Kirk Herbstreit: The Face of College Football (Part Two)
Published on: November 11, 2011 | Written by:
Read part one of OKTC's Kirk Herbstreit profile here.
The day before LSU and Alabama take the field for the biggest regular season game in SEC history, ESPN's College Gameday crew sits around a horseshoe shaped table inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. Desmond Howard, Chris Fowler, Urban Meyer, David Pollack, and Lee Corso sit alongside one side of the table, on the other side are Erin Andrews and two producers. In the center of the table sit Tom Rinaldi, Kirk Herbstreit and Gameday producer Lee Fitting.
Herbstreit has an iPad propped in front of him, he's typing notes and discussing the next day's two-hour Gameday show.
It's not even noon, but already Herbstreit's orange tie has provoked a minor Twitter storm. Some Alabama fans are convinced that Herbstreit's orange tie is a coded message designed to send a message of solidarity to Auburn fans.
When he hears this Herbstreit groans.
"Will you Tweet out that it's just an orange tie, it isn't an Auburn tie?" he asks.
That's because Herbstreit's fandom, or lack thereof, is a near constant obsession of other fans. Ohio State fans are angry at him for not being partisan enough, Michigan fans are angry at him for being too partisan. At some point in time over the past sixteen years virtually every fan base in America has become convinced that Herbstreit "hates" them or "loves" a rival.
Such is life when you're college football's own Sphinx.
Herbstreit shakes his head. "I really," he says, "have to worry about what colors I wear."
That wardrobe color is an issue for Herbstreit is, in many ways, a compliment to his work ethic. Fans rarely, if ever, criticize Herbstreit for being uninformed or underprepared.
That's by design.
Gameday producer Lee Fitting says, "Nobody works harder in this business. Nobody."
Herbstreit will talk to 15-20 coaches each week. (Chip Kelly would be his choice if he had to go to dinner with a single coach). Text message with dozens more. (Lane Kiffin texts him the most often). That's because Herbstreit never stops working.
"The big thing that drove me when I got the job was I felt like I owed it to the audience to be prepared," Herbstreit says. "Because a lot of people are not going to know who I am. I didn’t win a Heisman, I wasn’t an All American, I didn’t win a national championship, so instead of shying away from that, I met that head on. And I thought, what I’m going to do to those people who don’t know who I am is they will not be able to deny my preparation or my work ethic. My goal was to outwork every analyst in the country when it comes to knowing the sport. To this day, that’s my goal, to outwork everyone. Because I’m not going to have my playing experience to rely on for credibility. My work is going to give me my credibility."
Herbstreit does several hours of television a week outside of Gameday. Live spots on ESPN's SportsCenter, various other shows on the network, College Football Live, radio shows across the country. Whereas other analysts request the questions in advance, Herbstreit often tells producers he doesn't want the questions beforehand. That's because he believes fans can sense the lack of authenticity if he appears too programmed:
"You have got to watch games. You have to live this. Like every moment of every day. Like the coaches do. I see it all, I have an opinion on it all. I don’t need to read an article about Krause getting nailed by Wade. (A controversial hit from the Arkansas- Vanderbilt game). I watched. I saw it."
Often Herbstreit watches those games in the ESPN College Gameday bus. The bus has five TVs airing five different games at the same time. Beginning in the morning Herbstreit will often watch nearly 24 hours of straight football coverage.
"I sit there and watch everything that happens. Just like I did when I was a kid."
Indeed, when his mom first entered the bus and saw the banks of televisions playing football, she gasped. "Oh, my gosh, Kirk, "you've landed in heaven," she said.
Nearly four decades after his parents took a photo of a four-year old Herbstreit watching college football by himself on the couch, the sport is still his security blanket.
The secret to Kirk Herbstreit? Behind the tanned skin, and the baby-face, and the blond hair, some part of Herbstreit is still the kid watching the game. He can't hide it.
Neither can Gameday viewers.
It took just a week for the first Gameday fans to recognize Herbstreit on the streets of Knoxville.
Best friend Deron Brown, who travels each weekend with Herbstreit and works as a spotter on the ABC, recalls the exact moment when he became aware of Herbstreit's budding celebrity. They were walking in Knoxville and viewers pointed and stared at Herbstreit. Chris Fowler, a Gameday veteran at that point, leaned over and said, "It's just getting started."
All of that was before Herbstreit had received a White House invite from a big fan of the show, George W. Bush, or filled up his phone with celebrity viewers enthralled with Herbstreit's weekly job. All of it was before Herbstreit would sometimes come home and hear his own voice calling a game as his boys played EA College Football. All of that was before Kirk Herbstreit had become the national color analyst for ABC Sports and the face of college football.
But now that all of that has happened, now that he's at the apex of his sport, what's next for Herbstreit?
No one really knows, but it's a question that those around Herbstreit ponder.
ESPN Gameday producer Lee Fitting guesses that Herbstreit might be interested in reaching outside of sports at some point to a larger audience. Already Herbstreit calls the game so that his mom and wife can enjoy the game. Could Herbstreit have any interest in an entertainment role at ABC? In judging a show like American Idol? In truly crossing over into the mainstream of pop culture so that your grandmother who hasn't watched a sporting event since 1983 suddenly knows who Herbstreit is?
Asked whether he has any interest in other television shows outside of sports, Herbstreit shoots the idea down. People have been trying to get him to expand beyond college football for several years. In fact, "Dancing With the Stars" asked Herbstreit to be on the second season of the show. Long before Erin Andrews agreed to participate, Herbstreit turned them down. "There is not enough money you could pay me to be involved in that," he says. "Now if my wife could do it and take my spot, she'd probably win."
Having become the face of college football at a relatively youthful 42, can Herbstreit see himself, thirty years from now, doing what his ABC game of the week co-host Brent Musberger does, calling games at over 70? If he did, he'd become an icon in the sport, the man who spent half a century in the campus eye.
But is that what Herbstreit wants?
"I marvel at he (Musberger's) and Lee's energy and their ability to stay dialed in to the game," Herbstreit says, "It's amazing. You know he (Musberger) texts, he's following the blogs, I mean, Brent is dialed in. No doubt about it, he and Lee (Corso) are both amazing. As far as me doing it that long? Who knows? What my kids end up doing with their hobbies, and their life, and their education, that will probably dictate what I end up doing."
But Herbstreit, the son of a coach, seems to still harbor coaching dreams as well.
"If I left (the show) I would want to go coach," Herbstreit says, "I'd want to be a high school coach at a program where it really mattered or I've talked with Urban (Meyer) about if he gets back into coaching being a quarterbacks coach and eventually an offensive coordinator for him."
Asked if he's serious, Herbstreit responds, "Oh, yeah, for sure. At this point, at my age, it's tougher probably to imagine doing that just because I've elevated myself to a point in my career where it's hard to imagine starting over, but I'm not closing that door. I'll keep doing this (ESPN College Gameday) as long as they'll have me, but if a big time college coach asked me to be his quarterbacks coach and eventually be his offensive coordinator, it would be an interesting situation to deal with."
Herbstreit's father, Jim, acknowledges the two have discussed a coaching future for Kirk. "I've heard him say that and I have no doubt that he's qualified. I'm not sure I'd choose that future for him, but I think he'd be very good at it. I'm sure we'd sit down at some point and talk about it. Kirk's made such outstanding decisions in his life so far that I think he'd make a good one about that too."
Later Herbstreit's best friend, Deron Brown, is asked if he could see Herbstreit back coaching quarterbacks at their alma mater one day. "I'm not touching that," he says, "but I'll tell you this, I hope Urban Meyer takes the job at Ohio State."
By gameday thousands of LSU and Alabama fans are gathered behind the ESPN set screaming and yelling. It's a perfect setting, not a cloud in the sky and fans stacked together so deep in front of Bryant Denny Stadium, it's almost impossible for any of them to move. Closer to the stage a mosh pit of fans jostles in the warming daylight. Gameday has more in common with a concert, sports as performance art, than it does with a traditional studio show.
Herbstreit considers the crew, each of whom he knows by name, to be a family, the guys off camera -- the ones who cook a meal every Friday called the Roadkill Grill -- are his offensive linemen. The guys doing the grunt work who get none of the attention.
ESPN's telecast comes off without a hitch. Even with San Francisco Giants midnight-bearded pitcher Brian Wilson as the celebrity guest picker. "It's the 'Backs vs. the 'Cocks and I always go with the Cocks," Wilson says of the Arkansas-South Carolina game. Herbstreit nearly loses it, lurching forward and then reaching up to wipe a tear from the corner of his eye.
Lee Corso, the exuberant energy of the show, rips off his fake beard in mock outrage.
Just before the show ends Herbstreit finally delivers his game prediction -- he picks Alabama in a close game over LSU and puts on a houndstooth hat with a crimson feather. The crowd explodes in cheers, a houndstooth clad Herbstreit beams. Moments later Lee Corso, the puckish wit of the show, taunts the Alabama crowd by leading them in a rendition of "Sweet Home, Alabama" before putting on a LSU Tiger mascot head.
This is the 202nd consecutive show that Corso has ended up in a mascot head. Herbstreit has been sitting next to him for every single one of these performances, the straight man next to a comedian. Somehow, it works every time.
The show ends to Alabama fan boos.
This, in essence, is College Gameday, a traveling roadshow, a carnival of signs, sounds, and barking opinions.
As soon as the cameras swoop away, Chris Fowler takes the mic and thanks the crowd for coming to the show.
Sitting in the bright sunlight, Herbstreit shakes Brian Wilson's hand, doffs his houndstooth hat, and smiles as the college-aged crowd begins to file back to their tailgates. By 11:20 Herbstreit is hustled off stage to a waiting white SUV. The Tuscaloosa county sheriff turns on the siren and heads for the airport, where Herbstreit will board a flight to Stillwater, Oklahoma for the Kansas State-Oklahoma State game airing on ABC later this evening.
As the SUV swerves through traffic, Herbstreit exhales loudly from the front seat, "Leaving this big of a game, I keep expecting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out and punk me."
The Tuscaloosa county sheriff leans over with a suggestion, "I could arrest you and put you in the holding cell until kickoff."
Herbstreit laughs, "That's not a bad idea," he says.
At the Tuscaloosa County Airport private jets are constantly landing and taking off. It's the busiest day in the history of the tiny airport. Eventually 250 jets carrying celebrities like LeBron James, Leonardo DiCaprio, Shaquille O'Neal, Condoleeza Rice, and Snoop Dogg will land for the game. Herbstreit, his high school buddy Brown, and two other ABC sports employees are awaiting the arrival of a Lear Jet that will take them to Stillwater, Oklahoma.
But the jet isn't here.
By now it's noon and Herbstreit is openly rooting for the jet not to arrive.
"How long do you think we have to stay here before we can go back to watch Alabama-LSU?" he asks.
It's the question of a bona fide college football fan -- the kid who used to paint his face scarlet and gray for the Ohio State-Michigan game every year -- not the question of a trained sports professional. Herbstreit, standing in a gray suit, light blue shirt, dark blue tie, looks over his shoulder.
"Anyone seen Ashton Kutcher yet?" he asks.
Instead of Ashton Kutcher, four LSU fans, just arrived on a private jet, see Herbstreit standing in the airport lot. Herbstreit, ever polite, poses in a photo with all four of them. Each man has his own camera. Smile and click, smile and click, smile and click, smile and click.
After the last photo one of the four men, a middle-aged LSU fan leans in closer to Kirk.
"Who do you think is going to win?" the man asks.
Herbstreit nods, smiles, and does what Herbstreit does, he answers the question as if it has never been asked before. "Alabama," he says, "but I hope we get a rematch in the BCS title game."
Shortly after this prediction, a sleek white Lear 55 jet arrives.
The stairs descend and eight creamy, white leather seats line the interior of the sparklingly clean cabin. Herbstreit climbs aboard, turns and leans back out to shake the sheriff's hand.
At 12:32 his jet races down the runway, rises swiftly into the air. Kirk Herbstreit, the boy who used sports to make friends, is on his way to Oklahoma.
Inside the private airport hangar, a heavily-lipsticked woman with a houndstooth scarf stands watching Vanderbilt and Florida on the television. She steps closer, cranes her head to look out the window, leans over, exhales, the smell of bourbon in the morning climbing into the air.
"Was that Kirk Herbstreit?" she asks.
Told that it was, she nods. Silently watches the plane recede into the blue sky.
"Do you know," she asks, "whether he picked Alabama or LSU?"
Read part one of OKTC's Kirk Herbstreit profile here.