College Football TV Roundtable
With Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples and George Schroeder
Gus Johnson could quickly find himself among the must-watch announcers
Everyone agrees: Craig James is our least favorite college football presence
Plus: Regional networks, sideline reporters, best games and much more
Few televised sports inspire more passion than college football, especially when it comes to opinions on announcers and the networks that employ them. With kickoff less than a week away, I asked college football writers Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples and George Schroeder to join me for a roundtable on a number of television-related topics:
1. Which college football announcers and announcing teams are must-watches for you and why?
Stewart Mandel: Now that Gus Johnson is joining the college football realm (for Fox), he will be my first real "must tune in." (i.e.: I might turn on a game I otherwise wouldn't.) Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit have earned their role as the Saturday primetime crew. You know it's a big game when you hear Brent's voice, and Herbstreit has consistently gotten better as an analyst. Gary Danielson (when he's not relentlessly shilling for the SEC) is hands-down the best game analyst in terms of breaking down action in real time. Todd Blackledge is not far behind. And Mike Mayock really emerged as a star on Notre Dame games last year. Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore may be the best pairing on television; it's a shame they're buried doing the Friday night late game. Sean McDonough also does a great job with play-by-play.
Andy Staples: I'm thrilled that Gus Johnson is going to be calling college football. When he calls an Oregon game and tracks that offense ripping up and down the field, his head might actually explode. I think Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit provide the right gravitas for what is often the most hyped game of each week. I also love the Musburger drinking game, which I unfortunately can never partake in because I work Saturdays. I like Rece Davis as the play-by-play guy on Thursday nights. He's also great in the studio on Saturdays. Davis is the best college football ringmaster working, because it's clear he knows the sport and loves the sport. As for analysts, I'm a big fan of Ed Cunningham -- and not only because of The King of Kong. Cunningham consistently offers the most intelligent analysis in a language viewers can understand.
George Schroeder: It's probably in large part because of the matchups -- one of the biggest games of the week, and in primetime -- but Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit have become a fun pairing for me. Musburger can overdo it, but how can you not get excited when he does? Herbstreit has become really good, too, in expanding far beyond his College GameDay role. I'm really looking forward to Gus Johnson on Fox. Not for technical expertise. For insane fun. At the Pac-12's media day in L.A. last month, you knew he was there before you saw him. ("We're at FOX! STUDIOS!" -- or something like that.) Anticipating when Gus happens is half the fun, the potential energy. When it goes kinetic: MADNESS!
Richard Deitsch: Agree with much of what's been said above. Herbstreit is simply terrific as an analyst, and his chemistry with Musburger (even with Brent's tendency to overhype an event) is really enjoyable. College GameDay ranks with TNT's Inside The NBA as the best in class for a studio show and that's in large part because of Chris Fowler, who treats his role like a professional. Staples is right. Ed Cunningham is underexposed. I still like Verne Lundquist on college football and he and Danielson are an enjoyable pair, even with Danielson's sis-boom-bah-ness for all things SEC. What else? Sean McDonough is a terrific game caller and I'd like to see more Tessitore and Gillmore, too. If you read me, you already know what I think about Mayock: He's the best football analyst working today. I'm not part of the cult of Gus when it comes to football. He'll be fine, but the sport doesn't lend itself to frenzy outside of end-of-game situations.
2. Which college football announcer/s are the least appealing for you and why?
Mandel: Craig James and Jesse Palmer. James' glaring conflict of interest (more on that later) aside, it's still two ex-jocks glad-handing each other and spewing clichés for three-and-a-half hours. I feel bad for Rece Davis, a true pro, who spends Thursday nights wedged between those two and Saturdays moderating the Mark May-Lou Holtz circus act.
Staples: Craig James, because he adds very little to the broadcast, and ESPN has sacrificed much of its journalistic integrity to protect him in the wake of his campaign to get Mike Leach fired at Texas Tech. If ESPN replaced James with any random ex-jock, viewers wouldn't complain a bit. Yet for some reason the network has bent over backward to protect James. It makes no sense.
Schroeder: Other than Craig James? Even aside from the helicopter-dad/Mike Leach/Texas Tech stuff, I'm not a big fan. And how can we leave aside that stuff? Since he is still employed, can we at least eliminate the weekly weird-workout feature with James (and Jesse Palmer) and the home team's strength coach on those Thursday night games? We get it, James was a big-time athlete and he's still able to toss around big tires.There are a lot of forgettable announcers out there. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. As much as I enjoy listening to him, Musburger walks a fine line. When he crosses it, he can override the game. I'll take a dialed-back, who-was-that-announcer broadcast and be more than satisfied.
Deitsch: That Craig James gets such prominent assignments remains a mystery on the D.B. Cooper scale. He is unpopular by any fan metric you choose, including performance and likeability. The fact that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is suing James merely adds noise here. ESPN management says it values James for his relationships with coaches but what that ultimately leads to for viewers is little more than backslapping commentary. The network deserves to get crushed for keeping him on the air. I'm not as bothered by Palmer as some of the other guys but I agree with everyone on Holtz, whose act wore thin around the time Ron Powlus graduated from Notre Dame. Again, Holtz is an example of Bristol management having a tin ear with a broadcaster whose name far exceeds his value. Same with James.
3. If you could change anything about ESPN's college football coverage, what would you change and why?
Mandel: It's far too late to stop, but ideally there'd be more separation of church and state between the programming and journalism sides. The Bruce Feldman incident and the Longhorn Network have shown that horse has left the stable for good.
Staples: Lately, it seems as if ESPN has tried to set the agenda for college coverage. This is a bad idea. The big story is what it is, and people will seek coverage of it even if it happens to be SEC coaches "Car Wash" day. There will be days when I turn on College Football Live and I wonder if I even cover the same sport. The fact that ESPN is in bed financially with all the conferences shouldn't affect its journalism choices. Really, ESPN is so massive that the business relationships don't have to affect journalism choices. At this point, the conferences need ESPN more than it needs the conferences. So it shouldn't kowtow.
Schroeder: See my answer to No. 2, and the weekly workout feature. But I'd also like to see more Rece Davis and less Dr. Lou. Rece Davis is really good. He's a big reason why, aside from the actual games, College Football Final is my favorite TV on fall Saturdays (although to be fair, I don't see as much of College GameDay as I'd like; out here in the Pacific time zone, the pre-dawn start interferes with my sleeping habits). With Holtz, it's not so much that I want less of the former coach, but less of the caricature he plays. Or maybe it's not a caricature? His interplay with Mark May often feels really forced.
On the subject of GameDay, I wish we could rewind a few years. I'm really glad Lee Corso has recovered so well from the stroke. The GameDay guys -- talent, producers, everyone -- have done a great job helping him. Against the odds, his weekly headgear choice turned into and remains must-see TV -- it's cheesy silliness, but it's somehow so right. If this is possible for a segment on a preview show, it has become iconic. I just wish we could have the old Lee back (wait, I guess I mean the younger Lee; ah, you know what I mean). When Corso finally retires, the show is going to take a huge hit.
Deitsch: This won't happen but I'd like to see the hiring ethos change from former college coaches to information gathers. There's value in hiring ex-coaches but not if they provide vanilla commentary as they bide time for their next job. The Holtz-May shtick is bad television and the truth is the segments make May, who is a bright guy, look silly and less credible. If you want me to believe that Jenn Brown was the best candidate in America for such a high-profile gig, I'm going to have to see something resembling journalistic instincts soon.
4. Are regional networks (Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network) good for the sport?
Mandel: Absolutely. I don't know why it's taken so long, but major media companies are finally realizing that A) college football is huge and B) fans can't get enough coverage of it. The major networks can only show so many games, talk about so many teams. If you're a Purdue fan and you can watch a network that shows all your games and talks about your team every night of the week, that's a dream come true.
Staples: Of course. Variety for the consumer is always a great thing. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott points out frequently that college football has been undervalued and underleveraged for years. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany probably figured that out before anyone. That's why the creation of the Big Ten Network might be one of the most important things to happen in college sports in decades. The appetite for college football is huge. The conference networks give viewers more of what they obviously want.
Schroeder: To paraphrase a lot of coaches, no question! Let's see what the Pac-12 Network actually becomes, especially with the regional network components, but in terms of showing games -- what's not to like about every football and men's basketball game for a league being televised? It's good for the fans, and good for the sport. All of this assumes widespread distribution. The Big Ten had issues but has them mostly resolved. What's the Pac-12 Network going to do with satellite providers and cable systems that aren't Comcast, Cox, Time Warner or Brighthouse? Also, what pricing tier will the network be on? But in general, I think the conference networks are a big positive for college football (and hoops, too).
Deitsch: It's fantastic programming for the diehard conference fan, and I love the auxiliary benefit of non-revenue sports such as women's basketball and track and field getting added exposure on football's back. Here's the big downside: Regional networks, in general, are not a great place to find journalism. No matter how ESPN spins it, The Longhorn Network is a PR arm of Texas. The network's existence also creates an impossible situation for ESPN's college football producers and reporters (plenty of whom care about reporting). For every story ESPN does on Texas and its opponents, they'll be skeptics wondering what the motivation was for the story. As one longtime ESPNer told me, the LHN will be the worst decision in the company's history regarding its newsgathering arm.
5. ESPN's Beth Mowins was given a fulltime slate of games this season, joining Pam Ward as a fulltime play-by-play announcer on college football. Does gender matter to you when it comes to a college football game-caller?
Mandel: Not if the person is good. Pam Ward has taken a lot of criticism -- probably too much so -- and I'm sure much of it was gender-based. But for me it was more that she just wasn't very good. Beth Mowins has been exceptional in everything she's done and I look forward to hearing her call football.
Staples: No. Ability matters.
Schroeder: No. I'll admit it used to be a bit jarring, as though something was out of place, because it was so unusual. Not anymore. Either way, I just want competence. But I don't think we're going to see too much deviation from the standard formula -- all-male booths -- in the near future.
Deitsch: Not for me. I've been touting Mowins for a long time, and I appreciate ESPN management finally catching up with me. She'll be great. I think gender still matters for some viewers when it comes to announcing football, but the more women get an opportunity as game-callers, the less that will be an issue.
6. How big of an advantage is the Longhorn Network for Texas?
Mandel: It depends on what's ultimately allowed. Showing high-school games would be a game-changer, but I think there's so much pressure on Texas and the NCAA right now to block it. Otherwise, it's a slight advantage financially but not that much exposure-wise, because no one that's not a Texas fan is going to watch it.
Staples: It's huge. Besides Notre Dame, no other school has the combination of marketing muscle and huge fan base to make this work. Texas is the dominant school in a state of 25 million people. That fact alone guarantees wide distribution. If they ever are allowed to broadcast high school games on The Longhorn Network, it will give Texas an almost prohibitive recruiting advantage.
Schroeder: Will they be showing Dillon High's games? Even without high school games, it's a giant advantage in a lot of ways. Think of the potential just considering the 'Inside Texas football' type of programming -- carefully sanitized Hard Knocks meant to present the football program, in this case, in nothing but the most positive light. Never mind the high school games, recruits will be promised serious exposure -- and then they'll get it. Fans will lap it up. The kids will love it. How could it not help? That said, Texas already gets almost every player it wants from in-state, and rarely even ventures beyond the borders (you might have heard, but it's a whole other country). It's not like there are a bunch of kids who've been getting away from the 'Horns -- but figure fewer get away now.
Deitsch: Huge advantage. For starters, it's a direct message that Texas is linked to the biggest television brand in sports. Obviously, as the guys mentioned above, showing high school games in the future would be a killer ap for recruiting.
7. How valuable are sideline reporters on a college football broadcast?
Mandel: I respect many of them (Erin Andrews, Tracy Wolfson, Holly Rowe) and the hard work they do, but it's hard to argue game coverage would be worse off without the 30-second coach interview on the way into the locker room. They do prove valuable on occasion when major injuries arise, or other unexpected behind-the-scenes developments come up. Case in point: When Erin Andrews described the "mass confusion" on the West Virginia sideline when the coaches botched a late-game situation during one of Bill Stewart's first games as head coach.
Staples: Very valuable. Go back to the West Virginia-Colorado game a few years ago. In 30 seconds, Erin Andrews encapsulated what would be the entire Bill Stewart era at West Virginia.
Schroeder: It depends. The best reporters give us a sense for the mood on the sidelines, and provide really useful nuggets. But that's the best of them. I see most sideline reporting largely these days as a series of pre-packaged sidebars, and the quality of that coverage varies with the reporter.
Deitsch: The value for me comes in reporting things the viewer can't see (injuries, the emotion of the crowd). The best of the lot ask pointed questions of coaches, especially at end of a game when emotions run raw and high. There's tons of value there. The worst are merely part of the school's PR apparatus and value relationships with the coaches and players more than informing the viewers.
8. Do you trust Craig James when it comes to reporting on the Big 12?
Mandel: I wouldn't trust Craig James to report on sixth-grade volleyball. It's been established, via documented emails, that he not only encouraged a sitting Big 12 football coach's dismissal but hired a PR firm to intentionally manipulate coverage. And yet he's still walking into Big 12 coaches' offices every week to break down tape. Now he's running partisan political advocacy ads, which you would think would be a no-no for a television analyst (I seem to recall Lou Holtz getting in trouble simply for endorsing a candidate). How he's still on television (and in prominent time slots at that) is one of the great mysteries of modern civilization.
Staples: No. But I don't trust him when it comes to reporting on anything.
Schroeder: Does he report? I'm not sure how ESPN justified keeping him around. But he's still around. And now that Leach is no longer at Texas Tech, the immediate storm has passed. It would be unthinkable to have James in the booth for one of Leach's games (when Leach inevitably returns to coaching). Which is why it will probably happen. Until then, did you know James was a big-time athlete and he can still toss around big tires?
9. Will Urban Meyer be a good game analyst?
Mandel: I think he'll be good, both because he's so closely connected to the current game (unlike a coach who's been out of it for 20 years) and because he's always been outspoken.
Staples: He will if he doesn't hold back. But if he wants to get back into coaching, he'll hold back.
Schroeder: If he wants to be. He's articulate and polished and looks good in a suit. The question is if he's willing to spout strong opinions, especially when it comes to questioning coaches' decisions (on or off the field). I'm not sure he is, and I think we all suspect he'll be back on the sidelines somewhere soon. As long as we're talking about recent former coaches doing TV, though, I'd put in a plug here for Mike Bellotti. The former Oregon coach is doing analysis on games, not studio stuff. But he's pretty good. He was a natural on Oregon's in-house broadcasts in 2009, when he was the athletic director, and he's gotten better with ESPN's coaching. He does a nice job explaining what's happening without getting too technical.
Deitsch: I asked Herbstreit the same question and he gave me a pretty good answer: "He just has to continue to do what he started early in his career, and that is being honest and shooting from the hip. If you go back to when he was a coach, when he stepped to the podium he would tell you exactly what he thought. That was very unique in our world. This guy was actually saying something. I think you have to do that as an analyst. Where he is going to be challenged is when his peers, his colleagues -- and he is still in that fraternity -- when he has to be critical. Because he owes that to the viewer. Not to pile on, because I don't pile on, but there are certain times when you have to question some things. That will be his biggest challenge this year."
10. Give us your three TV games of the year and why.
Mandel: You never know before the season what will be the big games at the end, but right now I'd say:
1. LSU vs. Oregon at Cowboys Stadium (Sept. 3, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET)
2. Oklahoma at Florida State (Sept. 17, ABC, TBD)
3. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Oct. 1, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET)
1. Oregon vs. LSU at Cowboys Stadium (Sept. 3, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET): Because SEC people love to say the Pac-12 is soft, and everybody else loves to see an SEC team get challenged. Why ESPN scheduled this game against Georgia-Boise State -- another intriguing bragging rights game -- remains baffling.
2. Oklahoma at Florida State (Sept. 17, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET): The game atmosphere in Tallahassee has gotten a lot better as the Seminoles have improved. On the evening of Sept. 17, the heat index should still be in the mid-90s when the game kicks off. That should make for some fascinating crowd shots.
3. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Oct. 1, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET): It's Nebraska's first Big Ten game. It's at night at Camp Randall Stadium. Everything will be bathed in red.
1. Oregon vs. LSU at Cowboys Stadium (Sept. 3, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET): When was the last time we a matchup of top five teams in a season opener? But wait, it gets better: at a neutral site. The winner is in prime position for a run at the BCS championship game. The loser isn't out of it. Off-field distractions aside, it's the kind of nonconference matchup we don't see nearly often enough. Could there be a better kickoff?
2. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Oct. 1, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET): I love the Huskers' move to the Big Ten, for their sake and the Big Ten's. Even as I hate to see them leave behind all their old rivalries, they're a great fit. And this isn't just Nebraska's first Big Ten game, it's also a gauge of whether the league's hierarchy has been immediately altered by the expansion.
3. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (Dec. 3, ABC, TBD): The Sooners have won eight straight in the series, but in Stillwater, it's actually Bedlam. See last year, when the fourth quarter might have provided the best action of the season -- high-stakes riveting stuff. With the Big 12's reduction to 10 members and the resulting scheduling tweaks, the Cowboys somehow get a shot at the Sooners at home for the second straight year. It's probably the game of the year in the Big 12 -- and potentially an elimination matchup in the national title race.
1. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Oct. 1, ABC, 8:00 p.m. ET): Nebraska's first Big Ten game comes at SI's No. 2 top Game Day experience in college football. Camp Randall and its House of Pain will be rocking.
2. Texas A&M at Oklahoma (Nov. 5, ABC, TBD): I love the Aggies this season and I smell an epic here that will be the game of the year in the Big 12.
3. Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 26, CBS, TBD): Sure, Auburn isn't expected to contend for a national title but given the drama of last year's game (no team had ever beaten Alabama after trailing by 24 points) and the Harvey Updyke case, the Iron Bowl is going to be compelling television for all.