From the April 2006 issue. Interview by Brad Zibung, editor in chief.
The Heckler: How’d you get your big break?
Dan Patrick: I started at ESPN in 1989. Prior to that I was at CNN. In 1984 I was working local TV in Dayton out of college and went to Atlanta. I brought my tape with me and went to CNN’s studios to drop it off. The head of sports there, Bill MacPhail, said ‘just leave it there’ and I didn’t want to just leave it. I talked with the guy a bit to see if he had a few minutes to at least critique my tape with me. I told him I was only in Atlanta for another day because I had to go back to Ohio. He asked me where in Ohio I was from and I told him Columbus, but I lived in Dayton. It turned out he was from Columbus, too. We talked a bit and he brought me in for an interview. I was hired shortly thereafter. I tell people I was in the right place at the right time, but when that train comes, you’ve got to be ready for it. After five years, my CNN contract was about to be up. I spent some time working in New York for CNN and would occasionally go to Atlanta. They had Fred Hickman and Nick Charles at CNN and I knew they weren’t going anywhere. I called [current ESPN EVP] John Walsh. I asked him if he’d heard of me and he said yes, which surprised me. I went in for an interview and two weeks later I was on-camera sitting next to Chris Berman.
TH: Now that all the SportsCenter hosts have grown up watching SportsCenter, do you think there’s a tendency for them to emulate ESPN icons like you and Chris Berman, rather than just being themselves?
DP: I think you see a level of that. New sportscasters think they need to be someone else. If you go in thinking you need a catchphrase, it’s not going to seem natural. If that’s the case, you’re missing the point. When your career’s over, you’ll ask yourself ‘Did I do it the way I wanted?’
These guys today don’t listen. It’s easier being yourself. It’s easier to stay in the moment. I think we sometimes are influenced by others. Be true to yourself. I had a hard time doing that. I still tend to hold back. I’ve wanted to have a long shelf life. I don’t want to put myself out on a limb like that. I’ve eased up on the accelerator. I’ve not been able to do what guys like Vitale, Berman and Stuart Scott can do. They open themselves up for parody and criticism, but my skin isn’t as thick. But that’s how they are in real life. If you talk with Dick Vitale, he’s exactly like he is on the air. They’re being true to themselves.
TH: Give us an outsider’s perspective on the Cubs and White Sox. Does anyone on the East Coast even care?
DP: I think we at ESPN are subconsciously guilty of an East Coast bias. I picked the Angels to win it all last year, however. Where we are, the big story is the Red Sox and the Yankees. It’s hard not to get swept up in that. And there are more Yankees fans out there than Cubs fans. And what’s been the big Cubs story? Bartman. Everyone was all over that. With the White Sox, I feel we missed out on the big story. We didn’t see it coming. I picked the Indians to win that division last year. It looked like the Sox were going to lose it and once they got hot, they were set. They played great baseball. It was a nondescript World Series against Houston, but that shouldn’t affect anyone’s view on it. The Red Sox Series the year before was nondescript. Both teams hadn’t won it in 80 or 90 years. But were the White Sox the best in the AL? Yes and we missed that. If they can repeat, we’ll be there for that.
TH: Do you think the White Sox can repeat?
DP: I’m not sure yet. We learned a hard lesson with the Sox. I am curious how they respond to Ozzie this year. Everyone likes his approach, but I’m not sure how long it will last. I wouldn’t rule out back-to-back championships. There are questions. The pitching staff is solid. Can they do it again? I don’t know. In the AL, I’ll lead with the Sox. The Yankees have holes. I’m concerned about the Red Sox. The Angels will be tough again and the Indians are a real good club, but in the AL, I’ll lead with the White Sox.
TH: Let’s do some word association. I’ll say something and you tell me the first thing that pops in your head: Barry Bonds.
DP: [Very long pause] An enigma. I’m amazed at how he can compartmentalize. Walls are coming down all around him. Books are being written. The IRS is coming after him. Ex-girlfriends are talking. Former teammates are talking. There are problems all around. The toughest thing in sports is to hit a baseball and he has no problem doing that.
TH: Another word association: Neifi Perez.
DP: [Laughs] I think of the Colorado Rockies. I think of trying to figure out how to pronounce his name when he came up.
TH: What’s your favorite ESPN TV ad?
DP: I still like the one with Lance Armstrong. It’s late at night and I’m working in my office and the power keeps going out. I go into the basement and there is Lance Armstrong wiping his brow. He’s pedaling his bike to power the building. I ask him how come he’s stopped. He says he thinks everyone’s gone home for the night and I tell him that, no, I’m still working. So Lance hops on his bike and powers up the office again. It was great working with Lance on that because he wanted it to be great. He kept insisting on new takes. He had just a great attitude. Very competitive. It gave you an idea of where his success comes from.
TH: Do you find it tough to separate the analysis from the sportscasting and preserve the integrity of the analysis you provide on your radio show?
DP: Not really. I’ve lost friendships because of it. Guys won’t come on my show if they’re not going to talk about whatever issue might be out there. I’ll talk with them ahead of time and say ‘You know, we’re going to have to talk about this’ and if they say they don’t want to, then we don’t bring them on the show. I’m not going to ignore some big issue like it’s the pink elephant in the room. I think I’m tougher on the guys I know than the ones I don’t. I try to do it fairly. I’m not always correct in my approach. I try to give an athlete the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not here to do a feel-good show. If that’s the angle I take, then I’m cheating myself and my audience.
TH: On SportsCenter and other programs, you’re providing impartial commentary. On the radio you’re paid to have an opinion. Is this a tough switch?
DP: On TV I tell people what happened and try to be unbiased. When I started doing the radio show seven years ago, I wasn’t used to giving my opinion. Listeners want your opinion. On TV I didn’t give any opinions. That’s why we have analysts.
TH: How do you handle the not-so sharp callers who somehow make it past your screeners?
DP: You find a lot of people who listen think they know as much or more than you do, but I love that. I was the same way. I love the passion. It’s what it’s all about.