"Mike & Mike" Stood the Test of Time By Using a Timeless Formula

Ethan Miller/GettyImages

“We are back, we are better than ever.”

Mike Greenberg began the January 8, 2004 Mike & Mike episode with this proclamation, as he’s done over 4,000 times since the show debuted on Day 2 of the 21st Century and he’ll do one more time Friday when he and Mike Golic end their nearly 18-year run together. The duo — an odd couple who found symbiotic success — then launched into a discussion of the NFL coaching carousel, including Tom Coughlin landing in New York, Dennis Green in Arizona, and Joe Gibbs in Washington.

Gibbs taking the Redskins job sparked a lively debate over Bill Parcells, who was not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the time. Greenberg argued that if Gibbs, who had been inducted, could return to coaching, then waiting to induct Parcells didn’t make much sense. Golic did not find the situations congruent, and found the prospect of discussing it “ridiculous.” He would offer an apology shortly after.

The duo tried in vain to name the other vacant coaching positions. “Buffalo, Oakland, Atlanta and who am I forgetting?” Greenberg asked.

“Buffalo, Oakland, Atlanta, and, uh, oh, that’s great,” Golic said, doing no better. There was a pregnant pause and appeals for help from anyone — on staff, not on staff, whatever. It never came.

The conversation shifted to Golic’s breakfast: oatmeal, a palatable option in comparison to other options on his diet. All of this before the first commercial. All of this before 6:15 a.m. on the East Coast. The show, like an old familiar companion shaped by a daily routine, was underway.

Mike Golic
Allen Kee/GettyImages

This is the oldest audio ESPN provided in response to an inquiry seeking archives for the nascent Mike & Mike days. And though there’s nothing historic or particularly notable about the episode, it is just as revealing as any show that proceeded or followed it.

The aforementioned opening segment captures the endearing and enduring aspects of a show that sustained a remarkable run. At its core: two guys talking about sports — hardly a revolutionary concept. But the two alternate between friend and foe, teammate and rival, agitator and facilitator. They needle each other and are self-deprecating. They fluctuate between sincere and serious and irreverent and absurd.

At one point, Greenberg gives text to the subtext.

“All I can say is that I wear your scorn like a badge of honor,” he tells Golic. But it is always in good fun. The show worked all these years because consumers knew the stakes. These two were going to butt up against each other and bicker like average Joes around the office, construction site or dorm room.

Did Greenberg and Golic live on the edge each and every morning? No. What they did do, though, was consistently put together a big-tent broadcast, accessible to the casual fan and meaty enough for the diehard. This 2004 episode doesn’t sound much different in tenor and tone than one from last week, despite radically different environments — both for the show at ESPN and in the sports media world at large.

That’s a compliment, and not a small one. Golic and Greenberg were themselves on January 8, 2004 — two skilled co-hosts from disparate backgrounds delivering earnest commentary way before authenticity became the most marketable buzzword. The two Mikes were subtle trailblazers.

Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic
Celebrities Visit "Late Show With David Letterman" - July 18, 2012 / Jeffrey Ufberg/GettyImages

Pete Rose’s long-awaited admission that he had, in fact, bet on baseball came via leaked book excerpts (My Prison Without Bars) and overshadowed the concurrent elections of Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley into Cooperstown. It was a Roseian move to upstage two contemporaries with better ethics and his claim that it was incidental was dubious at best.

“This guy needs to shut up,” Golic said. “Every time he talks he’s just going to bury himself deeper and deeper and deeper.”

“Where it will end, I don’t know,” Greenberg admitted. “Will it end in the Hall of Fame? When I first heard he was going to admit the thing and the book was going to contain the admission, my immediate reaction is ‘that’s it, he’s in the Hall of Fame’. I’m not quite as sure now.”

Thirteen years later, Rose remains a divisive figure and is no closer to getting real estate in baseball’s most hallowed hall.

Greenberg then had a new idea combining elements of both the Parcells and Rose issues.

“I think that we should do away not only with the waiting period on voting players into the Hall of Fame but we should actually vote players into the Hall of Fame during their playing career,” he said. “You could be watching a Hall of Famer on the field on the court on the ice while they’re playing. How nice would that be to say ‘we’re going out to see Roger Clemens’ not a future Hall of Famer, we’re seeing a Hall of Famer pitching.”

Golic offered a devastating rebuttal, asking, “How nice would it have been to see Hall of Famer Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards?”

A quick, on-the-fly thought matured into a lengthy argument, one in which the two sides remained separated by ideology. Some would say this is Greenberg and Golic at their finest: representing conflicting views and serving as the voice of so many listening or watching at home.

The kernel turned into something bigger as, after a commercial break, the Mikes attempted to conjure up a comprehensive list of players in the four major sports who would be Hall of Fame locks without playing in another game.

The spur-of-the-moment list?

Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis, Al McInnis, Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, Joe Sakic, and Brett Hull in the NHL.

Brett Favre, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Shannon Sharpe, and Emmitt Smith in the NFL, with debate over Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss.

Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen, and Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA, with some hesitation on  Tim Duncan and Reggie Miller.

And finally, in Major League Baseball: Barry Bonds, Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Mariano Rivera.

It is astounding how some of these legacies have changed in the 13 years that have passed. That Duncan was already warranting consideration so early in his career is mind-blowing. That Bonds and Sosa seemed like no-brainers reflects a time when the performance-enhancing drug issue hadn’t clouded baseball’s most hallowed ground.

While some of the sports-based banter from the episode is undoubtedly timeless, there is a multitude of static references and cultural markers that elicit a very specific time and place.

At the top of the broadcast, update man Doug Brown reports the home Denver crowd serenaded Kobe Bryant with chants of “guilty, guilty” as Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets to a victory. Bryant’s sexual assault case would be dismissed in September 2004.

The episode came one day after the launch of ESPN Deportes. Al Michaels promos the NBA on ABC. Ads for The Dan Patrick Show reflect a time when he was at the center of the mothership’s plans. In one, Patrick talks about attending a party at the Playboy Mansion and includes Scott Baio in his list of celebrity sightings.

No one could have possibly predicted Scott Baio’s career and political arc. And no one should have.

Jay Mariotti delivers an “extra point” in which he rips Pete Rose’s character. SportsCenter-branded updates are frequent — every 20 minutes — and lengthy, a reminder that there was once a time when people got their scores from the radio and not on their smartphones.

If all this sounds different, wait until you see what it looked like.

The first television simulcast of Mike & Mike aired on April 26, 2004 on ESPN News. It would move to ESPN2 in early 2005. But few remember a special televised event that took place on August 13, 2004. It was one-time primetime special dubbed Mike & Mike At Night. The opening sequence, also graciously provided by ESPN, is something to behold.

This footage belongs in a museum, frozen in amber for the rest of time. One looks at it and says, “yep, that was the Worldwide Leader in 2004.” How things change.

But the enormous changes in Bristol and in talk radio never caused this show to deviate from its well-worn path of success.  Mike & Mike worked because they never stopped being Mike and Mike. They were comfortable in their own skin–and why shouldn’t they have been? It was morning drive radio. It was television to have on in the background while packing kids’ school lunches. Greenberg and Golic did not try to make their show something it wasn’t, to their eternal credit.

They got up and did the show they knew how to do over 4,000 times, along the way earning their own Hall of Fame honors. January 8, 2004 was one of those times. This morning was one of those times. Tomorrow will be the last time. They won’t be back. They won’t be better than ever. But they were damn good, and perhaps underappreciated because they were so comfortable and reliable.