A few months ago, I wrote about why Kirk Herbstreit is ESPN's best option as an analyst for their Monday Night Football booth, but why it will never happen. The premise was he's killing it on College GameDay and as the lead analyst for ESPN's primetime Saturday evening game, ESPN just invested big money to get SEC coverage rights and Herbstreit told The Big Lead he loves college football too much to leave for the NFL.
More recently, Mike McCarthy of Front Office Sports reported ESPN would "likely" use Herbstreit and play-by-play man Chris Fowler as their Monday Night Football booth team if the college football season is postponed or canceled. With all SEC schools now saying they will start the fall semester at the regular time and how much money is involved, the season getting canceled seems unlikely. However, even if a postponement happens, it would be a mistake to move Herbstreit and Fowler to the NFL. I know it's a bit of a flip-flop from my earlier article, but isn't that was great talking heads do? Hang with me for a second.
Best-case scenario, Herbstreit and Fowler kill it on MNF. They're a hit. Everyone likes them. Then what? Do they stay as the MNF booth long-term? That doesn't seem like a realistic option given ESPN's ambitions in the NFL.
ESPN is reportedly trying to become part of the Super Bowl rotation with Fox, CBS and NBC. They want the NFL on ABC and will likely make an aggressive bid for additional rights when the NFL's deals with those other broadcasters end after the 2021 season. That's a big reason why ESPN tried to lure Peyton Manning and Tony Romo this offseason to headline their NFL coverage. Though they struck out both times, ESPN understands they need a marquee NFL name to be their top analyst.
That brings us back to Herbstreit. While he has carved out a powerful niche in the college football world predicated on his success as a one-year, full-time starter at Ohio State, he never played in the NFL. If you look at the other current top analysts (Romo, Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth), they all had successful NFL careers. If you look at the most successful NFL analysts historically, from John Madden to Frank Gifford, all of them also had success in the NFL. I'm not saying being a great NFL player is a prerequisite to being a No. 1 analyst for a major network (hell, Dennis Miller was an analyst for a year with ESPN), but it sure seems important to being a successful analyst in the NFL.
Another issue if Herbstreit succeeds is, then what do you do with College GameDay? Herbstreit is the glue that holds that program together. Everyone else is solid, but he's the star. With Lee Corso close to retirement, who leads the program moving forward? Desmond Howard would be a big part of that plan, but I don't see him as the big draw needed to compete against Fox and its new pregame show featuring Urban Meyer. Then there's the issue of replacing Herbstreit in the booth with marquee SEC games on the horizon. That won't be easy either.
Worst-case scenario is Herbstreit and Fowler flame out and return to college football in a year. While that won't be devastating, you lose the momentum built on both your college football pregame show and in the No. 1 booth. You also open them up to more critiques from fans who remember that they failed in the NFL.
Herbstreit is an extremely talented analyst. It's the reason I touted him as the best pick for MNF. However, if the college football season is postponed, the smart thing to do is figure out ways to keep Herbstreit on the airwaves talking about college football, his specialty. Throw a placeholder team in the Monday Night Football booth, or swing big with Pat McAfee. Then go after big names again next offseason. Just don't try and fix one problem by creating another.