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In a surprising development in April, Mike Tirico left ESPN for NBC Sports and, with the move, opened up a seat that few men have sat in. The play-by-play announcer’s chair for “Monday Night Football” had been held by Tirico since 2006, and it’s a prestigious title that a mere four men have ever held before — along with Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford and Al Michaels. Think about that for a moment.
The fifth man this season will be broadcasting institution Sean McDonough, who ascended quickly in the industry after growing up steeped in sports as the son of famed Boston Globe NFL writer Will McDonough and with two brothers who became executives in two different sports.
As a play-by-play man, Sean McDonough is one of the most familiar voices in sports — from baseball to college basketball to college football — for more than 25 years since breaking onto the national scene in 1990. But the NFL has been a bit off the grid for him compared to the other sports. He went nearly 20 years between calling games in the league from the early 1990s for CBS to doing radio work for ESPN Radio starting again in 2013.
McDonough chatted with Shutdown Corner this week about replacing his friend Tirico in the MNF booth, pairing up with the excitable Jon Gruden, watching the Tom Brady and deflate-gate saga up close in his native New England, his thoughts on the Washington Redskins nickname and plenty more. (And yes, we asked him about his famous Michigan-Michigan State call from last fall, too.)
Shutdown Corner: How was your schedule getting back into calling the NFL a few years ago? Was it a bit of an adjustment?
McDonough: “I did that a couple years ago. I really have only done a few [games] since that first year that ESPN started the NFL radio thing. I did most of the games, and then it just got hard doing a college football game on a Saturday and then get to some of these games that were either noon or 1 p.m. starts depending on the time zones. I didn’t do all of them and then I gradually petered out a bit.”
SDC: And being out of the league 20 years has to make it a challenge at first. Are the calls that different from calling a typical college game?
McDonough: “Yeah, I am always terrible at remembering years. Certain things I can remember, like the World Series. Someone will say, ‘What years did you do NFL games at CBS?’ I’ll say, ‘Ehhh, errr, yeah, I really don’t know.’ But yeah, it had certainly been a while.
“I really enjoyed it. It’s different in a lot of ways from the college game. But I think what I like most about it is you don’t have to spend as much time on NFL games telling the viewers or listeners who the players are. Whereas, in an average, usual, weekly college football game, a lot of times — our first game last year was BYU-Nebraska, for instance — if you’re not a fan of those two teams you probably don’t know anybody on those two teams. So there’s a lot of humanizing and storytelling in terms of biographical things on college games.
“Those really aren’t as important in the NFL. Most people know who Tom Brady is, who Aaron Rodgers is, Andrew Luck or whoever the case may be. So there’s not as much time to spend on humanizing the participants when you’re doing the game. And I like that there are fewer people to prepare for than college! [laughing]
“The college game they have duplicate numbers and huge rosters and it’s like, oh, give me a break. There might be 70, 80, 90 guys on each team dressed.”
SDC: Has the NFL game changed much in your eyes over that time?
McDonough: “Not too much. You’re just naturally so impressed … I love college football and I love college basketball. But when I go to an NFL game or an NBA game — and my two brothers [Arizona Cardinals personnel executive Terry McDonough and Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough] are involved in the leagues — and I go to a fair share of both leagues’ games as a fan, and the biggest difference is just the talent level. The speed of it is amazing. They’re the best of the best. It’s just a noticeable difference in the talent level.
SDC: You mentioned your brothers. I happened to look at the schedule. Week 6 you have the game out there — New York Jets at Arizona Cardinals. Brothers reunion, eh? Pretty cool deal, I’d guess.
McDonough: “Yes. Extremely cool. Just as doing a Redskins game is hard for Jon [Gruden], that will be hard for me.”
SDC: Does it boggle your mind, as it does mine, that you’ll be only the fifth play-by-play guy for “Monday Night Football” since 1970?
McDonough: “Yeah, it boggles mine too. That still really hasn’t sunk in. I knew it was a small number; I didn’t know it was that small until I got the job and they told me. It’s not just that it’s a few, but the fact that the four guys are all Hall of Fame broadcasters or, in Mike Tirico’s case, will be a Hall of Fame broadcaster.
“Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, Al Michaels, Mike Tirico — I mean, it’s certainly more than distinguished company. The viewers are used to a very high standard from the broadcast team and I am certainly conscious of that and working hard that I can live up to it.”
SDC: I know you know Mike Tirico well. What do you like about his style? How does it differ from or compare to your own?
McDonough: “He’s a really good friend. He’s one of my best friends. He said the same of me when they announced this was happening. NBC announced Mike, and then ESPN had a press conference an hour later. The two networks coordinated that, I think, out of the friendship that Mike and I have. Neither one of us wanted to upstage or trump the other. We were happy just to get the information out there and keep going.
“I think the thing you notice with Mike — and there are a lot of things you notice with him — but he’s extremely intelligent. As my dear, departed dad used to say, ‘There’s no substitute for intelligence.’ A lot of guys who are really smart can kind of float by and lean on their intelligence, but Mike is incredibly well prepared.
“He tells you things that you wouldn’t normally know. I think that’s one of our main tasks is to provide information in the right amount of dosage. You can bombard people and talk constantly and that gets to be annoying. Mike has the great touch to know when the right time is to give that appropriate nugget.
“He and I have both approached it that way. We’re both obsessed almost with the preparation part, and we’ve talked about it before. Sometimes you’re almost better of preparing less because a lot of times when you have so much information at your disposal you tend to use it. And maybe you’re not paying as close attention to the game as you should be. You’re trying to remember the little nugget you had on the third-string right tackle who just got in the game.
“There’s a fine line there. I appreciate Mike’s versatility. I think he’s as versatile as anyone in our business. He can host, he can do play-by-play, he’s an anchor, an interviewer … you could have him do anything in our business at the highest level.
“I am really happy for him. Sometimes in our business, when something good happens for you it’s at the expense of someone else. The fact that Mike is going on to this great opportunity and it going to be extremely well compensated for it, I am happy for him. He’s happy for me. And I am certainly happy to step into this seat that he occupied with distinction for the last 10 years. It’s great for both of us.”
SDC: OK, we need a Gruden fix. I can only assume you’ve spent some time together and started to get to know each other with the season so close. Any Gruden moments?
McDonough: “Oh yeah, we have. It’s been fun. One of the things I think it really important, Eric, is if a broadcast team is going to excel at the highest level, is chemistry. And you can’t just form that by showing up for three hours a week and sitting in the same booth. You have to spend time together off the air.
“He and I spent a couple of days together in New York, shortly after I got the job in May. ESPN and the other networks have these things called the ‘Up Fronts’ in which we put on an hour demonstration about all the aspects of the network and why advertisers would be very smart to invest their money. So “Monday Night Football” had about a five-minute presentation, so Jon and I did that actually with Brett Favre, who flew up from Mississippi and was terrific. Both were great telling stories and talking to the crowd.
“So we spent a few days there, then a couple weeks after that I went to Tampa, where he lives, for a few days. We mostly spent time in that bunker where he does the QB Camp shows. It’s the most amazing tape library I have ever seen in my life. He’s in there all the time — 4 a.m. he’ll be watching tapes and preparing. It’s amazing.
“Then we were at the ESPYs a few weeks ago in L.A. for a few days. We shot the new open for “Monday Night Football,” or at least part of it, with Lisa Salters and a lot of the crew.
“So yeah, we have spent time together. We talk a lot. We text a lot. I think he’s awesome. He’s fun. I admire the hell out of his work ethic. I remember when I interviewed with [MNF producer] Jay Rothman right after Mike left, [Rothman] said, ‘Hey, Gruden and I were talking about a couple of things he wanted to know: Do you want to be great? Do you work hard? And do you love football?’ Those are the things that are important to him. Luckily, I could answer in the affirmative to all those things.
“I hope I won’t let him down. He has tremendous knowledge. I would love to see his personality come out even more. I think he’s so intense during games like most coaches that sometimes they get so locked into the game that their personality doesn’t come out as much as it normally might. Part of my task is to try to do that. I think Mike did a really good job of that, too. They had really good chemistry when you watched them. It wasn’t fake because talking to both of them, it was obvious the respect they had for one another.
“If you ask the average football fan, ‘Would you like to spend time around Jon Gruden?’ everyone would jump at the opportunity. And there’s nothing phony about it. He’s that way all the time. So I love spending time with him. Fun, funny and a little unpredictable.”
SDC: You’re there in New England. As you’ve watched this deflate-gate silliness unfold, what has been your overarching thoughts about Tom Brady, the league and the collateral damage in all this?
McDonough: “The thing I would say to that now, Eric, is that I am really glad that it’s almost over. After he’s sat out the four games anyway. I am driving around today [in the Boston area] and the whole talk on sports radio was: ‘How many reps do you give [Jimmy] Garoppolo? How many do you give [Patriots rookie QB] Jacoby Brissett? If Garoppolo gets hurt, then this kid is going to be in the game and he needs time.’ So it’s obviously a big deal around here.
“Now that Tom has dropped his appeals, it isn’t really going to be over until he’s back for the fifth game of the year. But I just think — like most people, I assume — that it’s just … silly. [laughing] The fact that something this, uh, unimportant got to this point, it’s just crazy.
“I think when the NFL told the teams to prepare the footballs how you want, how the quarterbacks want, turn them into us, show them before the game, it was basically an indication to all of the teams to do that. Get the balls where they would like them to be, to the quarterbacks’ liking.
“I think one of the reasons why other teams didn’t really say very much is because they all sort of push the envelope a little bit, as much as they can. [laughing] And where it’s sort of been demonstrated that the measuring of these footballs is not really an exact science, I am sure there have been other balls in games that have been underinflated or overinflated. It just didn’t become an issue.
“I just think for what it is and what it become — and what it remains still — it’s just unfathomable. And I think the sad thing is that beyond New England, it’s likely that Tom Brady’s reputation has been damaged, and I think that is outrageous. I really don’t think his success has had anything to do with [the footballs]. I am pretty sure the footballs in the Super Bowl against Seattle were inflated at exactly the level they needed to be. He was pretty damned good in that game! And he was pretty good last year too.
“He’s one of the great players of all time. One of the many sort of sad aspects of this is that his legacy might be damaged somehow. I know Tom, and I think he’s a pretty honorable person. And if he’s not the best quarterback of all time, he’s certainly one of the two or three or four best. I can’t imagine he could go any lower on anyone’s list than that.
“Plus, just look what he did for this franchise. He completely changed it. I wouldn’t say it was a joke before he arrived, but it was viewed as more of a failure than as a success. Now it’s totally changed — one of the most successful franchises in all of sports, never mind just the NFL. What’s happened there with the stadium and the value of the team, I think the person most responsible for that beyond anybody else by far is Tom Brady.
“I’ll be glad when it’s over and when we have a Patriots game in December [Week 14 vs. the Baltimore Ravens], he’ll be playing by then, God willing he’s still healthy and out there. I think more than anything it’s a shame. I don’t think either side handled it well, and in hindsight they’d go back and do things differently if they could.”
SDC: So your first game is coming up pretty fast.
McDonough: “The first regular-season game is Pittsburgh at Washington, but the first exhibition game is a week from Sunday at the Hall of Fame Game.”
SDC: Which is just crazy that it’s that soon.
McDonough: “Yeah, it really is. I am sitting here reading all this stuff, reading clips and watching tapes and we had a conference call [Wednesday] morning about a lot of the logistics of it. It’s really here, which is wild.
“Ordinarily at this time of year when I was doing college football I would still be more concerned about trying to lower my handicap instead of reading stories about teams and watching tapes. But I am excited them to be reading them in July, because it means we are doing “Monday Night Football,” which is awesome. It’s really the most amazing, incredible thing.”
SDC: You mentioned you’re calling Steelers-Redskins Week 1. What is your stance on the Redskins nickname? How will you handle that?
McDonough: “I haven’t thought about it. I think my inclination would be that as long as it has been a nickname I’ll probably refer to them that way. It’s tough. I think any nickname that people find offensive is something that ought to be carefully considered. And I know some of the people who have protested the loudest.
“As we get closer to it, I’ll probably talk with Jay Rothman and Gruden and Lisa and see what their thoughts are. I don’t know if anybody has just steadfastly avoided using it. My sense is I’ll probably refer them as ‘Washington’ as many times as I could.
“But as far as totally not using it, I haven’t really thought about it to be honest. As we get closer those conversations will happen. I am very sensitive to people who find it offensive.
“I am up in upstate New York a couple times a year, and Ray [Halbritter] who runs the Oneida Nation and I see each other. I’ve met him and other of his colleagues many times. Ray’s a smart guy, and he’s as outspoken as anyone on it. They’re real people who have their reasons for being offended. I think they’re justified. It’s a sensitive subject.
“My guess is that I’ll call them Redskins, but it might not be much more than once or twice. The rest of the night it will be, ‘First and 10, Washington at the 20-yard line.’ I think that’s the best way.”
SDC: I believe my boss, a Michigan state grad, will forever have your “he has trouble with the snap” call as his ringtone. I figured you should know this. But that call was remarkable to me because of how you called it. Here’s this guy, Jalen Watts-Jackson, no one has ever heard of. How did you ID him so fast in the flow of this wild play?
McDonough: “I didn’t know him either. [laughing] I remember seeing his name at the time on my spotting chart. He would have been a backup defensive back, possibly even third-team defensive back.
“As much as I would like to take the credit for that, I think that is a monument to great spotting. That’s really the reason why we have spotters in the booth to help identify people. My spotter, Zach Ripatrazone, did an unbelievable job. We were fortunate, too, in that the ball popped in the air toward our side of the stadium from the game camera angle. It was the near side of the field, the Michigan sideline. [Watts-Jackson] caught it and his No. 20 could not have been pointing at our booth more than it was, God bless him.
“Zach was just all over it. We blow up the flip cards they put in the press box. He gets them and he blows them up to enormous size so that all the names and numbers are really big. So when he pointed at a number, your finger doesn’t take up four numbers; you know exactly who he is pointing at. He jammed his finger right on the No. 20 and it was just one of those moments.
“It’s funny you mentioned this. I was just talking to one of my friends in broadcasting about big moments. He was told he needed to punch the big moments more. You know what? One, because you don’t have time, and two, are you going to scream hysterically? You can’t fake excitement or dramatic language. You just … you don’t have time for it. You just react to it emotionally at the moment.
“One of the things I love most about play-by-play is every now and then if you’re around long enough you arrive at those kinds of moments. You get one chance. It’s like playing; if you botch the call, you can’t do it over again and it’s going to live on the tape forever.
“It’s the live nature of it all, and when I watch the tape of it what jumps out to me the most is I was 53 at the time and now 54, and the fact that I still have not reached puberty is a little bit distressing. Eventually, I stopped screaming like a 12-year old. But that’s what I have, so we’re going to stick with it.”
SDC: See, to me, this is a great thing. I could play the Sid Bream tape from 1992 and you sound the same age to me today — and it’s got the voice crack and everything!
McDonough: “I just won this award from Syracuse University Monday night, down in New York City, the Marty Glickman Award, which was really quite a thing. They put together a montage of some of my calls and I am watching them and thinking, ‘Oh these things aren’t aberrations. These things really happened. I really scream and scream like that all the time!’
“You’re just thankful every now and then you end up in situations where something crazy is happening and you can be there to call it. And now Michigan State people love me, and I always tell my friends who went to Michigan; ‘Don’t kill the messenger.’ It’s not our fault. We’re just relaying the information.”
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