How did Tony Romo land his job as a CBS commentator? It all started two years ago at the Super Bowl.
Sean McManus is busy this time of year. The CBS sports chairman will spend this week in Atlanta speaking with the press, interacting with his network’s on-air faces, catching up with partners at the NFL, and even popping his head into the company’s production truck as they prepare for Super Bowl LIII. All along, he’ll also be keeping an eye on the future.
McManus has multiple meetings with potential future analysts on his schedule. But none will be quite like the sit-down he had with Tony Romo two years ago, just before he tapped the ex-Cowboy to become a rising face for the network—and voice of the game. Romo will call his first Super Bowl on Sunday, already one of the most popular analysts in the business. His path to that perch high up in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium can be traced directly back to a cozy private room, tucked into a restaurant on the ground floor of a Houston hotel.
Back in 2015, McManus spoke with Jerry Jones at a party two nights before Super Bowl XLIX (Seahawks vs. Patriots). With Romo standing nearby, McManus asked for the QB’s take on the upcoming matchup. “He gave a seven or eight-minute presentation on how the Seattle defense could stop Tom Brady and how the Patriots could take care of Russell Wilson,” McManus recalled. “It was amazing. He was enthusiastic. He was engaging. I walked away from that meeting and I said to [CBS Sports president] David Berson, ‘I think that’s our next analyst whenever he retires.’”
McManus and Romo stayed in touch informally for the next two years, until the winter of 2017, when Romo was considering leaving the game for the booth. Super Bowl LI happened to be hosted by the Texans, the team Romo considered to be “at the top of the list” if he decided to keep playing. “They have some incredibly gifted football players,” he said that year, “one of the reasons that made it a tough decision.” But his most important meeting that week took place the day before the game in downtown Houston, in a private room at the 1600 Bar + Grille.
No food was served—McManus just wanted a quiet place to meet without any trade publications catching wind. He brought Berson for the chat as well as then-CBS CEO Les Moonves. “I thought it was important to let Tony know that, at the top level of our company, there was great interest in hiring him,” he said.
With pleasantries exchanged after Romo arrived, McManus guided the conversation. Where is your head at, he asked. If you had to decide today, what’re you thinking?
Romo responded that he was still very much in the decision-making process. He had options. A return to Dallas was still in play, as was a trade. But he was obviously open to moving on, too. He wouldn’t have taken the meeting otherwise.
Ultimately, McManus wasn’t ready to offer Romo a specific job that day, but he was looking to shake up his roster. “I’m not sure what we would have done if Romo kept playing, but we thought it was time for Phil [Simms] to join the studio,” McManus said. “He had had a great run and couldn’t have been a better team player when we decided it would be better for him and for us to put him in the studio. So we were pretty committed to making a move at that point.” That meant that CBS had a potential opening for Romo in ‘17 that might not be available a year later. The company was prepared to consider other analysts (including internal promotions) that offseason.
The group kept chatting for nearly two hours, with the CBS crew noticing time and again Romo’s natural skills, which had previously wowed producers and Jim Nantz. “You could see when he was talking about defensive schemes or quarterbacks, he was so engaging and so much fun to listen to,” McManus said.
Still, it would take six more weeks of deliberation before CBS offered Romo its top analyst job. Extending the opportunity to a broadcasting neophyte was a serious risk, especially given that Romo didn’t even record a formal audition. Network leaders were ultimately that confident in him, though, and they knew the position would put CBS in the best spot if Romo did decide to leave the field. They believed that neither FOX nor NBC was ready to alter their top booths. ESPN, meanwhile, couldn’t offer an annual AFC Championship game nor the Super Bowl every three years.
“After Tony left the private room,” McManus said, “I turned to David and Leslie and said, ‘That’s our guy. We have to get this guy.’”
At that moment, Romo was trying to make his way out of the restaurant, mobbed by fans. But his mind was already looking ahead to the possibility of a new career. “For a little bit you don’t know, and you’re still trying to determine your future,” Romo said. “I left there just excited about CBS… it felt comfortable. I was excited. It just gets you ready to make the leap I guess.”