THEY GET IT
Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels, NBC — As leagues drool like pack dogs to embrace legalized gambling, it’s vital they don’t allow integrity breaches to explode into wretched scandals. Kudos to Collinsworth for using prime time to expose Doug Pederson. In what obviously was a tank job to climb into a higher draft spot, Pederson yanked dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of a tight game and inserted inept backup Nate Sudfeld, ensuring a stinker loss that pushed the 7-9 Washington Football Team ahead of the 6-10 Giants for a clownish NFC East title. Collinsworth echoed the raw disgust of bettors, Giants fans, some Eagles fans and sports purists alike when he said, “I simply could not have done it. You’ve got men out there that are fighting their guts out trying to win the game.’’ Chimed in partner Michaels, he of the wink-wink references about point spreads: “I agree, under the circumstances, absolutely. (If) they are getting blown out, yeah. And we mentioned, yesterday Doug said he wanted to get Sudfeld into the game. But in this circumstance? Come on.” The NFL does not want two prominent broadcasters on “Sunday Night Football,’’ the league’s showcase weekly event, delving into competitive ethics — a discussion many other paycheck-protectors would have avoided. As for Pederson, his nose grew longer than the Walt Whitman Bridge when he claimed he was “coaching to win.’’ Win what, the No. 6 pick?
The Athletic — In attack mode at last, the site has used its deep pool of reporters to break stories at a recent high clip. My usual complaint about The Athletic — a lack of critical edge — isn’t as glaring when each day brings more scoops. The churn is embarrassing ESPN, which, in turn, embarrasses itself by resorting to familiar bigfoot fakery. When The Athletic or another site breaks news, ESPN takes hocus-pocus credit with a line in an opening paragraph — such as, “sources tell ESPN’’ — while hoping the reader doesn’t notice an acknowledgment in a much later paragraph that the story first was reported elsewhere. It happened when ESPN insider Jeff Passan, writing about the trade of Blake Snell to the Padres and the names of prospects acquired by the Rays, ended his opening paragraph with a credit grab: “… sources familiar with the agreement told ESPN.’’ The story then waited six graphs to mention, “The Athletic was first to report the players going to the Rays in the deal.’’ Same goes for NBA insider Brian Windhorst, who said “sources told ESPN’’ that the Heat were not pursuing James Harden, then waited until his final graph to mention, “The South Florida Sun-Sentinel first reported the Heat’s decision to end the trade talks.’’ The Athletic was out front as the Cubs were peddling Yu Darvish to the Padres — by the way, San Diego hasn’t been this relevant since the Ron Burgundy days — but ESPN, playing catch-up again, didn’t even bother crediting the news-breaker, instead citing “sources familiar with the deal.’’ It was Chip Brown at Horns 24/7 who first tweeted Steve Sarkisian “is expected to be the new coach at Texas’’ — and minutes later, without a mention of Brown’s report, ESPN was reporting that sources were “telling ESPN’s Chris Low that the Longhorns have zeroed in’’ on Sarkisian. And when Saints star Alvin Kamara tested positive for COVID-19? We initially were led to believe “a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter’’ first when, in the final graph of the story, we learned “NewOrleans.Football was first to report Kamara tested positive.’’ ESPN is conveniently omitting that it is simply CONFIRMING what others have broken, which The Athletic did when reporter Scott Burnside “confirmed’’ the NHL is playing two outdoor games at Lake Tahoe, quickly noting “Sportsnet was first to report the NHL’s plans.’’ The practice is dirty and unethical, with executives and editors to blame for not stepping in, but the industry is afraid to call out the “Worldwide Leader.’’ I’m not — and how fitting that ESPN’s news desk recklessly posted a false story from a fake Schefter account Monday, forcing the network to issue a correction. It’s still an annoying topic for me, having once broken Michael Jordan’s return to basketball in the Chicago Sun-Times (with the Associated Press), only to see a beaten Sam Smith at the rival Tribune credit the AP and, um, an unnamed newspaper. This isn’t gamesmanship. It’s weasel-ism.
Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN — From his home studio in Nashville, he showed how to responsibly stay on the job and do it well after a positive COVID-19 test. You never would have known he was in isolation while breaking down the Herbie Bowl, and while his allegiances to Ohio State (as a former player) and Clemson (his sons play there) again suggest a collegiate conflict of interest that hasten a bump-up to the “Monday Night Football’’ booth, his insights and commentary remained airtight. He mauled Mississippi State’s Mike Leach for his players’ roles in a sickening New Year’s Eve brawl, saying, “Mike Leach should be embarrassed. His postgame interview and what he said, `Hey, it’s football. Hey, it’s physical. It’s going to happen’ — are you kidding me, Mike? You should be embarrassed about your program and what it did. This is a black eye for the sport. Maybe you don’t care about the sport, dude. It’s as bad as it could be for people that are sitting around watching college football and that breaks out.’’ I couldn’t have said it better, dude, though the only reason Leach’s team was playing Tulsa in yet another needless game — the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl — is because it’s one of 17 bowls owned and operated by ESPN Events. I’d be even more impressed if Herbstreit had popped his bosses for overlooking a blatant detail in their desperation to air such shlock: Mississippi State came in at 3-7. The takeaway is this: Whereas Tony (the $180 million man) Romo missed his CBS assignment Sunday, due to COVID protocols, Herbstreit showed up and won the weekend.
Tom Rinaldi, Fox Sports — His ballyhooed move from ESPN doesn’t require much dissection. As a sentimental storyteller and interviewer, Rinaldi realized Fox is ensconced in the sacred Super Bowl rotation (unlike ESPN), carries the NFC championship game every year (unlike ESPN), televises the World Series every year (unlike ESPN) and has soccer’s World Cup in 2022 (unlike ESPN). He also is being paid appreciably more at Fox than at ESPN, where Disney has tightened pursestrings once yanked wide open for leading talent. He also has bosses who value his dramatic deliveries — OK, melodramatic — even more than they did at ESPN, which now can let foul-mouthed rappers set scenes with musical collages. “The biggest events on Fox just got bigger because of Tom,’’ said Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks, who describes Rinaldi as “one of the all-time great people in this business and a generational storyteller.’’ Indeed, Rinaldi is a happy and upbeat fellow, and he’ll be very happy painting pictures of hope, inspiration and kindness at Fox. Sometimes it’s as simple as a guy still believing sports is all about fairy tales and wanting to maximize his glee.
Mike Valenti, Detroit talk host — How refreshing to see a harsh critic of a rancid sports franchise gain the support of his corporate superiors … and ultimately win a political tug-of-war. Valenti was so scathing in his attacks on the Detroit Lions — and rightfully so — that they fled his station, 97.1 The Ticket, and took their broadcast rights to another outlet five years ago. In an uncommon step for sports radio, CBS Radio backed Valenti in the standoff, and last month, the Lions returned to The Ticket (now owned by Entercom) with their tail between their legs. How uncomfortable did the team make it for him at the time? Valenti said the senior vice president of communications, Bill Keenist, tried to have him fired and called him frequently during commercial breaks, disputing points he’d expressed on the air. Keenist has denied this, but I happened to be on the same college newspaper staff as Bill, and, yes, he can be a rah-rah shill who thinks he’s a media-controlling sheriff. Of course, I have my own experiences in this regard: a Chicago sports owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, leading a charge to run me off ESPN 1000 despite my stellar ratings. If someone with the stones of Valenti’s corporate backer, Chris Oliviero, had run my station back then, I’d still be ruling sports radio there. This time, content won and manipulation lost.
Dave Portnoy, Barstool Sports — This is the second straight “Five Who Get It’’ where I flunk math and count to six. But I am astonished — gobsmacked, actually — that the clown prince of sports media has raised more than $16 million for small businesses via The Barstool Fund. Of course, Portnoy could raise billions and not make us forget his racist and sexist rants and the creepy way he got started in the industry: publishing a photo of Tom Brady’s naked, then-toddler son. Consider this a healthy step forward … though, chances are, he’ll eventually step back into the same sewage.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Dan Le Batard, Free Agent — I commend him for a classy, grateful farewell show, with nothing but love for his father and colleagues on his final “Highly Questionable.’’ Still, it was awkward to see the host yapping on ESPN’s TV and radio platforms weeks after parting with a network he has napalmed for years. If ESPN is trying to expunge the Le Batard memory and move on, it shouldn’t have brought him back for a final day of shows in 2021. A bigger question for ESPN boss Norby Williamson, centrally involved in the divorce proceedings: What ultimately happens to Le Batard’s stable of loyal friends who remain on his former TV program? Ratings for the network’s afternoon talk block aren’t wowing anyone these days, and after the “High Noon’’ flop, the network should push creator Erik Rydholm to develop a fresher realm of programming. That is: less cartoonish humor and more viewer-connective substance. A note to Le Batard, 52, and his radio gang: The longer you stay idle with no major gig — Spotify? Sirius XM? — the less impact you’ll make in the future. “We approach this scary cliff together to take quite the leap of faith. Are you ready to jump with us?’’ Le Batard asked his radio fans. “If you’ve paid close attention, we’ve been ready to take this leap for awhile. We know the strength of the army that stands at attention at our back. I promise you, we’re going to show you how much we don’t take that for granted. I can’t wait to take you on this fight, and this flight, with us.” Are they doing radio? Or going to war?
Sports Betting Executives — Has someone stolen Chad Millman’s identity? Or was he always diabolical, even as editor-in-chief at ESPN.com, in hoping gambling sites disrupt the future of legitimate sports journalism? Now a top boss at the Action Network, Millman was asked by the Washington Post if betting companies will “save or swallow’’ sports media. “Why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t it be both?’’ he shot back. Does Millman not realize these are two disparate universes a zillion miles apart in moral purpose and intent? Does he actually think a game that bottomed into a rout an hour earlier can be connected in any ethical or realistic way to the phony game — driven by point spreads, over-unders and fantasy teams — still going on in the final minutes? It’s the latest comment that portends an alarming new reality: Authentic and responsible sports coverage will be devoured by brands, including those in mainstream media, chasing the casino money. Then there’s Brian Musburger, CEO of the Vegas Stats & Information Network. In a stunning statement that might interest the FBI, among others, Musburger sees hiring professional journalists and using inside information culled from sources and locker rooms to feed tips to bettors. WTF? Referring to Teddy Greenstein, the college football and golf writer who left the Chicago Tribune to join something called PointsBet Sportsbook, Musburger told the Post, “There is a long history of guys looking for an edge. It’s harder to have that now because information happens so fast. But guys like Teddy, who have their ear to the ground and have covered a beat — whether they know it or not, they have information important to sports bettors.” Excuse me while I take three showers. If leagues and teams begin to credential writers from such operations — not impossible as partnerships between sports and gambling interests blossom — hell, why not just stop writing about games and athletes and turn all reporters into dirtbags, tweeting every eavesdropped tip he or she unearths so some loser in Jersey City can lay down a phone wager? Said Musburger, nephew of media legend (and one-time crack journalist) Brent Musburger, who hosts a radio show for VSIN: “The places that have the money to hire the best writers right now are the folks that are serving the gambling audience. So it’s interesting.” No, it’s frightening — consider the scandals that await in sports and media when strategies like his exist. Unlike some writers, I’m fortunate I don’t have to work for these sites. But be damned sure I’ll be watchdogging them.
Charles Barkley, TNT — Don’t say I didn’t warn Barkley if he ends up in the craphole again. The man-child who once admitted to a gambling addiction that cost him at least $10 million — $2.5 million in six hours alone — somehow was allowed by the network (and parent AT&T) to place $100,000 on the Portland Trail Blazers to win the Western Conference. This actually happened during “Inside The NBA,’’ via league partner FanDuel, which suggests Barkley has slipped into dangerous old habits while NBA commissioner Adam Silver has lost his moral compass. I don’t care if Barkley ends up broke, but I do care if young people vulnerable to gambling illnesses now think it’s cool to bet on sports because Charles did so on TV. Of course, legal bets now can be made in numerous states over cellphones, many of which have accounts with … AT&T. Wait, I’m not through with Barkley. After Kevin Durant replied to post-game questions from the “Inside The NBA’’ crew with short answers — Barkley is a frequent critic of Durant — Barkley not only ridiculed Durant but brushed aside Kenny Smith’s subsequent question about whether it still bothers Charles that he never won a championship ring. He went into a sideways rant about idiot media people, not realizing he can be one himself.
Scott Van Pelt, ESPN — I’m thankful when anyone returns from the clutches of COVID-19, including the “SportsCenter’’ anchor. Perhaps he regrets his foolish comments of last spring. In the early stages of the pandemic, with sports on pause and trying to figure out responsible steps forward, Van Pelt callously argued one night that athletes — the strongest and ablest among us, he said — should be allowed to immediately resume games. Never mind the death toll in the real world. Never mind that ESPN had a vested interest in live events. Van Pelt spoke from an empty mind, not realizing that “One Big Thing’’ would become “One Real Big Thing’’ in his life come December. An idea: How about a segment where he lists the number of sports people infected since he opined so irresponsibly? People ask why I don’t like Van Pelt. It’s not about liking him … I just don’t respect him. Can we see more Neil Everett in that time slot, please?
Vince Doria, ex-ESPN executive — Not sure what possessed him to sit on the story of Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend in 2013, or why he let Te’o’s high-powered agent influence him in the matter. But Doria, an editor who launched many legendary news careers, lost respect when his former employer shamed him this week on a “Backstory’’ episode. He preferred to negotiate with agent Tom Condon for a face-to-face interview with the humiliated linebacker rather than immediately publish the news ESPN already had gathered, allowing a few rubes at since-deadspun Deadspin to finally get a story right after farcically botching so many others (oh, the lies they’ve told about me and anyone else who criticizes them). What’s interesting is how they’ve all since faded away — Doria into retirement, Te’o to the Chicago Bears’ practice squad and the ex-Deadspinners to menial jobs where they evidently can’t afford to wear better clothes on “Backstory.’’ When asked by ESPN reporter Don Van Natta Jr. if, in hindsight, he’d rather have the scoop or interview, Doria admitted, “Probably the scoop.’’ This is what happens, I suspect, when newspaper editors become TV bosses. They think ratings first, journalism second.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Kevin Harlan is the Luckiest of the Lucky
“If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
John Facenda, the legendary voice of NFL Films, helped shape the soundtrack of the National Football League as the sport burgeoned in popularity. His voice is known by most fans of the game and synonymous with the gridiron. The dulcet tones of Facenda compelled a producer for the Kansas City Chiefs pregame radio show on KCMO to send a note requesting that he voice the intro to the Sunday morning program. That was Kevin Harlan, a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, working in the role after being asked to produce the show by Chiefs radio voice Wayne Laramie.
Harlan fondly remembers being presented with the idea to compile a three-hour radio pregame show followed by a two-hour postgame program, all utilizing the powerful, ostensibly boundless radio signal that reached about eight Midwestern states. As he did, he continued filling in for Kansas Jayhawks broadcaster Tom Hedrick, an opportunity he was promised by the broadcaster himself as he recruited him to attend the university. Initially, Harlan was deliberating between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Notre Dame, the latter of which had alumni Don Criqui whom he also admired. Hedrick, color commentator for the CBS Radio broadcast of Super Bowl I, presented him with an offer that he could simply not refuse though, and it led to more opportunities to hone his craft.
From the age of 7, Harlan had been infatuated by sports and familiar with the inner workings of the press box. His father, Bob, was the director of public relations for the St. Louis Cardinals and allowed his son to perambulate the corridors of the ballpark. Even though he did not realize the magnitude of commentators he would encounter, such as Lindsey Nelson, Vin Scully and Bob Prince, he was cognizant that they were important professionals in the sports media business. In fact, Harlan would frequently sit in the back of Jack Buck and Harry Caray’s broadcast booth with a bag of popcorn and a Coke just to listen to their call of the contest. The voice of Facenda became part of his consciousness a few years later, and work on projects such as “The Autumn Wind” inspired him to discover a career in broadcasting.
“I remember getting back from class and one of my roommates said, ‘Hey, some guy named John Facenda called you from NFL Films; he wants to talk to you,’” Harlan recalled. “I called him back and he was incredibly gracious. He said, ‘Kevin, I want to know if I can change this sentence and add even a couple of more things I’ve got in my mind?’ I said, ‘Yes, you can do anything.’”
While Harlan’s intonation and timbre are heard worldwide today, those within a 10-mile range were the only ones initially privy to his skillset. Notre Dame Academy, his high school, allowed him to be on the air from the age of 14 to call football games.
On top of that, his father had accepted a role to serve as the assistant general manager of the Green Bay Packers and worked his way to become the president and chief executive officer over an 18-year stretch. By the time he was in Kansas City working with the Chiefs, Harlan was aware of the power of the NFL and the extraordinary job with which he was being entrusted.
“[Facenda] sent me this reel-to-reel tape, and I could hear his different takes of the copy that I had sent him,” Harlan said. “At the end of the reel-to-reel tape, he finished [by] saying, ‘You’re listening to Chiefs Sunday on the Chiefs Radio Network,’ and we had this music bed, and there was a pause and he goes, ‘Now that’s a horse that I can ride,’ which meant he liked the copy; he liked the way that it sounded that he just read.”
By Harlan’s senior year of college, he was hosting Chiefs studio coverage, calling high school games around the state for WIBW and hosting a three-hour talk show on Sunday nights. Combined with his broadcasting and coursework at Kansas, Harlan’s schedule was jam-packed with broadcasting responsibilities, and his ability to seamlessly balance all of it is part of the reason he called Kansas City Kings basketball games at 21 years old.
While it was an obvious decision for Harlan to seize the opportunity, there was some pressure on him in being so young compared to veteran commentators. Bill King, Jim Durham and Joe Tait, voices of his childhood, were now among his broadcasting colleagues, and he was working alongside Hall of Fame center and former NBA champion Ed Macauley. When the team decided to move to Sacramento, Harlan had to choose whether or not he wanted to relocate or remain in Kansas City.
“I really had fallen in love with the area, and I really didn’t want to go to Sacramento, although I had a chance to tour the city with the team at the time, but [I] really wanted to stay in Kansas City,” Harlan said. “I started thinking, ‘Well, I better start looking around, and if all else fails, I can go and be a part of the Kings broadcast in some form or fashion.’”
By stroke of serendipity, Harlan was able to stay in the locale to call Chiefs games, a decision that was sealed following a trial broadcast with analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson. After the experiment, which was in the form of a Missouri spring football game, Dawson gave his unequivocal approval of Harlan as his new on-air partner, and one week later, he received word from team president Lamar Hunt that he had landed the job.
One October day in 1991, Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg led his team to a massive 33-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills during a prime-time Monday Night Football matchup on ABC. Harlan called the game on radio and remembers the stadium being filled with a vociferous crowd captivated by the action. After one sequence, Harlan members spontaneously saying, “Oh baby, what a play!,” simply reacting to the atmosphere and thinking nothing of it.
Throughout his career, he has never been one to adopt a catchphrase, but on that day, feedback on his exclamation was validated by fans in the parking lot celebrating the win. Calling into the postgame show he used to produce, the fans shouted, “Oh baby, what a play!” in unison, and unbeknownst to them, Harlan and his wife were listening as they tried to escape traffic.
“From that point on, that phrase caught and kind of rode the success that they had,” Harlan explained, “which eventually led to getting Joe Montana and Marcus Allen, and that was it.”
In 1989, the National Basketball Association was expanding to include the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom would need commentators to call the games. Harlan was being courted by the Timberwolves. He and other members of the broadcast team would be tasked with growing the popularity of the league in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
While the opportunity to move back into calling NBA games was appealing, Harlan was not entirely sure that he wanted to take the job because he was content with his lifestyle and growing a family. As a result, he called NBA broadcasters Bob Costas and Marv Albert, both of whom emphasized the importance of taking the chance to move into calling games on television. At their behest, he decided to accept the offer, which meant flying back-and-forth between Minneapolis and Kansas City to retain his family life.
One day, Harlan received a call from NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol asking if he could fill in on a Sunday NFL game, giving him his first opportunity to be looked at by a national network. NBC Sports was impressed with his performance, granting him more network opportunities – including a two-year run with ESPN calling college football – before his first chance to call the NFL nationally on a regular basis.
Transitioning to predominantly focus on national work in the NFL was not on Harlan’s mind until he ran into Chiefs team president Carl Peterson and NFL Films president Steve Sabol before a game in Buffalo. As fortune would have it, they had just been talking about Harlan, which led Sabol to tell him that he had been asked by FOX Sports to give them who he thought were the top three NFL radio announcers. George Krieger, executive vice president at FOX Sports, had asked Albert a similar question, a query that prompted the broadcaster to recommend Harlan.
“On that roster was me, Kenny Albert, Joe Buck and Thom Brennaman,” Harlan said. “We were the four younger broadcasters in back of [Pat] Summerall and [Dick] Stockton; they wanted to build for the future…. I know the four of us took great pride after this big search because there was a lot of speculation at the time as to who FOX was going to hire to fill out their roster.”
The company launched the NFL on FOX in August 1994, shortly after Major League Baseball players officially went on a 232-day strike. Harlan was one of the first broadcasters to take the air and commenced a property currently in the midst of celebrating its 30th season.
Four years later, he moved to The NFL on CBS. It would not have been possible without the sacrifices his wife made for him and the lengths she went to in order to raise a family and establish a comfortable and healthy atmosphere at home.
“What she did on those many nights that I was gone so I could do something that I loved was an act of unselfishness that is beyond words and measure,” Harlan said. “I guarantee you that if things were not good at home and unhappy at home, it would affect the way I had navigated my career.”
Harlan has been calling two NFL games per week since 2009 when he took the job as the lead voice of Monday Night Football broadcasts on Westwood One. A key factor in being able to maintain such a lifestyle is in the contrasting means of dissemination, rendering variation in the way he prepares. In becoming more comfortable on CBS over the years, he realized that there is not as much time to contextualize and explain detailed stories behind every play and athlete.
Conversely, Harlan’s role on the radio is to inform listeners about what is transpiring on the field and subsequently set his analyst up for success. Harlan has worked with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner on the broadcast since 2018, which followed a 10-year run with Boomer Esiason, and he knows the challenges they face on a solely aural medium.
“My job is very edited,” Harlan said. “I come in loaded with all the appropriate stuff I need to have, but it’s skeletal compared to what my TV boards look like.”
After his games each week, Harlan reviews his outing and thinks about ways he can continue to improve going forward. Despite wanting to scrutinize over hundreds of minutiae within each broadcast and impugn certain decisions, he ultimately focuses on what is most essential.
“We all love the challenge of being the best that we can be, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple tweaks here and there along the way,” Harlan said. “If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Once October comes around, Harlan juggles the addition of the NBA on TNT, where he has worked on a full-time basis since the 1997-98 season. The move into television that Costas and Albert cosigned was beginning to pay dividends for Harlan, who entered rarified air by serving as a national voice of two professional sports entities. He has enjoyed stability in his jobs for nearly three decades, something seldom attained within a media career, and considers himself fortunate to be in this position.
“TV is something I really never thought of,” Harlan expressed. “I loved radio – I grew up wanting to be in radio and was, and TV just kind of evolved very organically out of all my radio stuff, as it does for a lot of broadcasters.”
Albert retired from the NBA on TNT after the 2021 NBA playoffs, forcing TNT to have to make a decision as to who would serve as the new primary voice of the property. Harlan began to have chances to work with the lead broadcast team of Reggie Miller, Stan Van Gundy and Allie La Force, and today largely announces games on Tuesdays during the regular season. Last year, he called the Western Conference Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers to conclude the network’s broadcast slate.
Yet Harlan did not genuinely listen to Albert until he became a colleague at TNT, although he was aware of his status as a revered broadcaster. Understanding that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace an announcer of his stature, Harlan seeks to bring his own approach to the role while honoring the history it garners.
Most professionals can control how to position themselves for success, whether that be through their talent, work ethic or demeanor, but Harlan also knows that much of it comes down to timing. He made sure to forewarn his kids about the challenges that come with working in sports media before any of them pursued a career in the field.
“‘What you’ve been able to be around is the luckiest of the lucky,’” Harlan said to his children. “This is a business which, more or less, is pretty hard to navigate and gets harder and harder by the day with a myriad of things you’re constantly going against.”
Three of Harlan’s children heeded his advice, but the fourth decided to chase her dreams anyway. Much like her father, Olivia Harlan Dekker found a mentor at the University of Georgia and worked to earn broadcast opportunities. The two made history last January when they became the first father-daughter duo to call an NFL playoff game, doing so together on Westwood One.
With the NBA’s television contracts set to expire following the 2024-25 season, there has been much conjecture as to which companies will garner portions of a new deal. The league is reportedly interested in adding digital and streaming elements to the package, perhaps an impetus for Warner Bros. Discovery launching a Bleacher Report-branded sports tier on Max and ESPN preparing a direct-to-consumer (DTC) interface.
“I think all of us are kind of excited, maybe a little bit nervous [in] knowing that we’ve got two more years to go doing our jobs,” Harlan said. “As someone very smart told me one time – my dad – [he] said, ‘If you’re looking ahead too much or you’re looking behind too much, you’re going to miss what matters most right now.’ What matters right now is the present and doing the best job you can do right now, and then let everything play out how it’s going to play out.”
While having chances to call marquee events is what most broadcasters desire, Harlan does not want to be avaricious in his pursuits. After all, he has called the NCAA Division I men’s basketball Final Four on numerous occasions for both television and radio amid other significant games. Moreover, he is preparing to work his 14th consecutive Super Bowl for Westwood One, the most consecutive of all time, and is eagerly anticipating the moment he steps into the broadcast booth at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“We know how many millions of cars are on the roads at any given time at any given part of any day, and some people are just, for whatever reason, [unable to] get the game on their phone or tablet, and so they’ve got to listen to it,” Harlan said. “We’ve had soldiers overseas that have listened in outposts in pretty, pretty remote parts of the world, and the only way they know the Super Bowl is to listen to our broadcast.”
As the pregame countdown approaches 0:00, Harlan will feel a gust of “The Autumn Wind” and begin delivering the call for the most prominent game of the season. Until then though, he is enjoying the journey each week calling games for CBS Sports and Westwood One, along with the NBA on TNT. When Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024 arrives, he will be prepared and enthusiastic to serve as an invaluable emissary tasked with translating the game masterfully composed on the gridiron.
“[Westwood One has] got the history and the know-how and the leadership to navigate those new ways of broadcasting and delivering,” Harlan said, “and for them to select me and put me in that role is an honor which I can’t even describe…. I go back to what I wanted to do when I first got in the business and how lucky I am to be in that chair with that headset on.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Terry Francona Gave the Media Everything it Wanted in a Manager
“He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations.”
He lacks Tony LaRussa’s hair, Tommy Lasorda’s wit, and Joe Torre’s Kleenex bill, but Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona deserves some props for what he is, quite simply one of the best managers in baseball history and perhaps the best at handling the media. Francona is retiring from managing after this, his 23rd season as an MLB skipper.
After a star-crossed playing career, Francona’s first managerial stint was in Philadelphia from 1997 to 2000. His Phillies clubs never finished higher than third place, but the experience with a tough media even tougher fans prepared him for his next challenge, one that will eventually lead him to Cooperstown.
With all due respect to Francona’s last 11 seasons at the helm in Cleveland, his claim to fame and ticket to immortality was purchased in his 8 seasons as manager of the Red Sox. In that time span, Francona withstood the pressure and pain of a curse, clubhouse malaises, personal life rumors, and the general pain and suffering akin to being a high profile sports personality in Boston.
Remember that Francona arrived in the Hub in 2004 at the apex of the misery and anger over the team’s 86 year World Series title drought. In truth, it wasn’t a drought, it was a desert speckled with bad decisions, racist claims, and kick-in-the-gut defeats.
In fact, the team had just endured one of those boots to the mid-section just weeks before Francona was hired when they lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the hated Yankees on Aaron Boone’s extra innings walk off home run. That game, and his decision to leave Pedro Martinez in the ballgame with a high pitch count, resulted in manager Grady Little’s exit.
The truth is that the Red Sox fired Little because he simply wasn’t their kind of guy. GM Theo Epstein and the organization were waist deep in the Billy Beane analytics barrel having hired stat guru Bill James as a senior advisor. Little made decisions based more on people than printouts.
After his four-year losing stint in Philly, Francona was about as respected by the Boston media as Vanilla Ice at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was covering the team then and dismissed Francona merely as the bait that boated Curt Schilling in free agency. Schilling had played for Francona with the Phillies.
We were all wrong. Just a few months after his hiring, Francona ended an eternal curse, tamed the brutal Boston media, shrewdly combined youth and experience on the field, created chemistry with a $100 million roster, and kept some of the most unique personalities in the game happy and healthy. He won 1296 games and two World Series in Boston and is deemed by many to be the team’s best manager ever.
Francona’s greatest strength was his handling of the media. Make no mistake. Boston is the toughest place to manage in all of sports. With a media horde that prefers hangings to harmony and a fan base that can be as lethal as they are loyal, every day is a season unto itself. In Boston, one loss is Armageddon.
Francona was nothing short of exemplary in his weekly radio stints on then kingpin station Sportsradio WEEI and other Boston media outlets. He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations. He protected his players, took the blame, and effortlessly sidestepped the many silly questions he was posed.
Francona also did a great job in the national spotlight. When he managed the American League in the 2005 All-Star Game, his in-game interview was sparkling, unlike National League skipper Tony LaRussa who was about as animated as yogurt.
In Boston, Francona developed into a media master, adeptly handling tough postgame questions and setting the tempo for his radio weekly calls. He deserves credit for being the anti-Bill Belichick, completely accessible but not overly ingratiating to the media.
At the heart of Francona’s handling of the media was his utter regard and protection of his players. In Boston, he did postgame interviews with NESN in a segment called “Terry’s Take.” While the team’s home network reporters seldom threw hardball queries at Francona, when they did, he never threw any player, coach, or team executive under the proverbial bus.
WEEI’s popular afternoon program at the time, the Dale and Holley Show with Dale Arnold and Michael Holley, became must-hear radio because they actually did consistently ask tough questions to Francona about roster moves, player issues, and strategy.
While they did so without becoming insulting or distasteful, Francona was, at times, audibly upset at the questions and shot back with his own vim and vigor making for fascinating radio.
Francona always maintained a level of class and dignity even when the media did not. He never let insulting insinuations or idiotic innuendo define him.
Francona’s time in Boston ended ingloriously in 2011. His club blew a seemingly insurmountable September lead in the standings and missed the playoffs. At the time, Francona took the heat for the unexpected collapse, but that team featured the indomitable David Ortiz, a young veteran MVP in Dustin Pedroia, and veterans like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Tim Wakefield, and Josh Beckett.
Adding to the dismal end were reports that Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey were often see drinking beers, playing video games, and snacking on fried chicken in the clubhouse during September games.
The Boston media huffed, puffed, and damn near blew the Green Monster down, but where were Ortiz, Pedroia, and Wakefield, three players lauded for their leadership, as all this was happening? They got no heat, while Francona got fried. In the end, he left Boston diplomatically saying that perhaps a new managerial voice was needed.
This is the essence of the public Terry Francona – professional in victory and levelheaded in defeat. His postgame chats are models of consistency and his press conferences reveal the game’s nuances without sharing family secrets.
While the aforementioned Belichick treats the media like IRS agents, Francona kills them with cooperation. He massages their needy egos, but in the end, gives them nothing more than what he wants to give them.
NFL coaches Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin tend to tell the media far too much about injuries and prognoses. Francona knows when to clam up or toss in an interview-ending cliché. He is stern and unafraid to justifiably scoff at the often inane queries he faces.
As he walks away from the dugout for presumably the last time, here is some long overdue credit to Terry Francona, a superb leader and standup guy who truly puts the “man” in manager.
John Molori is a weekly columnist for Barrett Sports Media. He has previously contributed to ESPNW, Patriots Football Weekly, Golf Content Network, Methuen Life Magazine, and wrote a syndicated Media Blitz column in the New England region, which was published by numerous outlets including The Boston Metro, Providence Journal, Lowell Sun, and the Eagle-Tribune. His career also includes fourteen years in television as a News and Sports Reporter, Host, Producer working for Continental Cablevision, MediaOne, and AT&T. He can be reached on Twitter @MoloriMedia.
Mike Golic Jr. Is Always Going to be an Undrafted Free Agent
“I approach every job wanting to put my absolute best foot forward, wanting to show and not tell people that I’m going to work hard, that I’m going to be here for more than just coasting along off the name.”
There are a lot of conversations in sports about overhype. “This team is overhyped”, “that player is overhyped.” There isn’t nearly as much time spent on those that are underhyped. (The word even sounds wrong because we hardly ever hear it.) Mike Golic Jr. is a great example of underhyped.
The conversation typically revolves around how he initially broke into the broadcasting business instead of how hard he’s worked or all of the things he’s accomplished along the way. It isn’t, “Man, this guy is good at what he does.” It’s usually, “Yeah, but it’s because his dad is Mike Golic.”
There are a lot of famous fathers out there whose kids didn’t do jack because they were either lazy or untalented. I don’t care nearly as much about how you get your opportunities; what you actually do with them is what matters the most. Do you think Golic Jr. would still be on the air if he wasn’t any good? No. So wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the here and now instead of how his journey began?
Golic Jr. has made the most of his chances. He’s got a brand new morning show, GoJo and Golic, on the DraftKings Network. He’s also calling college football games on radio each Saturday night for Learfield. In our conversation below, Golic Jr. talks about the blessing it is to still be able to team up with his dad. He also talks about how he deals with trolls and how his dad has the ability to delete beer. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: How would you describe what your new show on DraftKings is like?
Mike Golic Jr.: There’s definitely some gambling elements in there, but they were pretty clear up front, they just wanted us to do a show. They didn’t want us to do anything that didn’t come naturally to us. For me and for my dad, we’re aware of the gambling space, we’ve seen it just become more and more of how to explain sports. The same way fantasy football was just a more detailed way to analyze sports with a different end in mind. As opposed to just watching and consuming, you’re trying to get something out of it. This is kind of the same thing, but it just creates a smarter fan who’s looking for a little bit of different insight at certain points.
It doesn’t change the job, if anything it just gives us a different way to frame things. You get to frame a matchup a different way, you get to frame a player’s production in a little bit of a different way. I think that’s more of how we use it as a different entry point into the same conversation that we would have always had about sports, which is the one my dad’s been having for over two decades on people’s TVs and radios and the one that I’m trying to now get into doing more and more after seven, eight years, whatever it’s been.
BN: Do you still hear stupid comments like, oh, it’s just because of your dad that blah, blah, blah? Do you still hear that stuff?
MGJ: Yeah, oh yeah, there’s always going to be people that do that. I understand it. I get how people are going to perceive that. I understand the conversation around nepotism and how I fit into that.
I’ve had my stock answer over the years about how I’ve approached that and that hasn’t changed. I approach every job wanting to put my absolute best foot forward, wanting to show and not tell people that I’m going to work hard, that I’m going to be here for more than just coasting along off the name.
I want to be good at this. I want to be a value-add to the shows that I work on. But again, that’s on me to show and not tell because no amount of telling will ever change anyone’s mind about that. Quite honestly, that’s not really my goal. My goal was always do the job in a way that I can be proud of, approach it in a way and with work habits that I can be proud of, and reflect my dad who stuck his neck out for me at the beginning of my career.
BN: I’m curious, man, because if I were in the same shoes, I’d want to take the high road, but it’d be really tempting to take the low road. When there’s that one troll, who on that one day says that one thing about your dad, and you just want to say kiss my ass, dude. How have you handled it over the years, and even now, when you still hear some of that garbage?
MGJ: Yeah, I’m unfortunately painfully online as some people who are reading this might know. So you see a lot of it. I’ve done a better job with a lot of the tools on social media of filtering out most of the comments like that. I think also I started doing this when I was 26 and I’m going to turn 34 this week. Part of it’s just also come with being a little more comfortable in my own skin.
Most of the slights that we end up responding to are the ones that we might feel like in an honest moment have a little more truth to them than we’re comfortable with, or hit close to home on something. At least in my experience, that’s been the things that tend to strike a nerve the most. When I was young and just starting and didn’t really feel like I had my feet under me as far as being a broadcaster, there were times when it would bother me. There were times when it feels good to go and dunk on somebody on Twitter and have fun with it and let them know that you can clap back and do all that too.
Now it’s to the point where most of the time I’ll look at an interaction like that and it’s like, is it worth giving someone any portion of my afternoon for what this reaction is going to be? Because it’s usually like a potato chip, you’re never just going to do it once. You end up going back and forth and then you’re down a rabbit hole with Johnny Buncha Numbers and for what? To prove a point to a person that doesn’t care about hearing your point anyway?
We all fall victim to it. Usually it’s when I have a lot of time in airports and I end up sitting there bored and tired that I’ll still pop off at the mouth every once in a while. But in general it’s just kind of a losing value prop.
BN: I hear you, it’s so true. That’s the stupid stuff you have to go through — that’s with anything in life — but the good stuff, you’re working with your dad, man. How do you describe what that feels like to work with your dad each day?
MGJ: Yeah, and to get to do what I do because of my dad still. We go back to the nepotism, I’ve never shied away. The reason I got my foot in the door was because of my dad; I owe all of this to him. I’ve never begrudged that, to do so would be dishonest, and quite frankly, disrespectful. So to get to do that with him though is awesome because it’s the same relationship we’ve had since I was a kid. It’s just positioned outward now.
It is nice every day to get to talk to my dad, get to talk to my parents a lot more than most people. Because of the job, I get to see them more than I probably would too with some of the things that we’ve done together, whether it’s off site, or just in general. I think one of the coolest things was also just seeing how other people — we’ve talked about the nepotism people, but there was also just as many people who would send notes, especially like my dad’s sign off on Golic and Wingo.
I said what I thought was going to be very composed and ended up being a very tear-filled thank you to dad for everything. The amount of notes we got off that from other people who in different jobs, in different walks of life that had the chance to work with their son or daughter, or work with their mother or father and how they saw parts of their relationship in the way that our relationship was.
It’s like any parent-child relationship, we know each other’s best strengths and where to put the ball on that stuff. We also know what ticks the other off a fair amount. So every once in a while, you can venture into those categories.
I remember Trey Wingo used to just watch me and dad argue about the dumbest stuff. He would just put his hands behind his head and lean back because he knew that segment was going to be the easiest thing in the world. To hear from people who also have had the chance to work with a loved one and work with a relative like that, who saw little bits of their own life in some of those interactions was always pretty cool.
BN: What’s something that touches a nerve for your dad?
MGJ: Dad and technology. It’s so different now because we do so much of this stuff remotely. Dad’s got the camera set up there and the laptop and all these different things that he’s got to connect into. For years, when he was doing radio, he just walked into the studio and hit the on button. He was good to go. Someone was going to help with everything else. My dad can do all this stuff. I have more empathy for my mom now at home, who’s had to deal with my dad and his iPad for years.
My dad watches more TV than any person on earth. If you know a show, he’s seen it and he’s seen the prequel, he’s seen the movie they made after the series, all of it. When he goes and takes a bath, he’ll sit with his iPad and he’ll watch his shows. He’s got all the passwords to Netflix and everything like that. But the minute he forgets them, he melts down, doesn’t do anything himself and just hands it to my mom and asks her to fix it, hands it to one of us and asks us to fix it.
There’s some of that, that shows up when we’re doing the show where if anything technologically happens, I’ve got to work through all that stuff. I’ve got to come in and be IT for dad because he can do it, I just feel like he doesn’t want to be bothered with it sometimes. I’ll sometimes look at him like, “come on, man, you know how to do this. You’ve been turning this on and doing the podcast from home for a while, don’t play dumb with me.”
BN: How about for you? What’s something that touches a nerve?
MGJ: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve done the self scout nearly well enough. What would tick me off?
The easy one being a Notre Dame person is the conference stuff. Anytime that conversation comes up when people want to do the “join a conference thing,” for some reason after a while I’ll usually reach a certain point where I’m just like, “alright, these are all the same dumb reasons I’ve been combating my entire life.”
No one’s presented a new argument to me as to why all of a sudden this conference affiliation makes more sense now, or there’s some moral case for it, or competitive case for it now, that I haven’t already heard, digested, and had to rebut before. That one gets a little bit old. I think if someone really wanted to kind of get me going, that would probably be a good way to do it.
BN: What’s the most fun you’ve had in your career?
MGJ: I’d say it’s twofold. It always involves a live audience. There’s still no substitute for being able to reach out and touch people. With Golic and Wingo, when I was fortunate to get to latch on to what dad and Trey were doing at the end there, we went and traveled the show a bunch. I remember we went to Columbus, and we did the show at a Hofbräuhaus. The show was 5-9 Central Time. We’re getting in there at 4:20 and the thing is already set up, people are already in there, people are already drinking. So we’re like, “oh, okay, it’s game time in here.”
Right before the end of the show, a bunch of guys that had been egging me on the whole time had me come over and take a shot with them. When we got done, my dad just turns around and goes, beer me, and they bring him over one of those big tankers of beer. My dad’s pretty good at a lot of stuff, he’s a good natural athlete; chugging beers is like his specialty, even getting near 60 years old.
Watching my dad delete that beer in front of a crowd of onlookers that were all cheering, that was a lot of fun. That environment was just really cool. We had a great road crew of so many people that helped make those shows happen. Anything with a team environment like that was always really fun.
Then on the college football side, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl was like the culmination of one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever been a part of. Anish Shroff was the play-by-play, Taylor McGregor was our sideline reporter. They’re still two of my closest friends in the industry to this day. I’ve got the group chat and talk to them every day. That season, we were all just really on the same page. We all trusted each other. We thought we did a good job trying to go out and tell the story and do these games the right way, but we like to have fun.
When we got to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, we all recognized what a ridiculous opportunity it was. Three and a half hours later, a couple of things eaten in mayonnaise and a few viral clips that ticked off the entire country of Australia and R&B legend Dionne Warwick, we realized, alright, that was fun because it was the culmination of trust and camaraderie that we had built up with each other all season long.
Again, in that team environment where you’re going, you’re having to work together through live situations on the fly, you’re helping each other in the preparation leading up. All that stuff was just really cool and they were great teammates. It made the job really easy and really fun every week.
BN: Are you a goal guy? Do you look at anything that you would like to accomplish in the next few years or at some point in your broadcasting career that you’d say, man, that’d be really cool if I was able to do that?
MGJ: No, I’ve always been really bad about goals. I think part of it’s like the old training camp mindset. I’m perennially going to be an undrafted free agent who just wants to know — I always joked at ESPN, every day my badge worked was a great day.
I work with people that I enjoy and appreciate and respect, get to have great teammates like that. I already get to cover so many of the best events in sports. I’ve gotten to go to the national championship for college football — a game that I played in — like seven or eight straight times now, which is a dream every year. Getting out and covering the Super Bowl. Doing the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest.
I’ve gotten to go all over the map and I appreciate ESPN so much for the opportunities they afforded me, and I owe my employers now at DraftKings and Learfield a lot for that. But no, I’ve always been bad at goals. I want to keep doing this. I want to keep finding someone that’s willing to let me do this and hopefully really good people that I enjoy doing it with.