Basher. Homer. Traitor.
ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit has heard it all when it comes to his commentary on Ohio State football.
"This will be my 16th year on College GameDay and for 15 years going on 16 I've had to deal with this," Herbstreit said. "You would think I played last year. I've been done playing for a long time.
"I make it very clear in my personal life that I am a Buckeye fan. Are you kidding me? My Dad played there and he was a captain. And I played there. There is nothing more important to me than Ohio State. But when I'm on air, I don't go out of my way to stick Ohio State. I also don't go out of my way to compliment Ohio State. When I'm on air, I look at Ohio State like I look at Florida, like I look at Texas, or anybody else. That's the way I analyze it."
As he begins his 16th year on ESPN's iconic college football show -- remarkable given he turns 42 in August -- Herbstreit has achieved a rare place in sports broadcasting: He is respected equally by three disparate groups: critics, fans and his own industry. He also seamlessly floats between the studio and game analysis. Since 2006, Herbstreit has been the analyst on ESPN's Saturday Night Football series.
"I've always tried to talk in a way that the Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans out there can appreciate and understand, as well as my wife and my mom and everyone in between," said Herbstreit. "I don't want to go on and talk football lingo. I try to talk in a way that allows a lot of people to be able to consume what I'm saying"
Too often we find analysts in college football -- Craig James is Exhibit A -- who come off as de facto public relations practitioners for coaches. Another problem is banal analysis couched in football jargon. While Herbstreit clearly has relationships with coaches and players, rare are you left as a viewer that he's pulling punches to curry favor with certain groups.
"I am going to be honest," Herbstreit said. "If you think I am homer, then you think I am a homer. If you think I am turning my back on my school, then I am turning my back on my school. But if you have watched me the past 15 years, I'm pretty even-keeled with my opinions. It's not like I have an agenda or I am trying to make a statement. I am just telling you what I feel. If you agree with me, great. If you don't, I'm sorry."
I recently asked Herbstreit's ESPN colleague, Desmond Howard, how he approaches commentary on Michigan, his alma mater.
"What I try to do is remove the emotional element out of the analysis and just deal with the raw, honest true facts of it," said Howard. "That's my approach to it. I think the audience, they can tell. They can tell if you are being genuine and sincere. Obviously, if Kirk says something about Ohio State and maybe it is not bad enough or not harsh enough, you may have some Michigan fans say he is a homer. But I'm watching Kirk and it's an honest opinion. And vice versa if I say something about Michigan ... But I really don't hear from the Michigan fan base often. The Michigan fan base knows when I say something, especially the past three years about what they have been going through, it has been relatively honest. It is nothing they can refute. That is the thing. At the end of the day, you may have a problem with what I say, contest it, refute it. Give me something."
The topic of Ohio State is particularly relevant with Herbstreit as he and his family moved from Columbus to Nashville in March. There's been a lot of speculation regarding Herbstreit's motivation to move, especially in the jet stream of the resignation-cum-excommunication of former football coach Jim Tressel. I asked him to set the record straight.
"Honestly, I think a lot of that was blown out of proportion," Herbstreit said. "Ninety-five percent of Ohio State fans have always been above and beyond what me and my family would ever hope for. True enough, like any other fan base, there is that lunatic fringe, that radical group. For my wife and I, it was really for the past three or four years and we have talked it about every offseason, potentially moving. This offseason it just happened to work out.
"Don't get me wrong. With some of the stuff, the craziness that was going on with Ohio State, did it maybe add to us going? It may have added to it. But it was not 'Let's get out of here. Pack the bags!' I have had more Ohio State people come up to me and say, 'I am so sorry that those fans chased you away.' Fans did not chase me away. If that was the case, I would have left 15 years ago, They have been doing this for 15 years. When you have four boys and a wife, and people know exactly where you live and they know your schedule and when you are home and when you are not there, I think part of it was more peace of mind, and family safety more than anything. We are giving it a try. Our home is Ohio and it always will be. But we are going to give this a try and see how it goes."
Last week ESPN announced GameDay would begin this season at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington for Oregon-LSU on Sept. 3. They'll be in Ann Arbor the following week as a prelude to the Michigan-Notre Dame game that night on ESPN. On Sept. 17, the program will be in Tallahassee as Florida State hosts top-ranked Oklahoma.
ESPN made a splashy hire this spring with the addition of former Florida coach Urban Meyer. He will work Saturday noon ET games on ESPN with commentator Dave Pasch and analyst Chris Spielman, and also appear across various ESPN platforms.
"He just has to continue to do what he started early in his career, and that is being honest and shooting from the hip," Herbstreit said of Meyer. "If you go back to when he was a coach, when he stepped to the podium he would tell you exactly what he thought. That was very unique in our world. This guy was actually saying something. I think you have to do that as an analyst.
"Where he is going to be challenged is when his peers, his colleagues -- and he is still in that fraternity -- when he has to be critical. Because he owes that to the viewer. Not to pile on, because I don't pile on, but there are certain times when you have to question some things. That will be his biggest challenge this year."
Count Texas Tech coach Mike Leach among the country's best-selling authors. Leach's book, Swing Your Sword, has soared to the No. 5 ranking on the latest New York Times Best Seller List within the Advice/How-To/Miscellaneous category. And, yes, the pirate-loving coach is crowing about it. "Sold more books than Sarah Palin and just a few less than Ozzy Osbourne," Leach recently told the Daily Oklahoman after a signing in Dallas.
That Leach's book is on any best-seller list is remarkable given the road it took to get it into the hands of readers. Leach was the subject of a noted New York Times Magazineprofile in 2005 by Michael Lewis, which made Leach a hot name among Manhattan book publishers. Leach's literary agent, Scott Waxman, said he and the former coach sold his memoir to a major publishing house in 2008, but, according to Waxman, the publisher got cold feet upon Leach's dismissal from Texas Tech on Dec. 30, 2009.
Waxman said the publisher (he did not want to name the house) notified him and Leach that they wanted to wait until 2012 (or whenever Leach was back coaching) to publish his book. "Mike being Mike did not want to dance to their tune," Waxman said. "He wanted to take matters into his own hands."
When no other publisher opted to purchase the rights to Swing Your Sword, Waxman and Leach reacquired the rights for the book, and Leach paid back the advance from his initial publisher. He and Waxman then published both an e-book and physical book through Waxman's year-old e-book startup, Diversion Books. With a heavy push from IMG publicity -- IMG bombarded writers and reporters across the country -- the book made waves in the marketplace.
Leach, of course, is in a well-publicized defamation suit against ESPN. Asked whether the publicity surrounding the reported suspension of ESPN college football writer Bruce Feldman (the unbylined co-writer for Swing Your Sword) helped generate sales, Waxman says, "Before the Feldman suspension -- and he was suspended -- the book was already in the Top 50 on Amazon of all books based on the Yahoo Sports! and SI.com excerpts, and the coverage of the book. It was already on its own a best seller. ... So I would say it probably gave it another bump but it was not the initial reason it was a best seller."
ESPN has denied Feldman was suspended.
Waxman, who represents a number of sports commentators and journalists, including those from ESPN and SI, said Leach is thinking about doing another book, focusing on some of the interesting characters he's met along the road.
Showtime Sports and CBS Sports are jointly producing a two-hour documentary-drama that will follow recruits at the United States Military Academy and Naval Academy for six months as a lead up to the Army-Navy football game on Dec. 21. The program, A Game Of Honor, will air 10 days after the Army-Navy game is shown on CBS.
Filming began last spring at graduations at West Point and Annapolis, and production crews were also there for the arrivals of both freshman classes this year. Peter Radovich, the creative director at CBS Sports and one of the show's co-producers, said his crew has already been in the field with students for military training missions. "We have footage of them in helicopters, firing weapons and in situations where they are simulating interactions with Afghanis, and in the classroom with Midshipmen as they learn to navigate submarines," Radovich said.
Radovich (he also spoke with USA Today here) said his production crew will have two cameras at the academies for up to eight hours per week. The production will also have more than 10 cameras covering the game on Dec. 21, including access to both locker rooms and sidelines.