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Sunday, June 16, 2024

From Sideline To Studio: How Coaches, Networks Help Each Other

  • Longtime SEC coach Dan Mullen adjusts to life at ESPN.
  • Some head coaches use the airwaves to get back to the sidelines.
Indianapolis Colts interim head coach Jeff Saturday points down field after gaining a first down
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Jeff Saturday was named interim coach of the Indianapolis Colts last month, there were plenty of questions about how a candidate with no college or pro coaching experience could score an NFL head coaching job. 

The answer could come down to four letters: ESPN.

From professional to college sports, working as an analyst at a sports network has helped a long list of team leaders land lucrative new jobs in their respective sports.

Saturday went from talking about “pancake” blocks on ESPN’s “Get Up” morning show to the Colts sidelines. (And don’t be surprised if Saturday’s former cast mate Dan Orlovsky also returns to the NFL in a coaching capacity.)

Before imploding due to scandal, Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden parlayed his nine-year stint as game analyst on “Monday Night Football” into a $100 million, 10-year mega-deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. 

Dan Mullen knows the coaching-to-ESPN carousel first-hand. The former head coach of the University of Florida and Mississippi State joined the network as a college football studio analyst last August.

Moving from the sidelines to the studio has made him a better football mind in some ways, Mullen said. 

As a head coach in the SEC for 13 seasons, Mullen focused almost solely on his school and conference. 

Now he has a national perspective, breaking down games and players from around the country.

“Being at ESPN, you’re sitting there talking about teams from the Pac-12 and Big 12 and Big Ten. All the different conferences — even the smallest conferences,” Mullen said. “You get a very different, holistic perspective of college football. More so than being engulfed by your league. That’s one of the things that’s great about being at ESPN: You’re doing games from every different conference around the country.” 

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Mullen won over 100 games in the toughest conference in college football. The shift to television from the sidelines has also given him an outside-in, rather than inside-out, perspective. 

As a head coach, “you’re all-consumed” with managing your team and recruiting new players, he noted. On TV, he gets a “bigger, broader picture” of the game of football. 

“You get some different, fresh new thoughts and ideas,” he said.

Those experiences and perspectives may have assisted former ESPN college football analysts Chip Kelly, Mack Brown, and Jim Mora to return to the sidelines with new, lucrative contracts.

Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton is re-charging his batteries at Fox Sports this year before likely returning to the NFL. Trent Dilfer just landed the head football coaching gig at the University of Alabama at Birmingham after being laid off by ESPN in 2017. 

And Deion Sanders is arguably the hottest coaching prospect in college football after 14 years at NFL Network.

A Budding Relationship

It is not just football head coaches making the rounds as analysts on the various sports networks.

Baseball managers from Alex Cora, Aaron Boone, and Buck Showalter to Terry Francona, Bobby Valentine, and David Ross have burnished their profiles at ESPN before heading back to the dugout.

College basketball coaches like Kara Lawson, Amanda Butler, and Hubert Davis punched a TV clock at ESPN before going to the sidelines.

Mark Jackson worked as an ESPN analyst from 2006 to 2011, left to coach the Golden State Warriors, then returned in 2014. He now calls the NBA Finals with Mike Breen. 

Over its 40-year history, ESPN has employed some of the most famous names in coaching.

Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells served two stints on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” and “Monday Night Countdown” in between coaching the Dallas Cowboys.

Even cantankerous college basketball coach Bob Knight — who previously scorned “damned people from television” — worked for ESPN from 2008-2015.

There are many reasons why leaders spend some time sharing their insights on the airways.

Some join the network to refurbish their reputation after being removed from coaching jobs. Some use networks as a way to maintain visibility for prospective employers.

Others see a network job as a place to fill time between coaching jobs, but they quickly realize the difficulty of working in broadcasting.

In contrast, some former coaches like Dick Vitale embrace their new media careers. Vitale has been with ESPN for 42 years. 

An Open Door

With networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports, which have broadcast rights to different sports, it requires a constant in-flow of new analysts, announcers, and reporters.

It is why these networks often keep an open door to some coaches who may want to return to the desk after doing some time on the field.

ESPN has no hard feelings when their newly hired coach-turned-TV analyst returns to the sidelines.  

Longtime NHL analyst Barry Melrose left to coach the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008, returned a year later, and has been with the network ever since. 

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Or take former NFL head coach Herm Edwards. He spent nearly a decade at ESPN before leaving for the coaching job at Arizona State.

Only a month after the school fired him, ESPN hired him back.

“When Herm left for Arizona State, we said we’d keep a seat open for him. After all he did for us on the air and behind the scenes, he deserved that,” said Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president of production in a statement.

While at Fox Sports, Urban Meyer was welcomed back to the network following his short stint with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. 

Mullen is enjoying learning a new craft at ESPN. But like many ex-coaches turned TV analysts, he “never says never” when it comes to potentially returning to the sidelines. 

“You don’t know what life’s going to bring. I’m kind of enjoying the TV side of things right now,” Mullen said.

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