The spring of 2000 was a heady time for Melissa Stark. On June 19 of that year, her boyfriend, Michael Lilly, asked her to marry him. Two days later, Don Ohlmeyer, then the executive producer of ABC's Monday Night Football, offered her the job of MNF sideline reporter. She accepted both proposals and soon became a very famous woman on sports television at the age of 26.
Stark stayed on Monday Night Football for three seasons before the stork called. She walked away from the NFL's most famous program in 2003 to start a family. Later, she would work for NBC in both news and sports before stepping away again in the fall of 2008. By then Stark had four children, including twin daughters, and had settled into being a fulltime mother in southern New Jersey.
Then came Jim Cohen's phone call last year.
"I always said if the right opportunity came up I'd consider going back to work, but I never thought the right opportunity would come because its a lot to balance with four kids," Stark said in an interview with SI.com last week. "I would have been fine had I never worked again but my old boss called."
Cohen, a senior coordinating producer for the NFL Network who had worked with Stark on Monday Night Football, told her the football-only network was looking to hire and they were impressed by her previous work. Stark initially resisted the inquiry, but two weeks following Cohen's call she changed her mind after prodding from her husband. Her first assignment for the NFL Network came in Sept. 2011 when she reported a feature from Ground Zero on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. The network then assigned her to cover the Jets and Eagles, which worked for Stark given the proximity of those teams to her home. She was hooked again on football.
By the end of last season, the NFL Network had serious plans to base a show from the NFL Films offices in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. They needed a host and network brass thought Stark's skill sets would fit. "Our vision was to move her away from the sidelines and reporting, where she is excellent, and get her into anchoring and hosting," said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger.
Stark now co-hosts First On The Field, which debuts earlier than any other Sunday NFL pregame show at 7 a.m. ET (4 a.m. Pacific). The show features the quartet of Stark, co-host Sterling Sharpe, analyst Michael Lombardi and former Chargers running LaDainian Tomlinson. If one can endure the cacophonous Sharpe, whose television history is a series of look-at-me nonsense and puckering up to players, it's a watchable show. Weinberger said he's pleased with how things have gone so far and loves that it gives the NFL Network (whose offices are based in Los Angeles) a weekly presence on the East Coast.
As for bringing Stark back to television after a long hiatus, Weinberger said he did not consider it any risk. "Risk never came into mind for us," he said. "We were excited about bringing someone back who left a major imprint on football and who football fans missed."
Major imprint is a stretch, but we always expect hype from television executives. In Stark's previous television life, however, she had a very high profile job and was part of an endless series of breathy stories when she replaced Lesley Visser, 20 years her senior, as the sideline reporter on Monday Night Football. "We were friendly at the time but that was definitely a hard thing to go through at that age," Stark said. "I think the fact that they revamped the entire show, bringing in Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts and Eric Dickerson, made it a little easier. They were going a different direction and that helped smooth that transition." (Stark said she has spoken with Visser a couple of times since, but not since 2006. "She was always kind to me and I just think it was awkward circumstances for both of us," Stark said.)
In a sense, Stark begat Erin Andrews who begat Samantha Steele. Her fame came prior to the explosion of the sports blogosphere and she's grateful for that. "I am much more confident now, have much more balance and have a family," said Stark. She and Lilly have two boys (9 and 7) and twin five-year-old daughters. "I don't think I was awestruck or overwhelmed by the opportunity at the time, but I'm so much more grounded now as far as who I am."
Stark is signed with the NFL Network through 2014 and her contract states that she can't do sports for another network. But her options are open for news or entertainment and Stark has interest in morning television and news or perhaps hosting a syndicated show.
"I am open to different ideas but it has to work with my lifestyle," said Stark, who turned 39 on Sunday. "This just felt like the right thing because it was seasonal, not every day, and I could still get my kids on the bus. I feel like a little piece of my old life is back, and it's been great."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend)
1. After one of the worst weeks of his life, Terry Bradshaw was in a contemplative mood on Sunday night. "I was devastated that my name would ever be associated with a race issue," said Bradshaw, the Fox Sports NFL analyst. "Just devastated. I really honestly did not know where to turn."
By now you've likely read about Bradshaw's comments from last week. While voicing a highlight of Dolphins running back Reggie Bush running in the open field on Nov. 4, Bradshaw uttered something spectacularly odd: "He was chasing that bucket of chicken that the wind was blowing the other day." The reference, according to Bradshaw and ultimately confirmed by multiple Fox Sports staffers, was regarding analyst Jimmy Johnson's habit of eating fried chicken on Sunday against his wife's wishes. Bradshaw said the "he" in this case was meant for Johnson and not Bush.
His words quickly became a cause celebre on social media, and Bradshaw was castigated far and wide, from The Washington Postto USA Today.
"From a personal standpoint, I was very disappointed in myself that I would ever be connected with anything like this because I'm way too smart for this nor do I think like this in my private time or in life in general," Bradshaw said. "I didn't know how far this was going but I do know you can lose your job over issues of race and gender. So I got scared. But primarily, I was devastated that my name would ever be associated with a race issue."
Bradshaw said he had no idea of the uproar when he left Fox's Los Angeles studios on the night of Nov. 4. (He is not on Twitter or Facebook). He first learned what he said had become a major story when Fox NFL Sunday co-anchor Curt Menefee called him at his ranch in Oklahoma the following morning. Menefee, who is African-American, asked Bradshaw if he was OK and then told him he had his back. Fellow on-air colleagues followed with calls of support. "I was surprised when I woke up Monday morning and saw the uproar," Menefee said. "I hopped on Twitter, I saw the headlines on USA Today. So I started to defend Terry because it was the right things to do. We work in a business where there are consequences for what we say, but you cannot crucify someone for what they did not say. People were spinning what they wanted to make out of it and not what the intent was. It was right thing to do. Once you sully someone's reputation with the charge of racism, it's hard to get that back."
"Nobody said anything the day of the show," Bradshaw said. "You say something racial and it hits a nerve right there. I have a black man to my right and a black man to my left, two African-Americans that I respect and love. My office manager played back the tape for me on Monday and I wondered "What did I do wrong here?' Then the association with Reggie running and the chicken was what triggered it without people having properly understood what I was talking about. So I was devastated because I would never do that. I was referencing Jimmy and how he won't share his chicken every week."
Fox Sports' PR people contacted Bradshaw and told him they had his support to get whatever message he wanted out. He also heard from David Hill, the former Fox Sports chairman who is now a News Corp senior executive vice president. Hill said Bradshaw had nothing to worry about regarding his employment. Johnson tweeted out his support and later in the week, Bush came out and said he did not believe "there was one ounce of racism in his [Bradshaw's] body." Bradshaw said he was incredibly appreciative of Bush's statement and hopes to eventually follow up and thank him in person. "I felt I had to apologize because that is the right thing to do," Bradshaw said. "Whether I feel like I am right or wrong doesn't matter. I wanted to say I was sorry for anything that was misunderstood because I would never, ever say anything that disrespectful."
You wish Bradshaw had a chance to amplify this yesterday -- during his long broadcasting career the 64-year-old has never used racially loaded language or hinted at racism -- but Fox's NFL producers made a decision not to mention anything on the air this week. Menefee admits he wishes he had the moment back last week as a host to clarify what Bradshaw said about Bush. "Yeah, I groaned on air because he was giving Jimmy a hard time about an inside joke," Menefee said. "Terry had thrown Jimmy under the bus with his wife, who had prohibited him from eating fried chicken."
Bradshaw admitted he felt limited on Sunday -- he just wanted to get through the show -- and hopes he can get back to his happy-go-lucky broadcasting ways sooner than later. "In today's social media world, things get out there fast," Bradshaw said. "I certainly learned from it. I survived what could have been a devastating blow to my life. There is nothing worse for me than being described as a racist. It was a nightmare.
2. With a flair for blindness that would make Capt. Louis Renault blush, Fox Sports Net announcers Ron Thulin and Brian Baldinger failed to reference Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville's physical contact with a grad assistant at any point during the final 60 minutes of the broadcast of Texas Tech's overtime win over Kansas. That was a remarkable omission, given the story was percolating across the sports blogosphere and would become a talking point on outlets from USA Todayto ESPN and even Fox Sports' own website. (Maybe those Fox Sports executives based in Los Angeles missed the following L.A. Times headline: TEXAS TECH'S WIN OVER KANSAS IS A SLAP IN THE FACE. When stuff like this happens, you can't help but think broadcasters and producers are enabling their partner schools and conferences rather than shooting straight with viewers. (Thulin and Baldinger also failed to deliver when the incident initially happened). Sure, Fox's studio show ultimately showed the incident, but you don't get a cookie for doing the obvious. Tuberville downplayed the outburst following the game.
2a. Yahoo! Sports columnist Pat Forde delivers the goods on Lane Kiffin's deflating tenure at USC.
2b. CBS drew an overnight rating of 6.6 for its coverage of Texas A&M's win over Alabama, the second highest-rated game on any network-to-date, behind CBS's coverage of Alabama-LSU (7.0). Notre Dame-Boston College drew a 3.8 overnight on ABC. Oregon-Cal was cable's top-rated cable college football game (2.4).
3. This week marks the end of the Poynter Institute's tenure as ESPN's de-facto ombudsman -- its final Poynter Review Project piece is expected to post this week. As for its next ombudsman, an ESPN spokesperson said, "The search is on, though no timetable." Poynter's tenure was a mixed bag, a better fit for ESPN internally than the external output they produced for readers. They failed to deliver on a promised Craig James column, and most disappointing, they lacked the metabolism of what the job demands today: a near-daily look at the many issues that filter through ESPN's properties. (One wishes they had adopted the metabolism of New York Times new public editor Margaret Sullivan, who has written more than 20 times since Oct. 10, compared to one ESPN column from Poynter in that time frame.)
The Institute did have very strong moments, including its examination of Bob Knight's nonsense, ESPN's handling of firing an employee over a Jeremy Lin headline and the network's handling of the Bernie Fine allegations, which deserves a follow-up from the next ombudsman. For some insight into how Poynter perceived its role, here's a Q&A I did with the Poynter President Dr. Karen B. Dunlap and Stephen Buckley, the dean of faculty.
4. The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brad Wolverton has done sensational reporting on college athletics. His investigative piece on Western Oklahoma State College -- where college athletes can pick up three credits in two weeks -- deserves to be read.
5. Ace reporters John Ourand and Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal reported on Friday that ESPN was close to securing media rights for the entire college football playoff system, with industry sources pegging the new 12-year BCS package at $500M a year. SBJ says ESPN would own college football's postseason for a total of $7.3B over 12 years (or around $608M per year), beginning with the '14 season.
6. As anticipated, Stan Van Gundy was excellent on NBC Sports Network's abbreviated coverage of the Georgetown-Florida men's basketball game on Friday. Van Gundy knows his Xs and O's and delivered his usual blunt opinions. Asked for his thoughts on the Lakers firing Mike Brown after five games, Van Gundy did not hold back. Said Stan Van: "Ridiculous, and understand what the Lakers have done since the end of last year: Organizational decisions to change the entire coaching staff. Three assistants were replaced. Organizational decisions to bring in two great players, in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Organizational decisions to change the offense. That's a lot of changes. What did you think? After five games everything would be running smoothly? If you are not committed to your coach, make the change in the offseason. To waste training camp, and make the change now, it smacks of panic."
6a. Speaking of Van Gundy, ESPN president John Skipper told the Sports Business Journal the NBA had no role in the former Orlando coach's failure to land a studio analyst role at ESPN. That counters what Jeff Van Gundy strongly suggested to USA Today. Stan has also made the charge that ESPN reneged on a deal at the behest of the league.
"When we're doing games, we of course consult with our partners," Skipper said. "We're licensing their product to put on our air. I will state categorically that the decision not to hire Stan Van Gundy was my decision and only my decision. We looked at a number of people to put on our studio show. I wanted to bring in Bill Simmons, which we did. Simmons had a relationship with Jalen Rose. We brought Stan Van Gundy in to audition. He did very well. We did proceed with a discussion with him about potentially hiring him and then I decided not to. The only time I had a discussion with David [Stern] was when I told him, 'This is what we're going to do.' "
6b. DeMarcus Cousins, knucklehead of the week. And props to Sean Elliott for doing in this instance what good broadcasters do: Be honest with your audience.
7. Great work by ESPN pit reporter Jamie Little for her pointed question of Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for Jeff Gordon, following Gordon intentionally putting Clint Bowyer into the wall (which led to a brawl in the garage). My transcription follows:
Little: "I was listening on the radio. That was premeditated. He waited out there for him. Why did he get so upset by that move? They were not racing for the lead.
Gustafson: "Well, it's about the fifth time that he's run us over. After awhile, you get really frustrated. We all work really hard on these cars and Jeff races everybody with a lot of respect. Evidently, he had enough. If you are going to play that way, if you are going to race that way, you should not be upset when you get it back."
8. How has the NHL Network handled covering the lockout? Well, they've abdicated any newsgathering role. At a conference in New York City sponsored by the Sports Business Journal, NHL COO John Collins admitted the network has punted on journalism.
"We were watching all the other networks to see how they handled the lockouts on their networks," Collins said. The (NFL Network) looked at it like it was really an external news organization and really went out of their way to not only give the league perspective, but also the players, which I thought was great. The NBA went a different direction based on certain restrictions their bargaining agreement may have. For us, we haven't really covered the lockout on our platforms from a news standpoint. We haven't used it as a bully pulpit to get the league's message out there. We've sort of been very quiet throughout this negotiation and I think we'll remain that way." Hard to take such a network serious with this kind of newsgathering philosophy.
8a. Mike Emrick, the best hockey announcer in the U.S., fulfilled a childhood dream on Friday night.
9. MLB Network will air the winners of the BBWAA awards every night this week beginning at 6 p.m. ET. The Rookie of the Year awards come Monday, followed by Manager of the Year (Tuesday), Cy Young (Wednesday) and MVP (Thursday). Each program will feature commentary from the network's analysts, plus interviews with this year's award winners, finalists, and members of the BBWAA.
10. Analyst Fran Fraschilla has an eventful Tuesday planned. He'll call the Stony Brook-Rider game at 6 a.m. and afterward will make his way to a basketball park in Brooklyn to meet up with Chris Mullin, the ESPN NBA analyst and former St. John's star. The two will then depart for Queens to call Detroit at St. John's game at 2 p.m. ET.
10a. Clip and save these Final Four picks from ESPN's college basketball analysts: Jay Bilas (Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky & Louisville), Andy Katz (Florida, Kansas, Louisville & Michigan State) and Dick Vitale (Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville & Ohio State)
10b. Longtime ESPN anchors Cindy Brunson and Kevin Negandhi have replaced Trey Wingo as the anchors for ESPN's women's basketball coverage. For those of us who watch women's basketball (I cover it for SI and SI.com), they'll follow in Wingo's professional footsteps.
10c.New York Daily News NFL columnist Gary Myers delivered some fantastic anecdotes from Robert Kraft about the unpleasant working relationship with Bill Parcells when Parcells was coaching the Pats.
10d. The Big Lead's Ty Duffy reports on a shakeup among SportsCenter anchors.
10e.Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery wrote a remarkable piece recounting the deadly hazing that destroyed the Florida A&M's marching band's reputation. It's well worth your time.