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Monday, May 20, 2024

Can Nick Saban and Bill Belichick Light Up the NFL Draft?

  • Curmudgeonly coaches will analyze the 2024 draft on ESPN and ABC platforms.
  • ‘They’re not the warmest, fuzziest guys,’ admits ESPN’s Seth Markman.
Mickey Welsh – Montgomery Advertiser

ESPN will roll out its top TV guns for its coverage of the 2024 NFL draft, including Mike Greenberg, Mel Kiper Jr., Booger McFarland, and Adam Schefter. But don’t be surprised if Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, two of the biggest media-haters of recent years, end up stealing the show from Detroit.

The two curmudgeonly coaches will debut tonight during ESPN’s 45th straight year covering the NFL’s marquee offseason event. 

Between them, the two coaching legends boast a combined 13 national championships/Super Bowl victories. As College GameDay’s new star analyst, Saban will play a bigger role than Belichick. The former Alabama coach will appear both Thursday and Friday nights on sister Disney network ABC’s college football–focused TV coverage from the Motor City. Belichick, meanwhile, will appear only Thursday on “The Pat McAfee Show Draft Spectacular”: a one-night special available on YouTube, TikTok, ESPN+, and the ESPN app. 

“We’ll have arguably the greatest pro coach, and arguably the greatest college football coach, both appearing on our draft [coverage],” ESPN executive producer Seth Markman told me this week. “I think we have two breakout stars. I’m anxious to see how they do; I think everybody is. But the amount of knowledge between the two of them is off the charts.”

Saban could make hay in what amounts to his prime-time debut for GameDay this coming season. As coach of the Crimson Tide, Saban game-planned against the top prospects in a quarterback-heavy draft, including Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels of LSU and J.J. McCarthy of Michigan. 

Markman says he wants Saban to stick to his insider college football knowledge on ABC with Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, and Rece Davis of GameDay. Then let ESPN’s sister Disney telecast, featuring Greenberg, Kiper, McFarland, Schefter, and Louis Riddick, delve into prospects’ future NFL careers.

“When we’ve talked to him about this draft class, he’s either coached, faced, or recruited all of them. Especially when it comes to the first couple of rounds. Yes, he can bring some of the X’s and O’s stuff that he’s great at. But what I’ve enjoyed more than anything, and I think our viewers will, too, is the storytelling about who these kids are,” says Markman about Saban. “He’s been in their living rooms; he’s met their families. Especially with our ABC audience, which has more focus on the players’ journeys and their stories, I think you’re going to see a different side of him.”

It’s an important coming-out party for Belichick, too. Can he leave behind the terse, scowling countenance many love to hate? If so, the former Patriots coach could become must-see TV for his regular appearances on McAfee’s show and the ManningCast this coming season. 

Markman knows his stuff. His key talent hires over the years include Schefter, Riddick, Randy Moss, and Rex Ryan. On the other hand, Saban and Belichick represent ESPN’s least media-friendly hires since the network signed the late Bob Knight in 2008. (While Saban’s now under contract with ESPN, Belichick’s guest appearance deal is technically with McAfee’s production company. Belichick is reportedly close to a deal with Omaha Productions, Peyton Manning’s fiefdom inside ESPN.) 

Along with his sideline tantrums, Saban has compared media coverage to “rat poison.” Who can forget the short-tempered college coach losing his cool with then ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor in 2018 when she had the temerity to ask who was winning the quarterback battle between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. “Why do you continually try to get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of them? I’m not going to. So quit asking!” hissed Saban. Keep in mind Saban blew up after the Tide trounced Louisville 51–14. He later apologized.  

Then there’s Bill “We’re onto Cincinnati” Belichick. Has there ever been an NFL coach who treated league-mandated media obligations with such utter contempt? But Belichick’s also a football savant. Once in a blue moon, he’d answer a press question with such insight and authority you could see his TV potential if he ever got out of his own way. Back in 2020, Belichick actually won a Sports Emmy for his work on NFL Network’s NFL 100 All-Time Team. I also thought he was great on ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 documentary, “The Two Bills,” about his love-hate relationship with mentor Bill Parcells. After being passed over for head coaching jobs by multiple NFL clubs this offseason, Belichick has been humbled. I still think he wants to return to the NFL sidelines so he can top Don Shula’s all-time record for coaching victories. But other Super Bowl–winning coaches like Bill Cowher and the late, great John Madden have smoothly shifted to sports media. 

So here come Saban and Belichick, two 72-year-old coaching legends looking for their next act. Their journey into sports media begins tonight on ESPN platforms. One legit criticism of draft coverage is it’s too relentlessly positive. Who knows? Maybe Saban and Belichick’s sharp-tongued style will be a refreshing antidote to the usual rah-rah commentary, where many future busts are hailed as the second coming of Tom Brady.

“I’m not going to lie: Everybody knows they’re not the warmest, fuzziest guys. But that’s part of their appeal,” Markman concludes. “We’re not going to try to turn them into someone they’re not. They’re not going to smile and laugh a ton throughout the night. We get that. But they will be really smart, really informative. That’s what people want from their coverage.”

Kiper vs. Jeremiah

ESPN draftnik Mel Kiper Jr. is an institution, working his 41st draft this year. But NFL Media executive producer Charlie Yook believes his draft analyst, Daniel Jeremiah, is now right up there with the godfather of all draft gurus.

“[Daniel’s] one of the best, if not the best draft analyst, with respect to Mel. We all love Mel Kiper. He’s a household name and an institution. But Daniel can go toe-to-toe with Mel,” Yook told me this week. “All these guys are tape mavens. They’ve been watching the All-22 tape as much as they can. I think perspective is a great thing. Who is this player? Who do they remind us of? We’ll have a tape on that; we’ll have a graphic on that.”

Jeremiah’s media profile “started to pop” during NFL Network’s coverage of the 2017 draft in Philadelphia, recalls Yook. When the network’s top draftnik, Mike Mayock, was hired as general manager of the Raiders in ’18, Jeremiah seized his opportunity and “never looked back,” Yook says.

Markman told Front Office Sports last year there is no NFL draft on TV without Kiper. “Everybody that’s come after him … they’re all just offspring of Mel.” 

Mike Drops

Rich Eisen will host all three days of NFL Network’s draft coverage. At 18 years and counting, Eisen ranks as the longest-tenured current draft TV host. Greenberg will anchor ESPN’s coverage for the fourth year in a row. Davis will host ABC’s coverage for the sixth year in a row. Eisen will be joined by Jeremiah, CBS’s No. 2 game analyst Charles Davis, Fox’s lead college football analyst Joel Klatt, analyst Kurt Warner, insiders Ian Rapoport and Peter Schrager, and reporter Kaylee Hartung. “Rich is synonymous with NFL Network,” Yook says. … With the addition of McAfee’s special, this will be the first time ESPN offers viewers three draft-viewing options. Both ESPN and ABC have offered their own coverage since 2019. ABC will offer its own coverage on Thursday-Friday, then simulcast ESPN’s feed Saturday. … NFL Network’s popular Good Morning Football with Schrager returned from hiatus Thursday and will air through Saturday. … Don’t look for draftnik Todd McShay on ESPN/ABC’s coverage. He was a victim of ESPN’s layoffs in ’23. McShay tweeted he’s “sitting this one out on TV due to obvious contract limitations.” But he’s obviously planning a TV comeback. … Got a question about sports media or feedback on a column? Send it to “Tuned In” for a future mailbag.

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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