Thanks in large part to Jonathan Coachman, ESPN will be an integral part of the SummerSlam coverage this week in Brooklyn.
The 41-year-old Coachman, better known to his viewers as “The Coach,” worked nine years for WWE until relocating to ESPN as a SportsCenter anchor in 2008. Coachman has been persistent in his pursuit of covering pro wrestling for ESPN, and also has built considerable trust with WWE CEO Vince McMahon that has allowed for the working agreement between the two global entities.
Coachman has a tremendous amount of respect for McMahon, and McMahon is well aware he can trust his former employee.
“I’m able to deal with everything at ESPN a lot better after working for Vince McMahon,” explained Coachman. “And I’m thrilled to work with him again. Vince trusts me, and knows I would never burn him in any way, shape, or form, so that’s a big part of it, but he also understands it makes sense to have his stuff on the biggest sports network in ESPN.”
The relationship between Coachman and McMahon grew in 2001 when the boss decided to have a little fun at the expense of his employee.
“One of Vince’s right-hand guys, Jerry Brisco, asked me to run a football pool when we were in North Carolina,” said Coachman. “I didn’t know this, but during a meeting, Brisco mentioned to Vince that he wanted to throw a rib on me and have me arrested in the state of North Carolina. Vince was all in, and when I say in, I mean he hired real state police officers to come into the building and interrogate and ‘arrest’ me about selling a $10 football pool to an undercover police officer at the arena.”
The undercover police officers “arrested” Coachman, who was not in on the joke and became petrified he would lose his job. The officers brought him to McMahon’s office, where he was having his typical middle-of-the-day meeting with Paul “Triple H” Levesque, Stephanie McMahon, vice president of Television Production Kevin Dunn, and Jerry Brisco.
“One of the cops said, ‘Mr. McMahon, we’re sorry, but we caught Jonathan Coachman running an illegal gambling ring in North Carolina,’” said Coachman. “I wanted to say, ‘This wasn’t an illegal gambling ring!’ And I was looking at Jerry Brisco and I wanted to say, ‘This is what you asked me to do!’ But the last thing you’re ever going to do is throw somebody under the bus. The entire company is built on respect and loyalty, and I knew that from the jump. So I stood there and I took it like a man.”
If Coachman thought McMahon was going to defend him, well, then the joke was on him.
“Vince got up and he stood in my face,” said Coachman. “With that Mr. McMahon growl and veins coming out of his neck, he said to me, ‘A football pool? A goddamn football pool? Is that what you have to do with your time during the day?’ I didn’t say a word, I just stood there.
“The cops explained, ‘It’s going to be about $1,500 to bail him out. Do you want to help him with that?’ And Vince said, ‘Hell no! He’s on his own!” And they asked Vince if he’d send someone to pick me up at the police station and, again, he said, ‘Hell no!’ The cops said they hated to do this, but they needed to handcuff me, and asked, ‘Does anyone have a towel?’ And Vince said, ‘I’ve got something.’ He went through his gym bag, and grabbed his sweaty shorts – the ones he’d just worked out in – and threw them so hard that they stuck onto my face.”
The police officers handcuffed Coachman and placed the shorts over his hands, and then walked him out. No one else was in on the joke, so anyone who saw the handcuffed Coachman assumed he was actually being arrested.
“The first guy I saw when I walked out of Vince’s office was the Undertaker,” said Coachman. “He couldn’t have been more disappointed in me.”
The cops drove away with a terrified Coachman before receiving a call on the police radio asking them to return to the arena.
“Vince took the time to get everybody out of the arena to stand in a triangle, and he was at the front of it,” said Coachman. “Vince yelled, ‘Gotcha!’ I was crying like a little baby, not because I was sad, but because I was mad. I’d thought my career was over. This took 45 minutes in the middle of the day before Smackdown, and Vince was willing to pull a 45-minute rib in order to make it as real as possible.
“After what I learned working for Vince, doing my job at ESPN is easy. Dealing with the politics here [at ESPN] was the difficult part. There were, and still are, people who don’t like the fact that I have pro wrestling on my resume, but I don’t give a damn any more. I’ve been there almost eight years, so they just need to get over it. And now we’re covering things that are so entertaining.”
ESPN’s “SportsCenter” will be broadcasting live outside the Barclays Center on Sunday at 11am EST, 12pm, and 6pm, as well as a wrap-up at of the event at 11pm. Coachman will also be interviewing various WWE superstars with direct connections to professional sports and entertainment, like Roman Reigns – who played collegiate football and was signed by the Minnesota Vikings – and entertainment, like Mike “The Miz” Mizanin – who was a reality television star on MTV’s “The Real World.”
“We’re doing a lot of sit-downs on Saturday with guys who have cross-over appeal,” said Coachman. “We’re going to sit down and talk with different wrestlers that either played football in college, like Roman Reigns or John Cena, to the Miz, who was a reality star, so there are a lot of guys the casual sports fan would know. We’ll meet with them on Saturday, and those interviews will be on ESPN.com and our SportsCenter feed on Twitter, and then we’ll be doing live shots on Sunday morning from outside the arena to show people the atmosphere. Then we’ll interview a few people about what Sunday night means to their careers.
“We’re used to dealing with athletes and asking, ‘What does this game mean to you?’ Well, performing at SummerSlam is just like performing in the NFC Championship game. You’ve got to bring your top game so you can make it to the Super Bowl in WrestleMania. We want to introduce a lot of these guys to the part of the sports world who don’t watch Raw.”
Fittingly, Coachman’s first big moment in wrestling came in 2003 at SummerSlam, when he turned against Shane McMahon.
“That was the first time I’d done anything real physical in the ring,” said Coachman. “So when I was approached to do that, I was a little nervous. I’d never been in the ring, I’d never wrestled any matches, and SummerSlam is a very big stage. But it was so much fun. To this day, I’ve never been kicked harder than I was kicked that day by Shane McMahon in the ring. I lost my breath for 15-20 seconds, and thought I was going to die right there in the ring. Shane doesn’t pull kicks. But it was the best thing I could have done.
“I always thought I could do more than announce. It’s a very hard job to do – and I always thought JR [Jim Ross] was one of the best, if not the best, and Michael Cole is very underrated – but I never thought play-by-play was my strong suit. I thought that, with my size and personality, it would fit better if I showed more personality, and it worked out. My last four or five years were my best years there.”
The 6’3’’ Coachman, who played collegiate basketball at McPherson College in Kansas, developed a reputation for being highly reliable at WWE. He never missed shows during his eight-year run, and did anything he was asked, including visiting the United States military troops in Afghanistan. But life on the road had taken its toll, and Coachman was looking to start a new endeavor–a family.
“I knew I wanted to start a family, so I knew it was time to get off the road,” said Coachman, who is now the proud father of two children. “So I started calling all the big networks practically begging to do anything for them. Only one–CSTV, which is now CBS College Sports–would even take a meeting with me. Laurie Orlando was the person’s name from CSTV, and she thought I was pretty talented. She had me call a few college games, but she said there could be some negative feedback because I was from wrestling.”
Coachman started calling college games on the weekends. The students were extremely excited to see him whenever he was on campus.
“The kids were going nuts,” said Coachman. “They were used to seeing me on Monday nights. Then Laurie Orlando left CSTV and went to the MSG Network, and I started calling games for them. Six months before my contract was up, I really thought I was going to work for MSG full time. I loved it, I enjoyed it, and I was already living in Stamford, Connecticut.
“But five months before my deal was up, she called me and said she was leaving MSG. I was like, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Just trust me and be patient.’ Well, I only had five months, I didn’t have time to be patient. But I was, and in April of 2008, she called me and said, ‘I can now tell you where I’m going,’ and she became the new senior VP of talent at ESPN. So Laurie is responsible for getting me to three different places.”
Coachman is thankful he exited the WWE on such good terms.
“Kevin Dunn, my former boss who is also a TV genius, asked me point blank, ‘Are you going to ESPN?’ I was honest and said yes. If I’d passed it up, I would never get that opportunity again. And he said, ‘OK, we’re going to take you off Smackdown and put Mick Foley on.’
“That was in April. My daughter, who is now seven, was due that June, and Kevin said, ‘Why don’t you go and be home for the birth of your daughter? If we need you, we’ll call.’ That July, they called me and brought me to the TV studio, and threw a surprise going-away with a band and the whole nine yards. That spoke volumes of what Vince, Kevin, and the company thought of me, and I still feel the same way about them to this day.”
The point people for ESPN’s connection with the WWE are McMahon and Coachman, and that is perfectly fine with “The Coach.”
“My relationship with Vince has always been very, very good,” said Coachman. “I respect him immensely. The thing about Vince that people don’t get is he’s very simple to work for. He expects you to show up, do your job, and do it well. That’s all he wants you to do. And he’ll tell you, unless you’re in the hospital, he expects you to be at Raw or at Smackdown. I became the guy Vince trusted to be on the plane, but he also knew he could yell at me. If Vince needed to yell at the Big Show, and he knew that would hurt the Big Show’s feelings, he’d take it out on me just to get it out of his system, and then we’d move on.”
In a perfect world, Coachman explained, he would work for ESPN six days a week, and then for the WWE on the seventh.
“ESPN is not a place you come to take the next step, it’s a place you come to spend your career,” said Coachman. “I plan on retiring at ESPN, but I would love to be involved with ESPN and WWE.
“The biggest network in America for credibility in sports and entertainment is ESPN, so the best way to make your product credible is to be on ESPN. I’m proud of the fact that I am the liaison for the WWE. I appreciate the executives at ESPN opening their hearts and their minds, and I can’t think of anything cooler than what we’re doing this weekend at SummerSlam.”