August 24, 2008


Talking Sports the Way Men Really Talk Sports (BRYAN CURTIS, 8/24/08, NY Times)

[T]he “Mike and the Mad Dog” show was not just a New York institution (it was the highest rated radio show in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic in the afternoon) and a clearinghouse for instantaneous sports opinions. The true genius of Mike and Mad Dog was how they, perhaps better than anyone else, captured the fraught way in which men talk to each other about sports. In the age of highly theatrical, ESPN-style shouting, we will perhaps never again have such a theater for real angst and aggression, for small moments of joy followed by gratuitous insult.

For most of us, the act of arguing about sports is akin to trench warfare — what football coaches would call “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The small things eat at you, like competing loyalties (Francesa was a Yankees fan; Russo, oddly, preferred the San Francisco Giants), asymmetrical information levels, or the nagging feeling that your conversation partner isn’t taking you all that seriously. Francesa and Russo coped with this problem for five and one-half hours a day, five days a week. Both natives of Long Island, they were thrown together by station management in 1989. Both thought their opinions were valuable enough that they should be broadcast without interference by the other guy.

It was the other guy, however, who gave the show its emotional crackle. Francesa, round and toad-like, was the more oracular of the pair, able to instantly summon obscure sports facts. (He had trained as a researcher at CBS.) Russo, who was skinny and vibrated like an old radiator, was no slouch: he was the product of a boarding school education and an eager student of the sports pages. But Francesa’s self-assurance — some would say arrogance — seemed to unnerve Russo, and he tended toward the outrageous provocation. In 1991, during the second year of the “Mike and the Mad Dog” show, Russo picked the Buffalo Bills to crush the Giants in the Super Bowl. It is hardly a coincidence that the Giants were coached by Bill Parcells, a close friend of Francesa’s.

Sports fans will recognize the basic teacher-yahoo dynamic, but Mike and the Mad Dog had a far more complex relationship. “Each guy would play both sides of the coin,” says Mike Tirico, the host of a show on ESPN Radio and the play-by-play announcer of “Monday Night Football.” Disaster lurked around the corner. In 1991, Russo lambasted CBS’s coverage of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, which not coincidentally happened to feature Francesa. They had it out on the air. The following year, Russo puckishly deleted Francesa’s name from the show’s opening titles; in a meeting with station management, the two came close to trading punches.

“Mike and the Mad Dog” resisted the peppy production values that have crept into popular radio shows like ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” (no relation) and the “Jim Rome Show.” Most sports radio shows attempt to disguise the banality of the enterprise; Mike and the Mad Dog exulted in it. retain a considerable level of amateurishness. If you listen to Steve Sommers or Joe Benigno you'd almost think you'd tuned in some ham radio operator, because obviously no professional operation would hire them...

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2008 7:30 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus