Since losing Jon Gruden in 2017, ESPN has tried getting creative to produce an NFL booth that could compete with the powerhouse combos CBS, FOX, and NBC respectively roll out every week with Joe Buck/Troy Aikman, Jim Nantz/Tony Romo, and Al Michaels/Cris Collinsworth.
Paired with play-by-play man Joe Tessitore, ESPN took a swing on likable former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten as color commentator in 2018. After Witten unretired before the 2019 season, ESPN moved Booger McFarland from the sideline to the booth. Neither decision panned out and ESPN is once again looking for a face of their NFL coverage.
But while ESPN reportedly tried (and failed) to lure big-name former quarterbacks from outside their organization for the role this offseason (Romo and Peyton Manning), they have another inside their halls who would be a perfect fit, and a face they're reportedly considering for the role: Kirk Herbstreit.
There's only one problem. It'll never happen.
Herbstreit has established himself as arguably the best analyst and color commentator in college football over the last two decades with ESPN, combining the kind of extensive knowledge and easily-digestible delivery that fans relate to. He's a big reason why College GameDay is unquestionably the top pregame program on Saturday morning and why whatever game he calls on ESPN later that day feels like must-watch television. Pairing him with play-by-play man Chris Fowler in the Monday Night Football booth seems like a no-brainer for ESPN.
But while Herbstreit might be the best football commentator and analyst they have, he also told The Big Lead last October that he wouldn't leave college for the pros.
"It's one of the reasons I'll never leave and go to the NFL or go anywhere else," Herbstreit said. "I love all sports, but college football is different. The emotion, the passion, the subjective world that we argue and live in. It keeps you on the edge of your seat every week and it doesn't get old, at least for me. There's constantly new storylines, constantly new players that are emerging, there's conferences that are trying to pull up to be the best. I enjoy all the discussion. The NFL, I'm a fan of but until you get to the postseason it's good, but it's not great. That's just me. It's a personal preference."
ESPN showcased a similar type of love for college football when it reportedly agreed to pay around $300 million annually for SEC rights starting in 2023. While Herbstreit is an Ohio State grad and Big Ten supporter at heart, the allure of covering the best conference (by both talent and ratings) has to intrigue him even more.
So why not do both? Surely Herbstreit could cover college football on Saturday and the NFL on Monday. But, in the words of Herbstreit's partner-in-crime Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend.
Production for Monday Night Football starts on Saturday, putting Herbstreit in an awkward position where he would arrive the day after the rest of the crew. He'd also be rolling in after a physically-demanding day where he wakes up early for College GameDay preproduction, does the show, prepares for the game he's calling later that day, sometimes flies to that location, commentates for the game, and then does night spots on SportsCenter. Going from that grind right into a Monday Night Football segment is too much for anyone, especially for a family man like Herbstreit.
At this point, the most logical option for ESPN's MNF booth this coming season is to put an in-house crew of solid commentators in there for a year and then make another run at the big names in 2021. Herbstreit would/should be the top option, but like many of ESPN's top college commentators (Corso, Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas), his passion for the amateur level is stronger than the pull of the professional limelight.