Three decades’ worth of New York sports and media dignitaries lined up for their final benedictions Thursday from the radio talker known as the Sports Pope. In his inimitable style, and one by one, he parceled them out.
“You had a great career and now you’re in the midst of another one,” he told Tiki Barber.
“You know all the stocks,” he told Jim Cramer.
“You and Omar Minaya did an amazingly underrated job with the Mets,” he told Willie Randolph.
“You set the mark for transitioning from player to broadcaster,” he told Tim McCarver.
“You’ve got a big decision ahead of you in a couple days,” he told outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The supplicants had come (85 of them, all told) to call upon said Pope, Mike Francesa, who was hosting his penultimate WFAN radio show, This is Your Life-style, from a theater at the Paley Center for Media, the former Museum of Broadcasting. (Friday’s show, the final one, transmits from his usual studio and consists of his regular callers.) He performed before a small crowd of fans and people connected to the radio station, though he made no effort to modulate his regular delivery to fit the setting. He may as well have been in the studio, anyway; due to whatever miscalculation in ticket distribution, the auditorium was never more than a quarter full.
The phone lines, on the other hand… Dick Ebersol, Bob Costas, Jay Wright, Ottis Anderson, Keith Hernandez—they all wanted to tell him what a triumph his show had been, how fair and decent he had been to them while he reigned over the sporting world in New York. Mike Breen, Regis Philbin, Kurt Warner, Jim Nantz, Ian Eagle (a former board operator for Francesa), Linda Cohn—they all wanted him to know what a run he had had. Jay Glazer and Lawrence Taylor called in with off-color stories. Tributes came in from the basketball coaches at Hofstra and Iona.
The callers would say something nice about Francesa, and then Francesa, in most cases, would reply with something less nice but still broadly gracious, and then he would move on to the next caller.
John Calipari called in, and they reminisced about the good old days, like when Francesa and his old partner, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, bet the coach that his UMass Minutemen couldn’t beat Fordham. Francesa and Russo were stuck schlepping to Amherst in the rain to emcee a dinner for the program. “He takes no prisoners, and I take no prisoners,” Francesa said. “That’s why we get along.”
Farewell shows tend to be slathered with treacle, full of disingenuous praise. But Francesa’s voice, first paired with Russo in 1989, and then solo since 2008, really has sound-tracked so many New York afternoons for almost 30 years. Francesa’s shows were often the only place to find extended interviews with embattled coaches and obstinate jocks, alongside the calls from preening Yankee-lovers, despondent Mets fans, and the sadsacks who wanted to spend but 90 seconds talking hockey. Francesa made an art of sparring with callers, sometimes condescending to them, sometimes berating them. It was all an act, he has said, but he has performed this act for tens of thousands of hours of radio. Those who would consider themselves his biggest fans know no other version of Mike Francesa.
And deservedly he bade his almost-farewell from a museum. WFAN invented the sports-talk radio format, and Francesa was the station’s biggest sports-talking star.
What’s funny about Francesa’s great triumph as a sports talker—and for all these years it has been funny—is that he approached his job in what ought to have been the wrong way. Sports talk is a fan’s medium. (It’s right there in the name: WFAN.) Successful hosts are fans themselves, perhaps more informed than the average bleacher creature but no more regal.
But Francesa considered himself an oracle, a grandee. He believed his sports opinions were the definitive ones. In any other setting he’d be a mere pundit. But it was his show! Like a great columnist, he held court on whose stock was rising and falling in his universe. He could be needlessly tough and he could play favorites. On occasion, he could be defiantly uninformed. But his redoubtable memory of every New York sports happening since the ’50s allowed him to pull his shtick off. Coaches and executives once wanted to stay on his good side to keep their jobs. Athletes once wanted to stay on his good side so that they might have post-retirement careers in broadcasting. Cliff Floyd, Bobby Ojeda, Steve Phillips—all called in to thank Francesa for nudging them into sports media.
He made friends. He made stars. And he made millions. Authority, though… that was what he really craved, and—for the most part—got. After Russo departed, there was no one in position to challenge Francesa’s views except for the callers—all of whom he could dismiss with the wave of a hand or the push of a button.
But what he built cannot survive. Thursday’s broadcast was a farewell not just for Francesa’s WFAN career but the notion that any one talker could render definitive, consequential judgments upon athletes and coaches. Star players make enough money now to avoid worrying about post-retirement broadcast careers. Coaches, meanwhile, have become mere cogs in complicated apparatuses, no longer leaders given free rein. And all parties these days are assessed by metrics far more sophisticated and objective than the judgment of one sports junkie with a microphone.
In bequeathing Francesa’s time slot to a trio of good-natured relative youngsters—Chris Carlin, a former Francesa producer; Bart Scott, a loudmouth ex-Jets linebacker; and Maggie Gray, who had been a digital anchor here at Sports Illustrated—WFAN has acknowledged that Francesa’s domineering mode departs the station with him. (Francesa, who said on Thursday that he was entertaining three offers for his next gig, appears to believe he can take his clout elsewhere; it’s genuinely difficult to imagine how that would work.)
Late in November, the outgoing host mounted a last stand of sorts, when he scorned the leadership of the 2-10 New York Giants for benching Eli Manning in favor of Geno Smith. A week later, coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese had been fired, and Manning had returned to his starting job. It was a victory for Francesa—his rant was seen everywhere—and for Manning too. For a moment the pair had asserted their considerable might. Just for a moment, though. Manning projects to be replaced in New York before the 2018 season, and Francesa bows out Friday.
On Thursday, Manning got the loudest ovation of the 85 callers. “You’re a legend in this field,” Manning told Francesa. Francesa appeared genuinely touched. He talked for a minute or two about what a good person Manning was. Then they both had to move on. “Thank you for calling in,” he told Manning. “It means a lot.”