Monday Night’s New Guy
As Monday Night Football enters its 47th season, Sean McDonough is set to become only the fifth person to sit in the franchise’s play-by-play chair. The MMQB caught up with the veteran broadcaster to ask him about the big break, the science behind those voice-cracking calls, his favorite storylines of the season, and why he won’t be joining Twitter anytime soon.
KAHLER: What is a day like for you right now as you are preparing for Monday Night football games to begin?
MCDONOUGH: It’s mostly preparing for the first game. The old adage about taking it one game at a time is mostly true. It is a little easier to prepare for the first game because you have all kinds of time. I’m reading a lot about teams, as much as I can. Jon Gruden does a great job of providing us with video clips of the two teams, basically every aspect of their teams and what he thinks of them. That makes for interesting viewing and listening and it is helpful to know what he thinks the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams are and what he is likely to want to get into when we are on the air. I flew from Boston to Los Angeles so that is about a six-hour flight and I watched the videos that he put together for almost the entire flight and I didn’t finish them all. His work ethic is legendary and I think that goes to the heart of your question. This Monday Night Football group is well known within our business for how diligently they prepare. Our producer, Jay Rothman, and director Chip Dean, really the whole crew. There is nothing that is going to sneak by them. We have a researcher by the name of Jim Carr who reads every word that has ever been written about the two teams and he whittles it down to about 60 or 70 pages. He boils it down to what we really need to know and he has great judgment about what is important and what isn’t. That is a big help too, just in terms of managing your time. I think if you are doing this well, you have to prepare as hard as you can. Hopefully we are going to tell the viewers something in the course of the three hours or so that they didn’t know.
KAHLER: Do you ever get to a point where you’re thinking, I’m ready for this. Or is there always more you can do to prepare?
MCDONOUGH: You think you are, and then the day of the game comes and you are still reading another clip or making a phone call to check on something. I don’t think any of us ever say, ‘You know what, I’m ready.’ I try on game day to make sure I get a workout in and just clear my head a little bit because you can almost overdo it. One of the dangers of having so much information at your disposal is you that you have the tendency to use it. Just because you know something doesn’t mean it is something that needs to be said on air. One of the things I always say when I speak to students who want to be play-by-play people is that no one ever complained that the announcers didn’t talk enough. But they do complain that they talked too much. As a viewer you really come to appreciate the pauses and the silences between plays. The danger of being really well-prepared is that you know a lot and there is the temptation to say a lot. We don’t need to bombard people with stuff.
KAHLER: You had the Rams in a preseason game, your first with the Monday Night Football crew, Did you have to practice saying the LOS ANGELES Rams?
MCDONOUGH: Jon Gruden and I did joke about how many times we were accidentally going to call them St. Louis. I was kind of proud because I don’t think either one of us said it. I think during the week talking about them, every now and then we would slip and say St. Louis but I think we did a good job of just calling them the Rams or Los Angeles. I think it is good for the league that L.A. has a team, but I always feel sad for the fans in a city that loses a team. I really do feel sorry for the people of St. Louis but it is hard to believe there wasn’t a team in the second-largest market of the country for over twenty years.
KAHLER: Do you have a stance on whether or not you will use the name of Washington’s team on Monday night?
MCDONOUGH: I’ve been asked that before and I guess I should think about that more given that the game is rapidly approaching. My gut reaction would be that I would probably try to avoid using the name as much as I could. It is the name of their team, and I wouldn’t say that I won’t say it at all, but I think if I do it wouldn’t be more than once or twice. I think I will just try to refer to them as Washington as much as I can. I know it is a delicate subject, but I think if people are offended by it then we ought to be sensitive to that. I can’t say that I will absolutely avoid saying the name of their team but I think I would avoid saying it as much as I could.
KAHLER: You’re just fifth person in the Monday Night Football play-by-play role. It's a pretty big seat to fill. Do you feel that pressure?
MCDONOUGH: Yeah I really do, it is an incredibly high standard. It is not just that there have only been four, but they are four all-time great broadcasters, Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels and Mike Tirico. There is a very high standard that the viewers have come to expect for a very long time and it is up to me to uphold that. I am certainly aware of that and I am going to work as hard I can to do the best I can. There’s a reason why they gave me the opportunity to be in this chair. I watch tapes and I think to myself, I should do more of that or less of that or why did I say that? That’s human nature. And part of it will be the learning curve with the new crew, especially with Jon [Gruden] in the booth. There’s is a certain timing and rhythm to announcing games that can take a little while just to get the feel for how the other person or people work.
KAHLER: Speaking of rhythm and practice, the Hall of Fame game was slated to be your first game, a practice run for you. Were you disappointed that game was canceled?
MCDONOUGH: We were unfortunate in that we lost one of our two exhibition games. I think that would have been valuable time together, just to get some more reps. It was disappointing because it was going to be my first game and I was pointing to that ever since I got hired, around the first of May. But what I felt much worse about was the people who traveled long distances and spent a lot of money to fly or drive or get a hotel room. We wound up just having the one exhibition game in LA, which I am glad we had. It will take a little time and I think we will be better in the middle of the season than beginning. The people on this crew are there because they are great at what they do. Gruden is awesome and enormously popular. I’ve seen that already as we travel around, the way the fans respond to him.
KAHLER: What was the interview process like for this role?
MCDONOUGH: It really wasn’t much of one. Jay Rothman, I’ve known for a long time, ever since the first college basketball game I ever did for ESPN probably almost 30 years ago. Basically what happened was I got a phone call from my old boss John Wildhack that Mike Tirico was leaving and there was a very short list of potential replacements for MNF. I was in Arizona for the winter and that call was on a Monday. Jay came out to me on a Thursday. I thought I really good shot at it because all the indications and the scuttlebut had been that I was the leading candidate. It really wasn’t an interview, it was more of a conversation about how they work, what the schedule is like, when they anticipate you arriving at the game site, how they set up the meetings with the teams, that sort of thing. About 15 minutes into it, Jay started saying, when we do this, this is what we will do. And I’m thinking to myself, I think I am going to get this job! And after about three hours of sitting in my backyard and having a casual chat, he said, ‘How would you like to be voice of Monday Night Football?’
Then I got choked up because I was thinking about my dad and how cool he would think it was. When I was a little kid I used to watch MNF because it was the one night a week we could stay up a little extra late. My dad let us stay up until halftime to watch the game. Some of my favorite memories of my childhood are watching MNF with my dad, so I got a little choked up and I said to Jay, ‘I’m sorry but I am going to need a minute here.’
KAHLER: You're 54 years old and have been a well-regarded broadcaster for many years. Before this, did you ever lose hope you would never get that big break?
MCDONOUGH: It’s a good question. I didn’t and I was happy with what I was doing, I was doing major college football games and major college basketball and some of the biggest golf tournaments, the U.S. Open we had for a few years and the British Open. But there was one time when I thought I won’t get back to that absolute top rung, the MNF category. I think the one time was when Brent Musberger moved to the SEC Network and Chris Fowler wound up taking his place as the number one play-by-play guy for college football. I thought that was an opportunity where if it came along, I might get it. I’m sure there are other people who felt that way too, but that was the one where I thought, you know what, I may wind up at this level for a while, which is a high level but sort of one rung below the top. I wouldn’t say that I lost hope, just because I’ve always preferred to look at it like there is always something “above” what you are doing but there are so many more people who would love to do the events that I was doing. You can dwell on the very small negatives or you can be grateful for the amazing number of positives. That’s really the way I felt. Sure, you’d like to do the biggest events that you possibly can. But I enjoyed what I was doing very much and the people that I worked with. That’s the biggest reason why I kept resigning with ESPN when my contracts were up, because I loved the people. That was the hard part about leaving college football.
KAHLER: What influence did your father, legendary sportswriter Will McDonough have on you?
MCDONOUGH: He was by far the most profound influence in my life. When we were kids my parents got divorced when I was around 11 and we lived with my dad after that happened. Professionally, in terms of his approach, he worked hard, he was honest, my dad was honest to a fault. Some people were sometimes caught off guard by how direct he could be. You always knew where he stood. And I think I am generally that way. He just treated people well, although if you got on his bad side, he didn’t treat everybody well. He was just a great influence. I didn’t really realize how much of an impact he had on people until he died and the people who owned the Boston Garden called and said we’d like to offer you the use of our building because it is the only place in this city that will fit all the people coming to the wake. The stories that people told me, one woman give me a newspaper clipping and said, I don’t have enough time to tell you why I’m here but if you read this article, you will understand. This young boy had been saving money to get tickets to a Red Sox game to take his grandmother to opening day. He earned the money and he couldn’t get available tickets so he wrote my dad a letter and said I want to take grandma to opening day and I can’t get tickets. So my dad called Red Sox and said, hey, let’s help this kid get tickets for grandma. There were dozens of stories like that that I never knew because he just did so many things to help people, most of it very quietly. He was a special guy and I still have people say something about him everyday. It’s one of the coolest things about doing Monday Night Football. My dad had such a long affiliation with the NFL and when we went to the Hall of Fame, I went and saw his plaque there because he won the Dick McCann Award. And that was emotional, especially thinking about Chris Mortenson, who won it this year and was someone that my dad paved the way for. It was doubly emotional when I went to the plaque because I had a moment with my dad and I was thinking about Mort and the battles he is going through right now with his health.
KAHLER: What are your favorite storylines this season?
MCDONOUGH: One story that I am glad will be gone soon is Deflategate. I just can’t believe the magnitude that that whole thing has taken on and that longevity of it and hopefully now that Tom is going to serve his suspension, maybe everybody can put it behind them. I know living here In New England, you just get tired of hearing about it, especially something that seems as trivial as the inflation level of footballs. Another storyline would be how the Denver quarterback situation shakes out, they won a Super Bowl last year without the greatest quarterback play but it certainly puts a lot of pressure on their defense to do that again. There are always the trendy teams that people pick to be much improved, this year that seems to be Jacksonville and Oakland, to name two. I think it will be interesting to watch Jared Goff and his development, and how quickly he becomes the number one QB. Obviously they gave up an awful lot to get him so if he doesn't become what they expect him to be, that’s problematic because they have used a lot of resources to build their future around him. It’s part of what makes the NFL great, there are great storylines everywhere. You’re never lacking for things to talk about, usually you are trying to whittle it down. I really wish it MNF started now. Usually you don't want the summer to end but with this on the horizon for me I am eagerly looking forward to September 12.
KAHLER: Do you think that the Patriots were treated fairly in the Deflategate story?
MCDONOUGH: I know here in New England, people don’t feel that way and a lot of that anger is directed at ESPN for some of our coverage. It has really been a pain in the neck for a lot of people. It is hard to know what is fair treatment when we don’t know for sure what the facts are, if you think they didn’t alter the footballs then clearly they didn’t get treated fairly. I’m just glad that it’s over. I don’t think anybody comes out of this looking great. I know Tom Brady personally having been around him a few times over the years, living very close to him, and I think he is one of the greatest players in the league and I would hate to see anything tarnish that. He went out the very next game after stuff hit the fan about the footballs and he won the Super Bowl and played great with footballs that I am certain were sufficiently inflated. It’s just a shame, and I’m sure people on all sides of it would like to go back and do things differently.
KAHLER: Your brother Ryan is general manager for Phoenix Suns and your brother Terry is vice president, player personnel for the Arizona Cardinals. Do you talk about their teams frequently? Will it be hard to be unbiased for a Cardinals game?
MCDONOUGH: We talk a lot about their teams. It’s fun for me because in this part of it, when you are a broadcaster you don’t care who wins or loses and you try to be straight down the middle, that’s where you should be. But obviously there are personal factors that do weigh in. I’m pretty sure Jon Gruden would like to see his brother be successful. I would certainly like to see my brothers be successful. And we do have an Arizona Cardinal game in October and I want them to succeed and I want Terry to succeed. But you owe it to the viewer to not display any bias or tilt in your coverage and I have some practice doing that. I went to Syracuse and love Syracuse and I’ve done a lot of Syracuse basketball in the last few years. Sometimes you have to rein it in. When I watch the Suns or the Cardinals play, I do care about who wins and who loses. I do feel the tension, when Ryan first got to the Suns I would stay up late watching the games on TV, almost pacing around my living room and screaming at the TV. It’s a West Coast game so it’s late at night here, and you are trying to go to bed but your heart rate is going. When I go to the Suns games, I sit with Ryan and I am nervous wreck. When you love people that much and you want to see them succeed, I guess that’s natural. I’ve always said I think one of the worst things in sports would be being a coach’s wife, you have no control over anything, you are just agonizing over every play.
KAHLER: When you take a look at the Monday Night schedule, what are some dates you are most looking forward to?
MCDONOUGH: It’s really a terrific schedule. Personally, I am looking forward to the one in Foxboro when the Baltimore Ravens are here in December. I think that will be an emotional one. It is a different stadium than the one I grew up going to with my dad, but it is still the same piece of property and same place basically. I think that will be emotional to do a Patriots game because I’ve been down there so many times as a kid. I went to just about every home game that they played when I was a kid. The game in Mexico City, our producer Jay went down there to do a site survey and he told me he thinks it is just going to be awesome. I know we are going to have a huge crowd, I think the tickets sold out in no time flat. I’ve never been in the stadium in Seattle, and that is supposed to be an amazing atmosphere, so I am looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to all of them, it is Monday night Football, so it’s an event every one of them.
KAHLER: Why don’t you have twitter? As a MNF personality now, would you consider joining?
MCDONOUGH: I guess I just don’t think people care if I had a turkey sandwich for lunch. I sometimes will read it if someone calls my attention to something. I know it has great uses in keeping up with news and that sort of thing, but I don’t need to be around my phone all the time. In this day in age, it’s weird to talk to you on the phone, because no one calls anyone on the phone anymore. Every time I hear my phone ring it startles me because people don’t call anymore, they text! I know Mike Tirico does it, so it’s probably something I will talk about with our communications people. Several years ago when Twitter first started, the ESPN baseball people said they wanted all on-air talent to tweet and I asked, can you fire people for what they tweet? They said yes. And I said, well, I think I’d rather not do it. The problem is I am ultra competitive, so my number one goal would be to have more followers than Jay Bilas, because he is one of my best friends but he has something like over a million followers. That would be my goal.
KAHLER: You’ve been in involved in several crazy calls in your career, like the Michigan State- Michigan game last year. What’s your strategy when unpredictable wild things like that happen? Is there any strategy?
MCDONOUGH: Recently I’ve listened to tapes of calls I’ve made, Michigan-Michigan State ending last year, Sid Green back in 1992 baseball playoffs, and what I realized by listening to my voice call those plays is that I am 54 and I have not hit puberty yet, which is a little bit frightening. I am just squealing and my voice is breaking up, but I think that goes to the other part of your question which is, is there a strategy for calling those things? For me there isn't. I tell people all the time you don’t have time to think about what you are going to say or how your voice is going to sound. You have to respond immediately. We don’t get a chance to do it over again. That’s part of the excitement of the job. I think you just go with the moment. I have never consciously thought, oh this is a big moment so I need to do this. There is just no time.
KAHLER: So do you know you’ve made a good call when your voice cracks?
MCDONOUGH: I know that is was exciting and hopefully that adds to the moment for the people. I think when you are watching that anyway, you are saying, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened.’ Any call should reflect the moment and the magnitude of it. That was one of the reasons I always admired Jack Buck, a big part of his greatness was that he always nailed it in the big moments. I think that's a very important part of what we do. Gruden does a really good impersonation of my call of Michigan-Michigan State. I hate to admit that, but he does. He compares me to the Charlie in the Box in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “Nobody wants a Charlie in the Box…” Gruden told me I sounded like that character, so every now and then he calls me Charlie. He actually does a pretty imitation of me calling that play. He’s no Frank Caliendo, but he’s not bad.
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