The first major weekend of every college football season is rarely a trip down Easy Street for Kirk Herbstreit.
The 2018 version is just a bit more fascinating in watching how tight his seat belt must be fastened.
The ESPN/ABC prime-time game analyst and de facto TV voice of the game today covers three games in the first five days of this first big weekend, on top of a swing through South Bend, Ind., for the first “College GameDay” show.
Adding on, he agreed to a conference call with a group of reporters late last week, something that took even more expert navigation behind the wheel of opinionating.
The former Ohio State quarterback, who just turned 49 and starts his 23rd season on the “GameDay” franchise, was of course going to be hit with Q&As about this three-game, go-sit-in-the-corner punishment levied on Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, who actually spent the fall of 2011 at ESPN chilling out between gigs at Florida and Ohio State.
If you’re into connecting irrational dots: Herbstreit’s coach at The OSU from ’89-’93 was John Cooper, who in 1988 was the successor to Earle Bruce (’79-’87), who was the grandfather of former OSU assistant Zach Smith, whose bombshell interview with ESPN earlier this month revealed Meyer knew about allegations that Smith abused his then-wife in 2015, and Meyer apparently decided to ignore “red flags” in Smith’s personal life because Meyer considered Bruce to be one of his great mentors. And ESPN was kind of lax in reporting some of that followup, generated by a former ESPN reporter, Brett McMurphy, who says he would be “stunned” if Meyers is still coaching at OSU after this season.
Herbstreit’s devotion to the OSU program goes back to his father, Jim, starring in the Buckeyes’ backfield during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But Herbstreit moved his wife and four sons from Columbus, Ohio, to Nashville, Tenn., in the spring of 2011. He explained it was too difficult to maintain some peace and tranquility the more he worked at ESPN while doing a sports-talk show in Columbus:
“Nobody loves Ohio State more than me,” Herbstreit told the Columbus Dispatch at the time. “I still have a picture of Woody Hayes and my dad in my office, and nobody will do more than I do for the university behind the scenes. But I’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to continue to be fair and objective. To continue to have to defend myself and my family in regards to my love and devotion to Ohio State is unfair. …
“Eighty to ninety percent of the Ohio State fans are great. It’s the vocal minority that make it rough. They probably represent only 5 to 10 percent of the fan base, but they are relentless.”
Maybe they were among the dozens who wrote the anti-ESPN signs during an Urban Meyer pep rally recently, trying to pin the school’s investigation against their coach on the network that Herbstreit still works despite the fact ESPN was late to report later allegations that led to Meyer’s punishment.
Herbstreit has plenty of other job-related reasons to be distracted right now. He starts Thursday with doing Northwestern at Purdue (ESPN, 5 p.m., with Dave Flemming on the call). Saturday, it starts with the Notre Dame party before he takes the Disney jet to Orlando, Fla., to cover Louisville-Alabama (Channel 7, 5 p.m., with Chris Fowler). The holiday weekend is capped off by a Labor Day telecast featuring Virginia Tech at Florida State (ESPN, Monday at 5 p.m., with Fowler).
Recognized for a third time with a Sports Emmy last spring, adding an Outstanding Event Analyst recognition to twice winning Outstanding Studio Analyst, Herbstreit recognized the fact he probably needed to address any sort of Ohio State-related talk – biased or otherwise — even though he’s not covering the AP preseason No. 5 Buckeyes’ home opener against Oregon State (Saturday, 9 a.m., Channel 7, with Dave Pasch, Greg McElroy and Tom Luginbill).
The highlights from the reporters’ questions and Herbstreit’s responses:
Q: What is your reaction to what came down in Columbus a couple of days ago with Urban Meyer now on the sidelines at least through the first three games?
A: The reaction would be, on the football side of it strictly, is that I’m happy to see that Urban Meyer is still the head coach at Ohio State and happy to see that he’s able to continue to kind of get things back in order once he comes back and hopefully able to learn as many lessons as possible from this and continue to grow and continue to be a great head coach.
The three-game suspension … when I watched the press conference, I thought … I was a little bit like everybody else, just kind of digesting everything as it was coming down. It was such build-up and anticipation, I really didn’t know what to expect, whether it was going to be termination or go back and coach the next day or possibility there was a lot of rumors about a possible suspension. Once I listened to (attorney) Mary Jo White (who OSU hired to do the investigation into Meyer and the program) and listened to (OSU president) Dr. (Michael) Drake and (OSU athletic director) Gene Smith, I thought a three-game suspension … it sounded almost as if Ohio State felt they needed to do something as far as just giving some kind of punishment. That’s what it felt like to me. That’s why they came up with the three games.
Then when I read the report, I was a little bit more kind of confused and didn’t really know what to make out of (it). Honestly, I had to read it five or six times because, on one hand, they talked about how truthful and forthcoming Urban was, and there was two different examples of where they said Urban told them something and they basically didn’t believe him. So it was a little bit confusing, kind of a head scratcher.
But at the end of the day, at least for now, there seems to be closure on this, and Ohio State knows what they’re facing, and they can at least understand that and move forward.
Q: Given the scandal that will take college football this spring and summer, from Ohio State to Texas A&M, to Maryland, etc. … in your opinion has the product been damaged, product of college football?
A: I think any time you have the magnitude of these stories, it’s going to hurt college football. This would hurt any sport, whether it’s the MLB, the NFL, whatever it might be. When you have that many things happen, I think it kind of makes you take a step back and really look to see are we getting to a point where college football is becoming so big and the pressure to win is so great, that people sometimes are cutting corners, and sometimes people are maybe turning and not necessarily paying attention to some key things.
Each of these cases are very different. Every single one of them. The A&M thing is kind of recent, and I haven’t heard the latest with the allegations and what A&M’s response has been. Those kinds of stories are always out there. There’s always people that are talking about things that happen illegally when it comes to recruiting or players. It’s just kind of a thing that’s hovering out of there.
What happened at Maryland is horrific, obviously. And the more and more you hear about it, the more you hope other universities and schools are listening. There’s kind of a little bit of a gray area because every school in the country is pushing their players in 95 degree weather, 100 degree weather, and looking for that fourth quarter edge and pushing and pushing and pushing. At the same time, everybody should be very well schooled in 2018, especially after some of the deaths we’ve had in the past — I remember when (former Ohio State All-American) Korey Stringer passed (while playing for the Minnesota Vikings), that it seemed to really change the practice of summer conditioning and summer practices, and we need to dial back and give these guys water breaks. So things typically have changed for the better.
But you wonder if that’s an isolated case, or you wonder if that’s the way it is in a lot of these summer conditioning drills that go on throughout the country. So that one is obviously really, really a tough thing to deal with for the sport.
And then, of course, what happened with Urban Meyer, and that story just went on and on and on. If I said it’s no big deal for college football, you kind of have your head in the sand. I think all of these are so big they definitely are something you hope other universities, other athletic directors, other administrations, other coaches, assistant coaches, players become more and more aware of. It’s just a different game and a different world we live in today.
You can’t just assume things are OK. You’ve got to make sure that things are OK and that people are OK. We’ll see where we go from here, but, yeah, this has been a rough summer for the sport for sure.
Q. There aren’t many people in Columbus talking about football right now, and you know how this town is around football season. What’s your take on how strange of a preseason this has been for Ohio State, and how long do you think the stain of this is going to linger over what happens on the field?
A: There’s a lot of great college football communities, but I don’t know if there’s a city and maybe an entire state that gets as excited for the start of college football the way Columbus and the state of Ohio does. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a town impacted, positively or negatively, by a typical Saturday afternoon, the result of a football game, let alone when something like this happens to its program.
So it’s kind of unchartered waters, I think, for the university and for that fan base. I think many of them are anxious for the ball to get up in the air and for them to be able to break down and talk about Oregon State and how the team did and how (new starting quarterback) Dwayne Haskins did and actually talk about football. But like you said, it’s hard to turn the page. It’s hard to do that.
Maybe until the games next week, maybe it will take that for this to start to subside a bit and allow the people to be able to focus on football.
Not to take away anything from domestic violence or its importance or anything. You can still enjoy college football and still be aware of domestic violence and things of that nature. So as far as football is concerned, yeah, I think once the games are played, I think that will help. And I think the other thing is once the suspension is over and Urban Meyer is back coaching the team, I think that also will help put this behind, as far as the team is concerned, and just try to get focus on going out and playing.
I think, as a player, if you take yourself away from the story and what should be important to all of us, and you’re an 18 to 22-year-old player trying to think about what do I need to do to do the best job I can do, and what do I need to do as a leader of this team, and we’ve got to get ready for Oregon State, I think it’s a bit easier for them because they’re insulated somewhat in that Woody Hayes (practice) facility, and they’re so regimented in their day. Hey, practice is from 3-to-5, meetings are at noon, or whatever the schedule is, and you just kind of get caught up in that world. You’re looking at scouting reports and getting done with practice.
I’ll be very surprised if the players themselves don’t play really, really well, almost as an ‘us against the world’ mentality, beginning against Oregon State in their first game.
Q: Can you remember going into a season where the three teams that most people project would be the three best teams in the country, they have this uncertainty at quarterback, where each program you can look at possibly having two guys at Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson?
A: I’m glad you brought this up. I think it’s fascinating to go in, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion. Ohio State has drama they’re dealing with, but outside of Ohio State, if you ask most people who the teams you think are just unanimous slam dunk that they have a chance to be up there, you know you’re going to get — doesn’t matter what region you’re polling — Alabama is going to be up there. Clemson is going to be up there. And now after what Kirby Smart did a year ago and the team they have coming back, you’re probably going to see a lot of people say Georgia as well.
What you’re bringing up is a great point. …
And at this point, fade to Herbstreit answering the question more in-depth, with no more mentions of OSU.
*ESPN dispatches Bob Wischusen, Brock Huard and Allison Williams to the Rose Bowl for UCLA’s opener against Cincinnati (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN)
*The Pac 12 Network sends Ted Robinson with Yogi Roth and Jill Savage at the Coliseum for USC’s opener against UNLV (Saturday 1 p.m.).
Other Pac 12 games of interest:
Washington vs. Auburn in Atlanta: Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Channel 7, with Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Todd McShay
Stanford vs. San Diego State: Friday, 6 p.m., FS1, with Justin Kutcher, Petros Papadakis and DeMarco Murray
Oregon vs. Bowling Green: Saturday, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Network with xx
Colorado vs. Colorado State: Friday, 6:30 p.m., CBSSN, with Carter Blackburn and Aaron Taylor
Washington State at Wyoming: Saturday, 12:30 p.m., CBSSN, with Rich Waltz and Aaron Murray
Cal vs. North Carolina: Saturday, 1 p.m., Channel 11, with Bruan Custer and Ben Leber
Arizona State vs. University of Texas-San Antonio: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., FS1 with Chris Myers and James Laurinaitis
BYU at Arizona: Saturday, 7:45 p.m., ESPN, with Adam Amin, Rod Gilmore and Quint Kessenich
Utah vs. Weber State: Thursday, 5 p.m., Pac 12 Net, with Roxy Bernstein and Anthony Herron
*ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which has won 10 Sports Emmy awards and the last five in a row for Outstanding Weekly Studio Show, goes back to where it started as an outdoor shoot 25 years ago — the Liberty Quad at South Bend, Ind., to begin Week 1 as part of the crowd getting amped up before the Michigan-Notre Dame (4:30 p.m., Channel 4).
The three-hour pregame stays in the 6-to-9 a.m. window on ESPN, simulcast on ESPNU. Lee Corso, who turned 83 last Aug. 7, starts his 32nd year on the show that began as a studio production before trying out a remote when it went to South Bend, Ind., to sample the buzz before No. 1 Florida State met No. 2 Notre Dame on Nov. 13, ’93.
The show returned for Notre Dame’s ’94 home opener, the first of six road shows that year. Its last Notre Dame visit was in 2012. This will be road show No. 347 – covering 82 cities and 69 different schools. Ohio State has hosted the most times – 17.
*ESPN’s coverage of Virginia Tech-Florida State is another one of those “MegaCast” full-press coverage events – it’s not just relegated to the national title game anymore. Does that take the specialness out of it? Probably. But if you want to make a “Monday Night Football” feel happen a week before the NFL kicks off, why not dump all kinds of resources into an otherwise reginal game of interest and see what happens.
Here’s the first look at former UCLA coach Jim Mora getting his TV air time. He joins former coaches Mack Brown, Gene Chizik, Hugh Freeze and Todd Graham in the “Coaches Only Film Room” emanating in real time from the Bristol, Conn., studios that airs on ESPNEWS. ESPN3, via the EPSPN app, also has Marty Smith and Ryan McGee watching and commenting from more than 1,000 feet above Doak Campbell Stadium in the Goodyear Blimp, which is part of a “Command Center” split screen view on ESPNU.
What’s on ESPN2 while all this happens? The U.S. Open tennis, of course. Something of importance.
*Jemele Hill has finally had enough.
The ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor says she’s leaving. Well, she was initially referring interview inquiries from Variety to her manager. Which seemed a bit odd, since, if someone did that to her as she was pursuing a story, it might ignite all sorts of social media backlash.
Not as much, perhaps, as this tweet with this response:
Anyway, if she leaves sometime next week as reported, in an “amicable” way with a buyout, she’s got some juice to just about to go whatever part of the media world she might want to try out.
The news also comes as ESPN is moving Michelle Beadle from “Get Up!” in New York back to the NBA pregame show in L.A. for the fall.
To some, this doesn’t matter.
It allowed Phil Rosenthal at the Chicago Tribune to fashion this column.
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ALSO OF NOTE
*The HBO series “Arli$$” isn’t forgotten, but it has been gone for quite a while after its run from 1996 to 2002. Remember? Robert Wuhl as a sports agent, getting into all sorts of messages way pre-“Ballers”? It’s back. All seven seasons and 80 episodes can be binged on HBO Now and HBO Go starting Sept. 14, the network announced. According to the HBO release that came with this announcement, it quotes FS1’s Skip Bayless calling it “hilariously, piercingly dead-on.”
It also drops this in from Wuhl, the show’s writer and exec producer: “The show was built against a comedic backdrop but was never afraid to tackle the real societal issues that show up in sports on an increasingly frequent basis. HBO was ahead of its time by letting us create this groundbreaking programming, and I couldn’t be happier that the show will now play again for new audiences and those who always loved the show.” Adds exec producer Mike Tollin: “Every time something crazy happens in sports, someone asks me, ‘What would Arli$$ do?’ HBO bringing the show back provides a refresher course in the world of the ethically-challenged sports agent.”
*NBC relaunches its “Notre Dame Football Season Pass” to fans in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and … wait for it … Ireland …who demand access to the seven Irish games the network carries this fall. It runs $49.99 per package, or $9.99 a contest.
*Maybe you’ve seen the billboards for the new series of “The Contender” that has already launched on Epix: “We are all fighting for something.” This show is fighting for attention. It once ran on NBC from 2005 to ’09 as a reality show drama that put 16 boxers into a tournament and tried to get you to invest your hopes and dreams with them. The Mark Burnett-created thing is now with MGM and Paramount to bring it back for a fifth try with a fourth different net. Episode 2 airs Friday. The five-round fights are now shown in real time.
*ESPN says it has added the Dodgers’ game in St. Louis on Sept. 16 as a “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast.