Tuesday, August 7, 2007

My Love-Hate Relationship With Colin Cowherd

Maybe, yes, YES, Dude, yes, maybe after 10 beers, OH GOD NO!

ESPN Radio's morning blowhard Colin Cowherd, or as he is affectionately known in the blogosphere: "Schrutebag",* is probably my favorite ESPN radio host in the current lineup. You actually can't hear him on New York terrestrial radio (1050am switched to Max Kellerman at the 10am slot because New Yorkers don't like to listen to anything that's not about them) so I have to listen to him via the webcast out of 1530am in Austin (fyi, ads on Texas radio stations are about 4:1 in favor of strip joints. The Landing Strip in particular gets a ton of play.). He's abrasive, annoying as hell and probably the most egotistical voice in syndicated Sports Talk Radio (and that's saying something), but he's also easily the most engaging. It's this battle between my hatred of the unmitigated arrogance of the show and my need for a new and edgy voice that sometimes leaves me pulling my hair out. I can't fucking stand Colin Cowherd, but I can't change the channel either.

Cowherd's schtick is essentially that he knows everything and you don't. It's less condescending than Mike & The MadDog and far less holier than thou than the Dan Patrick show. Cowherd usually puts together just the right blend of bombast and insight so that you come away from the 3 hours (the show is 4 hours long but the first hour is only heard on about 3 radio stations in or around Portland, Oregon) feeling as though you know what's going on in the world of sports but you're not exactly convinced that the asshole who told you about it is full of shit or not. At various points during the show I find myself snickering at yet another comment about the lunacy of southern college sports fans only later to consider turning the radio off when he won't let a topic go or will argue the unpopular side of an issue simply for the sake of sparking conversation. He gets a rise out of making himself sound right and spends about a third of his show explaining how right he's been previously and how right he'll be in the future. It can be a frustrating 3 hour meander through the world of sports but at no point am I not entertained.

Cowherd's wheelhouse is college football. There are no syndicated radio hosts in the nation with a greater breadth of knowledge on that particular subject and even during the dead months of April & May he spends a considerable amount of time on the coming season and recruiting. College football is a burgeoning product on the sports media scene and he's really the only voice worthy of listening to on the radio. His show was replaced in NYC because of the heavy college football talk but probably picked up a couple dozen more stations because of it. As long as college football stays hot, Cowherd's program will remain hot.

Cowherd's weakness is everything else. It's clear he's just not passionate about the other sports and while he kinda cares about the NFL (largely because of its "relevance," a Cowherd buzzword), he never gets into the same depth of conversation about the NFL issues as he does college football. He can't fake passion but he can fake knowledge and backround, and that's when the show becomes painful. Colin never wants to seem like he knows less about a subject than the people he is talking to, so he rarely broaches topics that are dangerous to himself (i.e. those topics that he doesn't know much about). When he does dive deeply into a non-college football topic, he keeps the arguments simple and swats away contrary opinions despite how rooted in fact or truth those opinions are. When truly challenged on these subjects he reverts to name-calling (most contrary opinions are those of "mouth breathers" or "conspiracy theorists" or "message board idiots"), which is a point in the show that is both very funny and very frustrating. Cowherd is quick on his feet but when defensive he's almost too quick to cut off the potential for alternate theories to his premises (the plural "premise" not the tract of land) that have the potential to advance the show's discussion beyond the one conclusion he came up with in the show's intensive prep (Cowherd is ALWAYS well versed in the particular stats necessary to back up his specific point and prepares for certain contrary points like a DA prepping for the defense's key witness). Basically, when he's on a topic he can control and knows a ton about, it's the best show on radio. When he's floundering through a subject he pretends to know about, the arguments get confusing, the calls become frustrated and the show becomes cumbersome. Last week there were two segments that exemplified Cowherd's best and worst moments better than almost any I've heard.

Cowherd At His Best
Last Thursday, Cowherd interviewed Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen and it was probably the best radio since Dan Patrick's interview with David Stern (the "pulaver" interview). If you remember correctly, Tom Hansen is the elderly gentleman who would rather eschew progress and hang onto the Rose Bowl than participate in the national championship plus one playoff system. Cowherd came out firing. He immediately pointed out that most fans would prefer a Pac 10 team in the national championship game than playing a Big Ten team in Rose Bowl that doesn't mean anything. Hansen had no retort and pretty much just sputtered while Cowherd reloaded. Cowherd adroitly pointed out that the Pac 10 is flailing and evidence of that being that the number 2 team from the Pac 10 plays the number 4 team from the Big 12 in the Holiday Bowl and that the WAC has put more teams in BCS Bowls than the Pac 10 if you discount the success of USC. Hansen tried to point out that the Holiday Bowl is a huge bowl and Cowherd just killed him. He asked him who the other top 15 program in the Pac 10 was and Hansen had no answer. Herd persisted and finally Hansen stumbled in with Cal which sent Cowherd into a fit of fact-based insults about the Cal's Bowl ineptitude that caused Colin's voice to raise about 10 octaves. Hansen was outmatched and his only defense was that he disagreed with Cowherd about his characterizations, citing no facts or stats in the process. He seemed outmatched and unprepared. By the time the conversation was over you almost felt bad for Hansen (not really). Cowherd was at his finest because he gave a shit and it came across on the radio. He didn't just want to win the argument to prove who knew more about the subject, he wanted to change Hansen's mind because he actually believed what he was saying and because he's a fan of the Pac 10. It's when he crosses over to the fan's line of thinking that and actually cares about what he's talking about that he's really entertaining and on.

Cowherd At His Worst
The day before the Cowherd - Hansen interview was the Garnett trade. Now Herd is not exactly an NBA maven, not by a long shot. He grew up watching the Trailblazers and covered them as well as the Lakers while out on the West Coast, so he's not Barry Melrose, but he's not Dr. Jack Ramsay, FreeDarko.com or even Bill Simmons. It was a slow news day and you can't make 4 hours of radio by echoing the support of the trade found in every newspaper across the nation, so he took the other side and he didn't sell it.

Cowherd argued first the fans have gone crazy because of this trade and then later argued that it's not the fans that are crazy it's the media that has gotten out of control and he doesn't blame the fans for acting crazy. In support of his argument that the Celtics didn't get that much better and will not come out of the east, Herd said that the Celtics traded away their "entire bench" and because of this trade they now can't defend anyone. Well, if he looked at the guys the Celts traded, they didn't give up one guy who can play defense (Ratliff used to but he was traded for the contract) and the two guys off their bench that they gave up (Gomes and Green) weren't exactly vying for the 6th man of the year award. The callers then started to get on him about the fact that the east is horrible and all you need are one or two good guys to get to the east finals (see recently Cleveland and Miami). Herd said no team has made the finals without more than 2 good players in the last 10 years (again, Cleveland and Miami ring a bell). When it was pointed out that Detroit has had a good run and they don't have a single good player, Herd made the absurd comment that Chauncey Billups is the third best point guard in the league (Nash, Parker, Paul, Kidd, Arenas & Deron Williams say hello) and then went on to say that Paul Pierce is not a "premier player" in the league, whatever that means ( I guess it doesn't mean 6 time all-star and 2 time All-NBA team member). But the worst part was that I think he got confused midway through the segment. After spending a good portion of the segment yelling at Celtic fans for being stupid, he responded to an angry caller by saying that he's not calling Celtics fans stupid (he was), he was calling Boston media stupid for hyping this up (in fact Bob Ryan, Boston's most respected hoops mouthpiece, immediately wrote a piece suggesting that the Celts need to do much more to get out of the East). He was all over the place and cited nothing other than overt speculation and his own personal feelings about what it takes to win championships in the NBA. It seemed forced, it didn't flow and most of all it was clear Cowherd could give a shit about whether the Celts actually had a chance or not. In a quiet moment--if ever there is one in the life of a radio blowhard--I bet you wouldn't have to wait 5 seconds before Cowherd admitted that the Celtics are probably one of two or three favorites to come out of the east. It's just that that conversation wouldn't make for good radio, and that's what he claims to be all about. And if that is what he thinks, he's missing the point.

The real genius of the Colin Cowherd radio show (and I know that I'm in the minority in the blogosphere who would declare that the show should receive such lofty praise) is that there are times during the show in which you can't distinguish between schtick and real passion. When you listen to the Mikes, Dan and the other riff raff, everything seems so contrived and calculating. The Mikes never express an authentic emotion while Dan Patrick's deadpan sardonicism gives you no hint of his true feelings on any subject and leaves you devoid of any meaningful connection. Cowherd is the rare exception in the ESPN lineup. He does care even if you can't stand the manner in which he often chooses to express his feelings. And when these feelings show through and he's not just being a "rabblerouser" (ironic if you're a loyal listener), his arguments become tighter and his vitriol is lessened and it's less about him than it is about trying to gain a new perspective on the issue and the result is fucking fun if not informative. It's not always like that (in fact lately those moments have been fleeting) but when he's on and when he's honest, I'll take Cowherd's passion over anything else that's out there no matter how many bits he's stolen from message boards and how many blogs he's crashed. Like I said, he's infuriating, but he's also fucking good.

*A Schrutebag is a douchebag with sycophantic tendencies.

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