Heading into next season a new era begins for college football. The long-awaited death of the BCS gives way to the first year of the college football playoff. But there also appears to be a new era on the horizon for the broadcast network of that playoff – ESPN.
It's been widely reported that longtime college football frontman Brent Musburger is being asked to step aside by the network to give way for a new voice as lead play by play person for ESPN's college football coverage next year. It's a decision that could have ramifications throughout ESPN's overall excellent coverage of the sport, from the booth to College GameDay to the new SEC Network and places in between. Whoever ESPN tabs as Musburger's replacement, and what other dominoes fall as a result, are questions hovering over Bristol at the moment.
To discuss ESPN's college football future, we invite a few of our staff and other college football and media writers from around the internet to the AA Roundtable.
Kevin McGuire – Crystal Ball Run, College Football Talk
Dan Levy – Bleacher Report
Dave Biddle – Bucknuts.com
Adam Kramer – Kegs n Eggs, Bleacher Report
1) Do you agree with ESPN's apparent decision to move away from Brent Musburger in a new direction for the voice of the college football playoff?
Biddle: It’s tough because I personally like Brent, but I can understand why ESPN would want to move on. It’s not as if Brent is an aging announcer who everyone loves; he’s an aging announcer who is quite the polarizing figure. With that in mind, I can see why ESPN believes it’s time to turn the page. But Musburger will always be a legend in the world of football announcing. His “You are looking live…” is iconic and goes back to his days of hosting the NFL Today on CBS.
Biles: I do not agree. Though Brent is 74, he is still the best play-by-play person in college football. He has shown no signs of aging, nor has the vigor of his announcing slowed with time. I know ESPN will want to trend in a younger direction, maybe promoting from within, but losing Big Game Brent and "You are looking live" is not what college football needs. When college football's biggest events occur, like the BCS national championship game and now the College Football Playoff, the play-by-play should be left to a seasoned veteran like Keith Jackson, Verne Lundquist or Brent Musburger to paint the picture. But if Fowler or someone else gets the lead gig over Brent, the 74-year-old can take his voice, female fan ogling and sly gambling references to the lead play-by-play job at the SEC Network.
Fang: I don't agree with this and Brent may have an age discrimination case if he so desires. Brent still has his fastball and shows no sign that he's slipping. ESPN is caught between a rock and a hard place as Chris Fowler's contract is expiring this year and it wants to keep him happy. He's been with the network since the late 1980's. According to two published reports, Brent has been offered the top spot at the SEC Network, but has yet to accept it. Brent deserves to bring ESPN into the College Football Playoff era, but it appears he won't have that opportunity.
Koo: I somewhat agree with ESPN's decision. Musburger's ongoing tenure as lead play by play is creating a stagnant ceiling for his peers who are deserving of some form of upward mobility. That said he's still the best imo, deserving of at the very least a farewell tour (If Selig gets one, then who doesn't?),and needs a soft landing and not being relegated to an unlaunched network that might run into carriage issues and may have him calling almost all non Top 25 matchups. His departure from the lead role does help the company in other places, but it will likely hinder the viewing experience in the short term. ESPN needs to find him a softer landing and potentially sweeten their offer to give him 1 final year in a role that he's really thrived in.
Kramer: I don’t like it, and not because the alternatives wouldn’t do a superb job filling in. It’s just that Brent has become the big-game voice for the sport, he’s still remarkably sharp at his age and I would miss the Brentisms — mainly his not-to-subtle gambling references — a great deal. Those are just the best. I understand that there’s more than just my own personal preference involved here. This is a business and I can’t fathom what a negotiation of this magnitude might look like. But for my own selfish enjoyment — and for those who love the entertainment Brent provides — I hope they keep him around a bit longer.
Levy: I think Musburger is one of the three or four best play-by-play announcers in the history of college football, so it's hard to say I totally agree with the direction it looks like ESPN is going. Having said that, their options to replace Brent are some of the most talented voices in that entire company. Brent always makes a game feel bigger, but I don't think ESPN will necessarily lose that with any of their choices to replace him.
McGuire: I love Brent Musburger, and I put him ahead of the beloved Verne Lundquist without hesitation, but if I put myself in the shoes of the powers that be at ESPN I could certainly understand the desirability to get a new, perhaps younger, voice in the booth for the biggest games on the schedule. Musburger, while still among the great voices calling games today, has become a target for criticism and ridicule in his position the past few years (McCarron’s girlfriend and Eminem). Every announcer will have their lighter side, so I’m not against the idea of keeping Musburger in the lead role even if these instances pop up, but I can understand the logic going into the decision that could be looming.
Yoder: Although I've championed the cause of networks giving more opportunities to younger voices in the past, I'm actually against the decision for one reason – Brent Musburger is the best college football play by play person working for ESPN at the moment. He's still at the top of his game and his partnership with Kirk Herbstreit always brings a big game atmosphere to the table, something very few announcing tandems can say. Why not re-sign him to a short term contract (much like Lee Corso) and have him call the first two years of the playoff before stepping aside?
2) Out of the likely candidates (Chris Fowler, Rece Davis, Mike Tirico, Joe Tessitore, Brad Nessler) or any other play by play person at ESPN, who would you pick for the job and why?
Biddle: My pick might be a bit off the map, but I would definitely go with Tessitore. He’s a rising star, calls a great game and has no ego. I remember thinking when he was paired with Rod Gilmore on Friday night games that he was completely miscast – and he was. He was far too good for that gig, which ESPN quickly learned, and I think he would be ideal to be Musburger’s replacement.
Biles: If the Worldwide Leader does go away from Musburger, it looks like Chris Fowler will be the first choice. While Fowler is an excellent host of College GameDay and is constantly improving at tennis play-by-play, football is a much faster, much more involved sport to call. In line with my answer to Question 1, Brad Nessler would be my first choice. He is a veteran football play-by-play announcer who currently does Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network and a college game on Saturday for ESPN. This way, Fowler stays on the tentpole show of College GameDay and ESPN gets a solid voice to replace Musburger. But Fowler, whose contract expires this year, has made it clear that he wants new responsibilities. If ESPN chooses someone over Fowler, that may rupture the relationship between ESPN and a skilled, loyal company man.
Fang: If it doesn't go to Brad Nessler, I'd go with Sean McDonough who has been solid on whatever sport he calls (MLB, college basketball & basketball, hockey, bobsledding, luge, etc). Sean calls a very good game and should be given one of the College Football Playoff semifinal play-by-play spots in 2015 if ESPN decides not to give Nessler the opportunity.
Koo: I pretty much like all of the candidates. Fowler and Davis are a bit too conversational for my liking when they are in the booth. Maybe it's the quality of the game they've got though. Tirico has shown the ability to do college games very well (basketball and football (Clowney hit call was marvelous) but I think he lacks the spirited and folksy demeanor that I look forward to on Saturdays. Plus that might be stretching him too thin. Nessler is fine but I'm not sure he is the guy. I'd actually go with Tessitore and I'm sure he'd feel like he won the lotto to be unshackled from Millen and get that promotion. Tessitore to me has the voice, personality, and attitude that best compliments and augments those memorable big games.
Kramer: Truthfully, most of these candidates would be a home run. I’ve really grown to love the way Tirico calls a game – maybe the best in the biz night now – while the others have all had vast experience in college at some point. Tessitore is absolute fabulous and the scoreboard will likely break at some point during his call, but give me Chris Fowler. He’s likely the best overall football talent ESPN has, and if he’s not No. 1, that honor likely goes to Kirk Herbstreit who will (hopefully) be working alongside. These two obviously have great chemistry from the countless hours on College GameDay. While this would be slightly different, I think they would work remarkably well with one other in the booth.
Levy: Earlier this year I wrote that if ESPN could clone one person in the company to do everything for them, it should be Chris Fowler. I think he's their best studio host for any sport, but I also think he's one of their best play-by-play announcers as well. He's so valuable to the college football brand that, if I were in charge of ESPN, I'd let him choose which job he wants. If he picks the booth, I'd give the College GameDay gig to Rece Davis. If he picks studio, I'd probably give Tessitore a year in the big booth, but make sure Fowler gets at least one playoff game each season.
McGuire: I have been waiting for Rece Davis to get a better position in the college football broadcasting game. It seems he has drawn the short straw year after year with his broadcast partners both in the ESPN studio and in the booth. It is beyond time for him to get a better partner in the booth and moving him in to the lead role certainly would do that. More importantly, I feel he would be capable of doing a fine job in that role in the bigger spotlight. I feel he has been underrated for a while now and if you pair him up with a Kirk Herbstreit-caliber analyst, I think the chemistry would come together quickly.
Yoder: Chris Fowler and Rece Davis are both excellent studio hosts and in terms of overall value to ESPN, both might be in the Top 10 of on-air personalities. But neither is a dynamic football announcer. Does anyone remember a notable or memorable call produced by Fowler or Davis in the football booth? Sean McDonough and Joe Tessitore are both worthy choices, but my choice would be Brad Nessler. He has been so good for so long and he deserves another top line job after a failed experiment calling the NBA Finals. I think he's the most identifiable play by play voice at the network for college football behind Musburger right now.
3) What other dominoes do you see falling and do you think it will be a net improvement for ESPN's college football coverage?
Biddle: I don’t foresee any other big moves – although I didn’t think Musburger would be shown the door just yet, so nothing would shock me. Think about all the large acquisitions ESPN has made just in the last year to enhance its college football coverage – namely Paul Finebaum. I think most of their big acquisitions were made in 2013 and this year will be more about finding the right spots for its on-air talent like Tessitore.
Biles: One of ESPN's improvements next season will be having the rights to the new College Football Playoffs but their main improvement will be their alliance with the SEC Network. It doesn't have "ESPN" in the name but the Bristol (now Charlotte) giant will reap all the benefits of being aligned with college football's biggest brand. Birmingham alone watches more college football than many cites watch network television, and a channel that is wall-to-wall coverage will become ratings and earnings gold for ESPN.
Fang: If Fowler is named as top play-by-play, expect to see Rece Davis given his spot on the College GameDay set. Davis is good at both play-by-play and hosting. And that could set off a domino effect for the studio shows in Bristol. Either Dari Nowkhah, Wendi Nix or Scott Van Pelt could take his place on the College Football Final set with Lou Holtz and Mark May. And it could also cause some trickle down effects on the announcing teams from the Thursday night series to ESPN primetime. It should be fun to see this all shake down over the next four months or so.
Koo: It will be interesting to see if ESPN can keep everyone happy. That's probably the second biggest priority as the other networks are dying for broadcasting talent and ESPN has it in spades here. Another thing to consider if ESPN gets the itch to experiment with a 3 man booth at all to try to appease all parties involved. Another possibility is ESPN splitting the lead play by play role for a while and have it be Fowler when GameDay was in the same location as the main national game and then perhaps have it be Tessitore/Davis/Nessler when GameDay was not at the same location.
Kramer: Obviously the “Megacast” coverage from the BCS National Championship comes to mind. That was brilliant on a variety of fronts, and I’d like to see how they could center this idea over the course of the season. I envision former coaches, players and analysts all in one room, spanning the normal Saturday slate of games, commenting throughout. We got a taste of the future and the results were impressive. I expect ESPN to try and bottle this and sell it going forward. And they should. I’m also curious to see how the SEC Network factors in once it launches. Will it be competing with GameDay eyeballs? Will it generate interest from a new market? What sort of footprint will it have when it goes live? The potential will likely shape the coverage of conference and team networks going forward, and it will debut with heavy hitters out of the gate.
Levy: This feels like a loaded question so someone suggests ESPN blow up its Bristol studio show that Rece Davis currently hosts. So I'll bite. If Davis moves to College GameDay or the Saturday night booth, it's a perfect opportunity for ESPN to retool that entire show by dumping Lou Holtz and Mark May. Holtz is a legend, but it's nearly impossible to understand him even when his commentary actually makes sense. May is the television equivalent of that annoying guy on Twitter that you aren't sure why you still follow. Eventually you stop disliking him and start disliking yourself for not changing the channel.
McGuire: I’ll leave this topic to those who follow the TV media game closer than I do, but certainly there will be a ripple effect if Musburger is moved to a different role and with the introduction of the SEC Network. With Tessitore taking on a vital role with the SEC Network and who knows what happening with Musburger, there are going to be some key roles to fill on ESPN’s broadcast schedule. To me it starts with GameDay, the iconic program the college football Saturday kicks off of with, regardless of what network you are watching. I would like to see Fowler stay on in his role at the GameDay desk and think he could be used to pull double duty the way Herbstreit does. But if Fowler gets the morning off, then I suppose Davis slides in to the pre game show and all bets are off.
Yoder: It's hard to say ESPN will improve their coverage by moving away from a very popular voice in Brent Musburger and we'll have to wait and see what other changes come. Whoever steps in certainly has a high standard to lead up to in the broadcast booth. This is where it could get very interesting for ESPN. If Chris Fowler is the choice then Rece Davis obviously will get the GameDay job if he wants it and ESPN's best studio show likely sees its first major personnel change in years. But maybe Davis really wants to do play by play and CBS comes calling to lead their SEC package once Verne Lundquist retires? With Tim Brando gone there's a big hole at the network and I'm sure CBS would love to sign any of these individuals if they want to leave Bristol for greener pastures. And what about Brent Musburger? Will he be content with a second tier role at the SEC Network calling the 8th or 9th best game of the week? We could see wholesale changes at multiple networks in the new college football season depending on this one decision.