That means it’s time for our weekly Alumni Q&A, where I use magical tools like the Internet and telephones to track down former Michigan athletes and personalities. They could be close, they could be far, but I will find them.
This week’s Q&A is with Rich Eisen, the former Managing Sports Editor of the Michigan Daily and current television journalist for the NFL Network.
After leaving ESPN’s SportsCenter in 2003, Eisen became a jack-of-all-trades for the NFL Network. He hosts the Thursday Night Football pregame, halftime and postgame shows, multiple weekly studio shows and also runs a weekly podcast.
To the questions:
The Michigan Daily: You wrote at the Daily at Michigan and then at newspapers out of college, but you’ve been in the TV and the podcast game for a while. Do you miss print journalism at all?
Rich Eisen: Oh, of course. Nothing is more satisfying than the written word, and nothing is more crucial to attempting to master, let’s put it that way. Writing is the base of everything in the broadcasting business. Everything is written. I’ve always taken pride in writing everything that I say on TV. I spent three years as a beat reporter for my hometown newspaper in Staten Island, and all of that training was crucial. Writing is a crucial base in order to do what I’ve been fortunate to do for a living.
TMD: When you first accepted the job at the NFL Network in 2003, you were switching from an established network in ESPN to a network that was making its debut. Did you feel the risk there, or was the opportunity to headline a network just too much to pass up?
RE: Sure, it was fraught with concern to go from a place that I called home for seven years and a place I felt was a part of my identity in many ways because of how long I spent there and how they took me from my small-market TV job to a national stage, and it was really part of my DNA in many ways. But then SportsCenter just changed as the type of show from when I first started in 1996 to when I left in 2003. It was a completely different show. It wasn’t the same program anymore.
When I started in 1996 it was a writing-intensive show and the reason for that was that SportsCenter was in many ways how people found out what happened in the sports world, let alone got to see it for the first time. By the time I left in 2003 there were handheld devices and Internet websites and an explosion of sports-talk radio and other ways for people to know what happened and see how it happened. The show went from a writing-intensive, highlight-intensive show to being less writing-intensive, because few highlights needed a build-up or a set-up because people knew what was happening already. The highlights didn’t tell as much of a narrative, other than to set up an analyst to talk about what happened in the game. My role as a host changed from ‘96-’03, so that sort of made it an easier decision to not try and be a part of SportsCenter 200 times a year anymore. I wanted to do something else, and when that didn’t happen the opportunity for the NFL Network was too great to pass up.
I don’t want to make it seem like I took it for granted — I mean, SportsCenter was a great platform and it was an honor to be a part of it, certainly at a time when folks like Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann and Craig Kilborn and Robin Roberts and Mike Tirico. They were all doing it, and I was stoked to do it at the time. It was just in ’03, I went with the NFL Network and I couldn’t be happier about it, even as I’m getting on a plane to connect in Buffalo in the middle of November.
TMD: You mentioned working with all these people at ESPN, but on these Thursday Night Football pregame shows, it seems like you guys are having a ton of fun out there. It just seems fun to be a part of. What’s it like to work with guys like Steve Mariucci, Warren Sapp and Deion Sanders?
RE: It’s a privilege. It’s an incredible privilege, and I’m a lucky man. We genuinely really like each other. We hang out together on the road and know about each other’s families. It’s also my job to make that camaraderie we have off the air come together on the air — and I take that job seriously — while not taking ourselves too seriously. To me, the key to making a broadcast watchable is to take the subject matter we view seriously, but not ourselves too seriously. Hopefully, people will enjoy the chemistry we have together.
Hanging out with Hall of Famers and picking their brains and watching the games with them and essentially getting more knowledgeable about the game myself through the eyes of experienced and imparted wisdom is really a privilege. It’s been awesome.
TMD: You mentioned part of your job is to make that camaraderie work on air. Can you practice that skill, managing all these opinionated, loud guys, or did that just come to you? Did you have to work at that?
RE: I don’t know how you could work at that, but to me, the most important part of being successful in broadcasting is to be yourself. Every single successful person in this business that I have met or come across or have gotten to work with in this endeavor are all people who when I met them for the first time person, I felt like I already know them.
What they do on TV is not an act, it’s who they are. The first impression I had of Chris Berman in 1996 when I met him for the first time was that I felt like I had known him for years because I had been watching him for years. It was the same guy. Stuart Scott — same way. Everyone who I have worked with that people might consider to have large personalities is who they are. I feel like I am just being myself out there, and reacting in a way that I would react sitting on the couch. I hope that people enjoy that sense of realism, and maybe they enjoy the broadcast more than they would somebody else’s.
TMD: You hosted the Great Escape on TNT last year. What was the experience of hosting a TV show like, and is it something you could see doing more of in the future?
RE: I don’t know, I just wanted to try something else. Reality TV — I sort of work in reality TV because the best reality TV in my mind is the NFL — but in an actual reality, game-like show, I wanted to try it and had an opportunity to try it with TNT and the creators of the Amazing Race. What better hands in which to put your fate? It was a blast. I totally loved it. I just loved to scare the heck out of contestants and give away cash prizes at the end. I thought it was fun. It was a blast.
TMD: You do podcasts, you do Thursday night, you do studio stuff — do you ever fell like you’re doing so much that it’s hard to concentrate on one thing?
RE: I just love it, all of it. I love the long formats of the podcast world, I love being at a game live and having my job be ringmaster — for lack of a better phrase — of these moving parts and large personalities of these knowledgeable Hall of Famers who are imparting their wisdom. I love being there and I love the Sunday morning show. I love doing highlights whenever I can, because that’s just like what I did at SportsCenter back in the day. That’s part of the reason I left ESPN, because at the time I left in ’03 I was not being afforded the broadcasting avenues that I have now, even though they had it at their disposal, which is what made it an easy choice on my part. The NFL Network has been growing for nine years and counting now with the Internet side and digital side exploding, and I’m thrilled to be part of it. It’s been a blast, and I don’t feel like my attentions distracted. I love talking about it and am having fun talking about it. I’m having the time of my life.
TMD: Now to the most pressing question: How much quicker could you run your 40-meter dash at the scouting combine if you weren’t wearing a suit?
RE: Well, I don’t know and I don’t intend to find out, because I only run it the one way I know how, and that’s slow and in my uniform — the suit. I feel like the whole endeavor would jump the shark if I actually put on running clothes. I don’t think anybody really wants to see that, I’m concerned people may not even want to see my run in a suit anymore.
But Denard best watch out when I see him in February when he comes out for the scouting combine. I suggest he lace ‘em up for that one. When he runs at the combine, I’ll be there, and I’ll be breaking six seconds this year. I’m working on my core, I’m mentally prepared and I have my suit already picked out. I’m focused, and I understand Shoelace is fast, but I have straight-ahead speed.
If there is any negative aspect to my gig, it’s that I can’t get to the Big House during football season. It’s been years. The last time I was there was the triple-overtime game when Braylon (Edwards) went nuts and beat Michigan State almost single-handedly. It was great, but it’s been years. I miss it so much. I just miss the fall Saturdays and following the band, going from Packard to the stadium with the band in front of you, and I miss that stadium. Glad I missed the Rich Rod years, not to broadside him, but I just miss it a lot. I do hope to get back there.
And I do love Brady Hoke by the way, I’m very excited by him.