FMIA: Al Michaels, Kirk Herbstreit Q&A On Thursday Night Football

Editor’s note: With Peter King on vacation, Football Morning In America guest columns will run till his return on July 18.

This week’s column features a conversation with Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit, the new Thursday Night Football team for NFL games on Amazon Prime Video. After the Q&A, 10 Things I Think I Think written by Michaels and Herbstreit.

The conversation has been edited for brevity’s sake. It can be heard in full on The Peter King Podcast when the pod returns in July.

Q&A: Al and Kirk

King: Al, as somebody who’s been in this business as long as you have been, working in so many places, what’s it like to know that you’re part of the first streaming venture in NFL media history, working for a company that in its other business sells more stuff than any place in the western world?

Michaels: Well, I’ve been working on my truck driving skills so that I can be a full-time guy for Amazon. Peter, the last 15, 20 years in this country, who could’ve guessed that any of this would’ve happened? I certainly could not have. But here we are. People tell me I’m kinda like the king of the new frontier. I’m a Davy Crockett in a sense. I don’t know where this thing is gonna go in the ultimate but it’s kind of exciting to be at the forefront of something that is different and something that a lot of people feel is the future of sports television.

King: All I know is my daughters, in their thirties, haven’t had cable TV for some time. All they do is stream. It seems like this is the future. Al, as you know, the NFL is nutty about ratings. They could take a short term hit [in ratings] but after a while, this’ll be the future.

Michaels: In a way, that’s true, Peter. They’re also splitting the baby. They’re not going completely over to streaming. I think they want to see how this works, how it evolves. It’s a long-term deal, as well, with the networks as you know. It’s a decade. You’re gonna have 9 or 10 or 11 years to look at how this does work and where we are in 2031 or ’32. You’re right. In the old days, 40, 50 years ago, when I was doing the Cincinnati Reds, I would construct a telecast for broadcast and think of somebody sitting on this couch for three hours and absorbing every moment of that game. Very few people watch games that way these days. They’re in, they’re out, they’re in the kitchen, they go to dinner. They have their streaming device with them. It’s a different template that exists right now. We have to sort of adjust the way we do a game to what is really happening out there without reinventing the wheel.

People are always saying, what are you gonna do that’s different? I always said, what are you gonna do that’s better? I think we’ll make a few tweaks here and there. One of the great things obviously when Amazon needed a partner to come in and do the infrastructure of the actual game telecast, they went out and got NBC and hit the grand slam home run by getting Fred Gaudelli, who’s produced Sunday Night Football for the last 16 seasons. 

Kirk Herbstreit, Al Michaels and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Getty Images)

King: Kirk, you’re starting your NFL experience with one of the greatest to ever do it, and in a national window, and in an experiment into streaming. How has it felt?

Herbstreit: The greatest part has been having an opportunity to be around Al and get to know him. I’ve been following him and his career for decades and just been such a huge fan of his. I was 11 years old watching the Olympics on my couch, then watching his career go from there. Being a baseball guy, even with the canary jackets and him and Jim Palmer doing Monday Night Baseball. I’ve just always held him at the very highest regard and now at this stage of my career to be able to be asked to join a booth with him. I worked with Brent Musberger early in my career and I’ve been lucky enough to work with other guys who are younger but very established like Chris Fowler and Mike Tirico. To be able to work aside Al is where my focus really is and Fred Gaudelli who’s the producer.

I’m trying not to really get caught up in, It’s the first time of going into an NFL booth, it’s the first time of doing streaming. I’m more focused on preparing and just doing what I’ve always done which is getting ready to put on a telecast and have great chemistry with the people I work with.”

King: Why’d you want to do the NFL?

Herbstreit: I don’t know. I’ve done a couple games. I’m a college football junkie. Growing up in Ohio, my dad played at Ohio State. He coached with Woody [Hayes] and Bo [Schembechler]. It was kind of in my blood. I’ve always been an NFL fan but I’m very, very passionate about the college game. I’ve always just looked at the NFL game as I’m a fan of it. Never really was that guy that I have to keep climbing in my career, I have to get to the NFL. I was just never that guy.

Then ESPN asked me to do a couple games over the last couple years. I was kinda blown away by how much I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed working with the players, and the coaches. I was kind of taken aback by how receptive they were towards me personally. How forthcoming they were in my production meetings. Really, that’s the part about my job I love the most. It just put me in a very comfortable position as I was doing the broadcast because of being around Ben Roethlisberger, and being around the Steelers and the Giants and last year the Chiefs and the Broncos. Feeling the juice of a broadcast. There’s nothing really like that. It just had me thinking, maybe one day that’s maybe something I’ll do. When Amazon approached me about the idea, I was very intrigued.

King: Al, you’re 77 years old. You just finished working seven years with John Madden, 13 with Cris Collinsworth. You’re in the bottom of the eighth and starting anew with streaming a new partner. Why? 

Michaels: I may be in the bottom of the eighth but hopefully this game goes to like 16 innings. It doesn’t end conventionally. It’s exciting. I had John for seven. Cris for 13. It’s been fantastic. Now it’s a brand-new situation for me on every level. I’ve watched Kirk through the years. The one thing I do know, he’s unbelievably prepared. I remember watching his Denver-Kansas City game last year. I think there was a Saturday game and I was in the hotel room before our Sunday game. I thought, man he’s on top of this. He knows what we know, and we know a lot because we cover those teams a lot. I was impressed by that.

“When I tell people who I’m working with, they go, Oh yeah, we love him. He’s special. So, that part of it’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be different. I think we’ll establish a rapport very easily and fairly quickly. I think when you do a game with a partner, you kinda have to let it go. You don’t go, Hey look, this is my space and this is your space, and you give a hand signal. You feel it. You feel the rhythm. There’s a rhythm that you feel. It’s almost like two people are singing a song together and you begin to sing it and then you kinda fold in together and it works. Hopefully it sounds melodic, let’s put it that way.

2018 Winter TCA Tour - Day 6
Thursday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli and Michaels in 2018. (Getty Images)

King: For both of you: Al, you’ve done this a long time with long-time partners. How do you build chemistry so that in Week 2 when you have a big game, Chiefs-Chargers, you and Kirk seem like a couple guys who know each other?

Michaels: We’re getting to know each other. Got a couple of really good dinners and lunches along the way here. We had a lot of fun spending a day in New York. They’re gonna get ramped up by coming out to LA with Fred and the production group. They’re gonna do kind of a rehearsal game without us to get their act together. Then, Kirk and I are gonna come in, most likely and do at least part of a preseason game in Los Angeles to kind of get the feel of how that’s gonna work and how we blend in with the whole operation. Then, we do have a preseason game—San Francisco at Houston at the end of August. We will have some ramp up coming into that. Hopefully there won’t be too many bugs but whatever they are, we’ll discuss them. We’ll work through it. At least we’re not going in ice cold to that first game in Kansas City.

Herbstreit: I agree. I think those opportunities will be huge just to not really feel one another, but feel the whole team. The entire production of how it’s coming together and just learning through trial and error. Al’s been doing this a lot longer than me working with Fred Gaudelli and a lot of the production team that’s in the truck. I now step in. It’s really on me to kinda get in step with them. Throughout my career when I’ve gotten into a new situation, I just think getting to know a person on a personal level, listening to stories, hearing about his background and me sharing some things about my life I think you become just friendly with one another and that really can carry over onto the air where there’s an understanding and a respect for one another and kind of a blend and a chemistry that becomes natural.

King: Did you have a gee whiz moment about working with Al?

Herbstreit: Oh my gosh. Absolutely. Are you kidding me? I don’t mean to embarrass him but I’ve listened to his rhythm, his cadence. What I love about him is not just his calls, but I love how whoever he works with, it sounds like they’re just two buddies watching a game, having a beer and just hanging out and enjoying themselves. Obviously, there’s way more that goes into it. But that’s the vibe that I’ve always gotten from Al Michaels telecasts. That’s what I hope to join. I just want to step right in line with that.

Michaels: Here’s a little anecdote for you. When I knew I was working with Kirk, I read his book and I knew he grew up in Ohio and I didn’t realize what a big baseball fan he was. Of course, I was doing the Reds in the years when you had Pete Rose in his prime, Johnny Bench ascending, getting through his prime, Tony Perez in his prime, Joe Morgan getting traded over. But Kirk’s favorite player was Davey Concepcion. A fine player, but in that group? You talk about the sixth guy down on the marquee. That was great to know, he goes all the way back to even when I was doing the Cincinnati Reds. A long, long time ago.

King: You know he’s a real Reds fan if he’s a Concepcion guy.

Michaels: Oh yeah.

Herbstreit: I’m the kind of guy that’ll go on YouTube and pull up Al Michaels calls from Reds games. I’ll go back to some of the games in the ‘70s. It’s a hobby of mine. I’m fascinated by it. I really feel that that role in baseball or in football or in hockey, it’s really changed over the years. How many young Al Michaels are there? I love to talk to Al over dinner about it. I’m enamored with that world and always have been. Now to work with Al, who’s at the top of that, it’s pretty cool.

Michaels: You know what that speaks to also? That speaks to in my generation, we all kinda came up doing radio first. And transitioned to television. My generation, Curt Gowdy a little bit before then, Vin Scully, Dick Enberg All these guys came up through radio.

In radio, in those years, you learn to really paint the picture. Then you could cut back a little bit on TV. In radio, you have full use of all of the verbs in the dictionary. But in television, people can see the verb. They see the action. If you describe a pop fly to center field as a line drive, people go what? What is he talking about? You’re speaking a little bit more in ellipses and fractions and segments or sentences on television. Radio was the greatest proving ground and learning ground for those who came up through my generation.

Herbstreit: How long, Al, do you think it took you to transition from calling the game like you said? It’s very different in radio. How long did it take you to transition where you weren’t describing every detail of a telecast?

Michaels: Well, when I was doing it simultaneously, that goes back to when I was in Hawaii [Michaels began his baseball career doing minor-league Hawaii Islanders games] and even in Cincinnati doing some television, I knew it was a different discipline. I knew you didn’t have to speak as much on TV. Especially nowadays. Then, it was kind of like rudimentary coverage. Now the coverage is so fantastic. You’re inside everything. You don’t have to say what people are seeing

I was talking to Jac Collinsworth recently; he’s doing USFL games on TV. He said, ‘Are you looking at the monitor, or looking at the field?’ What I’m trying to do is put the monitor directly in front of me so I can look over the top of the monitor, see the field, but your eyes will see a camera cut. A camera cut is what the person at home is seeing. You want to at least go down there in case it’s something that needs to be addressed. Look, this all comes from 18,000 years of experience. We’ll get rolling. Don’t worry about it, Kirk.

Herbstreit: I love it.

King: Al, you’ve basically been a fulltime broadcaster since 1968. You’ve done this now for 54 years. I wonder, could you ever have envisioned being 77 years old and STILL wanting to do this?

Michaels: I think it probably goes back to my childhood. I grew up in Brooklyn and I could walk to Ebbets Field. The Dodgers played there. How many kids grow up in a neighborhood where you can walk to a Major League ballpark and see Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider and Gil Hodges and Don Drysdale and those people? I know the first time I showed up at Ebbets Field, I remember thinking, I want to be here every night. How can I get a job that would let me go to a stadium every night and get paid for it?

Having no idea how handsomely one would get paid down the line, obviously. I’ve always been a fan. I’m a sports fan. I still love sports. Even when I’m not doing a game, I can get immersed in a game. You know what a big hockey fan I am. I can still go to a hockey game. My Kings at least made it to the playoffs this year, lost in seven games, but they’re a team to watch in the future. I love it. I enjoy it.

Speaking of Curt Gowdy, I got to do the World Series with Curt back in 1972. In those years, NBC would hire the local team announcer to work with Gowdy and [Tony] Kubek. We went to dinner between one of the games and he said, ‘Listen kid, you’re gonna go far. Remember this: Never get jaded. I thought to myself, never get jaded? What did he mean by that? I didn’t see myself ever getting jaded.

King: You know now.

Michaels: And I haven’t. Even now, I see others in my business and contemporaries, colleagues, who have gotten somewhat jaded. Don’t find it to be as much fun or exciting and rewarding as it was years ago. But for me, Peter, it’s the same. I still love sports. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d still be watching sports. 

King: Kirk, how are you going to handle doing games at the pinnacle of college and pro football in the same week. And how do you balance being the kind of dad who wants to be at your kids’ games and their events?

Herbstreit: It’s crazy. I’m right now trying to organize things just because it is gonna be a hectic week. I’m doing a game every single Saturday and I’m doing College Gameday every single Saturday. Tricky weeks are when Gameday is in one location and then the game I’m calling is in Eugene, Oregon.

“Right now, I’m planning to leave Wednesday, meet up with Al, go to the home team’s practice. Go to dinner and we’ll do a Zoom that night with the visiting team. Then we’ll do the game Thursday, and the whole time I’ll be juggling throughout Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. My big thing is talking with coordinators. When I’m able to really lock in on a game, it’s with the coordinators of each team so trying to do that for the game on Monday and Tuesday for the Thursday game and then on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, for the Saturday game. Just trying to find time to be able to do that.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Shamrock Series - Notre Dame v Wisconsin
ESPN College Gameday analysts Lee Corso and Herbstreit in 2021. (Getty Images)

“But right after the game Thursday, I’ll fly to Gameday and then I’ll do Gameday in the morning. It’s a three-hour show from 9 a.m. to noon eastern. Then I’ll either fly to another location to call my ABC Saturday night game, or I’ll stay right there on site at the stadium, call my game, and then fly home Saturday night right after the game. Get home, about two in the morning. The biggest different I’m gonna notice I think is that Sunday for me has been kind of like reset. Like, I’m asleep on the couch. I’m kind of in and out, trying to be a dad. The only game I really watch is Sunday night. I like the pre-game show. Kind of get caught up on everything that happened. Then I watch Al and Cris on Sunday. I watch it and learn. But Sunday’s now gonna be a prep day I’ll find my rhythm and I’ll get into a routine. Right now I’m just kind of guessing the best I can and trying to organize my days out of the week.

King: Will you get to see any St. Xavier High School football games? [son Chase Herbstreit is a freshman QB at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High, and the Herbstreits have homes in Nashville and Cincinnati.]

Herbstreit: That’s the Joe Nuxhall curveball right there. He’s a freshman right now. If he ends up starting at St. X at some point, then I’m not missing that. I will fly Thursday night back to Cincinnati after Al and I call a game and I’ll spend Friday in my house, prepping and doing what I would normally do on site for Gameday. I’ll go to his game on Friday night, and then I’ll fly to wherever Gameday is after his game. I’ve watched my other three sons. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that through all this chaos. ESPN’s been really nice about letting me, if I’m gonna pay for it, go and get to my boys’ games. If Chase ends up starting at some point, I will be in the stands watching.

King: Al, obviously you’ve made a nice living doing this job but you see Joe Buck making $16 million a year and Tom Brady just signed for $37 million a year. Why do you suppose this has happened and what’s your impression of the explosion?

Michaels: Well, inflation controls everything. You go back to when I did my first Reds-Dodgers game in Dodger Stadium. I still have the ticket from it in L.A. A box seat was $3.50. Three fifty. You sat in the bleachers or in the top deck at Chavez Ravine for a buck fifty. Now, tickets are like a thousand bucks for the same seats. When you see these numbers, and I don’t wanna sound like a dinosaur here, but I go back to when I was with the Reds. The first year I’m there, Pete Rose is holding out. He misses half of spring training because he wants $110,000. And he was one of the first guys to go into six figures. When you see this, this is just the evolvement of the business. The Brady deal, I don’t know whether the number is right. I don’t know whether he’s a brand ambassador, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It can’t just be for doing games. It has to be other stuff. In a way, this is just the way it’s gone.

I’ve always felt that the ruination of somebody especially if you’re on a team and the guy at the next locker is making $500,000 more than you and you’re all pissed off about that. Why? We’re all doing pretty well. Enjoy it. Especially at this point of my life, I mean, great. More power to anybody who can get whatever they get. That’s what the market will bear.

King: Al, how much longer for you?

Michaels: Let’s put it this way, Peter. I had as much fun last year as I ever did. It was wonderful. I sort of knew that that was gonna be the end of the NBC portion of it. I just wanted to suck all of the joy out of last season. And I did. Then all of a sudden, the end of the year we had—the last regular season game we did was crazy. The next week we had Ben Roethlisberger’s finale in Kansas City and the week after that, one of the craziest comebacks ever that fell just short when Tampa Bay erased that 28-3 deficit in what looked to be Brady’s last game. Then we have a great Super Bowl.

Coming down the stretch, I felt great. We had all of these wonderful games. I was completely energized at the end of the Super Bowl, as much as I’ve ever been. And then who was waiting for me at the production truck, because he’s always loved me? Eminem. Eminem waited 20 minutes at the production truck to meet me! I’m going, what? This is all kinda like surreal. It’s crazy. It’s been wonderful.

I wrote a book in 2014 and all I said at the end of the book was if God’s gonna get even with me in my next life, I’m working in a silver mine in Mongolia on the night shift.

Herbstreit: That’s a great line!

King: In other words, you might have a while to go.

Michaels: Like I say, what hole am I playing? Does it go to a playoff? Does the ballgame go to a 16-inning game? I feel really good right now. It’s as simple as that. I’m energized. I’m ready to go. I love doing what I do. To me, it’s all about passion. If you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, go find something else. And I still have that passion.

King: Kirk, I’m curious. You’ve done a few NFL games for ESPN. Think it’s going to be different from doing college games?

Herbstreit: If I would’ve done this 10 years ago, I think the college and the pro game were very, very different offensively—the schemes and how they attack. But I think about five, six, seven years ago, some of the NFL coordinators looked at the college game and they saw tempo and they saw a lot of spread stuff and they saw a lot of RPO stuff. They thought, I might use a little bit of that. Kliff Kingsbury couldn’t win many games in the Big 12. He ends up becoming a head coach in the NFL. I think that’s an example kind of direction of where the NFL is going.

The biggest thing I’m really fired up for is the quarterback play you see for the good teams week in and week out. I’m very familiar with these guys because of their college experience. Like Joe Burrow. Joe Burrow takes a franchise that couldn’t win many games and he and Ja’Marr Chase almost—I don’t wanna say by themselves—but they really changed the image and the reputation of a franchise. Joe Burrow has that kind of swagger and belief. Guys want to play with him. So I’m looking forward to watching these quarterbacks, watching these schemes evolve.

King: Thanks. Have a great season.

Michaels and Herbstreit combined to do a 10 Things I Think I Think, five apiece. Michaels is first up.

AL MICHAELS

1. I think I still find it astonishing that an NFL team can play a maximum of 24 games (three preseason, 17 regular season and four postseason) and the NFL is still in the conversation the other 341 days of the year (342 in a leap year). Nothing else in the sports world comes close.

2. I think the best way to become a head coach is to get hired on Sean McVay’s staff. He’s still by a good margin the youngest coach in the league and four of his assistants are now head coaches: Matt LaFleur, Kevin O’Connell, Zac Taylor, Brandon Staley. That’s already one of the great coaching trees ever. McVay is a unicorn.

3. I think I have this question of PA announcers in the NFL: Who told half of you to scream “THIRD DOWWWNNNN” at the top of your lungs every time the visiting team is in that situation? I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur but crowd noise should be natural and reflect where the game is at that moment. All that artificial screaming and “MAKE NOISE” nonsense on the video boards should be limited to Pavlov’s dogs. Once in a while it would be nice to be able to talk to the person next to you.

4. I think I’ve done around 700 NFL regular-season games and rank that Chargers-Raiders game on the last day of the regular season last year at or close to the top. A tie would have sent both teams to the playoffs and knocked the Steelers out but the Chargers pressed the issue in overtime and got burned. The Chargers’ last drive in regulation with Justin Herbert’s fourth-down conversion was one for the ages. Games don’t get much more dramatic and breathtaking than that one.

5. I think I’m excited to be at the forefront of a new paradigm as the NFL enters into the streaming world. I’ve been asked what we’ll do that’s different. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. My mindset and our production crew has always been of the mindset of how we can do it ‘better.’ And away we go

KIRK HERBSTREIT

6. I think you have to continue to find ways to challenge yourself in this industry and that is why joining Prime Video to be part of Thursday Night Football is so exciting for me. Now I get to share a booth with Al Michaels and I get to watch the greatest players in the world compete. For more than 25 years, I’ve known my routine. And now it changes. I will be a little anxious until I find my rhythm the first couple weeks of the season. I need to be able to give all three jobs—Thursday Night Football on Prime Video, ESPN College Gameday and my weekly college game on Saturday—the necessary amount of time and preparation so I can continue to be someone fans look to and count on for great insight into the game.

7. I think my favorite memory during COVID was watching The Last Dance with my wife and our four sons. My boys have heard me talk about Michael Jordan their entire lives and to be able to watch this documentary together as a family was so special. It gave us something to look forward to each week. There is Michael Jordan and there is everyone else. It was so cool to see his killer attitude, his instincts, his edge as a competitor, and his will to dominate every situation he was in on and off the court. I loved that my boys got to hear him talk first-hand about the only way to achieve greatness is the combination of physical ability, work ethic and the willingness to outwork your opponent. This still applies today. COVID was an unprecedented event and there was a lot of heartbreak over the past two years. Sports and having my family together: That’s what got us through a tough time.

8. I think I can’t wait to see a live concert again. My good friend Kenny Chesney is back doing stadium tours and I hope to be able to catch at least one show this summer before preparation for football season begins. If you haven’t seen him in person, it’s an incredible experience.

9. I think one of the things I’m most excited about when I look at the TNF schedule is seeing Tom Brady play in person on Oct. 27. I admire his preparation and competitive spirit and how he brings out the very best in his teammates. After everything he’s accomplished, he still looks in the mirror and sees a sixth-round pick with something to prove. I’m happy I’ve been alive to watch him throughout his career and now I’ll get to call one of his games. That is so cool.

10. I think I have some thoughts on college football. It is an emotional time right now. NIL and the transfer portal have created a lot of angst throughout the college football community, but there will eventually be some parameters put it place so it can start to make sense. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Power 5 conferences break away from the NCAA at some point and create their own governing body. If that happens, I think you’ll see them negotiate with the players to collectively agree on a set of rules both sides are willing to live with and that should include players getting a share of future broadcast rights deals. They deserve that.

Leave a Comment