Kirk Herbstreit: The Face of College Football (Part Two)
The day before LSU and Alabama take the field for the biggest regular season game in SEC history, ESPN's College Gameday crew sits around a horseshoe shaped table inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. Desmond Howard, Chris Fowler, Urban Meyer, David Pollack, and Lee Corso sit alongside one side of the table, on the other side are Erin Andrews and two producers. In the center of the table sit Tom Rinaldi, Kirk Herbstreit and Gameday producer Lee Fitting.
Herbstreit has an iPad propped in front of him, he's typing notes and discussing the next day's two-hour Gameday show.
It's not even noon, but already Herbstreit's orange tie has provoked a minor Twitter storm. Some Alabama fans are convinced that Herbstreit's orange tie is a coded message designed to send a message of solidarity to Auburn fans.
When he hears this Herbstreit groans.
"Will you Tweet out that it's just an orange tie, it isn't an Auburn tie?" he asks.
That's because Herbstreit's fandom, or lack thereof, is a near constant obsession of other fans. Ohio State fans are angry at him for not being partisan enough, Michigan fans are angry at him for being too partisan. At some point in time over the past sixteen years virtually every fan base in America has become convinced that Herbstreit "hates" them or "loves" a rival.
Such is life when you're college football's own Sphinx.
Herbstreit shakes his head. "I really," he says, "have to worry about what colors I wear."
That wardrobe color is an issue for Herbstreit is, in many ways, a compliment to his work ethic. Fans rarely, if ever, criticize Herbstreit for being uninformed or underprepared.
That's by design.
Gameday producer Lee Fitting says, "Nobody works harder in this business. Nobody."
Herbstreit will talk to 15-20 coaches each week. (Chip Kelly would be his choice if he had to go to dinner with a single coach). Text message with dozens more. (Lane Kiffin texts him the most often). That's because Herbstreit never stops working.
"The big thing that drove me when I got the job was I felt like I owed it to the audience to be prepared," Herbstreit says. "Because a lot of people are not going to know who I am. I didn’t win a Heisman, I wasn’t an All American, I didn’t win a national championship, so instead of shying away from that, I met that head on. And I thought, what I’m going to do to those people who don’t know who I am is they will not be able to deny my preparation or my work ethic. My goal was to outwork every analyst in the country when it comes to knowing the sport. To this day, that’s my goal, to outwork everyone. Because I’m not going to have my playing experience to rely on for credibility. My work is going to give me my credibility."
Herbstreit does several hours of television a week outside of Gameday. Live spots on ESPN's SportsCenter, various other shows on the network, College Football Live, radio shows across the country. Whereas other analysts request the questions in advance, Herbstreit often tells producers he doesn't want the questions beforehand. That's because he believes fans can sense the lack of authenticity if he appears too programmed:
"You have got to watch games. You have to live this. Like every moment of every day. Like the coaches do. I see it all, I have an opinion on it all. I don’t need to read an article about Krause getting nailed by Wade. (A controversial hit from the Arkansas- Vanderbilt game). I watched. I saw it."
Often Herbstreit watches those games in the ESPN College Gameday bus. The bus has five TVs airing five different games at the same time. Beginning in the morning Herbstreit will often watch nearly 24 hours of straight football coverage.
"I sit there and watch everything that happens. Just like I did when I was a kid."
Indeed, when his mom first entered the bus and saw the banks of televisions playing football, she gasped. "Oh, my gosh, Kirk, "you've landed in heaven," she said.