Cold Pizza An AA illustration of the show ‘Cold Pizza,’ which debuted on ESPN2 20 years ago today.

It’s the morning of October 20, 2003.

Last night, the Florida Marlins went up 1-0 in the 2003 World Series over the mighty New York Yankees. Sports fans enjoyed a weekend littered with college football and the NFL. The Big Ten had the nation’s attention with two Top 20 matchups: 8th-ranked Ohio State hosted and defeated 9th-ranked Iowa in a matchup hyped up because in 2002, both the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes finished at the top of the Big Ten. They were co-champions, each 8-0, but they didn’t face each other. That year is best remembered because the Bucks won the National Championship while Brad Banks and the Hawkeyes appeared in the Orange Bowl against Heisman winner Carson Palmer and Southern Cal.

Meanwhile, Jim Sorgi and 12th-ranked Wisconsin, fresh off an upset in Madison over Ohio State, took on 15th-ranked Purdue. Kyle Orton and the Boilermakers pulled off the upset in Camp Randall. It was one of the biggest on a pretty busy Saturday.

Elsewhere, the weekend’s most significant moment in the NFL came in the Meadowlands. Brian Westbrook captained the Philadelphia Eagles to a miracle victory over the New York Giants. Herm Edwards and DeSean Jackson had the more highly-regarded “Miracles at the Meadowlands” in NFL history. But both Giant fans and Eagle fans still remember the moment for polar opposite reasons.

(PS: An appreciative mention for Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman in the linked highlight reel. 20 years ago, they were both pretty darn good)

Waking up on Monday, October 20, 2003, sports fans had a new option to turn to. With five years to go until SportsCenter began live telecasts in the morning, there was a vacancy for morning sports talk shows. That may sound wild today, but 20 years ago, we lived a different life.

I was in 6th grade, and before then, I didn’t mind the SportsCenter re-runs. Frankly, I credit them and the show for my sports fandom. It’s entirely possible that without the show and the network, I’m not writing this column today. So for me, as a young kid, I didn’t mind it. So then, here comes this show on ESPN2.

Cold Pizza.

The local networks fiercely dominated the morning talk show marketplace. The TODAY Show brand was immense, while The Early Show and Good Morning America patrolled on CBS and ABC, respectively. Breakfast television informed you about sports, but it wasn’t the hook. Nearly 25 years into its run, ESPN decided to infiltrate the breakfast television marketplace with a show entitled Cold Pizza. In a way, the show’s title was a pretty resounding metaphor.

On Sundays, you eat pizza. It’s really good. It’s hot, fresh, cheesy, saucy, garlicky, and crispy. Then, when everything’s done at night, you put it in the fridge. The following day, it’s cold pizza. It’s still good – much better than reheated, satisfying, and worth discussing.

For sports, Sundays in the Fall are the best. The NFL has a stranglehold on everyone. In 2003, the NFL was a monster. It wasn’t the behemoth on television it is today, but it was nothing to thumb your nose at. The Fox national game averaged 19.6 million people while the CBS national game logged 19 million on average, which ranked 3rd and 4th on the year behind only CSI and Survivor: Islands that year.

And every Monday on the radio, at the bus stop, on the bus, at the lockers, in homeroom, at the water cooler at work, what was everyone talking about? The NFL. A day later, football, the World Series, and other things were on everyone’s mind. Now, ESPN2 viewers who were at home could listen to a new panel to talk about sports and the news of the day.

Cold Pizza had a cast of emerging broadcasters and personalities. ESPN brought in young Bowling Green graduate and regional Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Jay Crawford to lead command alongside Catherine ‘Kit’ Hoover. Hoover, an Atlanta native, first appeared on TV on MTV in the mid-1990s. Following a stint on Fox News, ESPN hired her away two months before the show’s official debut. Crawford and Hoover were joined by Leslie Maxie and Thea Andrews for much of the maiden voyage of the show.

The show offered something different and something new for viewers. It was a new foray for ESPN to get into the breakfast television game. So Cold Pizza had to play things differently. They went on-site to several events, including the short-lived Cold Pizza: On Campus series in the summer.

But then another element to the game emerged later that Fall. Sports fans didn’t know it at the time, but when the ‘1st & 10’ segment debuted on Cold Pizza in the Fall of 2004, nothing would be the same.

Yep, that’s right. That’s Crawford as the mediator for a series of debates with columnist Skip Bayless against columnist Woody Paige. And what a whopper of a first segment: The introduction of 1st & 10 kicked off by talking about the infamous Malice at the Palace.

When we say nothing was the same, we really do mean that nothing was the same. The phenomena of 1st & 10 and the debate craze eventually turned it into a show of its own. Cold Pizza lasted until May 4, 2007. On May 7, 2007, ESPN debuted a brand-new show in its place: First Take.

You know the rest from here. First Take launched Bayless and the debate-centric sports talk show into the stratosphere. You can trace everything back to when First Take really “embraced debate.” Sports morning television shows began dominating the market. Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith’s bank accounts grew exponentially. The TebowMania craze had an avatar, and he was on TV every morning on ESPN2. A cavalcade of arguers battled against that avatar, day after day, week after week. Lest we get into the LeBron James discussion, we would be here for an eternity.

Unintentionally, 20 years ago today, Cold Pizza changed sports television history. If you told everyone back then that they would, they wouldn’t believe you. Nobody could have foreseen what eventually tumbled forward with the trickle-down effect still impacting sports television two decades later.

So happy 2oth anniversary to the debut of Cold Pizza: A show that looked different, felt different, and unintentionally sent the sports morning show marketplace into another dimension, for better or worse.

About Chris Novak

Chris Novak has been talking and writing about sports ever since he can remember. Previously, Novak wrote for and managed sites in the SB Nation network for nearly a decade from 2013-2022