Q/A with Kirk Herbstreit: On whether Notre Dame can sustain success; title teams people love to hate

Perhaps tonight’s title game should be renamed the Polar Bowl, because it features two of the most polarizing teams in the country.

If you live outside of SEC country, you’re tired of that conference winning the BCS title every year. And even if you live within its boundaries, you’re probably thinking, anybody but Alabama and Nick Saban.

Meanwhile, rooting for Notre Dame hardly is an appealing option for the legion of Irish haters throughout the country.

All in all, the dynamic should deliver a huge rating for ESPN, assuming the game is close.

During a teleconference, Kirk Herbstreit, working his sixth straight BCS game, addressed the love-hate aspect and talked about whether Notre Dame’s success in 2012 will be more than a one-year fling.

As you travel around the country, what is your sense of how much of the interest a lot of these games actually comes from people rooting against one of the teams even maybe more so than people rooting for some of these teams, and also, how do you think that plays into the interest in this particular game?

Well, I think you’re right.  I think because the SEC has won six straight National Championships, I definitely feel that the SEC, as much as that region claims all 14 teams, when they get to this point, I think every other conference and every other fan base outside of those 14 teams is passionately rooting against Alabama.

And what’s interesting is in this case, Notre Dame is such a polarizing team, where everybody, no matter when you grew up, you either loved Notre Dame or you just couldn’t stand Notre Dame.  So there are a lot of people out there that I think are going to have to make a tough decision on who to pull for, and I really believe that, again, outside of the SEC, most people, even if they aren’t big Notre Dame fans in this case, because of the six straight national titles, I think they’re going to be pulling with all their hearts to see Notre Dame end that streak.

And as far as the interest, any time you put those two letters, ND, in a National Championship game, I think the level of interest obviously is going to go up, and I think the fact that it’s been since 1988 since the last time they won a National Championship, I think it definitely raises the bar of your hype and the buzz of this National Championship compared to any of the other games that I’ve had the good fortune to call.

Have you heard any people on sort of the other end saying, well, I don’t like either team, so I’m not going to watch, or do you think people just say that but they’ll still watch it?

I think anybody that takes the time to make a comment like that, clearly they’ll be watching the game.  They’ll, in fact, watch the four hours of pregame that we have before the game and be blogging and tweeting about how wrong everybody is on those shows.

Without a doubt, people are going to ‑‑ if you’re a college football fan or even if you’re a fringe college football fan, you’re going to watch.  An example for me is Tiger Woods and golf.  I could care less about golf on a weekly basis.  But if Tiger Woods accidentally stumbles into a Sunday, I’m that guy that tunes in and watches golf on Sunday.

And I think if you’re a fringe college football fan and you have Notre Dame and Alabama playing on a Monday night, no matter what you feel about either team, no matter if you despise both these teams, you’re going to be tuned in watching this game.

We’ve seen Notre Dame have these blips before, where previous coaches had a decent run for a year and then quickly fell off.  How is this going to be different?  What’s your sense as far as what Brian Kelly is building there, and will he be able to sustain it beyond this year?

We were around those teams with Bob Davie when he had a team that got in early part of the BCS era when they got into a BCS bowl game, I think it was against Oregon State, and you remember what happened in the Sugar Bowl when they went up against LSU.  This just feels different, not just because they’re undefeated and because they’re in the National Championship, but I’m never one to really pay attention to the recruiting hype of five‑star recruits or why they’re ranked No. 1 or No. 2.  I always like to wait to see players in their first year or two, see how they kind of make that adjustment to the college game and see how they’re maturing and developing.

I just really sense that, as Brent said earlier, with Brian Kelly’s background, I mean, if there’s anybody that’s ever been typecast to be the Notre Dame coach, it’s Brian Kelly, and I think it’s legitimate, his energy and his passion for the school and the way he’s recruiting.  If you look at what they’re trying to do for the future, I think they’re going to use this fifth year as kind of a springboard into the future, and I really believe as long as Brian Kelly is the head coach, with what he has going on right now, if they will hold onto to staff, I think they’ve got something very unique going, and I think this has staying power.  I don’t think this is a, hey, let’s make a run one year and then go away.  I think Notre Dame football has a real opportunity here to be around and compete at a very high level for a long time.

What is the most compelling aspect of this match‑up from your point of view?

I think an interesting aspect of the game is just the hype of dealing with the long layoff, the hype about Alabama trying to win three of the last four National Championships with Nick Saban, the fact that they’re going up against Notre Dame, one of the most storied programs in college football with a new coach who’s reaching out to other coaches who have had to deal with a 44‑day layoff, about how to peak your team at the right time, the fact that it’s uncharted waters for Notre Dame’s program to have to deal with this, and then when they take the field just to see how they both handle themselves.

We witnessed a game last night, if you don’t show up mentally and physically prepared and in the right frame of mind, you can get embarrassed.  And just because that was a Sugar Bowl not in the National Championship limelight doesn’t mean that that couldn’t potentially happen at a National Championship.  I’m sure both those coaches watched that game last night and they both panicked a little bit just to make sure, hey, am I doing the right thing, because you just don’t know until your team goes out and starts to play.

So I think the anticipation of the hype of this particular match‑up and how these teams play early, especially in the game, I think is going to be an interesting aspect of how the game eventually plays out.

Journalism dilemma: Notre Dame beat writer, Chicago Tribune make decision about Heisman vote

Rule of journalism: Reporters don’t make news. Reporters cover the news.

The line gets blurred when sportswriters participate in things like college football polls, Major League Baseball awards, and Hall of Fame elections. Their votes become the news that they later have to cover and critique. Conflicts are inherent in such a process.

Brian Hamilton, the Notre Dame beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, felt uneasy about having a Heisman Trophy ballot this year. The question of possible bias because of Irish linebacker Manti Te’o resulted in the Tribune using an internal staff poll to determine Hamilton’s vote.

The section revealed the quandary in a story in Sunday’s paper. He wrote:

We’re in the business of creating as little question as possible — preferably none — about how we conduct our business as journalists. And the Notre Dame beat writer at the Chicago Tribune casting a vote in a Heisman race involving the Irish’s most prominent player in years creates enough questions to make us uneasy. Did you vote for Manti Te’o because you’re biased toward Notre Dame? Did you not vote for Manti Te’o because you’re biased against Notre Dame? Did you vote a certain way solely because you didn’t want it to look like you were biased a certain way?

I talked to Mike Kellams, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports (also my former editor), about the situation. He said Hamilton approached him about his vote a few weeks ago.

“He said, ‘I think this is something we should talk through.’ He was right,” Kellams said. “He hasn’t dealt with this before. It’s been a while since Notre Dame had a top candidate for the Heisman.”

Hamilton could have simply decided not to vote. However, if Te’o lost by one point because the Notre Dame beat writer decided to pass, they would have had to call in extra security at Tribune Tower. That element looked as if it influenced Kellams’ decision.

“I don’t disagree with that point,” Kellams said. “However, my thought was if we don’t vote, we change the outcome. Those points aren’t going to be awarded to the other players, not just Te’o. If we do participate, we change the outcome. Either way we were making a decision that was going to have an impact.”

Ultimately, Kellams decided to use a panel of five Tribune writers and editors who handle college football for the paper. Teddy Greenstein, who covers Northwestern, was not included since he had his own Heisman vote.

The results of the internal poll saw Hamilton’s vote go for Te’o. Naturally, right? Notre Dame is the Tribune’s hometown team. Well, not exactly. Hamilton had Te’o listed second behind Collin Klein. I’m sure he heard from some Notre Dame fans Sunday. And Te’o barely won the Tribune poll over Klein.

The Tribune’s dilemma illustrates why several newspapers won’t allow their sportswriters to vote for awards and Hall of Fame selections. Even within Tribune Co., Kellams notes the Los Angeles Times has its writers on the sidelines for votes.

The issue, I believe, is going to escalate with the upcoming Baseball Hall of Fame ballot that features Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa for the first time. The writers will be generating major news by making a statement about the steroid era, a period the majority of them all covered.

Kellams is well aware of both sides of the argument. For now, he is comfortable with his writers participating.

“This wasn’t a new discussion for our department,” Kellams said. “There’s no denying that if the writers are being asked to vote, they are going to create the news they have to cover. I wouldn’t argue if they (Heisman, Hall of Fame, etc) decided to do something different. But if we’re asked to participate, I believe our writers have the ability to separate themselves and make the right decision…If we believe they exercise good judgement every single day of the year (covering sports), I expect that they can exercise that good judgement when it comes to casting a vote.”

It will be interesting to see how the Heisman voting committee reacts to the Tribune’s decision regarding Hamilton’s vote. Will it demand that it should be one-voter-one-vote? Will Hamilton be invited to vote next year? After all, Irish quarterback Everett Golson is only a sophomore and could find himself in the Heisman picture in 2013.

Kellams wouldn’t speculate on the Heisman’s reaction. He also wouldn’t say that other papers follow should suit if they have a beat writer who covers a top candidate in the Heisman race.

“I feel good about our process in this case,” Kellams said. “It was the right way for us to do it under the circumstances.”







Q/A with Alex Flanagan: On Notre Dame’s big season and Brian Kelly; toughest NFL coaches for halftime interview

Alex Flanagan has been NBC’s sideline reporter for Notre Dame games since 2007. It hasn’t exactly been a joy ride. The Irish went 3-9 during her first year, and the following seasons, which saw Charlie Weis lose his job in 2009, haven’t come close to meeting the absurdly high expectations in South Bend.

So with Notre Dame 8-0 going into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, Flanagan is experiencing her first real dose of Irish fever.

“It’s great,” Flanagan said. “In other years, it could be tough doing that seventh or eighth home game in November. There’s a whole new feel and energy now. There’s definitely a different vibe in the building.”

I had a chance to talk with Flanagan about Notre Dame and Brian Kelly; her duties as a sideline reporter for NBC and NFL Network; her crazy schedule; and the most challenging coaches for a halftime interview.

What has been your experience dealing with Brian Kelly?

He’s been consistent. He’s been the same person from Day 1. He understands the job of being a head coach at Notre Dame, and the politics that come with it. I wonder if (his staff) is surprised in their third year that they are having the kind of success they’re having.

I’ve worked with him long enough where we have a joking relationship. Over the past few weeks, with the quarterback changes, I’m interested to know who’s starting. I was hanging around him before a game, and he looked over at me. I said, ‘I’m waiting to talk to you.’ He said, ‘I know you are.’

How different is it doing the games for one school such as Notre Dame compared to doing a different game each week for NFL Network?

You get to know everybody at Notre Dame. I’m old enough to where I get to know the parents (of the Notre Dame players). I feel like a mother to the kids on the team. A couple of weeks ago I caught up with (Jimmy Clausen’s mother) in North Carolina. I remember her as a mother sitting up in the stands when Jimmy was a freshman, worrying every time he got sacked.

It’s a different experience. Having said that, there are a lot of players in the NFL I knew from when they played in college. You end up pulling for them because you know their stories and background.

You know what the critics say about the value of sideline reporters. CBS doesn’t even use them. What’s your response?

I’m often asked to defend the job of the sideline reporter. I think of myself as an accessory. I don’t know if you can appreciate this, but I tell my female friends, ‘When you get dressed up in that great outfit, the one thing that can top it off is a great accessory. Like a necklace or ear rings.’

Are we a necessity for a telecast? No. But I can see a lot of things that happen on the field that (the announcers) can’t see from up high.

Such as?

The injury stuff is the big thing. Last year, Ben Roethlisberger looked like he broke an ankle in one of our games. I was able to talk to Mike Tomlin at halftime, and he said it wasn’t as severe as it looked. He wound up playing in the second half.

If a coach is mad, I can hear what he’s mad about. I can say he said this or that. A sideline reporter can help avoid a lot of the speculation.

What about the value of halftime interview with the coach?

It provides a view of what the tone and mood is of the coach. It doesn’t matter what he says as much as you can see how he reacts to a question. You can see his demeanor. I try to provide an insight and view for the person watching at home.

In the NFL, who are the toughest coaches for the halftime interview? The best?

You probably could guess the toughest. The coaches who run a tight ship. Jim Harbaugh can be intimidating. His brother, John, gets intense too. Bill Belichick.

You have to be in the moment with the coaches. At the top of their list at halftime isn’t talking to me about what went wrong in the first half.

With a certain coach, you have to carefully construct what you’re going to ask. Somebody like Jim Harbaugh listens to every word you say. You have to be specific.

Coaches like Jeff Fisher, Norv Turner are great to deal with. Mike Tomlin and Mike Smith. To be honest, every coach in the NFL understands it is part of the job and they are very professional about it.

You have a crazy schedule. You work the Thursday night game for NFL Network; Saturday for Notre Dame home games; and Sunday you cover an NFL game for NBC’s Football Night in America. You live in San Diego and have three kids under the age of 10. How do you manage it?

Yes, it is a challenge. Usually, I leave on Tuesday for the NFL Network game on Thursday. Then we get to South Bend on Friday. On Sunday, I usually fly out of Chicago in the morning to get to my NFL game.

But there are working women who work year around who leave the house every day at 7 and don’t get home until 6-7. I work every day for four months, starting in September. The rest of the year, I try to stay at home.

I like to say that I get the best of both worlds. I get to be a stay-at-home Mom for part of the year and a working Mom for other parts of the year.








5-0 Notre Dame has NBC smiling; Herbstreit says Irish will be in BCS conversation

Is it time to starting sipping that Irish Kool-Aid? You bet if you’re a TV executive at NBC and ESPN.

A 5-0 start has ratings soaring for Notre Dame’s games on NBC. And with the Irish suddenly relevant, ESPN isn’t wasting any time.The network is hustling Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and the rest of the GameDay crew to South Bend Saturday.

Herbstreit can’t believe it has been seven years since GameDay did a show from Notre Dame.

“It’s been way, way too long since we’ve been there,” Herbstreit said.

NBC also is bulking up. For the first time, NBC Sports’ college football studio show featuring Liam McHugh, Doug Flutie and Hines Ward will go on the road and broadcast on-site from Notre Dame Stadium. Prior to the game, a special NFL Films- produced behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame Football, Onward Notre Dame: South Bend to Soldier Field, will air at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

With all the pregame build-up, NBC should generate another strong rating for the Irish’s game against Stanford.

Through three games, NBC’s rating is up 45% vs. last year (4.2 million vs. 2.9 million). Primetime coverage of the Miami-Notre Dame from Soldier Field last Saturday night was watched by 3.7 million viewers, up 131% vs. last year’s third game on NBC (Air Force, 1.6 million) and up 76% vs. last year’s second Notre Dame primetime game on NBC (Maryland at FedExField, 2.1 million).

All in all, it’s a huge jump from what NBC faced last fall. Home games against Air Force and Navy only generated a 1.1 rating, a record low for Irish games on the network.

How long has Notre Dame been a relative non-factor? Saturday’s trip will mark GameDay’s first to the Domers since Charlie Weis’ first year in 2005. That’s incredible considering the Irish’s stature in college football.

Naturally, Herbstreit is excited about returning to South Bend.

“It’s awesome,” Herbstreit said. “Any time, Notre Dame is up there in the rankings, it’s good for the sport. They are a polarizing team. You either love them or hate them. For us, for people who love the sport, when you have teams like Notre Dame and USC, Texas, the high profile schools out there that have great years, it makes it a lot of fun.

“Selfishly, to have GameDay back in South Bend, it’s great. It’s nice to see that they have a high-profile game at home. It’ll add to the atmosphere on Saturday. They are very deserving.”

I know it’s early, but I asked Herbstreit if Irish fans can start dreaming about a BCS bowl?

“They took the nation by storm (with the win over Michigan State),” Herbstreit said. “A lot of people walked away from that game saying, ‘Notre Dame is one of the top defenses in the country.’ To follow it up with the way they corraled Denard Robinson, and the way they played against Miami…Their front seven might be playing as well as anyone in the country.

“Without a doubt they will be in discussion for the BCS. Brian Kelly, though, will be the first one to tell you there’s still a long way to go. When you look at who they still have to play, beginning with Stanford….They’re on the road against Oklahoma and USC. Their fans are pointing to those games as three of the most challenging. If they’re able to get able through Stanford, it’s time to start bracing yourself if you’re a Notre Dame fan. Then you’re just a couple games away.”

Of course, it all could slip away with a loss to Stanford Saturday. But who wants to ruin a good story on Wednesday?

Keep sipping that Kool-Aid.




ESPN College GameDay going to Notre Dame Saturday

Yes, the Irish are 5-0, and ESPN, like everyone else is excited. It will GameDay’s first visit since 2005.

From ESPN:

College GameDay Built by The Home Depotreturning to South Bend, Ind., for the first time since Oct. 15, 2005 — will originate from the site of next Saturday’s matchup of No. 18 Stanford (4-1) at No. 9 Notre Dame (5-0). College GameDay, in its 26th year, will be making its eighth all-time visit to Notre Dame’s campus. The Irish are 3-4 with the GameDay crew on-campus.

The Cardinal are coming off Saturday’s home, overtime win over Arizona (54-48), and the Irish handled Miami, 41-3 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

College GameDay will air live at 9 a.m. ET on ESPNU and 10 a.m. on ESPN with host Chris Fowler, analysts Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and David Pollack, and host/reporter Samantha Steele and Tom Rinaldi.

Lee Corso is 2-1 in his South Bend-based picks. His one miss came in 1998 when he chose No. 5 Michigan over the No. 24 Irish. His two wins were also with picks against the Irish (Nebraska in 2000 and USC in 2005, in the famous “Bush Push” game).

Corso didn’t make head gear picks in GameDay’s visits from 1993-96. Stanford has not been part of a Corso “headgear game” at Notre Dame.