Kirk Herbstreit: The Face of College Football
Published on: November 10, 2011 | Written by:
It's 7:30 on a Friday morning and the face of college football, 42 year old ESPN College Gameday host Kirk Herbstreit, jogs across the University of Alabama campus in a dark dri-fit shirt, blue shorts, and grey Nikes. It's a cloudless sky, late morning dew rising and evaporating into a light fog and Herbstreit, in Tuscaloosa for the latest game of the century, #1 LSU at #2 Alabama -- the first 1 vs. 2 match-up in regular season SEC history -- comes to a sudden stop at the back door of the University of Alabama's football offices. He stops because he and Alabama coach Nick Saban have arrived at the door to the football complex at the exact same instant.
This is the moment that College Gameday sells to its millions of fans, the chance on-campus meeting that makes college football's biggest coaching stars willing accessories to Gameday's reigning gridiron dominance, just regular guys in the football neighborhood. Rarely have sports stars been more closely wedded to the men who cover them.
It's a small college football world, after all. Forget the tens of millions of screaming fans in the stadiums, the alums staring intently into television screens across the country, Gameday's promotional spots sell this exact moment -- the accessibility of the inaccessible, the humanizing of the great, the meeting of fan and coaching luminary, the entire college football universe fitting onto a postage stamp's worth of campus.
Only this time it's real and Nick Saban is in a hurry to enter the Alabama offices. He and Herbstreit chat outside for a short while, Saban turns left upon entering the complex and scurries up the stairs, a waiting assistant handing him a warm cup of coffee without forcing him to break stride, and a beaming Herbstreit glides through two double doors and into Alabama's empty gym. This is the second day in a row he's worked out in the Alabama football complex.
Printed pieces of paper with LSU's logo hang above a dozen squat racks and weight benches. But Herbstreit isn't lifting today. He heads straight for the stair-step machine, cranks it up to a high level, and commences twenty minutes of stair climbing.
Barely one minute into his workout, Alabama's strength coach, Scott Cochran, arrives on the scene. Like every other individual associated with college football at a high level, Cochran, a blond-haired 2001 LSU grad, with the raspy voice, chiseled jaw line, and body that appears to have no excess fat and enough raw enthusiasm to convince nuns to streak, enters into easy conversation with Herbstreit about the program, the game, and life in the gym.
As Herbstreit climbs the constantly rotating stairs, sweat breaking through his dri-fit shirt, the two men chat about training strategies and football. Cochran, the man who gained a measure of Internet fame for being recorded telling his Alabama team in 2008 that the reason the #1 Georgia Bulldogs were wearing black was because they were attending a f------ funeral, leaves for a short visit and Herbstreit's stair-climbing workout continues. Five minutes later Cochran returns with a towel for Herbstreit. Five minutes later he brings out a bottle of water. Each time the conversations continue unabated, as if they have never stopped.
This is Herbstreit's life in a nutshell, a running conversation about college football that never really ceases. Few men have become true celebrities talking exclusively about football on television. John Madden is probably the most famous living football talker, the NFL head coach who stepped off the field and into the broadcast booth. Along the way Madden's last name became a verb, a video game, a lifestyle, and a brand.
Sixteen years after he first took the stage on College Gameday Kirk Herbstreit is well on his way to doing to college football what John Madden did to the NFL, making himself the single most famous face and voice associated with the sport. Herbstreit already has his own video game -- EA Sports College Football -- and his fame is such that he's transcended his sport and crossed into the pop culture mainstream.
According to College Gameday producer Lee Fitting, who has worked alongside Herbstreit for the past eight seasons, "His (Herbstreit's) approval rating is off the charts when we test our show with viewers. They literally brought the results back to me and said, 'We've never seen approval ratings this high. Anytime he's on camera, the dials go up.'"
Herbstreit is a modern day Ferris Bueller, beloved by all, "He runs the ratings gauntlet," says Fitting. "Kids, older people, men, women, they all love him. Most guys that women like, the men don't, but Kirk's different, women like him and so do men."
And everyone recognizes him.
The day before his Friday meeting with Saban outside the back door of the football complex, Fitting and Herbstreit also worked out at Alabama. That morning Fitting was running late and Herbstreit was left alone in the hotel lobby. "Hurry up, Lee," said Herbstreit, "I've been grinning and waving down here for ten minutes."
It wasn't always this way for Herbstreit.
Sixteen years after he replaced Craig James -- he thought he had no chance at the Gameday job when he auditioned at 26 -- Herbstreit an institution, the closest thing to a modern day John Madden in the sporting landscape. But Herbstreit is still only 42 years old. It wasn't so long ago that the face of college football was a graduating senior quarterback at Ohio State who knew his playing career was over. Herbstreit had a decision to make -- talk radio or pharmaceutical sales.
It was the summer of 1993 and one job offered him a starting salary of $80,000, a company car, benefits, the comfortable country club lifestyle plan for a business major diving headlong into the corporate arena. Play golf, shake hands, talk about Ohio State football with doctors, and live a safe, secure, and comfortable life. The other, a radio gig, offered him $12,000 and no benefits.
Herbstreit wrestled with the decision all summer, going so far as to fill out all the paperwork and even submit to urine tests for the pharmaceutical job.
Then he called an audible.
"I’m talking to everybody and most people were saying, 'Take the stability, but my mom and dad said, ‘You’ve got to follow your heart even though you don’t know where it’s going to lead.’
So I did."
Recalling this decision years after the fact, Herbstreit's mom, Judy, simplifies things: "He was trying to think with his brain and with his heart. I told him to follow his passion and everything would work out. You know what, it did."
And this, inexorably, has led him to this moment in his career, it's the biggest regular season game in SEC history and every college football fan is clamoring to know what Herbstreit thinks of the match-up. The Ohio State quarterback who hasn't taken a snap since 1993 is the biggest celebrity in the world of college football.
Growing up in and around Dayton, Ohio Herbstreit was the youngest of three children, his father, Jim, played and coached defensive backfield at Ohio State. His mother, Judy, born in Texas, was a stay-at-home mom. The couple met in Ohio when Judy's father, Travis Green, was transferred for work to Ohio. She was only there a year, but she met Jim, who used to carry her books home from school, and when her family moved to Los Angeles the next year, the couple wrote letters every day to one another. When Judy returned to Ohio, the couple was married while Jim was still a student at Ohio State. Upon graduation, Jim went to work on Woody Hayes staff at Ohio State.
"My dad coached before I was born with Woody (Hayes) and Bo (Schembechler) and all that," says Herbstreit. "So by the time I came around, he’d already given that up, I think that was his dream. I have no doubt he could have been a successful coach. See, he came up in the cradle of coaches, he was next in line behind Bo. And then my dad decided he needed to make more money."
Jim Herbstreit gave up coaching -- at 24 he'd been Bo Schembechler's defensive coordinator at Miami of Ohio and already worked as defensive backfield coach for Woody Hayes -- and took a job as a property appraiser. His youngest son, Kirk, liked to spend Saturday mornings poring over the night's high school football results from the weeks before with him. "He was always good with numbers," says his father over thirty years later surmising that this youthful review of high school game scores was a good prelude for a future in analyzing college sports. "And he always loved Ohio State."
Jim took Kirk to Ohio State games and after wins -- "We didn't go into the locker room after losses," Jim deadpans -- Woody Hayes would sit with Kirk on his knee and tell him stories about the game that had just passed. "Trust me, the recruiting was done then," Jim says, "Ohio State didn't have to do much to recruit Kirk once he got old enough to go to college."
At home, Herbstreit's mom recalls a boy who loved football from the moment he could walk. "He still had a pacifier in his mouth," his mom says, "and he would stand up during the national anthem and put his hand over his right side -- he didn't know where his heart was yet -- and stand at attention before the game even started. With a pacifier still in his mouth!"
On New Year's Day, a young Herbstreit would gorge himself on football. "We didn't have football on all day long back then so he'd watch games all day long. He'd fall asleep on the carpet in front of the television."
(photo courtesy of Judy Herbstreit)
In 1978, the family watched the Gator Bowl, the game when Woody Hayes famously punched a Clemson player. Even three decades later Jim still bristles with indignation over the fact that none of the media discussed the fact that Ohio State's quarterback had been taunted by the player over an interception in that game. But Woody lashed out and the Herbstreit family took the loss personally.
Walking down the stairs that night Jim turned to his youngest child, nine year old Kirk, and said, "I don't think Woody's going to make it through the weekend."
Kirk, with tears in his eyes, looked up at his dad, sniffling, "Well, he can still be our friend, can't he?"
Thirty-two years later, Jim laughs at the memory. "And some Buckeye fans think he doesn't love Ohio State?" Jim lets the question hang in the air, "That boy bled scarlet and gray."
Around the time that the Woody Hayes era came to a close, Herbstreit's parents divorced and his family life became unstable. Both parents remarried. Then both parents divorced. Herbstreit moved six times.
"Sports became my refuge because I was this shy guy – kind of an introvert by nature – still am, that’s just who I am – so it wasn’t easy for me to make friends. The only way I made friends was recess and gym. Sports were my oasis, that was my way of meeting other kids. The kids liked the new athletic kid."
Reflecting upon his youth, years later, Herbstreit's smile dissolves. His easy bonhomie recedes. Outside Alabama fans lead Roll Tide cheers. Inside, Herbstreit is quiet for a moment.
"The divorce and the remarriages and the moving, through all that, sports was my constant, it became my outlet. Because it’s painful to go through that as a kid."
But Herbstreit, who played baseball, basketball, and football, wasn't just playing sports, he watched and listened to them in every waking moment. The jock was also something a bit rare for a talented athlete, he was also a huge fan.
"My parents have pictures of me at four or five years old – and I appreciate this now that I have kids of my own – but there’s nobody else in the picture and I’m sitting on the couch with a blanket. They told me they’d try to get me to move, but I would just go back and watch college football. All by myself, just me and the game."
Coming home from King's Island on late summer nights, a nine year old Herbstreit would curl up in the back of his parent's car, press his ear to the throbbing speaker and fall asleep to the hum of Marty Brennaman's 700 WLW calls of Cincinnati Reds baseball games. Sports brought order to a chaotic youth, consistency in a world of shifting relationships. Thirty-three years later, Herbstreit would confess that interviewing Marty Brennaman on his radio show made him more nervous than any other guest he has ever interviewed. "I was so nervous," Herbstreit says, "here I am at 24 years old interviewing my idol."
He pauses, relives the moment, "In high school my friends used to make fun of me because every time they got into my car, it wasn't Van Halen or rock or something like that, it was sports talk radio with Marty Brennaman or Cris Collinsworth."
Another of his youthful idol's was Dave Concepcion, the sweet-fielding shortstop of Herbstreit's favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds. Concepcion captivated Herbstreit.
"Davey Concepcion was the guy that I emulated. Davey used to cross himself, but I didn’t even realize what he was doing. I wasn't Catholic, but I’d step up to the plate and cross my chest twice and kiss my necklace. I got a gold chain, I wore number 13, I’d watch how he had that one-hop throw because of the turf. I loved Davey Concepcion, the way he carried himself, he had a cockiness to him that I just loved."
But Herbstreit, who confessed it would be a dream of his to one day call a Reds game, wasn't just a fan of the Reds. He followed Mel Allen's "This Week in Baseball" and kept up with every national league team. How closely?
On his Columbus, Ohio radio show in the early 2000's his co-host Ian Fitzsimmons, now at ESPN 103.3 in Dallas, would toss Herbstreit a random national league team and ask him to go around the field with the line-up.
Asked about the 1984 San Diego Padres two days before the biggest SEC game in history, Herbstreit clapped his hands, flashed his toothy grin, and leaned forward, taken back to his youth once more. A monologue down memory lane:
"Garvey at first base, Terry Kennedy was their catcher, Graig Nettles they’d got from the Yankees was third base, Gary Templeton at short stop, Jerry Royster, second baseman, wait Tim Flanagan and Jerry Royster actually platooned at second, they had a left fielder, oh man, I’m going to get these."
Which leads Herbstreit into another of his favorite games, he can recall every player's number. He has a virtually photographic memory for sports numerology.
Toss him any national league player from the 1980's and he responds almost instantly with their number. "If I've heard of him, I'm going to know his number," Herbstreit says. "I'm a number freak."
Herbstreit is puzzled for the first time. "Wait, wait, wait," he says, scrunching up his forehead. "Gosh, Billy Hatcher was a baller when he was with the Reds." A discussion about former Reds outfielder Glenn Braggs ensues, but Herbstreit circles back around to Billy Hatcher. "God, that's killing me that you got me on Billy Hatcher. I'll get that, that's something."
(Three days later Herbstreit calls: Billy Hatcher was number 28. The number came to him, he says, while jogging. But he doesn't want me to think he Googled the answer. It's clear he didn't because, for once, the number freak is wrong. Hatcher wore 22.)
At Dayton's Centerville High School Herbstreit met his best friend, Deron Brown, who would eventually accompany him on the road for each College Gameday weekend. The two met in 8th grade football conditioning. Brown, who played tailback at Centerville, went on to play fullback for the Buckeyes. At Centerville Herbstreit wore number 14, but another player had 14 when Herbstreit arrived at Ohio State.
So he switched to number four.
"My favorite player was Jim Harbaugh," Herbstreit says, "I loved his style. His style of play and my style of play were very similar."
In recent years, Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal team has featured prominently in Gameday stories. Asked if he ever told Harbaugh of the jersey decision, Herbstreit shook his head. "No, I never told him that. I don’t know what he would say if I had. The last couple of years I did a lot of Stanford games and I’ve always appreciated him, I kind of like his edge. With his competitive edge, even if he was around his brother, I don’t know what he’d do. I wish he’d stayed in college because I love those big, strong personalities in college. Like Steve Spurrier. How can you not like that guy? You never know what he might say or do? I love that."
Big, strong personalities are a big part of what has made ESPN's College Gameday so successful.
And just in time for the big game, College Gameday has occupied Bryant Denny Stadium. Eight rows of slate gray tables with brown chairs run along one side of Alabama's recruiting banquet hall. Media from across the state sit at these tables waiting for their chances to speak with the College Gameday staff. It's an interesting perspective, the media covering the media who cover the game. The media has come to ask the media who they think will win the game and then the media will make television or print stories of who the media think will win the game.
This is how football coverage works in the modern era.
Rather than play, we mostly talk about football. Those who talk the best about football become stars.
And right now no one talks better about college football than Kirk Herbstreit.
So it comes to pass that Kirk Herbstreit stands in front of a phalanx of cameras, blue shirt, orange tie, checkered sports coat, blue jeans, and gray sneakers. It's the same outfit that all the Gameday men -- Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard, and David Pollack -- adopt. From business to athlete as you descend the body, necktie to tennis shoes. It's also a metaphor for the job, the studied seriousness of a suit, rooted in the fan's attire. As Herbstreit answers questions, blond hair and tan face perfectly framed in the camera lens, nodding thoughtfully as he's asked for the hundredth time this week who he thinks will win Alabama or LSU, it becomes clear why Herbstreit is so good at his job.
He answers every question, no matter how banal, as if it's the first time he's ever considered that it might be asked.
This is no small feat.
It's one that politicans have mastered, the thoughtful pause, the enthusiastic formation of an answer that has been given a million times before, the illusion of originality. Treating a questioner like he or she hasn't just asked the most cliched of all questions. How many times can you say the same thing without giving away the fact that that you've said the same thing a million times before?
Most people can't do it very many times. Good politicians can do it every single time.
If Kirk Herbstreit wanted to be a governor or a senator, he could be a governor or a senator. There is no doubt. Except for one thing, Herbstreit is uncommonly sensitive in a position that leaves him exposed in the public eye and constantly subject to public scrutiny. Politicians brush off criticism because they generally have massive egos. Herbstreit is different, a kinder soul. On some level he's still the little boy who played sports to make friends, always the new guy at school striving to be liked.
Herbstreit confesses that he doesn't respond well to personal attack or criticism. It's why he abandoned Twitter after joining this past spring, it's why he doesn't seek out Internet opinion.
"I stopped Googling myself, probably, seven or eight years ago," Herbstreit says. Freshly removed from the camera's lens, Herbstreit is more relaxed, his tie is off, his shirt is unbuttoned, he reclines in a chair. "Because if one person says, 'Kirk Herbstreit's a jerk,' I can't get over that. I wish I could. It's just me and how I'm wired, like I want to talk to that person and say, 'Why do you think I'm a jerk?' I ask my wife, my family, I ask them not to do that too."
Herbstreit's wife and family have been the subject of much recent public discussion. In particular, this past spring, Herbstreit left Columbus, Ohio for Nashville. Many media reports focused on Ohio State fan harassment as the motivating factor for the move, but Herbstreit wants to set the record straight.
"I miss my family and friends in Columbus," he said. "95% of the people that I came into contact with in Columbus were wonderful."
Many of these family and friends had been with the Herbstreits through the most trying time in their lives, when their twin boys were born several months premature. Herbstreit met his wife Allison, a former Ohio State cheerleader, during college. By 2000, the two were ready to start a family and Allison was pregnant with twins.
That's when things went horribly wrong.
Just twenty weeks into the pregnancy, Allison went for a routine check-up and a doctor discovered a serious problem, the twins were in danger of an extremely premature birth. She was placed on bed rest for eight weeks, unable to leave the hospital bed while she fought to keep the boys, her husband was a wreck. "She was so much stonger than me," he says over a decade later. "I learned the power of the maternal instinct then. She willed those boys to stay inside of her."
But eight weeks later, it was too much.
The boys were so small at birth, that Herbstreit says he could take of his wedding ring, put it over their toes, and run it all the way up past their knees. For eight weeks the boys were in the neonatal intensive care unit. Eventually they were released and the two boys are healthy now. So are their two younger brothers.
But for everyone who sees Herbstreit and his healthy family now -- all four boys have been on the set multiple times when Gameday was at Ohio State -- and thinks everything has always been perfect for the family, the truth is sobering. Herbstreit, a born worrier who saw his first two boys struggle for every breath, couldn't countenance the idea that any members of his family might be unsafe.
That's why their Columbus home eventually become unmanageable.
The Herbstreits had originally planned to make Columbus their home forever. They built their dream home in a quiet neighborhood. The community wasn't gated, it was accessible to all. But as Herbstreit's popularity grew, so did the unwanted attention near his home.
"Five times a day, there would be a car parked at a stop sign, people knocked on the door, they'd ask for autographs at the front door, they'd drive by real slow, 12:30 at night, I was getting up in the middle of the night to see cars outside in the street. I had no idea what they were doing there. The thought, that in this crazy world we live in, somebody's driving by your house five times a day or more, that starts to work on you emotionally. But we dealt with that for four or five years."
Then came a front page Columbus Dispatch story in July of 2009 that published the Herbstreit's address and a Google map of his neighborhood.
Herbstreit, in Los Angeles filming Gameday commercials, found out about the story when his crying wife called him.
He was livid.
"From that point, to the time we moved, the clock was ticking," he said.
The departure was a true disappointment for Herbstreit, who'd come to know every nook and cranny of Columbus. Especially, believe it or not, the local Taco Bells.
"From the time I was 16 to the time I was probably 30, I think I singlehandedly kept Taco Bell in business. I ate there five days a week. I loved the bean burrito plus onion, especially if it’s cold out. I love the soft taco, soft taco supremes."
Talk with Herbstreit long enough and the local sports radio raconteur takes over, the guy who was capable of sitting in a studio by himself four hours a day, five days a week. Television requires thesis statements, radio requires novels. Herbstreit on Taco Bell was a great radio gambit.
As his Columbus radio co-host Fitzsimmons recalls, they already had several major guests booked on a summer day when an irate Herbstreit called. "He said," Fitzsimmons recalls, "clear the deck, I'm going off on my local Taco Bell."
Herbstreit walks in and sits down in studio and says:
"I go to this Taco Bell and every time I went there -- it was the closest one to my house -- it was filthy," Herbstreit recalls later, "There were napkins on the floor, it’s dirty when you sit down at table. So I had a breaking point. I visited there and I went to do the radio show right after, I said, I’m going to get a message out there to all the Taco Bell people. If you go to Taco Bell, make sure you never go to the Taco Bell at 270 and Sawmill, it is the worst Taco Bell in America.
"I’m a Taco Bell guy, I’m the one who calls the 1-800 number, and I said I’ll never go back. I’ve been twenty times and it’s dirty, the food isn’t fresh, I’ll drive all the way to Canal and Winchester to get a fresh soft taco."
Phones lit up and callers talked about their worst fast food experiences.
The owner of the Taco Bell apologized and the corporate office became involved.
Eventually, Herbstreit agreed to work the drive-thru of the store while Fitzsimmons manned the cash register.
Retelling the story Herbstreit laughs, bright white teeth flashing.
Leaning closer, he says conspiratorily, "You know what, I bet that store's still dirty."