Paul Finebaum thinks Greg McElroy will be a star. So does Colin Cowherd. In fact, most staffers within ESPN's ecosystem believe that McElroy is a Jadeveon Clowney-type prospect when it comes to sports broadcasting. The former Alabama quarterback has been on the radar of Bristol executives since he was a guest on College GameDay for the 2011 BCS title game. He was just 22 at the time, but he possessed the on-air presence of someone twice his age.
On Monday, ESPN landed its touted prospect. McElroy signed a multi-year deal and will work as a college football analyst for the SEC Network, which launches this August.
"He's smart, he's knows the game, and we think Greg has potential to be an exceptional broadcaster," said Stephanie Druley, the lead executive for the SEC Network. "He'll not only be able to break down the X's and O's, but he'll be able to tell fans what it's like to play on Saturday in the SEC."
McElroy played three seasons in the NFL and spent last year on the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad. He was planning to compete for an NFL roster spot again this spring, but said ESPN made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Thus, he retired from professional football last week at age 25. While his NFL career was not the stuff of Canton -- McElroy was sacked 11 times against the San Diego Chargers in his only quarterback start while playing for the New York Jets in 2012 -- his name carries weight in SEC country. As a junior at Alabama, he led the Crimson Tide to a 14-0 record and a BCS championship victory over Texas.
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"I decided to take the opportunity at the SEC Network and then, as a result, I decided to retire," said McElroy, who was selected by the Jets in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft and was briefly part of a tabloid-fueled quarterback derby with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow in '12. "I was still trying to prepare myself mentally to compete for a job and play football. That was my plan, seriously, until a week ago. I told my broadcasting agent, Reed [Bergman], this offseason to take care of it and to let me know if we should discuss things. We had some things we wanted and I am very happy that everyone came together."
"I think Greg will be a star," said Finebaum, who hosts a popular show on ESPN Radio and also appears on GameDay. "We talked to him weekly for a few seasons after he left Alabama and not only was he brilliant, he was not afraid to speak his mind. He gave a great perspective of the Tim Tebow/Jets controversy the season he was backing up both Tim and Mark Sanchez. He gave great perspective on playing for the national title and losing it the next year at Alabama. He also touched on political issues from time to time and I think politics are clearly in his future. He will very be strong in studio or in the broadcasting booth. However, I think Greg has his eyes more on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the future than sitting next to Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on GameDay.''
Druley said McElroy was smart about building relationships with network officials during his pro career. She also said that producers took notice of how prepared McElroy was for his guest role on GameDay in 2011. "We saw his potential then," she said. "He also maintained relationships and came to Bristol a year or so ago and had some meetings. We've been following his progress in the NFL with an eye on bringing him into the fold in some capacity when he was ready to retire."
On that note, McElroy has appeared on ESPN's airwaves multiple times over the past three years and consistently comes off as a thoughtful voice. He's clearly intelligent: He graduated from Alabama in three years with a 3.85 GPA and also has a master's of science degree in sports management.
Druley said McElroy's role is still being defined, as McElroy said he was open to any role on the SEC Network. "You'll see him in studio and there will also be opportunity to get out to games," said Druley.
When he gets assigned to the studio, McElroy will join Tebow, the network's other splashy quarterback-turned-broadcaster hire. "We have not talked yet but I think the world of him," McElroy said of Tebow. "He is a tremendous asset to whatever he's done. Everywhere he's been he's had success and people who have respected him and I am one of them. I look forward to working with him."
One of main challenges facing conference-specific networks such as the Big Ten Network or Pac-12 Networks is news coverage. Can they offer viewers an unbiased editorial product? Or are they merely a sporting Pravda for their respective league? The bare minimum is for former athletes on staff to avoid showing favoritism toward their alma maters. McElroy said staying objective won't be an issue.
"I am going to be paid for an unbiased point of view and an unbiased opinion as to what I see on film," McElroy said. "Did I have a great time at Alabama? Absolutely. I could not be more grateful to the people I met and things I learned, but I also have to be fair to the fans of the Southeastern Conference and give an objective view of what I think of their team and Alabama's team."
Asked if he was capable of being critical of his old coach, Nick Saban, McElroy did not hesitate.
"I think I will be capable, absolutely," he said. "I think the world of coach Saban. He knows that. But I have to have an opinion and I have to be honest. Now my opinion might not always be right. In fact, there will be several times -- and maybe even a majority of times -- my opinion might be wrong. But I will have that opinion and stand by it."
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