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Forde-Yard Dash: 'College GameDay's' Kirk Herbstreit On Career, Football Landscape

The Dash talks to the former Ohio State quarterback, examines six former Tennessee players and welcomes Illinois's Bret Bielema back to the Big Ten.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, which at least doesn’t have a Bishop Sycamore travesty on its hands:

MORE DASH: Coaching Tests | Coordinator Changes Backlash Predictions

FOURTH QUARTER: THE HERBSTREIT INTERVIEW

Television both literally and figuratively reduces people to two-dimensional characters. What we see of them on-air provides little depth, just an image and a role. For a quarter century, the role played by Kirk Herbstreit (31) on ESPN has been Golden Boy. He’s the handsome, former Ohio State quarterback turned College GameDay cornerstone, and Chris Fowler’s sidekick analyst on the major ABC game of the week. A perfectly fine and enviable image and role.

Then Kirk wrote a book with his ESPN colleague Gene Wojciechowski, “Out of the Pocket: Football, Fatherhood and College Gameday Saturdays.” And suddenly he gained new dimension and greater depth. Suddenly, we learned about a chaotic childhood that was marked by long absences from his father, and often absences of much money or food. We learned about the boy who bounced from school to school, with sports one of the few anchors in his life. We learned about a high school star whose college career was rarely glorious and often frustrating.

There is more to Kirk Herbstreit than the vast majority of us knew, and learning about it made arguably the most prominent figure in college football all the more relatable. A short Dash Q&A with Herbstreit:

Pat Forde: How much did your upbringing influence the way you’ve tried to parent your four children?

Kirk Herbstreit: It definitely had a huge impact. Some people grew up in a family where they had a mom and dad in the house who were great examples for their kids. My parents were great people who were very loving; they just had a problem staying together. It made me and my siblings feel like we were caught in the middle. There were holes in my life, and I didn’t want my kids to feel that.

As loving as my dad was, he was not good at confrontation. In avoiding confrontation, he’d avoid me and my siblings. I was never mad at my dad; it was more of an emptiness. I wanted more of my dad than I got.

So with my kids, I’ve lived my life in the front row of their lives (32) for 21 years. I knew everything they were involved in. I took them to school, I picked them up. I got into the crosshairs of my past, where I didn’t have that example, and I’m trying my best now to be there for them.

SI: Last fall, you broke down on-camera during GameDay in response to an emotional Maria Taylor piece talking to some Black players about the racism, anger and fear they have experienced in their lives. Where did reaction that come from?

KH: It’s not easy for me to open my heart up and be vulnerable. I compartmentalized things for 40 years. I think it was a combination of a lot of things: how sad it made me to see our country being so divided; the strain of the pandemic; and listening to these athletes talking about their lives to Maria. It wasn’t planned. I had talked to [Stanford coach] David Shaw and [former Vanderbilt coach] Derek Mason during the week, and I had two options: be quiet as a white man, listen and observe, which would be the safe route; or speak from the heart, and after talking to David Shaw I felt more prepared to do that.

But I was still having a battle internally and as it was being thrown to me, I just said, “I’ve got to say what I think (33).” When you hold in a lot of thoughts, sometimes it only takes one thing to happen and boom, [the emotions] come out. That’s what happened.

SI: How does it feel to go from a moderately successful college player to an inexperienced broadcaster to arguably the voice of an entire sport?

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KH: It’s powerful. It’s not like I walk around calling myself “The voice of college football,” but people are interested in what all of us on Gameday have to say. The heat in that seat is real (34).

I’m a pleaser by nature—I wanted my mom and dad to be proud of me, my teachers and coaches to like me. I’m that way with fans, too. If 100 told me “good job” and one person called me a bozo, I wanted to go to that one fan and say, “Hey, man, what did I do?” I take an immense amount of pride in my work and work very hard, but I had to eventually learn not to take things people say so personally.

Kirk-Herbstreit

SI: The pace of change in the sport is faster than ever, and the changes are major. How do you see the landscape right now?

KH: I’m trying not to jump to conclusions, trying to stay open-minded. There is always resistance to change, and anytime you change a sport people are so passionate about, it’s OK to have those reactions.  

So far, the NIL stuff is not as drastic as everyone thought it might be (35). I can’t wait for a year or two from now to see where it goes. 

SI: What about realignment?

KH: I’m fearful that Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC—what is that doing to Texas Tech and TCU and Iowa State? What about Kansas and Kansas State? Where are they going? The fear of that unknown has us all up in arms, we’re dreaming up these doomsday scenarios. Are we headed toward four super conferences? It feels that way (36).

How are we, as a group, going to move toward a place where everybody trusts each other? We have five Roger Goodells in college football. We’ve reached the point where we need one leader to get us through all this, or we’re going to be too divided to move forward.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Six former Tennessee (37) players are expected to start or heavily contribute for Top Ten teams this season: running backs Eric Gray (Oklahoma) and Ty Chandler (North Carolina); offensive linemen Wanya Morris (Oklahoma) and Jahmir Johnson (Texas A&M); linebacker Henry To’o To’o (Alabama) and defensive back Key Lawrence (Oklahoma). Makes you wonder what a competent Tennessee coaching staff could have done with all those guys, instead of Jeremy Pruitt & Co. Watching all those players perform for prominent teams, plus the expected struggles for the Volunteers as they dig out from the Pruitt crater and transition to Josh Heupel, makes Tennessee The Dash’s preseason favorite for Most Miserable Fan Base of 2021.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Bret Bielema (38), Illinois. As they say on the old Disney movie, “The Aristocats:” Big Man O’Malley is back in his alley. Big Bret is back in his comfort zone in the Big Ten, where he won big at Wisconsin before making an ill-advised departure to Arkansas. Now at perpetual underachiever Illinois, the Bielema Era got off to a rollicking start while doing serious damage to Scott Frost’s viability at Nebraska. The Illini’s 30-22 upset of the Cornhuskers marked their first wins in consecutive years over a Big Ten West rival since the league went to its current divisional alignment in 2014. Very, very nice start.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Randy Edsall (39), Connecticut. Even Edsall’s joke of an incentive structure couldn’t dredge bonuses out of the Huskies’ debacle of an opener, a 45-0 shellacking at Fresno State. Of the nine FBS teams that played in Week Zero, UConn is last in the nation in total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense. Some folks in the northeast actually seemed to think taking last season off completely from competition wouldn’t have a negative effect on this season. The early returns rather strongly suggest otherwise.

POINT AFTER

If ever there were a joint made for close The Dash, it’s the newly opened Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille (40) in Gainesville. Dash sources say the food is excellent, but the ambience takes it up another level with diagram of famous Head Ball Coach ball plays on the walls. It seems imperative to try a 52-20 Pale Ale, named after the score of the Gators’ beatdown of Florida State to win their first national title on Jan. 1, 1997.

MORE DASH: Coaching Tests | Coordinator Changes | Backlash Predictions