During the Notre Dame-USC game on Nov. 24, USC quarterback Max Wittek threw what appeared to be a gift-wrapped interception directly into the arms of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o. At least, that’s how it looked live on television.
Within seconds, analyst Kirk Herbstreit quickly diagrammed on replay exactly what Te’o did, what a truly remarkable play it was, and how it wasn’t a case of a quarterback showing his freshman inexperience. Sure, Herbstreit couldn’t have done it without All Stars in the production truck – the director, producer and person working replay all have to working together in sync – but it was the latest example of what makes Herbstreit so good at his craft.
This got us thinking. Who are the best analysts working on television these days in their respective sports? It’s common for fans to mock/heckle/rip/laugh at many of the ex-athletes and ex-coaches who “analyze” the games we watch. But who are the best?
Josh Suchon and Matt Hurst decided to make their own separate lists, without consulting each other, and they are comparing their lists below.
The ground rules: this is a TV analyst working a live game. No play-by-play announcers. No studio analysts. Nobody on radio. We’re also not including any local analysts because regional biases always cloud your judgment (pro or con). These analysts, in theory, should be the best of the best, network TV analysts doing national games on TV.
Josh: It’s ABC/ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, hands down. Nobody else even comes close. He might be the best analyst of any sport right now. He does his homework. He tells you what matchups a team is looking to exploit. He’ll criticize a team’s play calling or decision making, but never in a mean-spirited way. He’s not a former coach who is clearly playing nice with his old coaching buddies because he wants back in the fraternity. It’s telling that some people think he’s biased toward Ohio State, where he played quarterback, yet Herbstreit moved his family out of Columbus because the Buckeyes fans thought he was too negative toward his alma mater. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good-looking guy. He articulates with authority, but never screams. He’s good on the widely popular College GameDay, but he’s at his best during a live game.
Matt: Kirk Herbstreit. And it’s not even close. What I love about Herbstreit is that he knows so much more than you – or anyone else with a microphone – around the entire sport, but he never acts like he’s preaching to you about it. I admire how he can go from breaking down a play to giving you terrific background and insight into a player and then break down how someone made or missed a tackle. He’s easily head and shoulders above the rest.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Josh: This was a close call, for me, between NBC’s Cris Collinsworth and ESPN’s Jon Gruden. The all-time best is still John Madden, even if he sometimes became a caricature of himself near the end of his career. Just the way Madden used the word “finality” during the playoffs gave you goosebumps that a team’s season was ending. Gruden is probably too positive and Collinsworth is sometimes too negative. Collinsworth has no desire to be a coach or GM and it’s evident because he doesn’t care who he pisses off. That makes him a great analyst because he’s so candid. Gruden’s most recent work on a very boring Carolina-Philadelphia game illustrated what makes him so special. He was describing life on Mike Holmgrem’s staff, how you’d try so hard to invent a play that ended up on Holmgrem’s play sheet and be so proud when it happened, and how Andy Reid was the teacher’s pet. Only Gruden can pull that off. Yeah, I know, every player is great, and he’d want to coach every player. Still, I find that Chucky personality a lot of fun. By an eyelash, I'll take Jon Gruden.
Matt: There is an entire generation of people who could not appreciate what John Madden was able to do in the booth as an analyst because we got sick of Madden by constantly playing his video game. Even though I’m sure he spent hours in a room recording sayings for the game, when you invested hours and hours into a video game, the announcers get rather repetitive. That’s how I felt about Madden, who I envisioned more as the “BOOM! Tough-actin’ Tinactin” guy than someone who basically made everyone raise their game and who invented the tele-strator (not true, but he popularized it and used it better than anyone has or will). Nowadays, anyone not associated with ESPN around the NFL is a breath of fresh air. And that’s why I love Cris Collinsworth. He is so good at explaining things and breaking down various parts of the game without sounding like a former player or a pompous ass (which is everyone around the game associated with ESPN). He is easy to listen to and his ability to say something quickly and effectively is fantastic, especially because he doesn’t want to step on Al Michaels’ toes, because he is one of the best that ever lived. The next time you hear Collinsworth unprepared for a game will be the first.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
Josh: To me, the best is ESPN’s Orel Hershiser. (Full disclosure: I have a rather unique relationship with Hershiser, dating back to my childhood.) If anything, my hatred of Hershiser during my youth only goes to show how good he must be, if I think he’s the best baseball analyst on TV. The first time Hershiser’s work stood out to me was during the Little League World Series a few years ago. His compassion and excitement were the perfect balance for an event of 12-year-olds. At the major-league level, nobody is better at breaking down pitching mechanics, a pitcher’s mentality against a lineup, or a pitching coach’s thought process. When his co-analyst was Bobby Valentine, Hershiser almost exclusively talked pitching. Last year, with Terry Francona sharing the analyst duties, Hershiser talked about hitters more and didn’t skip a beat. I appreciate how Hershiser would ask Francona questions on the air, drawing out his partner’s wisdom. It showed that Hershiser is a good teammate in the booth, and genuinely was interested in learning more from Francona.
Matt: It’s so easy to say who I cannot stand as analysts around baseball (Tim McCarver, Chris Singleton, Rob Dibble, Joe Morgan) than guys who stand out. But, I spent a fair amount of time in my car this past postseason and was so pleased with the combination of Dan Shulman and Orel Hershiser that I would rather listen to them broadcast a blowout than if there was a tight game on the other channel. Shulman does a great job at allowing his analyst to shine and that’s where Hershiser is his best. He was such a cerebral player that it only makes sense that he is a good analyst. Orel broke down things you wouldn’t expect a former pitcher to – speaking about guys in the dugout and how they might prepare for at-bats – but then you realize that he was able to be around his teammates a lot more because he only pitched once every five days (well, with Lasorda, it wasn’t always that simple). He is so great at breaking down how to play certain players, what defenses teams would employ and, of course, what a pitcher is thinking on the mound, which is supremely important because that’s where every bit of action starts. As someone who knows a ton about baseball, it was wonderful to listen to someone tell me things I still didn’t know and explain them in a way where even my wife would understand.
Josh: A tough choice because there’s so many options, but my vote goes to ESPN’s Jay Bilas. (Personally, I don’t understand why he consistently ranks my beloved San Diego State Aztecs so much lower in his rankings than everybody else; 48th? Really? When they’re 21st in the AP poll?) Objectively speaking, he’s the best in his field. Bilas is really smart and looks at advanced statistics, but doesn’t feel the need to constantly prove to you how smart he is. He was just good enough as a player to have some swagger, but not so good that he falls into the “this is how I did it” trap. He can work with any play-by-play announcer seamlessly, or in a three-person booth without trying to dominate the conversation. He’s not afraid to chastise the NCAA for being hypocritical. He works hard and seems to know the background on every kid in America. I still maintain a soft spot for Dick Vitale, even if his schtick gets old sometimes and he defends every coach in America as the greatest guy in the world. But the best in the business is Bilas.
Matt: This one was also fairly simple, but I hate to give him the credit because if he stumbles on over here, his head might get even bigger. But Jay Bilas is really, really good. The issue is that he knows it and he comes off as a turd sometimes. He’s a little too in love with all things Tobacco Road (but isn’t everyone with college hoops?) Jay knows his stuff, though. And that’s especially hard in this arena because of so many programs and so many one-and-done players so he’s constantly turning over new things and information. Plus with so many different kinds of offenses and defenses run in college hoops, you need someone who can instantly recognize those and relay them and Bilas is very good at that. It’s too bad that we’re only breaking down national analysts because this title should belong to UC Santa Barbara’s Don Ford, who is probably the best analyst you’d ever want to sit next to while calling a game.
NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
Josh: Despite getting older, ESPN’s Hubie Brown isn’t slowing down. He’s been the best for two decades, in between his various stints coaching again. Brown has a little bit of a mad scientist quality to him, which is endearing. He strikes me as a person who never leaves a gym, and always watches film, even though he doesn’t need to watch film. Brown picks up on matchups before anybody else, and sees things that even a highly knowledgeable fan would miss. Brown’s unmistakable voice gets your attention, but not in a bad way. I’m just glad that I didn’t have to choose between Brown and Doug Collins, who is now back on the sidelines, but reminded us during the Olympics how great of an analyst he still is.
Matt: This is probably the toughest one because the best is part of a studio team (Charles Barkley) and the worst doesn’t do it anymore (Bill Walton). Everyone else kind of falls in the middle. I used to really enjoy Doug Collins, so it was saddening when he went back to coaching and I never was in love with Mike Fratello or Jeff Van Gundy. Too often the NBA broadcasts employ a three-man booth and it’s too hard for everyone to have a piece of the pie. I think Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller are a tie for me because they don’t detract from the broadcast, which is what you’d want.
Josh: My plan wasn’t to kiss ESPN/ABC’s butt by selecting somebody from their network for every sport. Maybe those individuals stick out in my mind, subconsciously, because I hear them so much more often. More likely, the volume of work those guys do across all ESPN platforms – not just the games themselves – is what makes them so good. Analyzing sports are no different than playing sports in that practice makes you better. The more repetitions you get, the better you will be. In retrospect, analysts like Clark Kellogg, Troy Aikman and Gary Danielson are hurt -- a little – because they aren’t asked to work the volume of games/studio shows that ESPN announcers work. There’s a fine line between working so many different shows that you’re stretched too thin. But overall, the repetition brings out the best in ESPN’s talent.
Matt: These analysts stand out to me because you actually enjoy what they bring to a broadcast. For sports fans, constantly learning about the games is what makes it fun and interesting and these guys allow you to do that better than everyone else. And, isn't that part of their job? There are so many bad analysts – former athletes trying to hang around the game – and they are all too much yuck-it-up and not enough break-it-down. And that’s annoying. I enjoy Troy Aikman as an analyst, but I despise Joe Buck, so I probably cannot appreciate Aikman as much as I should. I despise Jon Gruden as an analyst, so I probably cannot enjoy Mike Tirico as much as I should. It's a give and take. The best duos work well with each other and know when to shut up and when to jump in. It's truly an art and when it works well, these guys can deliver. Maybe some credit should be given to the play-by-play men who work alongside these analysts, but they are the straight man in this scenario. The analyst is really the one who adds to the broadcast. Anytime it's someone who is the opposite of “Look at this here …” or “When I was playing …” then I am ready to pay attention.