‘Hardest-working guy:’ How Kirk Herbstreit became a college football star off the field

Before he became the face and voice of college football, Kirk Herbstreit first had to win a tryout for the job.

This happened in mid-1996, when Herbstreit was a 26-year-old blond kid from Ohio with almost no name recognition outside the Midwest.

ESPN was evaluating the risk. Should the network turn him into a celebrity almost overnight, promoting him to join its high-profile College GameDay show just three years after he graduated college? Or should they hire somebody 20 years older and instead keep giving Herbstreit low-profile assignments on ESPN2, where he was hired in 1995 to do sideline reports for $875 per appearance?

It came down to an audition.

“I was absolutely terrified,” Herbstreit recalled in an interview with USA TODAY Sports.

He got the job anyway. And now here he is, 25 seasons later, arguably the most influential personality in college football, preparing to take the national stage again on New Year’s Day in another big moment for his family. 

Ohio State, where Herbstreit played quarterback, is again playing Clemson, where his twin sons are members of the team, this time in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal in New Orleans. Herbstreit, now 51, is calling the game as an analyst for ESPN but plans to do so from home in Nashville after recently testing positive for COVID-19.

Kirk Herbstreit passed for 2,437 yards as a quarterback for Ohio State from 1989 to '92. (Photo: Rob Kinnan, USA TODAY Sports)

His rise has been rock-star-like, including private jet travels to games and a recent live televised helicopter ride between assignments. And yet it almost never happened. After graduating Ohio State with a business degree in 1993, he came close to pursuing a career in pharmaceutical sales for about $85,000 a year. He instead followed his passion – sports talk radio – for $12,000 a year and didn’t really consider a career on television until an acquaintance casually told him to pursue it.

USA TODAY Sports caught up with Herbstreit this week to discuss how he got to where is and if he really had to move away from Columbus, Ohio, because some Ohio State fans were just too much to bear. The path is marked by big breaks, family scars and scares, three golden retrievers, a dislike of coffee and the secret sauce that helped him become the voice of reason in a sport whose fans often resist rationalism.

Home in Nashville

This will be an unusual weekend home during the season for Herbstreit, grounded by COVID-19 but without any serious symptoms as of Tuesday night.

But it won’t be that big of a change. “In a normal year, I’m home a lot,” Herbstreit said before he announced his positive test this week. In September, he also called the Miami-Florida State game from home in a precautionary move after contact with someone who had tested positive.

Even in a normal year, Nashville is where he gets a lot of work done Sunday to Thursday, making calls, texting and watching film. He moved his family there from Columbus in 2011 and since has created a life that sounds sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Kirk, the former Ohio State team captain, married Allison, the former Ohio State cheerleader. They have four sons, including two younger ones still at home, plus three golden retrievers. He describes himself as a dog-walking “homebody” consumed with family when not preparing for weekend games.

His own childhood was disrupted by divorce. His father, Jim, was a team captain at Ohio State, like himself. He died in 2016.

“I think it’s really important as a parent to be present, and I really, really worked hard because my dad struggled with that,” Herbstreit said. “And it really bothered me as a kid that I would want to share something with him, and he didn’t hear me. It was, `Oh yeah, all right, OK, is that right?’ But I could tell his eyes weren’t there. He was just `yeah-yeah-yeahing’ me, and it really left a scar. And so for me, I always wanted to be there. Work will always come second to my kids.”

After flying out on Thursdays during game weeks in normal years, Herbstreit even made trips home to Nashville to watch his sons play high school football on Friday nights. He then would get back on a plane for GameDay on Saturdays, when sometimes his presence is required in multiple states.  

On Dec. 12, for example, he took a helicopter from that morning’s GameDay site in West Point, New York to make his flight in time for his assignment in the broadcast booth that night in Miami Gardens, Florida.

He says he does not need coffee for this lifestyle.

“When I was younger, I never really got into it and didn’t really like the taste of it,” he said.

Instead he says he relies on “the power of adrenaline,” doing a job he loves, often on little sleep. Diet and exercise help. His wife stresses “clean eating” which includes lean protein. If he’s not working out regularly, he says he gets a “little bit uncomfortable or irritable.”

“I probably need to get a few more hobbies besides sports because that’s pretty much what I’ve done my whole life,” he said.

He didn’t even listen to much music as a kid

He instead listened to Reds baseball on the radio or sports talk on WLW-AM in Cincinnati. His longtime fascination with sports analysis and debate is why he turned down stable jobs with better pay after his playing career endedin 21-14 loss against Georgia in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 1993. He analyzed himself that day, saying he was "pressing a little bit” when he completed just 8 of 24 passes as the Buckeyes finished 8-3-1.

NFL teams didn't see much potential in him, but Worthington Industries, a metals manufacturing company, showed interest if he was willing to move out of Columbus after a year of training for a sales job.  Whitby Pharmaceuticals also courted him with several job interviews in 1993. He even submitted a urine sample.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit will be calling Friday's national semifinal game between Clemson and Ohio State from home after testing positive for COVID0-19. (Photo: James Lang, USA TODAY Sports)

“It was a done deal,” he said. “I was going to start making about $85,000 a year, with a company car and 401K and expense account and the whole deal. And right when I was about to accept it, the radio station offered me a job making $12,000 a year, no benefits, no future, no nothing. I had to make a choice: Do I want stability in something I wasn’t necessarily real fired up about other than I was going to make money? Or did I want to do something — I had no idea what it was going to lead to, but it sounded like something I really loved, which is talking sports?”

He did an afternoon talk show for WBNS radio in Columbus and did sideline reports at Ohio State football games, where he ran into Jack Arute, a reporter for ABC, who would sort of giggle at him and ask, “When are you going to get into TV?”

“I didn’t even know that TV was an option for me,” Herbstreit said.

The turning point came in 1995-96

He had no experience in television and was not a marquee name in college.He pursued the idea anyway and enlisted the help of Ohio State stars Eddie George and Joey Galloway to do a fake show called “Buckeye Corner” in which Herbstreit interviewed them on camera.

He added this to his audition tape, sent it to ABC and got rejected. But ESPN brought him in for an audition — the year before his audition for the big studio chair in 1996. In this case, the network was offering the newbie from radio a TV job on ESPN2 as a sideline reporter, a job he started on Sept. 2, 1995, at a Texas-Hawaii game in Honolulu.

He soon moved into the broadcast booth to call Arena Football League games in the spring of 1996.

And then came the call that catapulted him.

After less than a year on air, he got word that GameDay studio analyst Craig James, then 35, was departing ESPN to take a job at CBS. This left GameDay with a problem: Who would fill James’ role as an outspoken analyst on a popular Saturday show that included former coach Lee Corso and host Chris Fowler?

Kirk Herbstreit says he's tried to make his shtick being deeply prepared for his TV appearances. (Photo: James Lang, USA TODAY Sports)

They tried the kid in an audition with Corso and Fowler. ESPN also considered former Northwestern player Mike Adamle, who was about 20 years older and had about 20 years more TV experience.

The kid won.

"We knew it was risky because he was an unknown and didn’t really have a volume of work we could evaluate, but there was just something about him that clicked," said Howard Katz, the ESPN executive who hired him then and now works at the NFL. "Without risk, you don’t ever get rich rewards."

Katz doesn't remember the live audition but does remember Herbstreit being on his radar to replace James when contract negotiations with James became difficult. He said Herbstreit's audition tape showed that the "camera really likes him."

His preparation stood out to another ESPN executive, Al Jaffe, who recalled how Herbstreit's knowledge went far beyond that of some broadcasters who might focus mostly on the two teams they're covering that week. 

"On GameDay, every conference is discussed," Jaffe said. "You’ve got to have an opinion on everything, and it’s difficult."

Herbstreit's seat on that show helped make him the face and voice of college football, which grew in fame over the past 25 years as he also called some of the week’s biggest games from the broadcast booth for ABC and ESPN. On at least a few occasions, the fame even became too much.

Why he left Columbus

When he moved from Columbus to Nashville, he said in the Columbus Dispatch that he had to move away from a “relentless” vocal minority of Buckeyes fans who didn’t understand that his ESPN job required him to be objective about Ohio State.

Looking back this week, he says it was more about him than them and that he eventually could see himself returning to Columbus. At the time, his celebrity had become a burden he wasn’t ready for — with people he didn’t know finding where he lived and the lunatic fringe of college football getting upset with him for something he said on air.

“It’s nothing against Ohio State or their fans,” he said. “It was trying to get used to living in the public eye, when you don’t really have any experience in it, and it’s scary, especially when you have a wife and you have kids. It’s one thing if you’re by yourself and it doesn’t really affect you. But you start bringing kids in the world and you hear people who get upset with you, and they know where you live. … It was more peace of mind for me and my wife more than anything.”

Nashville allowed him to keep a lower profile, he said.

“Columbus is home, always will be, always has been,” he said. “Hopefully, people will understand it was more me trying to cope with that part of the public eye and how people get really fired up who follow college football. It was just a little scary at that time. That’s all.”

That tension never really goes away, becoming sort of a pull between Herbstreit, the sport’s voice of reason, and the viewers that make the sport thrive, many of whom are fans emotionally invested in tribal loyalties.  

“I’m trying to just be a guy who’s showing up prepared,” he said. “I think that’s why people react so much to what I say. I’ve been in the biggest platforms for the longest period of time, and I’m not typically a guy who in this era of bold takes and loud voices is going to throw something against the wall and see if it sticks. I’ve just never done that.  So when I say something, I think people realize, 'For him to say that, there must be something to this.' "

That’s why his comments caused a stir

On Dec. 1, he said on air that he thought Michigan would wave the “white flag” to avoid playing Ohio State because of COVID-19 concerns, suggesting the Wolverines would duck the Buckeyes on purpose.

Herbstreit soon apologized, saying that what he said was “completely uncalled for” and based on no evidence. But the rarity of this kind of mistake by Herbstreit seemed to make it sting harder. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel blasted Herbstreit.

“I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am for the Big Ten conference to have one of their representatives, who played this game, to say that about any team in this conference,” Manuel said.

Herbstreit cited the troubles of a pandemic-ravaged season as having led him to a breaking point of sorts. For an isolated moment, it broke through what is normally his secret sauce — preparation.

“I’m going to do a ton of research, I’m going to watch a ton of film, and then I’m just going to tell you what I think,” he said. He made that his goal from the start when hardly anybody knew who he was.

“They might not know who I am, but they’re going to learn to realize my quote-unquote shtick is not going to be a shtick,” he said of his start on GameDay. “It’s going to be `That guy seems to be informed. That guy seems to be plugged in.’ That was my goal. It wasn’t to be a shtick guy. It was to be the hardest-working guy. That’s how I started really in 1996, and I have never really wavered from that.”

Now he’s hit a different kind of breaking point with COVID-19 shortly before the big game.

And it’s another weird week

Clemson vs. Ohio State got complicated for the Herbstreit family last year when the same two teams played in the Fiesta Bowl national semifinal, won by Clemson, 29-23. This year it is even more and not just because of COVID.

The two twins, Jake and Tye, both 20, went their own way to join Clemson as non-scholarship players after coach Dabo Swinney showed them more love than the Buckeyes in the recruiting process.  

The rest of the family is still all Ohio State, including Kirk when he’s not on the job for ESPN. The fourth and youngest son, Chase, still might be the most vocal Buckeyes fan of the bunch.

But the family feud got a little extra flavor last week, when son Zak, a high school tight end, announced he would join the Buckeyes as a non-scholarship player.  

"Dream come true!" Zak wrote in a tweet posted with a photo of him, his dad and grandfather in Buckeye uniforms.

Beyond excited to announce that I will be accepting a PWO and continue my academic and athletic career at the Ohio State University! Dream come true! pic.twitter.com/UuC22V5LDD

Of his Clemson twins, Herbstreit said, “I never ask them about football.”

“I may encourage them, but I really don’t talk to them at all about playing Ohio State or anything about the game,” he said. “I just kind of avoid that whole subject really with them.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]

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