BRISTOL, Conn. — The red light on the camera turned off, and Seth Greenberg walked out of the studio and straight to ESPN’s greenroom.
It was the day after the Oscars last month, and Greenberg had been directed to nominate various college basketball players for hypothetical awards during a five-minute segment on “SportsCenter.” Within 60 seconds of leaving the set, though, he already had some regrets.
“I struggled with this one,” he said to producer Jeff McConville, seated at a computer.
The two then proceeded to go over Greenberg’s appearance frame by frame. When the replay came to Greenberg describing Georgetown’s Otto Porter Jr. as “two O’s, two T’s and spelled the same front and back” on the air, he cringed and explained to McConville that he once used the same moniker on a friend named Otto while growing up on Long Island.
“It was awesomely terrible, which is good. Don’t ever hide your personality,” McConville said.
That, though, didn’t seem to reassure Greenberg.
“My daughters are gonna kill me for that one,” he said to a visitor in the room.
Greenberg, 56, is in the middle of a career reinvention he “sure didn’t expect to happen now.”
Since being fired by Virginia Tech last April, he has become the studio face of ESPN’s college basketball coverage after spending 35 years as a coach. With Selection Sunday less than a week away, he’s in the midst of a three-week stretch in which he’ll appear on one of the network’s platforms every day.
But it’s the manner in which he has approached this new venture, plunging himself full bore into an unfamiliar profession, that has suddenly turned him into a rising star at ESPN.
The timing of Greenberg’s dismissal from Virginia Tech could not have been worse for his family.
Greenberg’s youngest daughter, Jackie, was just finishing up her junior year at Blacksburg (Va.) High and middle daughter Ella, a Virginia Tech cheerleader, was one semester away from graduating. He believes the situation may have been hardest on his wife of 26 years, Karen, who “took a lot of pride in being there for players and liked having a team,” he said.
Greenberg declined to rehash the circumstances that led to his firing, although the abruptness and reasoning — Athletic Director Jim Weaver told reporters he wanted a coach who would better cultivate a “family environment” — behind the decision has left some wounds. A clause in Greenberg’s $1.2 million buyout from Virginia Tech also precludes either side from speaking negatively about the other in public, according to two people involved with the negotiations.
“I’m really proud of what I accomplished at all my stops and what I was able to build at places that didn’t have a great pedigree,” said Greenberg, who won two ACC coach of the year awards and finished with the second-most victories in program history during nine seasons at Virginia Tech — but only made one NCAA tournament appearance.
Added Karen Greenberg, who noted that Ella was in attendance at Cassell Coliseum for Virginia Tech’s senior night game against Clemson last week, “We’ve all tried to take an unpleasant situation and move forward positively.”
So Seth Greenberg sold his family’s Blacksburg home and moved to Avon, Conn., about 15 miles northeast of ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, before he had even signed a contract with the network. But the groundwork for his next career move had already been laid.
A broadcast journalism major at Fairleigh Dickinson, Greenberg figured television would beckon once he was done coaching. He had previously worked with the now-defunct College Sports Television (CSTV) during the NCAA tournament.
Last March, before his tenure at Virginia Tech ended, Greenberg appeared on ESPN’s airwaves for nine straight days. “I didn’t think that was an audition,” he joked.
But his initial forays into television impressed network executives and on-air talent alike. With Greenberg out of earshot last month as the two prepared for a halftime show, ESPN anchor Rece Davis revealed that he told producers last spring, “When he’s done there [at Virginia Tech], we should hire this guy immediately.”
“He translates what he knows into something people understand,” Davis said of Greenberg. “He’s got a gift, but it’s his wit that will separate him from others. Some coaches can’t do it. I’ve done auditions where you think, ‘This guy is gonna be great,’ but for whatever reason they freeze up. He was kind of a natural.”
Unlike many former coaches on ESPN’s airwaves, Greenberg wanted to live near Bristol rather than fly in for his appearances. He still wanted to feel like he was part of a team and needed to be near resources that would help him improve on the air.
“If I was gonna do this, I was gonna do it the right way,” he said. “I’m very prideful.”
During the summer, Greenberg called up many of his coaching friends, collecting scouting reports on every conference in the country. Each morning, he “reads everything” and calls three or four head coaches to get a sense of what’s topical that day. He had ESPN give him access to Synergy Sports, the same video scouting service he used at Virginia Tech.
“There’s no recruiting letters. There’s no phone calls to make. It’s just me and Jake [his dog] hanging out on the couch just watching ball,” said Greenberg, who added he watches more game film now than he did as a coach. “I understand it’s entertainment, but I feel like I’m coaching the listening audience, wherever they’re watching.”
Karen Greenberg has watched her husband relax and joke around with less stress this year. He has tried to satisfy his coaching itch by holding youth clinics around Connecticut. Being on television, though, doesn’t compare with the thrill of competition.
“It’s hard to match the high you get from beating Carolina at Carolina,” Seth Greenberg said. “But I’ve got the best seat in the house and at the end of the night when the game’s over, I cannot only go to eat, but I can actually taste what I eat.”
Greenberg has taken a “never say never” attitude toward coaching again. He misses the daily interaction with players and the “intoxicating” feeling upon helping someone reach a goal they never thought could be accomplished. With the NCAA tournament bubble a popular topic of discussion in recent weeks, he often jokes on air about how “I’d still be coaching now” if not for the pitfalls his Hokies ran into so often around Selection Sunday.
Some of his comments, Greenberg admitted, have drawn the ire of his former coaching colleagues. His dilemma has been finding a balance between not being “a bobblehead doll” and avoiding the “irresponsible” comments that once riled him as a coach.
But those around Greenberg on a daily basis don’t get the sense he’s in any rush to return to the sideline.
“In the past when there have been [former coaches] that have come through here . . . they’re looking to increase their profile, show that they’re still here and trying to basically use ESPN to be visible for their next job,” said analyst Andy Katz, who hosts a weekly podcast with Greenberg. “That’s not the case with Seth. He really wants to make this work. He really is working hard at it.
“He’s not ready to burn every bridge by any means, but I don’t sense he’s holding anything back.”
One day last week, senior coordinating producer Barry Sacks called Greenberg to remind him about a phrase he often hears in the hallways of ESPN’s headquarters: “You haven’t lost a game in a year.”
He’s more concise now with a few months under his belt, forming headlines for the audience in one sentence. His sardonic sense of humor has begun to shine through. Nerves and comfort with the camera have never been a problem, “and he’s a coach who’s coachable,” Sacks said.
ESPN is using him more and more, whether it’s on “SportsCenter,” on the network’s radio shows or via an online column. Sacks recently told him “you could do this for a career.”
“That’s probably the best thing I could tell him,” Sacks added. “He’s really had an unbelievable first year. He’s always thinking about the game”
With the clock nearing 1 a.m. last month, a 16-hour day nearly complete, Greenberg had to record a 30-second clip that would be played on the next morning’s “SportsCenter.” Earlier in the evening, fellow analyst Jay Williams and Davis bet a cup of coffee over whether Greenberg could do a promo in just one take (it took him three tries).
This time, Greenberg succinctly explained how Syracuse had bested Marquette.
“I nailed it!” he shouted in celebration, banging his fist against the anchor desk. But Greenberg’s smile disappeared quickly, the bad news coming from a director in his earpiece.
“Oh, I gotta go longer,” he said.
So Greenberg neatly placed his hands back in position, staring at the camera as the red light flicked back on.