The latest big-name personality to part ways with ESPN, reportedly, is morning radio fire-breather Colin Cowherd. Cowherd’s name came up as another possible refugee shortly after the Worldwide Leader cut ties with Grantland founder Bill Simmons.
Whereas Simmons ingratiated himself to the independent sports media community through his boutique site, which has given a prominent platform to numerous, talented writers, Colin Cowherd jockeys with First Take chuckleheads Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless as the Hot Take Poster Boy. Even the most ardent Bill Simmons detractors would contend The Sports Guy and The Herd have little in common.
But that’s not the case. The two media free agents have had far-reaching influence on the current state of the industry. Simmons is obvious: His rise up the ranks in the late 1990s and early 2000s tapped into a vast resource, the Internet, which old-school media types had yet to fully embrace. Simmons built a national audience despite his mostly local focus, and the blogosphere is rife with those who imitate his first-person style.
Whether Colin Cowherd devised a unique style, or simply foresaw the wave of the future and hopped on early, is debatable. Either way, the Colin Cowherd who goes on the air every Monday through Friday now and engages in one-sided feuds with John Wall over pregame dance routines, excuses entire fan bases of racism and wields the widest broad-brush of all on ESPN airwaves is not the same Cowherd I listened to as a college kid.
Borrowing a page from the Simmons book, I’m going to make this #tbt about me for a moment, albeit briefly. In late 2003, I stumbled upon Cowherd’s show while killing time between classes. I had a two-hour window in which I spent reading the newspaper and listening to the radio at a campus coffee shop, because even I was 20, I was still really 60.
Anyway, I discovered Cowherd’s show amid the brewing controversy over the 2003 college football season’s BCS outlook. As a then-Pac-10 student, the oversight of USC was infuriating to those of us in the West, and Colin Cowherd dove into it in a way no one else on ESPN, to my recollection, had. Here was someone who was part of the East Coast Bias machine, raging against it internally.
And he did so with smart analysis, not broad-brushstroke hot takes. He wasn’t just operating at USC shill, something he was accused of later into his career; he also talked Miami U., which was having a terrific season in the Mid-American Conference with this kid named Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback.
I became a fan quickly and actually carved out time on days I wasn’t just killing time between classes to hear his show. College football was still a cash cow for ESPN at this time, though certainly not to the level it is today. Cowherd’s focus on the sport was fresh, and a welcome deviation from the NFL quarterback and Yankees-Red Sox 24/7 discussion that dominated the airwaves.
In late 2005, Cowherd’s show started to change. It may not be coincidence that this change coincided with the growth in popularity of Around the Horn, and the gradual transition of erstwhile Cold Pizza into First Take. Whatever the reason, Cowherd’s show became more incendiary, particularly with the negative backlash of his dismissive attitude toward the late Eddie Guerrero.
Pro wrestling is low-hanging fruit, and Cowherd drew a lot of attention for taking a bazooka to that fruit. Making fun of a very recently deceased man who had young children, and just a few years earlier, had worked hard to escape drug addiction, was crass, juvenile — and had a lot more people talking about Colin Cowherd than when he was astutely breaking down the BCS title picture.
I stopped listening to his show altogether shortly thereafter, though thanks to the blogosphere, was privy to his foibles, like lifting material from MGoBlog.com without credit, dog-whistling on John Wall and inciting the easily riled Paul Finebaum audience. But last year, watching the Week Zero FCS game between Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State, something strange happen.
The first half of the broadcast was abominable. Two great teams with national championship aspirations were completely ignored so that the commentators could offer up their takes on the College Football Playoff picture. Colin Cowherd actually saved the broadcast.
He’s an Eastern Washington alum, hence the connection, but his insight into FCS showed he still follows. He was knowledgeable and smart. It was a joy, particularly given the circumstances. It was also frustrating, because it was a reminder of everything I enjoyed about his old show before it became shtick.
Maybe at a new location, Colin Cowherd will return to that style — but I doubt it. The rumor is that he’s headed to Fox Sports, a company that made the other big move this offseason of locking down Clay Travis to a contract extension. Travis went from penning the entertaining Dixieland Delight to calling West Virginia fans scum. I can envision programming next season, built around Travis as the Finebaum foil to Cowherd, in a college football-themed First Take setting.
That’s where sports media is at now. Whether Colin Cowherd is a driving force or just someone who expertly rode the wave, he’s out in front of it.