Any other year, the magical brackets would rise above the cesspools of college sports, the recruiting sleaze of Arizona and Kansas, even the condo creepiness of Les Miles. Any other year, March Madness would whisk us to a safe place free from existential disruption, where every great game is topped by a greater game and the impossible always is negotiable.
But even the sublimity of America’s most adored sports event isn’t immune from continuing pandemic disorder. The NCAA tournament can’t simply take two vaccine shots and be OK. A year after the cancellation of this basketball spectacle triggered a hellish year for American sports, 68 teams will warily convene next week within an Indiana bubble, in buildings allowing only one human body for every four seats, with the winners on April 5 owning a trophy and a Steak ’n Shake hangover.
And if you think the mightiest competition comes from a history-shaking Gonzaga powerhouse, Big Ten monsters Illinois and Michigan and solo acts Luka Garza and Cade Cunningham, even Dickie V would say no way, baby. The enemy continues to be COVID-19, capable of wiping out the Zags and their mountainous quest — to become the first unbeaten national champion since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers of 45 years ago — with one slip of the mask. Or any other team. Think not? Ask Baylor, another championship contender, which was working on its own spotless season until nine players tested positive and forced a 21-day February quarantine.
“Even Superman has kryptonite. And I guess COVID protocols is ours,’’ coach Scott Drew lamented after a loss at Kansas.
At least the Bears had an opportunity to pause as a group and self-isolate. In the tournament, a team without an ample number of healthy players forfeits the game and immediately goes home. I don’t care how closely protocols are monitored. Brace for a number of forfeits, based on the reality that youthful, unvaccinated players on the road — in hotels for days and weeks at a time, with families and friends staying nearby — won’t steer clear of the coronavirus. Thus, anyone eyeing a particular game as appointment viewing, or a gambler rushing to bet a hunch, must be prepared for a cancellation at any time.
The brackets are certain to be compromised. Still days before the selection committee gathers, as teams navigate conference tournament minefields, the printout already looks strange. Gone are the usual sites and dates within each region that bring anticipation and a sense of national community to the Madness. Instead of listing Denver, Minneapolis, Memphis and Brooklyn, and feeding into Indianapolis for the Final Four, we have Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4 — with first-round games in the home gyms of Purdue and Indiana, second-round and Sweet 16 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse and the Elite Eight and Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s quaint and charming, I admit, if you love All Things Indiana, but there’s no nationwide pomp and circumstance. That’s what the pandemic has done to college hoops, after a regular season when 10 percent of games were canceled and more than 20 percent weren’t played on scheduled dates.
Interest will suffer. Ratings will wane. That’s only natural, given the anxiety over vaccines and other COVID-related turbulence across the land. Plus, there is grime to wipe away, as the sport hasn’t recovered from corruption scandals that resulted in too many dirty infraction cases to count. And those are just the programs that were caught. Arizona and Shifty Sean Miller had the sense to self-impose a postseason ban, but who outside of Lawrence wants to embrace Kansas, where the school blindly defends coach Bill Self when the FBI thinks he’s a dirtball?
LSU? You can’t navigate the campus without a Hazmat suit, with Will Wade openly defying the feds like a bankrobber on the lam. If Ed Orgeron and the football program quickly fell from grace after winning a national title, the affairs of his predecessor, Miles, were sickening. Back when he was king of Baton Rouge, Les the Mess allegedly was texting female students young enough to be his granddaughter and bringing them back to his condo, making promises he could help the career of one student while attempting to kiss her and woo her to a hotel. When LSU finally fired him, who hired him?
Kansas … which didn’t properly vet Miles and finally came around to firing him Monday night. “I am extremely disappointed for our university, fans and everyone involved with our football program,” said athletic director Jeff Long, who hired Miles. This while Self, bless his Rock Chalk Jayhawk heart, coaches Team Adidas Payoff in the tournament.
And how will America deal with the Creighton story? A team that easily can reach the Elite Eight is embroiled in racial strife after coach Greg McDermott uttered the word “plantation’’ — twice — in a horrific speech to his players. In 2021, any authority figure who urges “everybody to stay on the plantation’’ and that he “couldn’t have anybody leave the plantation’’ shouldn’t be representing the school. Creighton suspended McDermott, but quickly reinstated him so he can coach in the tournament. Upset by the mixed messages, his players posted a video condemning his remarks.
Said Shareef Mitchell: “For slaves, life on a plantation was filled with mental, emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Viewed only as property and not human, slaves had no rights and no voice. They were branded like cattle, forced from their homeland and stripped of their culture, language and basic human rights. They worked 18 hours a day, six days a week. Any sign of wrongdoing such as lack of productivity, not following instructions or resistance would result in beatings or death.”
Said Denzel Mahoney: “… And that is why what Coach Mac said hurt me and my teammates.”
Will Creighton bond or break? Regretfully, it’s a prominent story line.
Awaiting Selection Sunday, one big issue is whether bluebloods on one bubble will be invited into the big bubble. I can do without Duke, which isn’t worthy, and where Mike Krzyzewski should consider retirement at 74 before the slog impacts his mammoth legacy. Michigan State, Louisville — I’ve seen plenty through the decades. Same with Syracuse, where Jim Boeheim is 76 and impressing no one with his crusty behavior, such as when he mocked a reporter “who never has played basketball and is 5-foot-2.’’
Really now, this is a fine time for the ascent of Illinois, which always should have been a perennial Midwestern force and has reached that level under Brad Underwood, who has two imminent pros in Ayo Dosunmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn, who somehow found Champaign-Urbana from Jamaica. Behold the rise of Alabama, coached not by Nick Saban but Nate Oats, who lets his guys run and fire like the NBA gunners and wants to entertain with the ball like, well, Saban. Michigan is coached by Juwan Howard, who can name his next head position in the NBA. Give me Houston, Arkansas.
Give me Toledo, Colgate, Grand Canyon.
Assuming the NCAA allows Oklahoma State to play in the tournament — though I don’t see why, given the Cowboys’ role in the sneaker scams — we’ll have a chance to examine Cunningham, the 6-8 point guard, before he goes No. 1 in the NBA draft. I like his perspective. “I’m not in the NBA yet,’’ he said. “I’m not getting paid by any team. I’m an OSU Cowboy. That’s what I’m worried about. I’m with my team every day trying to get better with them. I’m not going to be a foot out the door. I still want to win games. I still love being around my teammates now.” He could be protecting an injured ankle by simply opting out of March, but that’s now he he or his ankle roll. If Cunningham is the must-watch showman, the best player in America is Garza. If you haven’t seen him play much at Iowa, join the crowd.
The central story is Gonzaga. No longer the mid-major interlopers from the Pacific Northwest, the Zags never will have a better title shot. They are that talented, that mesmerizing and that explosive, with four players who rank in the top five nationally at their positions and a combo guard, Jalen Suggs, who chose to play in Spokane when he could have signed anywhere — including Ohio State, which wanted him as a quarterback. You can buy Zags gear around the world. It’s time to complete a full cycle that began with the program’s first tournament victory in 1999, from underdogs to overlords. With a sweep of the West Coast Conference tournament, Gonzaga would be only the fifth team in the past 45 years to enter the big show without a loss.
“It’s hard to be the front-runner and lead the mile all four laps,’’ coach Mark Few said. “Everybody’s gunning for you.”
“All that pressure comes from the outside, not from anything inside the program with the players,” said Suggs, the nation’s best freshman outside of Cunningham. “We’re just looking to go out every night and get a win on that night, not looking too far ahead.”
College basketball is the sport that has suffered most dearly without fans. We’ll miss that fury inside the stadiums and arenas of Indiana, where deep basketball traditions can’t replace the collective heartbeats and roars. But we can’t be worrying about atmosphere right now, or wondering how “One Shining Moment’’ will sound.
The mantra is much colder now.
Mask up, or go home.
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.
Jonathan Vilma Went To the Super Bowl As a Player, He Wants To Go Back as a Broadcaster
“The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
From training camp to preseason action; then an 18-week regular season followed by a string of pressurized, single-elimination playoff action, the journey to the Super Bowl is long and arduous. That is part of what makes the conclusion of it all exhilarating for the winning team and, conversely, gut wrenching for its opponent. Jonathan Vilma knows firsthand just what this journey entails and now articulates it to football fans on a weekly basis.
Vilma also knows how it feels to be a world champion, starring on the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl championship team’s defensive line as a middle linebacker. As a three-time Pro Bowl selection and defensive captain, he always made sure he was ready to take the field, proved when he made a critical pass deflection that helped secure the Super Bowl victory. Yet he is not satisfied just winning the game, as he aspires to one day call the nation’s largest, most complex sporting event from the broadcast booth.
“This is no different than football for me,” Vilma said. “[I am] very competitive, so I would want to make sure that [in] each performance [and] each game that I do, I prepare and act as if it is a playoff game; a Super Bowl game. It’s the best game that I’m ever going to call.”
Vilma enjoyed a decade-long career in the NFL and was inducted into the New Orleans Saints’ Hall of Fame in 2017 even though he did not play in New Orleans for the first several years of his career. Instead, Vilma’s career started in East Rutherford, N.J. as a member of the New York Jets, an organization to which he was drafted with the 12th overall pick out of the University of Miami. Following his 2004 rookie season, he was recognized as the NFL defensive rookie of the year by the Associated Press and went on to lead the NFL in tackles the next season.
Aside from all of the accolades, suiting up in the New York-metropolitan area meant facing a deluge of media on a regular basis, aggrandized because of his abilities on the field. Vilma always sought to give 110% effort as a player and did the same when giving interviews by being truthful with journalists – no matter the situation.
“I notice that a lot of the beat writers [and] a lot of regional writers appreciate when you’re just very honest about the good and the bad,” Vilma said, “and they appreciate more when you’re the same person during the bad times as you are during the good times. If I lost a game, whether it was with the Jets or the Saints, beat writers come in and you handle it the same way.”
In February 2008, Vilma was traded to the New Orleans Saints and proceeded to sign a five-year contract with the team approximately one year later. After winning the Super Bowl championship in February 2010 just past the midpoint of his career, he began thinking about what he would do next and eventually decided to give sports media a try.
Despite being an active player, Vilma appeared on a local television postgame show to give his thoughts and analysis on the action, affording him early repetitions in the industry. Once his contract expired with the Saints, he joined Bleacher Report as a guest analyst, but then moved back to college football to cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with NBC Sports.
The transition from playing in the NFL to working as a media member in college football on pregame and halftime shows was facile since he remained informed about the NCAA and the various conferences. In his preparation, he examined Notre Dame and its opponent, organically forming cogent opinions conducive to his role and the matchup at hand.
“I was following it prior to when I went to NBC,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of dialing in. When I say dialing in, I just reverted back to what I did when I was playing – and that was watching film [and] getting an understanding of the players, the teams, the coaches [and] the schemes. Once you do that, everything else outside of that is kind of free-flowing because I already know what the players are going to do or the coaches or the teams and how they operate.”
After a year where Vilma exclusively worked on Notre Dame football broadcasts, he began a four-year stint with The Walt Disney Company where he contributed to programming on both ESPN and ABC. With both linear television networks, Vilma was covering college football in its entirety, meaning that he needed to know information about every team. It resulted in a shift in his in-studio preparation for his role on ESPN2’s Saturday studio coverage to ensure he would be ready for any situation presented to him over the course of a broadcast.
“During the week, it would really be about watching [one] half of a team but not watching the whole game or not watching two to three games,” Vilma said. “Then, being very aware of what the media is saying about particular teams to see if it matches up with whatever I believe [about] that team.”
Upon signing a multi-year contract with ESPN in 2018, Vilma was moved to ABC’s Saturday college football studio coverage, working as an analyst during the day and at night on ESPN Saturday Night Football on ABC. Vilma joined the show to replace Booger McFarland, who had been added as a new analyst on ESPN’s presentation of Monday Night Football, collaborating with host Kevin Negandhi and analyst Mack Brown to prepare fans for the weekend primetime matchup.
Over his time with ESPN, Vilma had also been placed into the broadcast booth on occasion, including for its broadcast of the 2018 Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl between the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers and Northern Illinois University Huskies. Through the experience of being on the call for live games, Vilma was eager to explore an opportunity to progress into doing it regularly. It relates to his competitive mindset fostered from his time as a player, and one that he continues to carry with him in sports media.
“It allows me to, for three hours, do what I did mentally when I played – which was [to] break down the opponent; anticipate what they’re going to do; look at their strengths or weaknesses; talk about it and really be able to go in-depth,” Vilma recalls telling his broadcast agent leading into contract negotiations. “….It really lets me feel like I’m a master of this game this week and I really enjoy that.”
The only problem was an opportunity to make the move into a broadcast booth was not available at ESPN in 2020, as the Monday Night Football booth was filled by Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick and its college broadcasters were relatively in place. As a result, Vilma decided to interview for an NFL broadcasting position with FOX Sports, despite initially being hesitant because of the various nuances in the league and having the ability to adopt a parlance applicable for both defensive and offensive analysis.
Recognizing his passion for the game of football and enjoyment of calling games, Vilma chose to join FOX Sports where he was paired with versatile play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert.
The decision by the network to form this particular duo was auspicious for Vilma’s development since Albert had demonstrated experience working with an array of analysts and partially engendering their success. The impact of Albert, who joined the NFL on FOX in 1994, was even more apparent when Vilma had to work his first few NFL games without him since Albert had to complete a mandatory two-week quarantine period upon returning from the NHL Bubble in Toronto.
“Kenny has been in it for so long that he’s a guy [who] doesn’t want the spotlight [or] the limelight – he just wants to make you look good; ‘you’ as in obviously me,” Vilma said. “….I could see the difference in Kenny and how he likes to call games because I had watched about five of his games prior to my first season. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll wait until Kenny comes back and we’ll kind of go from there.’”
Albert and Vilma just completed their third season together in the booth and worked in tandem with sideline reporter Shannon Spake, who provided reports from the field. The congeniality within the broadcast team comes from having an understanding of optimizing each other’s roles and effectively supplementing them.
“I mess with him all the time; I call him a nerd all the time,” Vilma remarked of Albert, “but he’s actually really, really cool so we go to dinner a lot [and] we hang out a lot. Because of that, it shows through our body language [and] through our rapport when we call games.”
As an analyst, Vilma aims to present the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of each play while Albert’s play-by-play responsibilities center around his accurate and concise description of the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where.’ In order to perform their jobs to the highest standard, they take different approaches when it comes to preparation.
While Albert meticulously researches the rosters, creates detailed charts and talks to coaches and team personnel to elucidate storylines and set up his colleagues, much of Vilma’s preparation relies on watching film. Even though he is not taking the field as a player, the methodology corresponds to his participating in as many facets of the team as possible to gather quality film.
In fact, that practice was advised to him as an NFL rookie by Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, Ray Lewis – and it had a part in shaping the trajectory of his career. Instantiating that wisdom into media, Vilma tries to formulate comprehensive and coherent points on which to expand and implement in his analysis of a play – unimpeded by other sources of information.
“I don’t want the media to influence anything I say on Sunday when I’m calling that game,” Vilma said. “I want to make sure that whatever I say is because of what I saw on film and what I watched of those teams, and then what I’m seeing Sunday as a game is going on.”
Vilma officially retired from playing football in 2015, meaning he is not very far removed from the NFL. He remains immersed in the football community as a former player and maintains relationships with players, coaches and personnel in the league. His job as an analyst though is predicated on straightforward objectivity; therefore, it is his obligation and that of other analysts to critique individuals and teams as necessary.
“I’ve always felt that if I’m calling the game based on what I see and there’s no hidden agenda [and] there’s no sugarcoating it, then you’ll be fine,” Vilma said. “Just in the same light that I’ll talk about a player who’s inaccurate or whatever it is, I’ll also speak very glowingly about a person if they’re having a great game.”
Playing professional football generates ethos in terms of commentary and the editorializing thereof whether that be during live game broadcasts, shoulder programming or studio shows. Despite making the ostensibly inscrutable parts of the game understood, it is impractical to carry an expectation of pleasing everyone. With the advent of social media, viewers with minimal credibility can suddenly become boisterous critics and build a legitimate following, lending them exposure and a megaphone to project their voices en masse.
One example of such an instance came following a game between the Atlanta Falcons and Vilma’s former team, the New Orleans Saints. As a Super Bowl champion with the team, some fans of the Saints expected him to be inherently biased throughout the game; however, they were flabbergasted when he lambasted their play amid a substantial defeat.
After the game, Vilma opened his Instagram account on which he received direct messages where afflicted fans expressed disbelief that they ever cheered him on as a player. Those types of excoriating messages can unnerve typical social media users and beget demoralization, but for Vilma, it was the epitome of a successful week in the booth.
“After each game, I want to have the fans from both teams saying I was biased for the other team,” Vilma said. “That means that my passion is coming through; it means that the emotions of the game – I’m expressing it as I call the game.”
Throughout the game, Vilma has chances to infuse his personality within his analysis and display his synergy with Albert. He genuinely enjoys his work and is not afraid to divulge how he feels about certain situations, including replay reviews during which he has a 50-50 chance of getting the ruling correct.
“You can’t be right for three hours,” Vilma said. “Nobody is perfect, and I’m not trying to be perfect. [I just] try to make sure that I talk about what I see, have fun and then let my personality come out when the moment presents itself.”
Similar to studio programming across professional sports, Vilma is looking to find a way to incorporate interactive elements into a live game broadcast so viewers can feel engaged and entertained. He has thought about implementing tweets over the course of the broadcast directed at him and Albert, potentially to guide their commentary or to implore them to hone in on a certain player or situational tendency. They would then sometimes choose to respond to the viewers while on air, akin to a point-to-mass communication system occasionally exhibited by alternate-style broadcasts.
In this manner, the user is able to gain control over what they are watching, a critical element of appealing to consumers in the 21st-century amid advances in streaming technology and an active proliferation of OTT content providers. Overall, broadcasting across the NFL is a means through which to promulgate the sport and attract viewers – and Vilma, as a live game broadcast analyst, is a fundamental part of that process. The challenge for him and other analysts is to resist allowing pundits on social media to regularly sway them in a certain direction, which would actualize capriciousness and render entropy in some of their viewpoints.
“If you try too hard to appeal to everyone that is going to comment negatively or positively about your performance, you can find yourself not knowing who you are when it comes to calling games,” Vilma said. “That’s very important because you have to establish yourself in some regard.”
Vilma aspires to call a Super Bowl at some point in his career; however, the next time FOX Sports will have the broadcast rights to the game is in Feb. 2025, the culmination of what Tom Brady expects to be his debut season in the network’s lead broadcast booth alongside Kevin Burkhardt. With other lead broadcast booths around the league being cemented over the last few years on CBS, ESPN/ABC, NBC, it is unclear how that opportunity may come on linear television, but it remains a future goal he looks to attain.
“It’s very eye-opening for me how much media surrounds the game,” Vilma said. “….With FOX [and] being on this side now, I’m still kind of just amazed at how much time, effort and investment goes into the production of the game. It’s very interesting to see how it’s really two different kinds of industries – the athletics and the media – but very similar in the sense that everyone is locked in to putting out the best product. The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
An effective way to be considered for an opportunity of that magnitude may just come from following Ray Lewis’ advice he received early on as an NFL player of amassing a library of film. In that practice, Vilma demonstrated a persistent, indefatigable effort to continue to grow – and sees the parallels between his time on the field and current endeavors in sports media.
“I did local TV; I did NBC; any interview I could do at that time, I would do,” Vilma said. “It was now to be able to have as much film as possible – at that time, enough good film – that someone could look and say, ‘You know, I can respect him. This guy is really trying to perfect his craft. He’s been on film; he’s got a lot of good tape,’ and then go from there.”
For former athletes, moving up in sports media, aside from notoriety or expertise, often derives from putting one’s ego aside and evoking a sense of humility. It comes from adopting a hard-working attitude while taking chances that others may perceive as being demeaning or beneath them.
In many ways, it is what any entry-level employee usually does early in their career, generating a sense of respect and collaboration through their work ethic and, in turn, making enduring connections. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” and it seemingly holds true across various industries, making relationship-building and versatility integral to experience sustained success.
It all begins with repetitions and focused practice, and Vilma shows no signs of slowing down.
“A lot of the guys don’t want to do the local [or] regional stuff, and that’s the only way to get film,” Vilma expressed. “Unless you’re just going to go off of your name – which few can; most cannot – you’ve got to get on film.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Gabe Kuhn Isn’t Worried About Filling Gary Parrish’s Shoes
“I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out.”
In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character, Crash, says, “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once. Twenty-one greatest days of my life.” That quote popped in my head because of a sports radio host that recently got called up. Gabe Kuhn is now the host of a brand new drive-time afternoon show on 92.9 ESPN in Memphis.
This is a major opportunity for Gabe, and the smart money is on him lasting much, much longer in Memphis than Crash Davis did in the majors.
Gabe is a former offensive lineman at the University of Memphis. He obviously knows the Memphis area well and has risen quickly in the industry. Some say that love is the universal language. I would argue it’s ball, and Gabe definitely knows his stuff when it comes to football.
We chat about finding the balance of talking football on a deeper level but not too deep. Gabe also talks about filling big shoes, St. Louis Cardinal face tats and being motivated by fear. We even sneak in a little Super Bowl talk. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: You basically just got called up to the big leagues. What does it mean to you to get this opportunity?
Gabe Kuhn: It means a whole lot. It means a lot of people have the confidence in me that I can get this job done. It also means that the city of Memphis has embraced me to the point where people believe that I’m worth listening to from 4:00-7:00 PM. But overall, man, I feel like the job itself — the confidence I have in myself in getting it done — it means a bunch. I just want to make sure I can reciprocate the love the city has given me to this point from 4:00-7:00 PM every day.
BN: What were the sports radio gigs you had before this latest opportunity?
GK: Four years ago, I was let go by the Memphis Express of the AAF. Obviously, the AAF ended up folding. But I decided to just move on from there. I really started about as ground floor as you could get. I just hit up a connection I knew from Sports 56 in Eli Savoie. Eli was great. He told me that they didn’t have any spots open there. I basically stayed there in the morning, checked out the afternoon, learned some things for free. I wouldn’t even call myself an intern; I was just sort of looking, watching and trying to figure out the whole radio thing. This was four years ago.
Then about three weeks into it my guy, Johnny Radio – Johnny Hardin, knew the new producer. Right place, right time, hired me. Wasn’t making anything for two and a half years really, but obviously enjoyed it and learned a whole lot. Started producing middays for Eli Savoie and Greg Gaston. Then made the jump about two and a half years in when the station decided to rearrange their show. Dave Woloshin, voice of the Tigers, wanted to take a step back in workload. Brett Norsworthy needed a co-host with him. I ended up getting the 3-6 show Sportstime with Gabe and Stats. It really was interesting. It was from $9 an hour to salary in about two and a half years. Now I’m where I’m at.
BN: What was it about sports radio that got you interested right after your football career, and what was it about sports radio that maintained your interest when you weren’t making any money for a couple of years?
GK: Well, first of all, I love talking ball. I always had the confidence in myself that I would eventually get where I needed to go with it. I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out. I feel like that always shines through. That’s just the confidence I have in myself. And honestly, when it comes down to it, I appreciate the art of it. I know how cliché, corny that may sound, but I appreciate being able to have contrary thoughts and show my personality through. That’s one of the perks of the job that I do appreciate.
BN: You’re from the St. Louis area, right?
GK: Yes, sir.
BN: That’s cool. My dad is originally from Alton, Illinois.
GK: About an hour away. I’m in West County. Wildwood, Chesterfield if you’ve ever heard of that.
BN: Nice. Are you a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
GK: Of course, absolutely. 100%.
BN: There ya go. It almost sounds like you’ve got Cardinals ink. Like, yeah, of course, I’ve got an Ozzie Smith back mural.
GK: I don’t have the full Cardinals face tat yet. But it’s coming soon.
BN: [Laughs] That’s great. Taking over for Gary Parrish, who as you know is big deal in Memphis, pulling huge shares, what’s your approach when it comes to filling big shoes like that?
GK: First of all, I do want to give a shout-out to Gary. Gary was very nice through the process and congratulated me and reached out. I thought that was really cool of him. But as far as filling those shoes, just be as informative, as entertaining as he is. I know that’s simple. I know that’s an easy way of putting it, but Gary was so popular for a reason; he put out good content and people enjoyed it. He had a genuine back and forth with his audience. His audience latched on to what he was putting out. I guess that’s as best as I can put it. That’s what I plan to get done as well. And also, I think that Gary has a love for this city that I have as well. I think that we’re similar in that way.
BN: The cliché of you never want to be the guy who follows the guy. I’ve always thought that’s total BS; I don’t want to be the guy who never gets an opportunity. What is your thought process when you hear someone say you never want to be the guy following the guy, because in your situation, you’re the guy following the guy?
GK: I would say that I don’t think about that in the grand scheme of things. I’m not going to lose sleep over opportunities I get. I know that it’s tough at times to follow a guy who has been so successful in whatever industry it may be. But I tell those people, I’m going to do a fantastic job as well. I guess that’s where I’ll go with it.
BN: What do you want your show to sound like?
GK: First of all, genuine. That’s where you have to start with this thing. I think there’s a lot of people coming up through the ranks that try to find their voice. I feel like that’s something I’ve done a good job of, I’ve found my voice. I have a personality that will absolutely shine through. I don’t want to be overly serious, but I love just talking ball.
But also, as far as the sound day-to-day, I love more so than a lot of people in the city, talking with players, with coaches, people inside the locker rooms, people that are connected still to whatever sport they’re in. I certainly feel like I have some good connections there. I feel like I can break down some barriers in talking with those guys that a lot of people can’t. I feel like that’s something that people will really like as far as my sound is concerned.
BN: You played ball. You know it very, very well. You could get really intricate with it if you wanted to. How do you balance not getting too crazy with the details, but also not being basic to a fault?
GK: I think the biggest equalizer there is if I’m going to dive into some deep ball talk, if I’m talking about the Philadelphia Eagles run game for example, I’ll say what I’m going to say and then I’ll explain it. I’ll try to bring people in there with me. I try not to get carried away when it comes to blocking schemes and who had a down block here, who was pulling there. I try to stay away from stuff like that. But I feel that listeners are a lot more moldable and understanding than some people think.
BN: Who do you like in the Super Bowl, Eagles or Chiefs?
GK: The Chiefs looked very good in the AFC Championship against the Bengals, but when I just sit back for a half second and think about the situation, Patrick Mahomes has a bum ankle. The Eagles pass rush got after Brock Purdy to the point that he got knocked out of that game. They got after Josh Johnson to the point that he got knocked out against the Eagles.
I just feel like the Eagles pass rush mixed with the rest of that defense, they’ve done a good job of building that secondary. They have a MVP-caliber quarterback this year, who will finish in the top five in MVP voting. Their offensive line is great. They’re just so complete. I don’t know if the Chiefs are as complete a team. I feel like the Eagles will be able to get after Patrick Mahomes and bother him in ways that he hasn’t been bothered through the playoffs. But we will have to see. This is definitely going to be an interesting back and forth.
BN: What do you think are the top-3 most popular teams or sports in Memphis?
GK: We have a very, very passionate audience, and certainly I think the Grizzlies audience has grown a lot. It’s catching up and it might be there right now. But we have a very passionate audience when it comes to Memphis Tiger basketball. That’s the truth of the matter. The city loves following recruiting. The city loves the AAU circuit. The city loves everything like that.
Since we’re in the Southeast, since we have a footprint of a lot of different college football teams, and obviously the University of Memphis in town, I’d put college football up there. But really close, as it always is, is the NFL. The NFL is a year-round topic as well just because of how national it is. We don’t really have a defined fan base here. I guess Cowboys, Steelers, maybe a little bit of Titans sprinkled in there. I’d say those are really at the top.
BN: Going back to your playing days at Memphis, what was your experience like playing on the team?
GK: When I came in, there were 29 guys in my recruiting class, I was easily the 29th. Granted I did get a scholarship. Obviously, I had to pay for my first summer. That was a little bit different. I came in and I had to really, really grind for everything. I came in at 260 pounds. I had to get myself up to 310. I had to play different positions. I played left tackle in high school. I had to move myself to center and then eventually guard. It was an uphill grind the entire time. I learned a whole lot and honestly, it gave me the pride in my work and the work ethic in general that I have today. I’m glad for that time, no question.
BN: Who are a couple of the big name players from Memphis that went on to the NFL while you were still there?
GK: Oh, how much time you got? I’m just kidding. Jake Elliott. Bobby McCain. Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor Jr. Tony Pollard. There’s more where that came from. There’s a few more that got through, Wynton McManis spent some time in the NFL. We had some really good talent on those teams, ‘13 to ‘17. That’s why we won as much as we did.
BN: How about Tony Pollard, man? It’s really cool to see how his career keeps growing and growing.
GK: He was a guy — Mike Norvell was my second head coach. We always had some questions, ‘Why is he not getting as many totes?’ Obviously, we had Darrell Henderson Jr. in that backfield, Patrick Taylor Jr. in that backfield, so we had to sort of balance that out. But we always knew what he was capable of. The fact that he can get out there, play in the slot, catch some balls, run outside, get into that sort of zone scheme that the Cowboys can run, get him out on the edge into space. We always saw that. But honestly, it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t have all of those body blows in college, because that tends to help out running backs these days.
BN: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s a random question, but I just have to know, your Twitter background picture where it’s a guy and a girl at a baseball game or something. If you know what I’m talking about, I have to know the backstory of that.
GK: [Laughs] Well, honestly, I find it to be a funny picture, first of all. That’s the background story in general. But I have a lovely fiancée, and I find myself explaining a lot of sports situations to her, discussing my day-to-day life with her. I just feel like that’s me, I guess. I feel like it’s just a funny representation of what I go through with my fiancée day-to-day.
BN: [Laughs] I love it, man. That’s great. Do you have a marriage date?
GK: September 30 is the marriage date. I told her, try to stay away from fall weddings and she came back to me five minutes later and asked if September 30 was okay. It looks like the first battle I’ve lost.
BN: [Laughs] Ahh man, that’s funny. I also need to know the name of the dog in the background of your Twitter picture there.
GK: So I have two dogs now. I have about 185 pounds worth of dog at my house, both Great Pyrenees. One is named Nola. She’s the girl, and then Motley is the boy.
BN: Are you a Mötley Crüe fan? Where does Motley come from?
GK: He’s actually a rescue. He was named previous to us rescuing him.
BN: Oh, gotcha. It might be a weird time to ask about your future when you just got a big opportunity, but when you think about the next five years or so, what do you want it to look like?
GK: As far as the gig I have, 4:00-7:00 PM, that’s just going to be a massive part of my life and obviously going to be my A-priority the next five years. But also within that, I really do think that some opportunities as far as maybe college football games, color analyst, those type of things. Helping out in the community in general away from the studio, that type of thing. But I feel like the professional opportunities will widen a tad bit and I’m looking forward to it.
BN: When you were transitioning from football to sports radio, who were a couple of the sports radio hosts or TV personalities that you enjoyed?
GK: What’s interesting and kind of funny is I know a lot of people will smack him down, but over the years, especially earlier, probably a little bit less now, but I think Colin Cowherd is a guy that I always watched growing up that I had some appreciation for. And yes, he’s wrong. And yes, there’s a lot of people that go after him for various things. But I feel like the engagement that he has is pretty nice. But also in town, let’s be honest, the truth of it is the guy I’m following. When I didn’t have my 3-6 show, I listened to Gary a lot. I thought he did a fantastic job. He was the guy in town that I certainly appreciated and thought the world of as far as the show was concerned.
BN: What are some of the things that get you to listen to a show if you’re driving around, and what gets you to turn away from a show?
GK: That’s tough because I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to sports radio. I generally give people a longer shot. I think when we’re just speaking generally, someone who’s informative and engaging, no matter what content they’re putting out. I know a lot of people will say they like the bits, they like segmented items that bring them back every day. I think there’s something to that as well. But if you’re informative, engaging, I’ll listen to anything you have to put out there.
On the flip side of that, if you hear a bunch of errors. If you hear a bunch of people slipping up. If there’s no point to the conversation being had, if there’s no sort of end goal — and that goes with the engaging part of this whole thing — I feel like that would be the time where you may switch stations. I feel like that’s a pretty long-winded way of saying you stay around if it’s informative, engaging. You don’t if it’s not informative and engaging.
BN: Going back to your football days after college, what was it like in the AAF? Just that year and how the league was shut down, what was that like, man?
GK: It was interesting to say the least. I got cut right after minicamp. That’s the truth of the matter. I got signed to the inaugural team, and then was cut directly after minicamp. I guess I wasn’t big enough, whatever it may be. But it was not a good experience. To be completely frank with you, it was bad for most everybody involved. They didn’t have a practice field all figured out. Everything was pretty spur of the moment. After I got done, they sent me a bill for the physical I took previous to minicamp. It was just a bunch of errors stacked on top of it.
Obviously, I got cut early and moved on and found my role, but there’s a lot of good guys I know that got cut from that league and couldn’t really land on their feet for a while. Didn’t get paid, didn’t have anywhere to go for a moment. Obviously, some of them found their way, some didn’t. I just thought that that operation in general, and I know this is getting serious and a little tough, but that operation in general was very disappointing to see about how ill-prepared they were.
BN: I just thought of Mark Schlereth, a former offensive lineman. He once talked about being scared during his NFL career. He was a guy that wasn’t highly recruited, wasn’t highly drafted and he was just scared that he was going to get replaced or get cut. I think about your football career and how you explained it where at Memphis you’re one of the last guys on scholarship. You go to the AAF, you’re cut. I don’t know if that builds a fear that might be a good thing with what you have now in sports radio, where it’s like, I got to prepare or the next guy is going to take my spot. Do you feel like that at all?
GK: Yes, I do. I think I would relate it to my fiancée is always telling me you never give yourself credit. You never sit back and enjoy and give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. I say I don’t think there’s time for that. If you’re giving yourself credit that means you’re patting yourself on the back for a job well done. I hate to say it like this, but the job’s not finished, right? You have to move forward day to day like the job’s not finished. I would relate it to that. I think there’s absolutely a part of me that feels that way.
The Chiefs & Eagles Have Super Bowl Game Plans, How About You?
“The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either.”
When it comes to preparation, I usually hold off. I’m a procrastinator’s procrastinator. It sounds better if I say; “I’m driven by deadlines,” but the truth is, I just generally put things off until they absolutely have to be checked off the list. If your goal as a producer is to have a great post-Super Bowl show, don’t be me, you best start working now.
There are many things that complicate booking guests for a Super Bowl reaction show. The obvious is that you have no idea who is winning the game. But, beyond that, you have no way of predicting what will be the biggest story coming out of the game. It could be anything from overtime to a blowout, halftime show debacle, officiating blunder, or even a surprise retirement announcement.
With that in mind, there are some strategies for targeting guests. With these, though, working ahead is paramount. Most anyone that is going to have enough insight to improve your show will be slammed in the hours following the end of the game.
Strategy 1: The Game Participant
This is a big risk, big reward strategy. It is also one that is only available to a select group of shows. If your show is nationally syndicated, in a very large market, or home market for one of the teams, you have a shot here. If not, the odds are not in your favor. The team’s media departments are as busy as anyone during a Super Bowl run. They aren’t likely to help a show they’ve never dealt with during that whirlwind of action.
I am reminded of a friend of mine who worked as the media relations director for a mid-major basketball team that sprung a huge round two upset and advanced to the Sweet 16. Needless to say, he was swamped overnight with interview requests for his coach. He told me every station led with “ESPN Radio” then mumbled the part about being in Puyallup, Washington. It never hurts to ask, but understand it is a long shot.
Strategy Two: Local Player Not In The Game
This can be a really solid idea for both previewing the Super Bowl and the Monday after the game. If you are in a local NFL market, or if a local college or high school star is in the NFL, consider him as an analyst. Who better knows what happens in an NFL game than an NFL player? Bonus points if he has been a Super Bowl participant in the past.
Don’t underestimate how many NFL players are thinking about life after football. One of the dozens of roles as NFL analyst at a major network is an excellent retirement plan. You don’t have to have a Hall of Fame jacket for those gigs, but you do need to be good on air. You might be surprised by how many players will agree to an interview with that in mind.
Strategy Three: The Trusted Analyst
Every network has all their biggest voices either In Phoenix or in the studio for the game. These are people that know the interview game and have plenty of experience. This strategy comes with some obvious hurdles; it turns out the networks paying the analysts to be on site keep them rather busy. While they might have been happy to join your show the Monday after Week Three, this is a different animal.
One other factor you should consider in this strategy is the fact that Sky Harbor airport will be one of the busiest in the world Monday morning. Many of the analysts will be scrambling home to start their off season as well. If your analyst is on the move, travel delays can wreck your whole plan.
Strategy Four: The Pop Culture Angle
Oftentimes the biggest talking point coming out of the game is one of the things happening outside the actual play on the field. If you watch Super Bowl Twitter, the biggest traffic moments are people joking about a slow starting Star Spangled Banner “hitting the over” or how bad the halftime show is. Regardless of the act, it has become the default position that the halftime show is awful, even when we all think they are pretty good. 50 Cent hanging upside down will forever be a meme.
Commercials are going to be a massive talking point after a game, especially if the game doesn’t quite deliver. Who is the voice that can talk to your audience about everything from Rihanna to a Taco Bell commercial? There is the inherent risk of alienating the “talk more sports” guy with this type of guest so, as you should with any guest, make certain they are entertaining.
The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either. Communication between hosts and producers is critical. Have a plan, work ahead and be on the same page.
Most of all, try to enjoy the game – and take the Chiefs and the points.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.