Whether trying to do basketball play-by-play amid Dick Vitale's cacophony or as the studio host on ESPN's NHL playoffs, John Saunders has always exuded calm. He says he rarely gets anxious before a broadcast but admits to having felt more than a bit apprehensive before hosting the Dec. 23 edition of ESPN's The Sports Reporters two days after the death of host Dick Schaap (page 27), who died at 67 of complications following September hip-replacement surgery. "I was nervous for the first time I can think of in a long time," says Saunders, 46. "Then on top of that was the overlying specter: Oh, I may be the guy who succeeds him."
In TV-sports terms, assuming Schaap's chair on The Sports Reporters is like replacing Lombardi at Green Bay or DiMaggio in the Bronx. Sometime in the near future, though, Saunders will likely be named permanent host—a title with which he's somewhat uneasy even as he appreciates the opportunity it affords. "I felt very uncomfortable when people asked me questions about whether I wanted to do it permanently when Dick was still ill," says Saunders, who has served as the host since Schaap's last show on Sept. 16. "I still feel a little bit of discomfort about it."
Although Schaap was a celebrated writer and raconteur, his signature attribute on The Sports Reporters was his self-effacing manner. That's a trait shared by Saunders, who has kept the show moving briskly as the fill-in host, dealing with such vociferous panelists as New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica and Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "You can't compare anybody to Dick, but John comes in every week with no ego," says Washington Post columnist and Pardon the Interruption coanchor Michael Wilbon, a frequent Sports Reporters panelist. "That's good because there's enough ego on the set already."
"John shares another quality with Dick," adds executive producer Joe Valerio, who joined the show in 1989, the year after its premiere and the same year that Schaap replaced Gary Thorne as host. "He's interested in what other people have to say. That was Dick's great talent. He made people comfortable."
Mindful of that contribution, Saunders has a suggestion. "Even if I become the permanent host, the name of the show should become Dick Schaap's Sports Reporters" Saunders says. "It was his show. He made the show. The name should honor him the rest of the way."