Chris Russo berates Stephen A. Smith

Craig Carton, whose comeback arc (deserved or not) has been a popular talking point amid his looming departure from FAN, recently took a shot at Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, suggesting he wouldn’t have survived this current era of sports radio.

“There’s a matter in which you talk sports that just does not work anymore,” said Carton on Thursday’s show. “If you take all the successful hosts that started this radio station, and I mean this, and you ask them to start their careers today doing the exact same type of show they did back starting in the late ‘80s into the ‘90s, they would have all failed. I want to be clear about that, every one of them would have failed.”

Carton is entitled to that opinion, though it’s not remotely accurate, conveniently forgetting what Russo has done to reinvent himself on ESPN, emerging as the perfect foil for Bristol’s resident hot-take artist, Stephen A. Smith. You could argue that “Mad Dog,” months shy of his 64th birthday, has never been more relevant, successfully bridging the generation gap with his weekly appearances on First Take. “Mad Dog Wednesdays” have become appointment viewing, a brilliant novelty showcasing Russo’s comical stylings as a confident and willing debater longing for a different time in sports, a bygone era of short shorts, Converse sneakers and grainy black and white footage of Bob Cousy gliding up and down the parquet floor at Boston Garden.

It’s character acting at its finest, a shrill, hysterical portrait of every crazed New York fan you’ve ever met, screaming himself hoarse over “load management,” an abomination borne of coddled millionaires content to serve as spectators, protecting their bodies from the rigors of an 82-game regular season.

Russo’s arguments aren’t particularly evolved or sophisticated. Predictably, he has little patience for analytics or any data that would contradict his overarching narrative that sports were better in the 80s when Kevin McHale could clothesline Kurt Rambis without fear of repercussion. That’s put him at frequent odds with on-air rival J.J. Redick, a recent NBA retiree who, in stark defiance of stubborn boomers like Mad Dog, has made it his life’s mission to elevate the sports discourse, favoring stat-driven analysis over wishful nostalgia.

The difference between Russo and a loathsome antagonist like Skip Bayless is Mad Dog’s winking self-awareness, cognizant of the role he occupies as a shameless provocateur in service of an unambitious audience that only seeks to be entertained, dutifully tuning in each Wednesday to hear a helium-voiced dinosaur wax poetic about John Havlicek.

“My job is to make [Stephen A’s] life a little bit easier,” Russo told Jimmy Traina of Sports Illustrated on a recent podcast appearance. “He works until midnight and then he’s got to be up at the crack of dawn. So if I can go on for two hours and I can help take a little bit of the load away and do the ‘What I’m Mad About’ scream and yell for ten minutes and take some pressure off him, that’s basically in a lot of ways what I think my role is.”

Ravaged by Disney’s recent cost-cutting measures, ESPN may not be the behemoth that it once was. But credit them for recognizing Mad Dog’s potential on First Take, employing the radio veteran as a sixth man, bringing instant energy off the bench with his chaotic musings on everything from the World Baseball Classic (he dismissed Mike Trout’s eagerly anticipated showdown with Shohei Ohtani as a snooze-worthy contrivance) to munching edibles at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

While Max Kellerman, throughout his First Take tenure, wasn’t seen as confrontational or opinionated enough to share a timeslot with Stephen A, Russo more than holds his own in that respect, invoking late-career Al Pacino with his willingness to chew scenery. Russo has more blind spots than a car without a sideview mirror, but, as we’ve witnessed with other contrarians native to the “hot-take” realm, there’s immense value in being wrong. Nothing much sticks to Russo, whose performative flair has rendered him among the most meme-able shock jocks in sports media, churning out viral soundbites with the well-oiled efficiency of a Chipotle service line.

Unlike other ESPN stars at risk of overexposure, Mad Dog’s sparse usage has prevented him from wearing out his welcome, the TV equivalent of summoning Aroldis Chapman from the pen to throw nothing but 100-mph fastballs. It’s a heck of a gig if you can get it, allowing Russo to come and go as he pleases, a bombastic presence confined to two hours each Wednesday from 10 to 12 PM ET.

None of this would work without Russo’s natural charisma, presenting himself as the kind of likable everyman you wouldn’t mind grabbing a cold one with after a taxing day at the ol’ 9-5. Russo has and always will be an open book, sparing no detail in chronicling his breakup (and eventual reunion) with longtime radio partner Mike Francesa, whose career decline was no doubt accelerated by his own self seriousness, treating his callers with the utmost disdain and condescension.

In contrast to humorless killjoys like Francesa, Mad Dog is in on the joke (he would almost have to be to submit a top-five list this laughably uninformed), gladly peeling back the curtain in revealing interviews with Howard Stern and Dan Le Batard. Unapologetically New York with a thick Long Island accent and an exaggerated cadence, Russo’s stage presence offsets most of his bad opinions, even if he occasionally comes off as heavy-handed, leaning too heavily into his “get off my lawn” shtick as a cartoonish blowhard yelling at clouds.

Even if you hate Mad Dog and all he represents as a willing participant in hot-take culture, he’s one of ESPN’s most successful reclamation projects to date, introducing himself to a millennial demographic with little or no recollection of his early work at FAN, inspiring generations of imitators looking to carve out a similar space on mainstream radio. Russo’s rants are obviously legendary, iconic works of art warranting scholarly analysis. But what really sets him apart is how much fun he has, embodying the same youthful enthusiasm that once propelled Jon Gruden and Tony Romo to broadcast stardom.

Closing in on four decades in his chosen field, Russo, even if he’s not the most polished or articulate voice in sports, remains the ultimate guilty pleasure, a colorful personality you might not agree with but can’t possibly stay mad at, the eccentric uncle at your family cookout recounting—with remarkable clarity—Larry Bird’s dramatic steal to stun the “Bad Boy” Pistons in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.