It has become one of the favorite parlor games in sports broadcasting: When is Jon Gruden leaving ESPN?
The latest addition to the canon came Sunday when CBS NFL insider Jason La Canfora reported that Gruden is being pursued heavily by Arkansas and Tennessee, and preparing for the possibility of leaving ESPN by "putting together a list of possible candidates to join him on his staff." La Canfora also reported that the 49-year-old Gruden has been studying the Oregon offense (presumably not Saturday's loss to Stanford) to get better acquainted with the college game. (No doubt CBS Sports enjoys causing agita in Bristol, Conn., with this kind of news.)
"Jon remains committed to ESPN," an ESPN spokesperson said Sunday night when contacted by SI.com. "With a third of our Monday Night Football schedule still left to be played this season, he is focused on his analyst role and all the preparation that goes into our game each week."
Reached in San Francisco on Sunday, Gruden's Monday Night Football partner, Mike Tirico, said, "Like I've done the last three years, I'm staying away from any of the speculation and conversation as we enter the silly season."
So what happens if Gruden bolts at the end of the season? SI.com contacted a half-dozen ESPN staffers on Sunday and Trent Dilfer appears to be the leading in-house candidate to replace Gruden. Steve Young would also get consideration.
"I'd actually be surprised to hear that Steve would want the job," said an ESPN staffer who has worked with both Dilfer and Young. "I'm pretty sure Trent wants it."
"I don't see any other contender in-house," said another ESPN staffer of Dilfer.
Via ESPN, Dilfer was not available on Sunday night.
Dilfer served (perhaps endured is the better word) as the analyst alongside Chris Berman for the Chargers-Raiders season opener, and he also worked the Monday Night Football season-opening doubleheader in 2011. He's considered a rising star by ESPN's NFL production executives. Both Dilfer and Young are cerebral broadcasters, but Dilfer is thought to be the better fit in the booth as a game analyst. If Gruden goes, Dilfer would be a smart fit. He has a bigger long-term upside than Gruden because he's already willing to be critical of coaches and players when the situation calls for such transparency.
Now in his fourth year in the MNF booth, Gruden has already lasted longer in broadcasting than most expected. Before the season, Tirico told SI.com that he was waiting for all the people who had said Gruden would return to the sidelines to admit they had reported prematurely. He did not want to speculate on this go-around.
"I think when this started very few people thought he would be doing for this long and here we are in Year Four," Tirico told SI.com on the eve of the regular season. "Will Jon be coaching in 2013? I have no earthly idea. But given where his temperature has been the last couple of years, I think the chances are good that he will be around with us."
Two months ago in an interview with SI.com, ESPN executive vice president of production John Wildhack admitted the network had no ready-made contingency plan for Gruden's departure.
"What I want to do is create a new era of Monday Night Football with Mike and Jon," Wildhack said, "and that Jon will enjoy this so much that he will want to put coaching in the background."
Asked if that was possible, Wildhack replied: "We sure as hell will try."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend)
1. The sound you hear from Bristol, Conn., is ESPN executives rooting hard for Notre Dame. If the Irish defeat USC on Saturday night -- College GameDay has already committed to broadcasting from Los Angeles on Saturday morning -- the BCS title game on Jan. 7 in Miami (airing on ESPN) sets up for monster ratings if Alabama is the opponent. The most-viewed national championship game of the BCS era came in 2006 when Vince Young-led Texas defeated USC, which featured Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. The game drew 35.6 million viewers on ABC and was the most-watched NCAA championship game since at least 1991, when Nielsen records began for college football. The second- and third-most-viewed games of the BCS era aired on Fox, including the 2007 title game (No. 2 Florida over No. 1 Ohio State, 28.8 million viewers) and the 2009 title game (No. 2 Florida over No. 1 Oklahoma, 26.8 million viewers). Last year's Alabama-LSU title game averaged 24.2 million viewers, down about 11 percent from the previous year.
The Texas-USC numbers are likely out of reach even with a month of ESPN hype, but the popularity of Notre Dame as a television team will be a massive draw. And if the game is close late, watch out.
"If Notre Dame makes the BCS championship game, it will post the biggest viewership since ESPN started carrying the game," predicted Sports Business Journal reporter John Ourand. "My guess is that the game will draw 33 million viewers. Of course, this prediction is dependent on a close game. If it's a blowout, all bets are off."
1a. Last week over the span of 24 hours, ESPN signed rights packages to carry the Sugar and Orange Bowls through 2026. According to Ourand, the network agreed to pay $55 million per year for the Orange Bowl (which will feature the ACC champion and an opponent from the SEC, Big Ten or Notre Dame) and $80 million per year for the Sugar Bowl.
2. Turner Sports host Ernie Johnson, the ringleader of TNT's Inside the NBA studio show, isn't exactly worried about Charles Barkley's leaving broadcasting.
"How worried am I? Look, if you told me back when Chuck signed on with Turner that we would be having this conversation after 13 years, I'd take that right now," Johnson said. "My concern the day we hired him was when the novelty wore off, would he want to do something else? Would, say, a doubleheader after the All-Star Game that has no bearing on the standings wear on him? Believe me, after 13 years, I am not worried about it. It is what happens in business. I mean, how many people are around the same thing for 13 years?
"Guys like Kenny [Smith], Charles, Shaq [O'Neal] and C-Webb [Chris Webber], there are a lot of people out there who would love to have them in some capacity, whether it's as a team executive or in broadcasting. That's something you live with. I don't worry about it for a second, but I just appreciate that we have had a wonderful run and will continue to have a wonderful run.
"Maybe it was a bad meal he had? It's like Kenny said the other night: 'You want to retire from a job that you work one night a week?' "
2a. Last week's NBA TV Fan Night broadcast between the Lakers and Spurs averaged 739,000 total viewers, the network's third-most-viewed game telecast ever, behind this year's Lakers-Trail Blazers season opener (868,000 total viewers) and a 2011 game between the Clippers and Lakers (756,000).
3. ESPN investigative reporters (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru had a huge news break last week on the relationship between professional football and brain injuries. The brothers, both of whom work for ESPN's enterprise unit, are collaborating on a book about football and brain injuries, scheduled to be published in fall 2013 by Crown Archetype, and their reporting on the topic drew the interest of PBS' acclaimed Frontline program. The show is collaborating with ESPN's Outside The Lines to produce documentary on the subject., which will air the same time the book is published. Outside the Lines will air reports before the documentary as the reporting dictates.
"I look at this story as a huge national public health issue," Fainaru said. "Football is just so embedded in the culture and now we are finding it could be damaging and even lethal. ... When you talk to parents of kids who play football, soccer, hockey, lacrosse or any number of sports, they really want answers. There's a lot of justifiable anxiety about what this all means. "
Fainaru, who joined ESPN last March and won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2008 while working at The Washington Post, said he and his brother's reporting led to documents that the NFL's retirement board awarded disability payments to at least three former players after concluding that football caused their brain injuries. He praised ESPN for giving him the freedom to investigate stories involving its broadcast partners such as the NFL.
"The wall [between editorial and business] so far has been absolute and there was never any issue about this story and what impact it might have on the NFL," Fainaru said. "It was no different than a lot of the work I did at The Washington Post. We uncovered something, we thought it was newsworthy and we then proceeded to do the reporting."
4. Can Jim Rome succeed where others (Joe Buck) have failed? We'll soon see. Jim Rome on Showtime debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT. The host told USA Today on Sunday that "it's premium cable, as opposed to basic cable, so I can push the envelope and do some things I haven't been able to do in the past."
The show is part of CBS' using of Rome across multiple platforms. He already has a half-hour daily show on the CBS Sports Network, and his radio show will debut on CBS Radio in January 2013. The CBS Sports Network hasn't gained much ratings traction, but as I've said in the past, I've long appreciated Rome's giving run to sports writers we don't often see on television (in other words, not Mike Lupica or Bob Ryan). Rome's initial Showtime guests include the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, actor Matthew Perry and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber.
5. ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski is a longtime favorite of this column because he backs up his opinions -- provocative or otherwise -- with research and film work.
"I don't know who the starting quarterback should be, but I know who it shouldn't be: It shouldn't be Mark Sanchez," Jaworski said of the Jets on Sunday NFL Countdown. "He has thrown 1,708 balls in his career, and you just don't see the growth that you need to see from a quarterback that has played that much.
"Now, a real-life example, critical situations of the game: Go back to the Seattle game last week. A 7-7 tie. They are going in to score and [offensive coordinator] Tony Sparano designs and calls a perfect play. [Wide receiver] Stephen Hill opens up against Cover Two, the linebacker jumps up, wide open under the goal post, and Mark doesn't see it. He ends up throwing an interception. Here's a critical situation, perfectly designed by the coach, and he doesn't execute. That's the issue right now. I don't think it should be permanent. I think it is, 'Go to the sidelines, take a deep breath, watch someone else play.' "
That's terrific stuff.
5a. Fox NFL play-by-play announcer Chris Myers will want this one back: He initially had the Panthers defeating the Bucs on Sunday.
6. ESPN is in the early stages of its ombudsman search after the Poynter Institute's mixed 18-month tenure. Don't expect ESPN to name a new public editor soon, and it won't be someone who has covered the company as a journalist.
"One of the basic principles we'll follow is to find someone with no previous body of work covering our company," an ESPN spokesperson said. "We're seeking totally fresh eyes."
Hopefully, those fresh eyes come with an increased metabolism. If ESPN is serious about an ombudsman's impact -- and I applaud it for having one, unlike many places, including SI -- it needs to bring in someone committed to a daily evaluation of the myriad journalistic issues facing the company. ESPN's reporting in the Bernie Fine case should be high on the list for examination for the next ombudsman.
6a.New York Times sports business reporter Richard Sandomir is partnering with Jim Miller, the author of the best-selling book These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, for an upcoming examination of the network in the New York Times. The two reporters have interviewed many of the top players at ESPN. Sandomir and Miller both declined comment on the specifics of the article, but you don't have to be a swami to guess that ESPN's news-gathering reputation will be heavily examined.
6b. Here are two terrific pieces of sports journalism: ESPN The Magazine's Kevin Van Valkenburg on Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, and ESPN.com's Wright Thompson on LSU coach Les Miles.
6c. Of course, ESPN would not be ESPN without some Baylessian nonsense, and Deadspin's examination of journalism's role at ESPN ("How ESPN Ditched Journalism And Followed Skip Bayless To The Bottom: A Tim Tebow Story") had nearly 230,000 page views as of this writing. Author John Koblin, who started with Deadspin in April after working at the New York Observer and WWD, said the only Deadspin piece he's written that has drawn more page views was his expose on ESPN.com contributor Sarah Phillips. You can read Koblin's report here.
7. NBC has hired motorsports voices Leigh Diffey (play-by-play), David Hobbs (analyst) and Steve Matchett (analyst) for its Formula One coverage on NBC and the NBC Sports Network. No pit reporter has been named yet. The group worked together on the cable channel SPEED and will begin with NBC in March 2013 after last month's announcement that the network had signed a four-year deal with F-1 for the exclusive U.S. media rights. Diffey, a longtime voice in F1, will also call IndyCar races on NBC Sports Network after the retirement of Bob Jenkins earlier this year.
7a. Bravo to ESPN baseball analyst John Kruk, who gave Major League Baseball a Twitter smackdown over Toronto's signing of Melky Cabrera, who was suspended 50 games last season after a failed drug test. "Sadly with MLB and the union is sometimes they just hope problems go away," Kruk tweeted. "This one didn't and we are all at fault."
8. NBC says John Madden taped the open for its Thanksgiving-night game between the Jets and Patriots. Beginning this year, the MVP of the game will be called "The Madden Thanksgiving Player of the Game."
9. Stealing a page from the ESPN First Take playbook, CBS continued to ride the Phil Simms-Eli Manning narrative on Sunday as The NFL Today gave Simms time at the top of its show to re-argue with himself. (Yes, Eli Manning is not in the same category as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Rodgers. We all get it, Phil.)
Here's Simms: "Let's go with this Eli comment. Let's think about it this way. Let me clarify it for everybody out there so they can understand it. Let's say they're all elite in the NFL. My premise in the whole thought was if you listen to the whole thing, I was trying to distinguish Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers from the rest of the group. Period. That was it. Can we understand that these three guys, what they've done on the field, what they've shown this year and consistently through their whole careers, that they can get it done. They do not have down periods. Now everybody out there is going to go, 'Oh, Phil is backtracking.' That is far from the truth. I am not backtracking one bit. I'm just trying to clarify it because this word 'elite', man, it just drives everybody crazy because that's the new word how we define players in the NFL.
"Now for Eli Manning, it was no disrespect to him at all. I didn't mean any. I respect what he's done as a player. My gosh, to stay on the field for every game and not get hurt, that alone puts you in the Hall of Fame. He's on his way to a Hall of Fame career. I know he has the two Super Bowl MVPs, so it's no disrespect to him at all. I was defining the word elite to try to signify those three guys that they stand out in my eyes. "
9a. Our thanks to CBS NFL analyst Dan Fouts for offering some sanity on Eli Manning. Said Fouts during the Jets-Rams broadcast: "If you get two Super Bowl rings, should that question even be asked? He's way in the elite status."
9b. Speaking of CBS, here's some rare smack talk from a news executive (CBS News chairman Jeff Fager) to an NFL quarterback (Rodgers).
9c. Former San Diego Union-Tribune sports reporter Jay Posner is not a fan of Greg Gumbel's.
9d. ESPN NFL analyst Mike Ditka, who suffered a minor stroke last week, says he's feeling better. Good news.
9e. Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones flirted with Sunday Night Football reporter Michele Tafoya.
10. NFL Network analyst LaDainian Tomlinson, who played with the Jets last season, suggested during the week on SiriusXM NFL Radio that Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie and linebacker Bart Scott were behind the anonymous player quotes about Tim Tebow that ran in the New York Daily News. Scott took exception to Tomlinson's comments. Here's how Tomlinson responded (or backtracked) on Sunday.
10a. The CBS Sports Network and the Arena Football League announced a two-year agreement last week, making CBS the national television partner of the AFL. The network will air 19 regular-season games and two playoff games during the 2013 season.
10b. FOX Soccer has added the U.S. women's national team's match against the Republic of Ireland on Dec. 1 (9 p.m. ET). The network will also cover USWNT's first match against the Republic of Ireland, on Nov. 28 (9:30 p.m. ET).
10c. Keep your eye on Keith Olbermann's appearances on MLB Network's morning Hot Stove show Tuesday and Wednesday (9 a.m. ET). As the Awful Announcing blog speculated, this seems like a good match given Olbermann's passion and intelligence when it comes to baseball.