Warning: Don’t ask SEC Network studio host Joe Tessitore to talk about his 2014 on-air partner – unless, that is, you have plenty of time to listen, and no interest in interrupting to ask another question.
That partner, of course, is Tim Tebow, former Florida and NFL quarterback and, starting Thursday when the SEC Network debuts in Columbia with the USC-Texas A&M game, one of the figures most likely to become “The Face” of the fledgling network.
The other candidate is Brent Musburger, 75, whose only qualifications for the role are – let’s see – 41 years in sports play-by-play with CBS, ABC and ESPN. Over that span, he covered the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, horse racing, the Indianapolis 500, NCAA basketball and, since 1990 – when Tebow was 3 – college football, announcing seven National Championship games.
So Musburger’s got that going for him. Tebow? Paging Mr. Tessitore …
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“The most famous sports superstar I’ve ever been around, and the only sports superstar I’ve ever been around that is not sports-famous … and I’ve been around everybody,” Tessitore said during the SEC Network’s preseason “open house” at its Charlotte studios. “He is a different level of famous; he’s ‘Saturday Night Live,’ People magazine famous. You cannot walk through an airport or go out to dinner with him (because) he touches people in different ways, like elderly aunts, my sixth-grade daughter. Everyone is interested in him and curious about him.”
“He gives off an energy that is so dynamic, so unique, and it goes against everything that we are doing with an American society today. He’s the most positive, high-energy person I’ve ever been around, he’s an absolute mega-star in every way; I don’t care what happened to him in the NFL. We overuse the words ‘great’ and ‘dynamic,’ but he is a person who’s great and dynamic.”
In Tessitore’s defense, he easily could’ve gone longer, but network officials called “time” on interviews.
Talking the talk
Tessitore and Tebow will anchor “SEC Nation,” the network’s version of parent ESPN’s “College GameDay,” starting with their appearance in Columbia to set the stage for Musburger and analyst Jesse Palmer (who, like Tebow, is an ex-Gators QB).
And while Tebow has a limited broadcasting resume – he was a guest analyst during last year’s BCS Championship game between Florida State and Auburn, and a fairly reliable interviewee during his playing days – SEC Network officials seem confident he can get up to speed quickly.
OK, “confident” isn’t the right word. Try “giddy” – if not quite as much so as Tessitore, then pretty close.
“Tim is arguably the most decorated player to ever come from the SEC,” said Justin Connolly, ESPN senior vice president for College Networks and the man charged with making the SEC Network a success. “To have him be part of this network – and he has a personality that transcends and connects nationally – we’re really lucky to have him. I think he’s going to be great.”
Coordinating producer Steve Ackels is only slightly less enamored. “Everywhere he goes, he attracts attention, whether in airports, press conferences, seminars,” he said. “So, obviously, the exposure he brings helps us out a lot.”
Did having Tebow help persuade foot-draggers Time Warner Cable and DirecTV to join earlier cable/satellite outlets to get on board? It probably didn’t hurt.
What does Tebow think about that? If you’ve ever seen the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner on TV – and chances are you have, many times – you have a good idea.
“Do I want to be ‘The Face’? I want to enjoy the opportunity,” he said – the first of about 50 uses of “opportunity” in his interviews. “I just want to go out there, do the best I can, be the best that I can. But I also want to enjoy the moment, enjoy the opportunity that I’m given.”
Tebow said he expects to be nervous Thursday – “I’m an emotional, passionate kind of person, and I get nerves about every practice I ever had, every TV show I’ve ever done. If I didn’t get nervous, it would be kind of an alarming thing to me” – but doesn’t plan to obsess over the thought of 91 million households signed up for the SEC Network, all focused on him.
An amusing, and perhaps telling, moment came when Tessitore commandeered a microphone from a USC sports information staffer and jokingly asked Tebow about chemistry with his fellow on-air personalities.
“One thing I can’t understand,” Tebow said with a slightly wider grin, “is why Joe Tessitore talks so seriously. Every time he says anything, it’s like he’s got to be an authority or something. I tell him, ‘Try to relax, calm down a little bit.’ ”
To hear Tebow, getting paid to talk about college football on the SEC Network is the world’s greatest job EVER – not really a job at all, in fact. The idea that it could be stressful – and, to be fair, at this point he hasn’t had to deliver a concise 30-second analysis of a team’s first-half performance with a producer’s voice yammering in his earpiece – seems foreign to him.
“I’ll get better at it,” he said, “but that’s not who I want to become. I don’t want to become the best TV guy; I just want to be able to watch these games, enjoy it, be an analyst and evaluate, give the fans an opportunity to see through a former quarterback’s eyes, someone who has lived it and played it.
“(I want to) be able to share with fans, hey, this is why (Auburn coach) Gus Malzahn’s offense is working, because of this, this and this. Or this is why Alabama has a shot to go back to the (SEC) title game, or this is why Florida is going to bounce back this fall. I want to give them an inside look from someone who has evaluated football (his) entire life.”
Tebow says he was an SEC football fan since age 6, and “even if I wasn’t getting paid for it, I’d be watching every game” on the network. “I’d still be involved, still have my analyst’s hat on, because that’s who I am.”
A Natural Fit
Stephanie Druley, VP/College Networks and the SEC Network’s production ace, says the term is “natural.” She applies it to other former athletes turned SEC Network analysts, but Tebow is special, she said.
“There’s no real learning curve, they’re all naturals at this,” she said. “Tim Tebow is Tim Tebow, and you want him on your network.”
Druley recalled Tebow’s stint for last year’s FSU-Auburn showdown.
“He was really good, held his own,” she said. “He did his GameDay production meeting with those guys (on-air talent) and Nick Saban,” Alabama’s coach also playing analyst that night, “and he was able to hang with those guys, word for word.”
Most impressively, she said, Tebow predicted the Seminoles’ win by a score that was a single point off. “Sure, there are technical adjustments: when to look at the camera, where to go with an idea, but other than that …
“If you’ve seen (former Alabama QB and analyst) Greg (McElroy) in his clips, he’s a natural; he lives and breathes the game. That’s Tim, too. He’s living and breathing ball, it’s what he wants to talk about. So we’re just giving him a forum.”
As a studio analyst, Tebow will have more time to decide on his thoughts and how to make them, as opposed to Palmer (a veteran) and the impressive rookie McElroy in their booth analyst roles.
“He’s going to need coaching here and there on broadcasting things,” said Ackels, “but he’ll have Joe next to him, who won’t be afraid to tell Tim, ‘Hey, out of this (commercial) break, be sure you touch on this.’ Joe’s very good with newer guys in front of a camera.”
Druley calls the Tebow-Tessitore chemistry “off the charts,” saying the duo “talk football naturally. I came from the NFL side of things, where those guys have been together for 30 years. (Tebow and Tessitore’s) chemistry is as good any I’ve seen. I’m excited to get behind a camera to see what it looks like then.”
If there’s a concern for his bosses at SEC Network, it’s that Tebow might not have totally given up on regaining the camaraderie of the huddle. Granted, his two-year stint with Denver (he led the Broncos to the 2011 AFC West title and won a first-round playoff game vs. Pittsburgh) ended abruptly when Peyton Manning arrived. Brief tries with the New York Jets and New England Patriots were more sideshows than genuine chances to earn a job.
Rumblings of an NFL comeback attempt remain alive on social media. Tebow doesn’t rule that out, either. “I’m continuing to train, and you never know what opportunity you’ll have. If there is one, you look at it.”
Still, Tebow says in conversations with SEC Network brass, he has been upfront about those ambitions – but also about hopes for his TV future.
“They know I love playing ball, but they also know I love doing this,” he said. “I love the SEC, I care about it. They know I want to do this for a long time.”
That part of his career starts Thursday night.
If Tebow is to become The Face of the SEC Network, the time to start the process is now.