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The Ups and Downs of David Smoak and Texas Sports

Smoak’s goal for the show was simple: Don’t let anyone drive down Interstate 20 and think they were listening to a small-time local radio show.

Tyler McComas

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I recently had the opportunity to talk to David Smoak of ESPN Central Texas for nearly 30 minutes. There’s something he said that I can’t get off my mind. 

“I’ve never thought your market size should dictate how well you cover something. I refuse to do that. At times, management has to reign me in and say we can’t do it, but I’m sure as hell going to try.”

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Maybe he learned that life lesson from his father, a US Naval Academy Graduate. Or maybe he just learned it through all the ups and downs of his many years in the business. Regardless, it’s what always has kept Smoak on top of his game and into one of the best broadcasters in the state of Texas 

Early Years

Smoak traveled all over the world as a kid. That’s the lifestyle when you have a father in the military. Regardless of where the family made its home,  David would sit at a desk night after night and pretend to call games.

He looked up to Howard Cosell, Jim McKay and Keith Jackson, as he was often more interested in who was calling the game than the game itself. His parents thought it was cool he had taken such interest in a hobby.

Smoak thought it was all a pipe dream, something that would never come to fruition. His passion, however, continued all the way to his high school and college years. While his friends were out partying, Smoak was inside his dorm room calling games. 

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Three-ring binders and notebooks were filled with box scores and anything else he could use to set the scene for a game. He knew what he wanted to do and that was cover sports. After graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University he immediately got the chance. 

Start of a Career

Smoak’s first job came on November of 1981. Fresh out of college, he was immediately on the air and covering football. Until 1989, he would excel on the television side as a sports broadcaster in the small market he was in.

At the time, sports talk opportunities on the radio were hard to come by and had little existence. However, Smoak had a friend in TV that told him about a new sports talk station that had just opened up in Tyler, Texas. The friend urged him to inquire about a host position with the company. Smoak thought long and hard about moving from TV to radio and the risks that could come along with it. He also considered the fact he felt he had hit his peak at the position he was currently in. Finally, even though he knew very little about how to run a radio show, Smoak took a chance and started a show at KTBB.

If asked, he’ll tell you he had no idea what he was doing at first. But before he started he visited with Norm Hitzges and Randy Galloway, two prominent Dallas radio hosts at the time, to get a better feel of how things should operate. That willingness to go the extra mile and seek help, would be one of many reasons the show would become a huge success. In the year 1990, the show was off and running and on the airwaves. Smoak’s goal for the show was simple: Don’t let anyone drive down Interstate 20 and think they were listening to a small-time local radio show.

He busted his ass to get big guests on the show and pump out quality content. Soon after the start of the show, Smoak created some segments that started to generate buzz in the city. 

His first stroke of luck came in the same year, when the Dallas Cowboys started to resurface. The franchise was filled with controversy after Jerry Jones had recently purchased the team. Everyone was still upset about the firing of Tom Landry and unsure of where the team was headed.

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Smoak saw an opportunity to cover the team extensively. From training camp to games, to everything else in-between, Smoak was everywhere covering the Cowboys. In a town that had never any sort of resemblance of a sports talk radio show, Tyler, Texas was now home to one of the best shows in the state.

For 19 years until 2009, the show continued to grow in popularity. But as life sometimes happens, Smoak ran into a personal situation in the summer of 2009 that found him off the air and out of sports radio. For the first time in over 28 years, he was out of the sports media business. 

A New Beginning 

You don’t realize how much you enjoy hosting a radio show until it’s taken away from you.

Smoak was out of the business for around six months before he got a break. ESPN Dallas called and asked him to start doing shifts on the weekends. Sure, it wasn’t the daily show he did for 19 years, but it was an opportunity to get back into the business in one of the best markets in the country. For a month, Smoak busted his ass to do the best job possible. After a month, the owner from an ESPN station in Waco called. To this day, Smoak isn’t sure who recommended him, but in June of 2010, he was back doing a daily show at ESPN Central Texas. 

Like the Cowboys in the early 90’s, Smoak’s second stroke of luck came when he arrived to cover the Baylor football program. A perennial cellar dweller in the Big 12 and without a bowl berth in over 15 years, the Bears now had an offense that was high-flying and scoring points. 

“I was here in 2010 when they clinched a bowl berth against Kansas State,” said Smoak. “Everyone rushed the field. I was like, what in the hell are they doing? But it hadn’t happened in so long, everyone was just so excited. It was amazing. I was very lucky.” 

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Of course, that was only the start for Baylor, as back-to-back conference championships followed, along with berths in both the Fiesta and Peach bowl, a height most thought was impossible. During that time, Smoak doubled down on everything Baylor football. There was a commitment to attending every event and providing the best content possible. Sales and revenue ideas also were coming along great, as the glory years of doing a sports radio show in Waco had arrived.

The first bowl berth in 2010, the station had just two people in Houston for the game. But the time Baylor was playing UCF in the Fiesta Bowl during the 2013 season, the station had four people in Phoenix for a week. Baylor football was a big time story and ESPN Central Texas was cashing in. 

The Dark Years

You’d never wish what happened next on your biggest competitor. Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any better for Baylor football. Just when a national title was thrown around as a realistic possibility for the program, it all came crashing down at a moment’s notice. Unspeakable acts were reportedly done by several football players at Baylor, casting a dark cloud over the program and bringing a halt to the wild success of the program. Instead of being looked at as one of college football’s best turnaround, it was now looked at as a despicable program that let terrible things happen. 

“I lost sleep in 2015 and 2016,” said Smoak. “There were times were I was like, what the hell? What is going on?’ It’s really strange. There were times where I really, really struggled those years. Every day we woke up and seemed like there was something new. I lost sleep over like ‘my God, what’s next?’

Smoak never lost sleep wondering if Baylor was going to beat Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl or OU in Norman. But this affected him. Instead of covering a football team, his daily show had turned into a constant discussion about the terrible crimes committed by the football program. 

“2016 was the dark year, because that’s when all hell broke loose,” said Smoak. “That was the Pepper Hamilton report, the coaching firing of Art Briles and all the other stories that came out. Our listenership went up. There’s no doubt that our online listenership, which they don’t use on Arbitron, was massive. I mean silly numbers.

“When the 2017 season started and they lost to Liberty, I realized that even though they lost the game and were staring at not winning one all year, that never affected. It got to the point where I didn’t even know who they were playing, because the story was so much about the program trying to overcome whatever actually happened.”

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Though Smoak admits he’s just now getting over what happened and able to enjoy covering Baylor football again, but that is a period of his career he’ll never forget. Covering a story of that nature, especially for such a long time period, is something you’re never fully prepared to do. But Smoak stuck to his morals and what he believed was right. That’s what guided him through, quite possibly, the darkest time of his career. 

Present Day

Baylor football is back on its feet after becoming bowl eligible this year. Some of the wounds are still fresh to many people, but head coach Matt Rhule has done his best to try and move the program forward. 

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“Obviously, we’re there and doing our job whether they’re 11-1 or 1-11,” said Smoak. “But all of us would be lying if we said it wasn’t easier to cover a team that’s had success. It makes a huge difference. For example, the first time Baylor went to a bowl game they went to the Texas Bowl and we probably had two people there. When they went to the Fiesta Bowl against UCF we had four people there for a week. Winning can absolutely dictate the coverage.

“Last year wasn’t hard because they were 1-11. Our coverage doesn’t change because they only win one game. I refuse to do that. But the last 2 to 3 years? I’ve been in the business since 1981, but I lost sleep in 2015 and 2016. There were some things that I took personally because I was just so blown away by some of the stories.”

God willing, Smoak will never have to endure covering a story of that nature again. But moving forward is what’s best for both he and the station. That’s what both are attempting to do. 

“We cover high school football and I feel like we do it better than any station in America,” said Smoak. “I feel like it helped us, being able to focus on that and not just the bad things happening at Baylor. 

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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