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Chris Fowler talks life after GameDay; Jessica Mendoza on calling MLB

For the first time in 25 years, Chris Fowler will not be the host of College GameDay. He spoke to SI about leaving the show, his U.S. Open duties and what it's like to host GameDay.

Here is the question for Chris Fowler: Will you watch College GameDay this year?

“That’s a good question because I don’t know how I am going to feel,” says the ESPN college football broadcaster, who for the first time in 25 years will not be the host of ESPN’s Saturday morning college football pregame show. “I love the people on the show and I will be a fan of GameDay down the line but I don’t know how I’m going to feel on Saturday mornings. I think it’s going to feel like an out-of-body experience. I’m usually good at visualizing times and places but I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not sure how I will feel watching it.”

The good news for Fowler is that he has little time to be wistful. His schedule the next two weeks is loaded with sensational assignments. He will work the first four days of the U.S. Open tennis tournament before flying to Arlington, Texas to call No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). He then flies immediately to Blacksburg, Virginia for the Sept. 7 call of No. 1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech. Then it’s back to New York for the final five days of the U.S. Open. He will call the men’s and women’s finals, the latter being the possibility of Serena Williams achieving the first calendar Grand Slam in tennis since Steffi Graf in 1988. He has developed into an excellent tennis game-caller.

“I am thinking about what I get to do and not what I’m not doing,” Fowler said. “That’s not spin. That’s the way I think. I am not nearly as emotional as some people are and part of that is because when I would normally be doing GameDay on Labor Day weekend, I have a monster weekend and for the company.”

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The possibility of Fowler calling a Serena Williams win is huge. (Among the memorable tennis matches Fowler has called: Federer’s 17th major in 2012 as well as Andy Murray winning Wimbledon in 2013.) Fowler said he will call six Grand Slam singles finals this year, which might be a record for a broadcaster in one year. “I view each Grand Slam final as really precious and that might sound corny to non-tennis fans but I really do feel we are documenting a piece of tennis history when you call a final,” Fowler said. “Now when you have a potential calendar slam that has not been done in 27 years and by an American in the American Grand Slam, that is about as big as it gets in tennis.”

When tennis is over, Fowler will assume his main gig as the game-caller of Saturday Night Football alongside analyst Kirk Herbstreit and sideline reporter Heather Cox. The reviews for Fowler in his first season as the ESPN/ABC’s lead game-caller were mixed. Fowler never cheated viewers on preparation but his game calls lacked the presence that viewers (or at least this viewer) are accustomed from the likes of Verne Lundquist and Brent Musburger and the historic No 1 broadcasters of the sport. Perhaps that will come in time.

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Asked to self-evaluate his 2014 debut as ESPN’s top college football game-caller, Fowler said, “I am hard on myself and every mistake makes me cringe but I was proud of it. I didn’t feel great about our first game but I told management: I don’t know how we are going to sound the first few weeks—I think it will pretty good—but I think it will be much better by the end of the first year. I was very proud of our production for the championship game and the Rose Bowl. I thought we finished very strongly.”

On the championship game performance—a broadcast watched by an ESPN-record 33.4 million viewers—Fowler said he was pleased at how the production was able to keep up with the up-tempo offenses of Ohio State and Oregon. “I went back and watched the championship game and I did not cringe, and you’d expect to do that when you dissect your performance,” Fowler said. “I felt pretty good about where we were. Here’s how I view play-by-play: I always can and need to get better. I do 100 tennis matches a year and have covered 50 Grand Slams for ESPN and 50 Masters events and I view that as a skill that still needs to be improved. I think the same thing about football. GameDay was a different matter. GameDay was 25 years of doing it and the challenge of getting better was not there.”

Fowler said he and Rece Davis—who will replace Fowler on College GameDay—had a long conversation last week at an off-site seminar in North Carolina for ESPN’s college football staff. Fowler compared hosting GameDay to a five-set tennis match and said the key for Davis is to maintain concentration for a long show despite the heat, cold, humidity, wind or noise around him.

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“The energy that it takes to GameDay is way more than it takes to do a three-hour show inside a studio,” Fowler said. “It’s hard to explain but it is. It gives you more energy but it takes more too. Rece is very prepared for this and I don’t feel like he needs my counsel. Anybody else taking over that show I think I might have felt differently because they would not have had adequate experience or preparation with that kind of show. So I was happy to be a resource for him. He asked me some specific questions about various members of the cast. So much of the job is getting the best out of those guys. I’m excited for him.”

Outside of Herbstreit who he sees every week, Fowler said he will stay in touch with his old GameDay mates via text and will also inevitably see them on the road. Would he consider walking on set of GameDay as a guest picker?

“Never say never, but talk about an out of body experience,” Fowler said. “What I think I will miss the most about GameDay is getting us on the air and the celebrity pick segment. Setting the scene for that show does not feel like anything else on sports TV and the guest picker segment thanks to Corso’s entertainment genius is something I can’t replace. If you want to make me feel wistful, it's looking back on some of those segments and thinking of the guests we’ve had.”

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1. Off her excellent performance as an analyst filling in for Curt Schilling on Sunday Night Baseball—Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers that night—I reached out to ESPN MLB analyst Jessica Mendoza for a short Q&A.  How would you self-evaluate your performance on Sunday Night Baseball?

Mendoza: I am always my biggest critic. I have not yet watched the game back but I can definitely tell you there were some nerves early. But I felt I settled in after we came on air. I’ve been following Jake Arrieta since his days at TCU and had a chance to talk with him on Saturday. I could not have been more prepared for a pitcher and since he had a history-making night, it allowed me to delve into pitching with added confidence and understanding.  As always, I will watch the game back and find a long list of things I need to improve on—be more succinct with, and better explain.  But overall it was a pretty amazing night to be a part of.

SI Recommends  As you know, a women calling MLB games is a rarity. What are your thoughts as to why that is?

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Mendoza: It is hard for me to understand why because I have always believed women can be just as knowledgeable in the booth while also bringing unique insights that allow a viewer to see a different angle to the game. I have worked with ex-MLB players in our coverage of the Women's College World Series (John Kruk and Schilling) and have found their insight to be knowledgeable and unique as well. I think the more we challenge ourselves to progress within sport, the more interest it will bring to those who may have been outside of it before. I realize it’s hard to self-evaluate on issues of pioneering. Given that, how much of a responsibility do you feel, if you feel this at all, for women younger than you who have an interest in being an on-air MLB analyst?

Mendoza: I feel it. Now more than ever. That was part of the nerves for me Sunday night. I wanted to be myself and do my job as an analyst but I also was aware of the underlying pressure to do well so that many women who are just as qualified to be in the booth can also have these opportunities in the future. What has ESPN brass told you about getting future on-air game analyst assignments for MLB, especially after the positive feedback you received for the Cubs-Dodgers broadcast?

Mendoza: I will be in the booth on Labor Day for Orioles at Yankees on ESPN and will be in studio the following week for Baseball Tonight. After that, this is uncharted territory for both of us so I look forward to seeing what is next!

2. On Tuesday ESPN’s Max Bretos and Marly Rivera will make company history as the two ESPN-ers have joined forces to create the One Nacion podcast—the first bilingual podcast on ESPN Audio. Bretos said the podcast will address issues facing the Hispanic athlete and viewer. Both English and Spanish will be used in the podcast. Bretos said he will speak mostly in English (with Rivera in Spanish) with a mix of 75% English and 25% Spanish per broadcast as the goal. Tuesday’s first episode will focus on the lack of translators for Hispanic athletes in major league baseball and how it affects those players.

“The goal of the program is to provide a much needed vehicle that welcomes discussion and debate about issues most relevant to U.S. Hispanics,” Bretos said via email. “Marly is the only Hispanic woman who is a full-time sportswriter for ESPN Deportes. I am currently the one SportsCenter anchor of Hispanic descent so together we cover a lot of ground. Hopefully, along the way we can make the workplace a better one for the Hispanic athlete.”

Bretos said ESPN Radio’s Charita Johnson and Hugo Balta, a senior director at ESPN for multicultural content, wanted a bilingual podcast to serve the U.S. Hispanic sports fan and to specifically focus on social and cultural issues affecting all Latinos (and not just athletes). “Both Marly and I were seeking a platform to tackle these issues,” Bretos said. “We were brought together, sleeves were rolled up, and our baby was born.”

3. This week’s episode of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Fox Sports 1’s Katie Nolan, the host of “Garbage Time,” a half-hour show which mixes sports commentary and topical comedy. In the podcast Nolan discusses how her show comes together each week, how Fox Sports management views what she does, why she antagonizes certain male media members, her relationship with HBO’s Bill Simmons, the value of interacting with Twitter users, aging in television as a woman and much more.

Nolan also revealed that “Garbage Time” will be moving to a new time slot for the second season, which begins Sept. 9. The show will now air on Wednesdays at midnight ET, instead of Sundays. A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here.

4. Fox has significant coverage plans for its Michigan-Utah college football broadcast this Thursday on FOX Sports 1. The game marks the Michigan coaching debut of Jim Harbaugh.

5. Fowler addressed an interesting point during our interview that is always an issue for ESPN’s tennis broadcast—rooting for American players. “We are not there to root for Serena or anyone else,” Fowler said. “It’s obvious the crowd energy will be with her and it will be a crazy scene for every match she plays—and that will be reflected in the broadcast. But we are not there to cheerlead for Serena even if most of our audience wants her to win. You have to be balanced and to be fair to the other players. Because beating Serena would be a massive occasion too.” Postscript: On Monday night, ESPN analyst John McEnroe said "we're all rooting for Serena" during the evening coverage. I'd predict more of this during the tournament.

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5a. ESPN added former NFL team executive Joe Banner as a Front Office Insider. He will appear primarily on weekday editions of NFL Insiders beginning Sept. 3 and contribute to SportsCenter, ESPN Radio, and other platforms.

5b. The third episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks drew 888,000 viewers. The show’s episodes are up 28% over the first three episodes from a year ago.

5c. Vin Scully will return for his  67th consecutive year broadcasting the Dodgers.