Anyway, one of Simmons’s targets was Mike Tirico, whom Simmons accused of sabotaging Tony Kornheiser’s chances while the two shared the “Monday Night Football” booth from 2006 to 2008. To wit:
“If I was [Kornheiser] … and I had this guy with me who was subtly undermining me, changing the subject on me and greeting my jokes with dead silence, I would eventually strangle this person on live TV.”
“Tirico doesn’t sell Tony for three f—– years, then has the gall to say nice things about him after Tony leaves? Come on … Five minutes into their first regular season Monday night game, Tirico had already laughed at more [Jon] Gruden jokes than he did for three years of Kornheiser. I never thought he wanted Tony in the booth, and that became obvious. … He failed Kornheiser.”
Tirico, who has since moved on to NBC, held his tongue on Simmons’s comments until this week, when he appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Illustrated media podcast and was asked about it. And while he didn’t go as far as Simmons, he does describe a situation with Kornheiser that was doomed from the start.
“On-air, it was a challenge, and it has nothing to do with us as people,” Tirico told Deitsch. “It had to do with the professional part of it. I did ‘PTI’ a couple of times with Tony, and it was in the lead-up to that, so we got to know each other a little bit. And that was a lot of fun. … On the air, it was very difficult because it was hard to do.”
“Monday Night Football” was Tirico’s first NFL play-by-play job, and so his first goal was “to prove that I’m worthy of that job,” Tirico said. But it was hard for him to reconcile that with what ESPN was trying to do with the booth, namely make it something more along the lines of a talk show like “Pardon the Interruption,” which Kornheiser and fellow former Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon have so successfully hosted for years.
Here’s Tirico, his quotes to Deitsch cleaned up a bit for clarity’s sake:
I had a certain way I think a football game should be done. And what ESPN’s vision of it was to be more than just a football broadcast; it would be harkening back to the days of ‘Monday Night’ when there was the big personality of [Howard] Cosell in the booth and all that stuff. I didn’t buy into that, necessarily, and it’s not that I didn’t want to make it work. I’d go into the game with all the stuff Tony wanted to do, tee up Tony on this. The problem I had with it was twofold.One, and this is not a problem in philosophy — it’s a problem in execution — as we’re doing the game, I could never ask Tony about anything that happened on the field. He was driven by story lines and personalities, which all were germane to the game itself, but when we got down to players 30 through 35 … he’d probably be the first person to tell you this, he didn’t have a ton of information on that. He always said, ‘It’s not my interest who the backup offensive guard is.’ But that’s the lifeblood to me of a quality football broadcast, and I could never do that with him. So that made it always challenging.And secondly, and this was one of the things Bill brought up — and Bill and I discussed this, as a matter of fact — Tony always felt like it was a problem that I could never look at him during the game to have a conversation about the topics he wanted to engage. … He wanted it to be like ‘PTI’ in the booth, where he and Wilbon would go back-and-forth. … But my job, the most important job I have, is to look at the field and see who’s coming in and who’s coming out, especially in this era of the NFL. … And we would never get to a comfortable place with that.
Tirico went on to say that he expressed his disappointment with Simmons about his remarks, namely because he said Simmons never asked him why his pairing with Kornheiser didn’t work. He also said multiple times that he remains on friendly terms with his former broadcast partner.
“I like Tony a lot. I love him on ‘PTI,’ ” Tirico said. “It just was really hard within the body of a broadcast to do a talk show.”
Here’s the thing about announcers, and it’s an observation Simmons also made in the Miller and Shales book: No one is tuning into a game to hear what they have to say.
“Mike Tirico could leave tomorrow and we could replace him with Mike Greenberg or one of forty other guys, and the ratings would not budge .00001,” Simmons said. “Nobody watches for Mike Tirico. Zero. No one.”
I’m not sure this was truly a slight against Tirico (even if Simmons meant it to be) because you could substitute just about any other name for his. Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, Sean McDonough, Joe Buck, Gus Johnson, whoever: There isn’t an announcer alive who is going to move the needle in any significant way, because the game’s the thing. Sure, people tuned in to hear what Cosell had to say in the “MNF” booth in the 1970s, but how much of that was Cosell, and how much of that was the fact that cable was in its infancy and the NFL’s television reach was limited to a couple of games on Sunday and one on Monday night? Supply, demand and a toupeed loudmouth created a perfect storm that we’ll never see again.
ESPN’s esoteric experiments with the “MNF” booth earlier this century — first with Dennis Miller and then with Kornheiser — only served to prove this point. Announcers are like referees: They’re only noticed when things go wrong.
“People tune in for the three-and-a-half hours of the football game,” Tirico told Deitsch. “If they’re entertained along the way, great. If the booth has chemistry, that’s terrific. But where they were trying to go was to put ‘PTI’ in the middle of a football game. I tried to help them execute that the best I could. … If it didn’t work, I apologize for my flaws in that. Hopefully somebody else can figure out how to do that. At the end of the day, I still think it was the right thing, and to this day Tony and I have a really good relationship.”