Sunday, November 24, 2002

Collinsworth gets great reception

Ex-Bengal catches praise as Fox analyst, HBO host

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Seated in his wood-paneled study, Cris Collinsworth has the world at his fingertips: faxes, phones, e-mails, the Internet and a six-inch stack of overnight packages bulging with NFL statistics.

Cris Collinsworth is on top of the football broadcasting world.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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To his back, outside a big bay window, is the Ohio River.

It could be the Hudson River or Long Island Sound. It could be the Pacific Ocean or the huge Hollywood sign.

Being on TV's top NFL team, co-hosting an HBO show in New York, and having two Sports Emmys on his mantel across the room, Mr. Collinsworth could be a big TV star on either coast.

"I've thought about it," says Mr. Collinsworth, who begins his busiest week of the year today, doing three NFL games in eight days, including the Dallas Cowboys' annual Thanksgiving telecast. "But if I moved to L.A., I would still have to fly to New York to do Inside the NFL (on HBO)."

The former Bengals wide receiver, who replaced John Madden on Fox's NFL game this fall, has decided to stay in Fort Thomas, his wife's hometown. He and Holly love the small-town charm for raising their four children, ages 7-12, and its convenience to the Delta hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

"It's Mayberry!" he says about Fort Thomas, the hilltop city overlooking Lunken Airport. "It is! We've got the barbershop right up the way. We've got the sheriff. It's a little dinky town.

"You could take this town and put it out in the middle of Montana somewhere, and it would be the same sort of feel to Fort Thomas, and yet in five minutes you're in downtown Cincinnati. But you really feel separated from that enough that you feel like you're living in Mayberry."

Collinsworth and teammate Boomer Esiason were made-for-TV stars.
(Enquirer file photo)
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In his three-story, red-brick home, Mr. Collinsworth does the NFL preparation and research that has put him, at 43, at the top of the game.

Fox's ratings have gone up this fall. Mr. Collinsworth's national Fox games have averaged 20 million viewers - more than Mr. Madden's 17.4 million for ABC's Monday Night Football.

Fox has attracted more younger viewers, for which advertisers pay a premium. Ratings for men ages 18-34 are the highest in seven years for the Fox national game.

Ratings also have gone up this season for HBO's revamped Inside the NFL, where Mr. Collinsworth has been a fixture since retiring from the Bengals in 1989

"He has turned into one of the premier broadcasters in any sport in our business," says Ross Greenburg, HBO Sports president.

Filling Madden's shoes

When ABC signed John Madden, the NFL's most respected football analyst, Fox Sports officials decided that outspoken pregame analyst Cris Collinsworth would be ideal for Fox's new three-man NFL team.

Collinsworth at his home overlooking the Ohio River.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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There was just one problem: Convincing Mr. Collinsworth.

It wasn't that the former Pro Bowl receiver and WLW-AM (700) SportsTalk host was worried about replacing the legendary Mr. Madden, who has an unprecedented 13 Emmys for outstanding sports personality/analyst. He wasn't intimidated by Mr. Madden and Pat Summerall having been the top National Football Conference TV team for 21 years on CBS and Fox.

"My initial thought was: I don't want to do it because I'm not going to be able to coach (my son's youth football team) and watch them play on Saturday," says Mr. Collinsworth, who had signed a five-year, $5 million Fox deal in 1998, after NBC lost its NFL contract to CBS.

Mr. Collinsworth was quite comfortable appearing on the top-rated Fox NFL Sunday pregame show with Terry Bradshaw, James Brown and Howie Long. He particularly liked his schedule, flying to Los Angeles late Saturday afternoon for the live Sunday telecast. Doing weekly games would mean leaving early Friday to watch teams practice, and interview players and coaches, before the Sunday game. He also spends Thursdays in New York taping HBO's Inside the NFL.

Collinsworth has bobblehead dolls of himself (right) and Fox teammates James Brown, Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Fox Sports President Ed Goren believed teaming Mr. Collinsworth with former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman and play-by-play announcer Joe Buck would make the best team in the post-Madden era, one that "would be together for many years to come," he says. He opted for a three-man booth to not burden one person with replacing Mr. Madden.

While some fans think the pregame show is a more prestigious job, being on the No. 1 broadcast team is more important to the networks. The prime game audience is more than three times the pregame show (6 million), and three times as long.

"I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for Cris to establish himself on his own," Mr. Goren says. "On the pregame show, he had to play off of Terry."

Mr. Collinsworth resisted. The kids who gave him that plastic "Father of the Year" trophy, which stands next to one of his two Emmys on his mantel, also lobbied against the move.

"The kids told him: 'Stay with the old job, Dad! Please! You'll be home more!'" Holly recalls. "It was a tough decision to make, but he knew it was the best move for him."

When Fox asked him to switch jobs, he said, "Sure, how much?"

He laughs.

"And so they finally made it easy to agree."

On his mantel, Collinsworth displays an Emmy, a Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, a commemorative ball from one of his three Pro Bowls and a plastic Father of the Year trophy his kids gave him.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The major concession was allowing Mr. Collinsworth to fly home Friday nights, after watching the home team practice (unless he was doing a West Coast game). That way he could see his family, coach his son's Fort Thomas Junior Football League team on Saturday morning, and return to the NFL city in time to interview the visiting team on Saturday afternoon.

"So I told (Fox): 'I'm not going to miss out on what my kids are doing. This (TV job) is important to me, but not that important to me.' And they were more than accommodating," says Mr. Collinsworth, who will be doing Fox's national Green Bay at Tampa game today (4 p.m., Channels 19, 45).

Says Artie Kempner, Fox's NFL telecast director and Mr. Collinsworth's former University of Florida football teammate: "We've always had that kind of schedule, and it just fits in with his schedule."

"If I didn't believe this would be a very special opportunity for Cris, and Fox Sports, I wouldn't have pushed as hard as I did," Mr. Goren says. "A lot of guys are doing studio shows, but there are very few lead analysts."

Mr. Goren's hunch was right. On Fox doubleheader Sundays, the national 4 p.m. game has averaged a 12.6 household rating, up from 12.1 last year ago for Mr. Madden and Mr. Summerall. Monday Night Football has averaged an 11.6 rating this season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The Collinsworth-Buck-Aikman team "has been well received by the press, the fans and the NFL community. I think it's one of the greatest unwritten stories of the NFL season," he says. "I'm thrilled. It's beyond our expectations."

A call from HBO

When Cris Collinsworth was cut by the Bengals in September 1989, at the ripe old age of 30, he was hoping to catch on with another team.

The first team to call with an offer - the very next day - was HBO Sports. It wanted him as features reporter for its weekly Inside the NFL program.

"We had been eyeing Cris for sometime," Mr. Greenburg says. "Every time we interviewed him (as a player), he was outspoken, honest and funny - everything you look for in a broadcaster."

The three-time Pro Bowl receiver also had caught the attention of NBC Sports, which broadcast the Bengals' American Football Conference games throughout his eight-year career.

Bob Costas, who was doing weekly NBC games with Cincinnati's Bob Trumpy, says the 6-foot-5 former Gator made a big impression his rookie season in 1981.

"I remember how uncommonly well-spoken he was as a rookie, and how aware he was of the media," says Mr. Costas, who began co-hosting HBO's Inside the NFL with Mr. Collinsworth this fall. He replaced Mr. Collinsworth's previous partners, Len Dawson and Nick Buoniconti.

Within weeks of Mr. Collinsworth's football retirement in 1989, NBC also hired him to do NFL games. WLW-AM signed him to be Friday night SportsTalk host while Mr. Trumpy traveled to weekend NBC assignments. Four months later, when Mr. Trumpy quit radio after a decade, he asked Mr. Collinsworth to take the job permanently.

"Of all the people in town, I thought he'd be the best at it," says Mr. Trumpy, who does radio commentary for the Sunday night NFL game and a weekly WLW-AM show with former Bengal Boomer Esiason.

While colleagues and competitors praise his natural abilities, Mr. Collinsworth says it wasn't easy stepping out of uniform and into the broadcast booth.

"Nobody could have figured that I was ever going to make a living doing this. That's why I almost think it was almost something preordained, some sort of a destiny, because (radio) was a major struggle for me in the beginning," he says.

"To go on the air, and read a 60-second commercial live, it was just horrible. I was making a fool out of myself," he says. "Thank goodness I had WLW, and people who cared enough about me in Cincinnati, to put up with it till I got a little bit better."

On radio here, Mr. Collinsworth also learned how to criticize athletes - including some of his friends - and take the heat for the comments. It's a lesson that has made him millions over the years - and cost him some interviews.

San Francisco star Terrell Owens has refused to speak to Mr. Collinsworth all year because of Mr. Collinsworth's comments on Inside the NFL last year. Mr. Collinsworth, who did the San Francisco-San Diego game last week, "shredded" the 49ers wide receiver on HBO for "ripping coach Steve Mariucci for his play calling."

"If something upsets Cris, he says it," says Mr. Buck, his Fox booth partner. "It doesn't change him, even when guys won't talk to him."

"He's willing to cross the line, to be dead honest about players - and that's difficult at times, because players take it personally," says Mr. Kempner, the Fox director. "Sometimes it has made our job more difficult ... but it's what makes him a good broadcaster."

Sounding like Mayberry

When Bob Trumpy recruited Cris Collinsworth for radio, he worried that the skinny good ol' boy from Florida might not overcome his greatest hurdle: "He sounded like Gomer Pyle - and I told him that," Mr. Trumpy says.

His aw-shucks folksiness provides an "uncanny ability to relate to the guy on the living room couch," says Mr. Greenburg, of HBO. "He connects with every viewer, and that's a tribute to his intelligence and his personality."

Sounding like somebody from Mayberry - America first met Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show - masks the work ethic that made Mr. Collinsworth an academic All-American. He earned an accounting degree in 1981 at the University of Florida, and a law degree in 1991 from the University of Cincinnati. Holly also earned a UC law degree in 1988; they married a year later.

"The one thing I learned from five years of law school is that I definitely didn't want to be an attorney. So it worked out great," he says with the self-deprecating humor that endears him to football fans.

His studies today include reading NFL statistics, on-line newspaper stories, team press releases and anything else about the league. In a third-floor workout room, he watches game tapes while exercising on a Stairmaster, stationary bike, weight machine or treadmill.

"He was a heck of a student in college. He still is a heck of student," says Fox's Mr. Kempner, a former outside linebacker who often went head-to-head with Mr. Collinsworth on the Gators practice field. "He's always well prepared. He takes copious notes. He's a very diligent worker. At a commercial break, he's looking over his legal pads and his (note) boards."

Getting out of the Fox studio, and into NFL stadiums, also has exponentially increased Mr. Collinsworth's homework.

"When you stop and think about it,there are probably 120 people you're responsible for on any given Sunday - between 50 players and 20 coaches, plus the front-office people. Make that closer to 150," he says. "But this also has gotten me back in touch with the game more. Doing studio shows ... you don't get the details of the league."

His travels around the league, and preparation for HBO's Thursday show, let him see the big picture, says Mr. Buck.

"He can take a step back as a commentator, and not get involved with the minutia that other analysts get involved in, and think the way fans think," Mr. Buck says.

"We get so wrapped up in the game, that we can sometimes miss the forest for the trees," Mr. Buck says. "He makes comments and criticisms in a way that I don't hear many do in the booth."

Doing SportsTalk with Andy Furman taught him how to mix information and entertainment - a skill that let him fit in instantly with Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Long on the Fox pregame show.

"There were times I'd put him on the spot, and jab at him," Mr. Furman says, "but he never once got mad at me. He knew is was part of the shtick."

His HBO mentor, Mr. Greenburg, warned him not to be too wild or crazy after seeing him do a muddy, headfirst slide during a rain-delay feature story at the Wimbledon tennis tournament in the 1990s.

"I told him, 'You have to decide whether you're going to be the candid, thought-provoking Cris Collinsworth, or the Cris Collinsworth who would be a buffoon,'" Mr. Greenburg recalls.

Mr. Collinsworth remembers being told that day: "The people who really make a lot of money in this business are not the jokesters. They are ultimately the guys who can be taken seriously at what they do. You can have fun, and be creative, and try to be entertaining, but you have to be the one that people take seriously."

With the Internet, football fans "can have access to what information I have access to," he says. "So it comes down to form and presentation."

Mr. Collinsworth's stint at WLW-AM also left another imprint - a respect for knowledgeable fans.

"The hardest thing in the world is to know as much about any team as a good, solid fan in that area," he says. "I'm sure some people sitting at home watching a game are thinking, 'We could have gotten Joe from the (sports talk) radio to do the game better than this clown is.' So I'm just trying to be better than Joe from the radio."

Pro field for kids

In Mayberry, Opie and his pals didn't play ball on an $800,000 NFL-style artificial football field. But Fort Thomas kids do.

The former Bengal arranged for the FieldTurf surface to be installed at Highlands High School in August, after rain and mud prevented his son's Fort Thomas Junior Football League team from playing Saturday morning games on the Highlands practice field last year.

"They didn't want (the field) torn up. So about three times last year, we're up there with all these kids in full uniforms ... and we had to send them home because they wouldn't let them play. It was making me crazy," he says.

Mr. Collinsworth, who also has coached his children's youth soccer and softball teams, began searching for a place to install an all-weather field similar to ones used by the University of Cincinnati, the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. His quest took him to Dale Mueller, Highlands High School football coach and athletic director, who suggested it be put at the high school, Holly's alma mater.

The Highlands surface didn't cost the school district one cent, thanks to donations arranged by Mr. Collinsworth, and contributions from the city, the Fort Thomas Lions Club, the Highland High School Athletic Boosters and the Junior Football League. Mr. Collinsworth also arranged for an instant-replay video screen to be installed at the stadium.

"He's the ideal guy to have in your town. He's a guy who can get things done," Mr. Mueller says.

The FieldTurf allows more students - gym classes, the band, other sports - to use the field year-round. It will be rented out on weekends in the winter and spring to soccer leagues, Mr. Mueller says.

"It's the best field I've ever seen, and it's going to generate money for the school system and its educational needs," he says.

In Fort Thomas, Mr. Collinsworth isn't a TV star. He's a dad.

"That's all he tries to be when here's around here. He's a parent and a youth coach, and a concerned community member," Mr. Mueller says. "He is great coaching kids. He's so nice and concerned with them, like they are the most important thing in his life."

Cris and Holly's involvement with the community, and the proximity of her family, has made it irresistible to stay. . Mr. Collinsworth says he has considered moving to Los Angeles - particularly when he was hosting the pregame show and Fox's weekly Guinness World Records: Primetime, a top 20 TV series in summer 1998.

"My wife is very happy here. Her parents are five minutes away. Her brother and sister are nearby. With me being away so much, it really does help that they're around to help. And I like it here, too," says Mr. Collinsworth, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Titusville, Fla. His parents were schoolteachers, until his father was promoted to principal and Brevard County school superintendent.

In the off-season, from February to August, Mr. Collinsworth keeps busy with charity work, his business investments and his kids.

"One thing that doesn't come out in stories about Cris is that the rest of the time, he gives back," his wife says. "Whatever he does, he gives 110 percent."

His celebrity golf tournament, the Fifth Third Bank-Fox 19 Celebrity Classic has raised nearly $1 million for Children's Hospital Medical Center. His Cris Collinsworth Foundation in Gainesville, Fla., has built a drug rehabilitation center near his alma mater.

He also owns part of The Waterfront (with Pete Rose and Mr. Esiason) and ProScan Imaging, a medical diagnostic imaging chain founded by Dr. Stephen J. Pomerantz, a former UC radiology professor.

"Technically, my (ProScan) title is president, but I would defer all medical-related issues to Dr. Pomerantz," he says with a laugh. "But it's been fun. I have an accounting degree, and a law degree, and all of these things are a little more satisfying applying it to a business, than facing third-and-eight" in a football game.

He can do all of that, and be Fox's No. 1 football analyst, from Mayberry.

"For all of us who have been lucky enough to have some things go right in their lives - most of us are still guys that had two parents as school teachers growing up, and want to raise our own kids with that same kind of feeling. At least I do," he says.

"Look at what's going on in L.A.: People are going to Montana and Idaho. They're trying to get out. And people in New York are looking for that small-town feel over in New Jersey," he says.

"I think people all over the country are looking for a Mayberry."

Bengals' woes hard on a loyalist

Like most Cincinnati Bengals fans and players, Cris Collinsworth is tired of talking about more than a decade of losing.

His frustration has reached the point where he has declined interviews to talk about the team's lousy performance.

"It really is hard. I've gotten calls from reporters, from TV and radio shows from all over the country, and I just can't do it," the Fox NFL analyst says.

His eight-year career spanned the Bengals' best years. The team went to the Super Bowl in his first season (1981) and his last (1988).

The Bengals haven't had a winning season since he was cut before the 1989 opener. The team has a 77-147 record in 13 seasons.

"The sad thing is that there's now a semi-generation of people who don't think the Bengals have ever been good," he says. That includes his four children, ages 7 to 12.

"But I still love 'em. I still cheer for them," he says.

The former All-Pro wide receiver says he likes the Brown family, which owns and operates the franchise. He attended the University of Cincinnati College of Law with Katie Brown Blackburn, team executive vice president and daughter of Bengals President Mike Brown. Her husband, Troy Blackburn, is the club's business development director.

"I hope they get it fixed," he says. "I like Mike, I really like Troy. I went to law school with Katie. And I wouldn't want to walk in their shoes right now, I know that."

What makes Cris Collinsworth so good?

'Cris probably is the closest of any (TV analyst)... in terms of his outspokenness, since Howard Cosell retired.'
Ed Goren, Fox Sports president

"He takes copious notes. He's a very diligent worker. At a commercial break, he's looking over his legal pads and his (note) boards. He's always very well prepared."
Artie Kempner, Fox's NFL TV director and his college teammate

'He has the uncanny ability to relate to the guy on the living room couch. He connects with every viewer, and that's a tribute to his intelligence and his personality.'
Ross Greenburg, HBO Sports president

"He can take a step back as a commentator, and not get involved with the minutia that other analysts get involved in, and think the way fans think. We get so wrapped up in the game, that we can sometimes miss the forest for the trees."
Joe Buck, Fox play-by-play announcer

'He hasn't forgotten that he was a player, but he has stopped defining that as his first allegiance. He knows his first allegiance is to the TV audience, and the quality of the broadcast.'
Bob Costas, co-host of HBO's Inside the NFL and NBC Sports host

'He's willing to cross the line, to be dead honest about players . . . - and that's difficult at times, because players take it personally. Sometimes it has made our job more difficult - some players won't talk to him - but it's what makes him a good broadcaster. He really understands broadcasting and television.'
Artie Kempner, Fox's NFL TV director and his college teammate

'Everybody loves Cris. He's the guy next door. He has it all. He's got the looks, he's got the smarts and he works very hard. He's the total package. He's got no ego.' He's the same guy at the network as he was with me. He can adapt to anyone.'
Andy Furman, his former WLW-AM SportsTalk partner

'What makes him so good? His candor and his irreverence. And the more training you have locally, the better you are nationally.'
Bob Trumpy, Sunday night NFL radio analyst and former NBC football commentator and WLW-AM SportsTalk host

"He was always good with the media (in college). He would always praise those around him, and he made sure he kept the dirty laundry private. He was our leader. We always thought that he'd be a politician. I thought he was going to be the U.S. senator from the state of Florida."
Artie Kempner, Fox's NFL TV director and his college teammate

'If I didn't show up one weekend, Cris could handle the broadcast. He could get us on and off the air, and do the play-by-play. I'm not sure I would be missed. He's that good of a television person.'
Joe Buck, Fox play-by-play announcer

Vital statistics

Born: Jan. 27, 1959, Dayton, Ohio.

Lives: Fort Thomas.

Family: Married Holly Bankemper in 1989. Four children: Katie, 12; Austin, 10; Ashley, 9; Jack, 7.

NFL career: Three-time Pro Bowl receiver with the Bengals (1981-88). Played in Super Bowls XVI and XXIII. Caught 417 passes for 6,698 yards and 36 touchdowns in 107 games. Had four 1,000-yard seasons. Second in all-time club receptions to Carl Pickens (530). Second-round draft choice.

Education: Graduated from University of Florida with degree in accounting, 1981, academic All-American; earned a law degree from University of Cincinnati, 1991.

TV: HBO Inside the NFL reporter and co-host since being cut by the Bengals in 1989; NBC analyst for NFL and Notre Dame games, 1989-95; NBC pregame show analyst, 1989-97; Fox pregame analyst, 1998-2001; Fox NFL game commentator, 2002.

Radio: Subbed for Bob Trumpy Friday nights on WLW-AM SportsTalk, 1989; hosted show, 1990-99.

Awards: Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sports Personality/Analyst for NBC's pregame show (1997, 1998); University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame (1991).


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