- Kirk Herbstreit is one of the most prominent names and recognizable faces in college football. He's turned a lifelong passion into an impressive career.
It’s an early Tuesday morning in December, and while the college football season's final frenzied Saturday is in the rearview mirror, Kirk Herbstreit is still cramming in game prep. The ESPN college football analyst is fielding a series of phone interviews before turning his attention back to adding notes to his spotting board. He’s preparing to call the College Football Playoff semifinal between Alabama and Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, which kicks off on Dec. 29. He is also prepping for the Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Washington, which takes place three days later. The study sessions predate phone calls he’ll hold with the coaches of each team prior to the games.
“Luckily, I’m already familiar with all four of these teams,” Herbstreit says, “but it’s always good just to do as much work as you can to get ready.”
If you’ve ever tuned in to a college football broadcast or one of ESPN’s studio shows dedicated to the sport, chances are you’re familiar with Herbstreit. While Herbstreit, 49, has long been a fixture in the world of college football, the three-time Sports Emmy Award winner didn’t foresee his ascension to nationally-recognized analyst.
“Man, never in my wildest dreams,” he says. “I ended up doing a job that I absolutely love. I grew up a college football junkie.”
As a child, Herbstreit adored college football. It wasn’t by accident—his father, Jim, had served as an assistant coach under the legendary Woody Hayes at Ohio State and then at Miami (Ohio) under Bo Schembechler. But Herbstreit also naturally gravitated to the sport on his own.
“College football, for me, was sacred,” Herbstreit says. “Right away, first time I watched it on TV, there was just something about the passion, the energy that was just different. It always just felt right when I watched it. And I was one of these guys from when I was a really young age, when I watched a game, I absorbed the broadcast. I actually listened to the broadcast.”
Herbstreit played, too. As a senior at Centerville High School, he was named Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year, then went on to play quarterback at Ohio State from 1989 to 1993. He became a full-time starter his senior season, when he co-captained the ’92 team and led the Buckeyes to the ’93 Citrus Bowl. (He and his father became the second-ever father-son duo to serve as Ohio State captains in the program’s history.)
But afterwards, Herbstreit says that he never really considered pursing an NFL career. He was content with life despite not knowing where he would go next, but he knew that he wanted to remain involved in college football in some way.
He initially broke into the sports broadcasting industry by hosting local sports talk radio shows. By 1995, Herbstreit found himself at ESPN as a college football sideline analyst. In ’96, he began appearing on College GameDay. In ’99, he joined the network’s Thursday night college football broadcast, calling games alongside Mike Tirico. Then in 2006, Herbstreit started working Saturday Night Football on ABC. He’s been pulling double-duty ever since, offering on-site analysis with the GameDay crew before traveling to another venue to call a marquee matchup later that day.
“You just have to separate the games in your mind, and then you throw in a three-hour studio show on top of it,” Herbstreit says. “So it can be a little bit much as you get ready.”
At this point, Herbstreit has worked too many broadcasts to count. He counts the 2000 GMAC Bowl—which pitted Southern Miss against a LaDainian Tomlinson-led TCU squad—and the 2006 Orange Bowl between Joe Paterno’s Penn State and Bobby Bowden’s Florida State teams as among his most memorable assignments.
“I’d actually have to look into that to remember my first big one,” Herbstreit says when asked about his earliest calls.
His process hasn’t changed all too much since then, but he’s noticed that the magnitude of the bowl season appears to have increased every year. There’s more at stake now, he says, with the inception of the College Football Playoff. He adds that the playoff was a step in the right direction to constructing a satisfactory postseason format, but it’s only a matter of time before the field expands to include eight schools.
“Logistically, how we get there, I’m not sure,” Herbstreit says. “But I think it will at some point get there.”
Every game in the college football season bears weight. The Playoff has apparently amplified that. A survey conducted by Allstate—which Herbstreit promoted each week this season by picking his “Mayhem Moment” during broadcasts—revealed 37% of fans would go without social media for a week and 29% would give up their favorite food for a month if it meant their favorite school wins on Saturdays.
“I think that college football is still a sport where fans really feel urgency every week,” Herbstreit says. “I’m a sports fan of all sports—college basketball, MLB, NFL—and as a fan, the only sport I feel every week I feel urgency is college football.
“Right now in the NFL—and I’m a Titans fan now living in Nashville—you start to kind of get a little bit of it when you get into the latter part of the year in the NFL. But in college football, you have that all year. So I think the playoff has definitely increased the intensity and I think the sport has enjoyed an immense amount of success as far as its popularity with the TV ratings and the excitement around the sport in general.”
With another season of extensive travel and numerous calls almost finished, Herbstreit’s energy remains intact. The excitement in his voice remains as evident as it is when he flashes his smile on the air.
“Still, 23 years later, I’m still trying to prepare and trying to do as much work as I can to be ready by the time I go on the air,” Herbstreit says. “So I really haven’t changed in any way. I still feel like I’m trying to prove myself. Probably won’t ever change.
“It’s just the way I’m wired.”