are in college as students, we’re learning. He wants you to have that opportunity to learn. In the beginning, I didn’t know what to do, but he just said ‘It’s okay to make mistakes, just learn from them and get better’.”

Gorisek took that mindset and never looked back. As a senior, she has become a leader within a program that has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The way that it worked when I started, you get hired and you work as a utility, which is basically shadowing and then you gradually worked your way up to the positions that you want to be in,” Gorisek said. “That’s how I did it, but when COVID happened we lost a lot of our upperclassmen. That’s when I felt the initiative to step up and learn everything that I possibly could. I would talk to Matt outside of work days, or I would talk to him before. I would always show up early, leave late and just grasp as much as I could.”

Gorisek worked as McCulloch’s production intern this year and has continued to grow under his direction.

“We built that trust relationship and he always encourages me to try and learn different things,” Gorisek said. “I did a lot of work to get to where I am, but Matt was the person that taught me how to do everything that I know.”

In addition to his role as the StudentU director, McCulloch works as the liaison for any TV networks that come to Michigan State to cover sporting events.

“Any time network TV is on campus, I am their main point of contact,” McCulloch said. “This goes into planning about where they’re going to park. How many people need credentials, how many people need parking passes, what things will they need to rent? These are discussions I have. Where can they put cameras? Can we try this? What type of connectivity exists inside the venue? I have to know all of that and deliver to TV whatever they need to have successful shows on campus.”

These weekends can be hectic in normal circumstances, but they are heightened for big games: Oct. 30, 2021 as an example.

Michigan State was hosting Michigan in the first football game between the two schools as unbeatens this late into the season in over 50 years. Fox was sending its top crew into East Lansing to cover the game and had a pregame show outside of the stadium. This was nothing out of the ordinary, and the network had given weeks of notice to McCulloch and the MSU Athletics staff. But six days before the game, ESPN decided that their GameDay show would also be set up outside of Spartan Stadium.

It was without doubt one of the most chaotic weeks on Michigan State’s campus in years. McCulloch was right at the center of it all.

“For the game, we were the center of the college football universe,” McCulloch said. “Each of those crews, we had to find new places for them. These were places that we’ve never done before. We had to make it equitable for both. Both of them wanted skycams so I’m on the roof of the STEM building and the stadium trying to figure out where we’re going to rig up the wiring for these skycams. It was a ton of preparation.”

The relationship with his students is what keeps McCulloch going at the helm of this program after seven years and a pandemic.

“My favorite part is easily working with the students,” McCulloch said. “They come in looking to explore this arena of live production. You get to see how it affects them on their first try when they go live and how they handle failing and making mistakes.”

McCulloch never stops working with the students in the program and that growth is the biggest reward.

“Ultimately, after going through this program, watching them emerge with confidence and being able to step onto their first job with confidence because they’ve done it before. Watching them run the control room and do these things is incredibly satisfying. That’s the reason you want to get up and come and do this.”

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