SI.com highlights a select group in the sports media who were newsworthy, both for positive and negative reasons, in 2011.
THE PICK: Mike Mayock (NFL Network, NBC)
His analyst brethren include Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Phil Simms) and coaches (Jon Gruden) and former standout players (Chris Collinsworth, Ron Jaworski). Asked to describe his broadcasting career, Mayock said, “I’m a grinder.”
A little-used safety for two seasons with the Giants after being selected by the Steelers in the 10th round of the 1981 NFL draft, Mayock’s road to the top of his profession includes calling Arena League Football and Canadian games, and even a stint as a sideline reporter on NCAA basketball games for CBS. His break came in 2005 when the NFL Network hired him, and he soon separated himself as television’s most authoritative draft analyst, praised by critics and fans for his attention to detail and endless film work. Last year NBC assigned Mayock to its Notre Dame broadcasts, and this year the NFL Network named him as the analyst for its Thursday Night Football package. The grinder now finds his name atop the marquee.
Mayock talks a lot during a broadcast but unlike many others, he speaks from a prepared place, a broadcaster with a qualified opinion about his subject matter. Writing about him for Sports Illustrated, I cited something from his call of the NFL Network’s opening-night broadcast (Nov. 10) between Oakland and San Diego. In that game, he told his audience he was at Raiders practice six days earlier and saw quarterback Carson Palmer working with his receivers on how to get off bumps from cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage. Mayock explained what made this particularly interesting was that it was Palmer, as opposed to a coach or a wideout, teaching the receivers to get off the line. It was the kind of subtle detail viewers have come to appreciate from him. He’s a worthy pick for SI.com’s highest media award.
HONORABLE MENTION: Marv Albert (CBS and TNT), John Barr (ESPN), Jay Bilas (ESPN), Doris Burke (ESPN), Ian Darke (ESPN), Rich Eisen (NFL Network), Mike Emrick (NBC), Beth Mowins (ESPN), Mike Pereira (Fox), Adam Schefter (ESPN), Dan Shulman (ESPN and ESPN Radio), Joe Tessitore (ESPN), Trey Wingo (ESPN).
THE PICKS: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts (CBS); Marv Albert and Steve Kerr (TNT)
I didn’t catch Eagle and Fouts often in 2011, but when I did, I loved what I heard. It’s a duo that doesn’t take itself seriously but still delivers a thoughtful, smart broadcast for viewers. Humor is an underrated element of sports broadcasting and both men are adept at it. Eagle, in particular, seldom gets listed among the best working sports broadcasters, but he’s regarded that way here.
Albert and Kerr were sensational on the NBA and they carried that chemistry over to the NCAA tournament when they did games for CBS and Turner.
HONORABLE MENTION: Brian Anderson, Ron Darling and John Smoltz (TBS); Joe Buck and Troy Aikman (Fox); Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN and ABC); Jim Durham and Dr. Jack Ramsay (ESPN Radio); Chris Fowler and Darren Cahill (ESPN); Gus Johnson and Charles Davis (Fox); Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery (ESPN); Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (NBC);Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN); Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg (CBS); Brad Nessler and Mike Mayock (NFL Network); Dave Pasch and Doris Burke (ESPN).
THE PICK: ESPN2′s Fantasy Football Now
This category is usually a toss-up between ESPN’s College GameDay and TNT’s Inside the NBA, but I’m citing FFN this year because of the tangible value it gives viewers every Sunday. The fantasy market is a major reason why NFL television ratings have soared, and ESPN competitors would be wise to watch this show and swipe the best features from it. There are no fluff pieces, no over-the-top chuckling at everything Shannon Sharpe says, no Chris Berman kissing the butt of all things Roger Goodell. It’s heavy on information and informed judgment. FFN is a work in progress in terms of chemistry, especially its multiple host format. But it deserves notice and has carved out a nice niche among fantasy fans with zero promotion from its own company in relation to Sunday NFL Countdown.
HONORABLE MENTION: College GameDay (ESPN), Inside the NBA (TNT), Football Night in America (NBC).
THE PICK: Terry Francona (Fox, ESPN)
Filling in for Tim McCarver for the first two games of the American League Championship Series, Francona was insightful and genuinely funny, both valuable commodities in broadcasting. He laughed at his own clichés and was unafraid to question managers’ strategy. He drew raves from fans and critics (Yahoo! Sports baseball writer Jeff Passan tweeted, “Is Terry Francona Wally Pipping Tim McCarver?”). Francona won’t be Pipp-ing McCarver, but the former Boston manager has been hired by ESPN to replace new Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine on Sunday Night Baseball. He’ll also be seen on Baseball Tonight. Though I imagine he’ll be back in baseball sooner than later, Francona has a chance to be very good if he works at the job.
HONORABLE MENTION: Mike Florio (Versus), Eric Mangini (ESPN), Urban Meyer (ESPN), Kurt Warner (NFL Network).
THE PICK: Chris Webber (NBA TV and TNT)
Webber has become a sharp studio analyst. Watching him this month on NBA TV’s preview shows, he has great depth about the league and doesn’t sugarcoat his opinions. He’s a smart guy who acts like someone who takes broadcasting as a profession rather than a hobby.
While I listed Desmond Howard in the honorable mention category, he received the most votes when I asked people on Twitter which sports broadcaster had improved the most. Indeed, he looked far more comfortable on the set of College GameDay this year. Around the Horn host Tony Reali has improved every year on a show that should be shown in North Korean prison camps.
HONORABLE MENTION: Desmond Howard (ESPN), Liam McHugh (NBC), Tony Reali (ESPN).
THE PICKS: Jay Bilas (ESPN), Doris Burke (ESPN) and Mike Mayock (NFL Network, NBC)
Preparation is the bond shared by Bilas, Burke and Mayock. Their performance isn’t about personality, and each has grinded out an impressive career through smarts and professionalism. When they do a game, I usually learn something. As a viewer, there is no better result.
HONORABLE MENTION: Troy Aikman (Fox), Hubie Brown (ESPN Radio), Darren Cahill (ESPN), Mary Carillo (CBS, Tennis Channel), Cris Collinsworth (NBC), Charles Davis (Fox), Fran Fraschilla (ESPN), Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN), Clark Kellogg (CBS), Steve Kerr (TNT), Ray Hudson (Gol TV ), Johnny Miller (NBC).
THE PICKS: Doug Brown, Dan Davis, Christine Lisi, Marc Kestecher, Bob Picozzi, Jay Reynolds, John Stashower (ESPN Radio anchors)
If I were to single out an individual for this award, I’d likely give it to Chuck Wilson, the ESPN Radio host whose thoughtful work nightly on a variety of topics is first rate and makes that network look very good. But I’ve really come to appreciate the above group of professionals who provide SportsCenter updates for ESPN Radio, particularly because they rarely get any of the famous and voluminous hot air that the ESPN PR department loves to blow at higher-profile and higher-volume talents. Davis retired last week after joining ESPN Radio in January 1992 when the network launched. Good luck to him.
HONORABLE MENTION: Chuck Wilson (ESPN Radio), Dino Costa (Sirius XM), Dan Patrick (Premiere Radio Networks), Travis Rodgers (Y! Sports Radio), Jim Rome (Premiere Radio Networks), Bob Valvano (ESPN Radio), Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo (ESPN Radio).
Note: Patrick works for Sports Illustrated and I know many of his behind-the-scenes people. But the show has been terrific this year and I thought it worth listing, even with our shared employer.
THE PICKS: A Game of Honor (Showtime) and Unguarded (ESPN)
“Football was an excuse to get in the door,” said Pete Radovich Jr., the director and co-producer of Honor. For six months, Radovich Jr., co-producer Steve Karasik and a production team from CBS Sports were embedded with football teams at Army and Navy. They had unprecedented access to combat training, classrooms, locker rooms and, most fascinating, what incoming freshmen have to endure during their first weeks at each academy. This marked the first time that I’ve gotten a sense of what these young people have to go through on a daily basis.
It should be noted that the film does shoot its subjects in overtly heroic fashion. Honor often comes off like a campaign film, and plays heavy on patriotism and nationalism themes. It’s also clear that the filmmakers — incredibly talented folks — became very close with their subjects. But the end result is remarkable filmmaking.
The best sports documentarian is a subjective crown, but Jonathan Hock rates very high on any list. Unguarded chronicled the rise and fall and ongoing redemption of Chris Herren, a schoolboy basketball star from Fall River, Mass. Hock’s previous sports doc was The Best That Never Was, a terrific exploration of the life of Marcus Dupree, arguably the greatest high school running back.
“To me, games are play-dramas unto themselves, self-contained,” Hock said in November. “But the story really begins once the game ends. Real redemption — what we pretend the games are about but what real life really is about — can only happen for the athlete after the game is over and real life begins.”
HONORABLE MENTION: Bobby Fischer Against the World (HBO), Catching Hell (ESPN), McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice (HBO).
THE PICKS: The Wrestler (ESPN’s E:60) and Gambling on Youth Football (ESPN’s Outside the Lines)
The superhero physique he had during his days in the WWE is long gone. Scott Hall is now 53 and says he takes 11 heart and seizure medications daily. He has a pacemaker and says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He looks shockingly frail. In October, E:60 aired a 16-minute piece on one of the more interesting figures in pro wrestling history, given his fame and self-destructive nature. For those of us of a certain age, it was a devastating portrait, a man wrecked by drug addiction and alcoholism. There’s no narrator and no reporter fronting the piece, which adds to the sullen mood. Lead producer Ben Houser and associate producer John Minton III are to be commended for their work. Same with the terrific job of video editing by Bluefoot Entertainment’s Matt McCormick.
Reporter Paula Lavigne’s work on the gambling and criminal influences surrounding a popular South Florida youth football league should be seen by all youth coaches. Her on-camera interview with Osbert Small, a coach in the league who was caught by hidden camera betting on games, was compelling stuff.
HONORABLE MENTION: ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Welles Crowther; Outside the Lines on Wes Leonard; HBO’s Real Sports feature (fronted by Mary Carillo) on Bob Hewitt; Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports interview with Jerry West.