Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s recent run on First Take opposite Stephen A. Smith (only on Wednesdays for now; ESPN currently has other rotating debate partners for Smith on other days) has produced a lot of comment, especially over their back-and-forth yelling matches. Interestingly enough, though, Russo’s former partner Mike Francesa said Thursday (in a conversation with Russo at the Barrett Sports Media summit) that he almost wound up in a regular debating role against Smith in 2008 after Russo left the Mike and the Mad Dog WFAN show. Francesa wound up hosting solo (which he would do from 2008-17, then again from 2018-19, and then again in a shortened form in 2020), but he told Russo Thursday that Smith was under consideration as a replacement when Russo left. Here’s video of that from Phil Mackey on Twitter:
Here’s Mike Francesa telling a story about how Stephen A. Smith almost became Mad Dog Russo’s successor at WFAN 15 years ago ? pic.twitter.com/YSXsR8lwyY
— Phil Mackey ? (@PhilMackey) March 3, 2022
Francesa starts by saying his son Harrison told him about Russo’s recent run with Smith, and says “I told Harrison, ‘I’ve known both of them forever, nobody can outyell either one of them, it’s going to be a stalemate. Nobody can outyell Dog. I’m telling you right now, there’s no chance.” Russo then says “This is the strange thing about [Smith], he loved you and me growing up as a kid.” And Francesa says “He wanted to replace you! I had lunch with him. He was the first guy.”
Russo says “Did he really? You should have hired him!” and Francesa says “I should! He would have been really good!” Russo says “He would have been perfect.” Francesa says “I’ve had a relationship with him going back, and he was one of the first guys I talked to. [Former WFAN programming director Mark] Chernoff and I had lunch with him. One of the first guys we met with was Stephen A.”
Update: Francesa added more to this on Twitter Friday.
While I never seriously considered a partner when Dog left, the first person we did meet with was Stephen A. He would have been a very wise choice.
— Mike Francesa (@MikeFrancesa) March 4, 2022
It’s unclear how close Smith actually came to winding up in Russo’s seat on WFAN. But the summer 2008 timing of that means the chances don’t appear to have been zero, at least from Smith’s side; that was after his 2008 demotion at ESPN, and while it was before his actual 2009 exit from the network, he certainly might have jumped if offered a big role elsewhere (and replacing Russo, at that point, certainly would have qualified as big). And this was before Smith’s 2011 return (in a mostly-radio role), 2012 slot on First Take, and rise to becoming the highest-paid (although he just got bumped by Troy Aikman) on-air ESPN personality.
If WFAN had opted to go with a replacement for Russo rather than having Francesa host solo, and if they had chosen Smith, the sports world might look quite different today on several fronts. For one thing, if the Francesa and Smith show had taken off, that probably means Smith doesn’t head back to ESPN in 2011. And that maybe means that the history of First Take is quite different.
First Take started in 2007 with Dana Jacobsen and Jay Crawford, as an evolution of Cold Pizza and not as the full debate show it is today. Skip Bayless was there in 2007, but his role and the rise of embrace debate really expanded in the August 2011 format change. Smith started as a guest commentator after that change, then got a full-time role in April 2012, which is when the show really became the version we know today. But if Smith had been on WFAN with Francesa instead at that point, it’s unclear where ESPN would have turned to find a regular foil for Bayless, or if they even would have done so.
The other part of history that could potentially have changed here involves YES and Fox Sports 1. In February 2014, YES dropped their simulcast of Francesa’s WFAN show to instead simulcast Michael Kay’s ESPN New York show. Maybe that move happens even if the WFAN show is Mike and Stephen A. instead of Mike’d Up (Kay is, after all, the primary Yankees’ announcer on YES, so there was logic to YES shifting to simulcasting his show), but maybe it doesn’t. There’s at least a chance there’s more viewer demand for Francesa and Stephen A. yelling at each other instead of such Mike’d Up highlights as Francesa asking the St. John’s soccer coach remarkable questions about soccer and the World Cup, getting confused by an old injury report on a replayed game, or falling asleep on the air (at least once, possibly twice).
But even if the Francesa-Kay shift happens at YES as it did in our timeline, that led to Francesa’s show moving its simulcast to Fox Sports 1, and to a lot of Francesa pushing back about getting preempted for the UEFA Champions League (which drew higher ratings) before he eventually ended his relationship with Fox in September 2015, which came after they brought in Colin Cowherd a month earlier. The Cowherd move was the start of FS1 really embracing debate (they’d brought in Jamie Horowitz, the architect of that strategy at ESPN, in April), but that amped up further when they brought in Bayless from ESPN in August 2016. But if they’d already had Smith partly in the fold (albeit just with a radio simulcast), maybe he’s the debater they go for instead, and maybe they make their debate pivot earlier. And maybe Bayless stays at ESPN and the Smith-Bayless head-to-head plays out in reverse.
At any rate, the decision was made to have Francesa just host solo, so we’ll never know how Mike and Stephen A. would have done. And we don’t know how particularly close this was to happening; Francesa says here that Smith wanted the role, and that he and Chernoff had lunch with Smith, but doesn’t indicate whether there was a lot of interest from WFAN’s end. But it’s fascinating to hear about this, and to think about how sports media history might have been different if this move had been made.