Story by Brooke Meenachan
Photo from ESPNMediaZone.com
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Just like LeBron James, Jay Crawford is ‘Coming Home’. Maybe not right now, but the former SportsCenter anchor says he will be calling Cleveland home again soon.
Crawford grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, just over 60 miles west of Downtown Cleveland. He also grew up with a passion and appreciation for Cleveland sports. P
laying baseball as a boy and eventually into college at Bowling Green, he said he always dreamt of making it to the big leagues. But, multiple knee injuries hindered his chances of going pro, so he opted for the next best thing: a sports broadcaster.
“I kind of figured that if I couldn’t play baseball I wanted to be around sports in some capacity,” Crawford said.
Once he knew his chances of playing professionally were over, Crawford said he really started to narrow in on his future. He knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it.
Crawford has been making his way through the broadcast industry for almost 30 years. He’s worked in Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, Connecticut, New York and Ohio. While he spent five years in the Buckeye state, it was in Columbus.
Crawford had been working at ESPN for the past 14 years. He started on Cold Pizza, now known as First Take, before changing directions and becoming the SportsCenter anchor from 12 to 3 p.m. Four years later, ESPN reassigned him to the SportsCenter on the Road division.
“I would be at the NBA Finals, I would be at the Major League All-Star Game, the World Series, the Super Bowl, College Football Championship, the Master’s. All of the big events,” he said. “When I was 25, I might have loved that, but I just didn’t like living out of a suitcase.”
He was among those laid off by ESPN in April. Like most of his coworkers, he knew the dismissals were coming.
“I knew that I had all this time on my contract and they knew I didn’t like traveling, so I just told my agent that I wanted to be bought out. I didn’t want to continue traveling for three more years. I couldn’t see myself doing that. He went to them and told them I was interested in a buyout and that’s exactly what they did,” Crawford said.
Some took it hard. Others, like Crawford, are doing just fine.
“I’ve traveled a ton and just relax more than anything. I’ve done a two hour daily network show for the last 15 years and that can be exhausting, so I’m just enjoying my free time and I’m very thankful that ESPN has to pay for the next two and a half years,” Crawford said.
Crawford’s contract includes a non-complete clause, meaning he can’t work for a competitor of ESPN’s if he wants to continue getting paid. If he decided to go back to work, ESPN wouldn’t have to pay him any longer.
“I’m not in a hurry. I’ll probably sit tight and enjoy two and a half years. I’m listening to offers right now, but I told everyone ahead of time going into it that I’m in no hurry to jump back in it,” Crawford said.
When he is ready, Crawford says he hopes to work in Cleveland covering the teams that are closer to his heart.
The Indians, Cavaliers and Browns.
Some might think: “Who would want to go from working some of the industry’s biggest events on the biggest platform to covering teams who usually lose year in and year out?”
“What I’ve realized is that I have seen a lot of things, countless Super Bowls, World Series, NBA Championships,” Crawford said. “They literally don’t mean anything to me anymore. The first time I covered a Super Bowl, I was like a kid on Christmas morning.”
After a long tenure in sports media, the only time Crawford feels any emotion is when Cleveland is involved.
“After doing it for as long as I’ve done it, I realized the only thing that moves my meter now are big games involving my teams,” he said.
Those are the experiences, he says, that mean the most to him.
At 52-years old, Crawford finally got to witness those big games involving his teams. He was in ‘The Land’ when the Cavaliers ‘broke the curse’, winning the NBA title in Game 7 over Golden State.
“It was really surreal because after you go through year after year of losing and never sniffing a championship and getting the sense that you’re never going to,” he said. “It felt like a proverbial champagne cork popped out of a 50 year-old brew and the celebration was just spilling into the streets of Cleveland for hours. It was something to see. I tell everybody, ‘if you were there, you’ll never forget it’.”
He’ll also never forget the moment a few months later right next store at Progressive Field.
“I was at all seven of the Indians games. In fact, I was in a field suite for Game 7 with Bernie Kosar. Not the memory that I want, but a memory that I’ll never let go of either,” he said. “Just the fact that we got that far and when Rajai Davis hit that home run and the soothing pandemonium inside our suite, it’s all stuff that I’m very blessed to have experienced and that I’ll never forget.”
Crawford says he may go into teaching during his two years off from working in media because it wouldn’t effect his contract with ESPN. He’s had offers to teach in Florida and at his alma mater, Bowling Green. While he doesn’t want to do it full-time, he says a few classes here and there could be fun.
“I like the idea of if I want to pack a bag and run to Europe for a week, I don’t have to worry about letting anybody down,” he said.
Once the two years are over, Crawford, like LeBron, will make become his own version of a free agent and make “The Decision” to finish his career in Northeast Ohio.
“I don’t know when, but at some point, I will definitely call Cleveland home again,” he said.
A transcription of my conversation with Jay Crawford is below. You can also listen to the audio version by clicking here.
Interview: Q&A with former SportsCenter anchor Jay Crawford.
Q: So how is everything going? Are you doing anything right now or have any plans? A: I’m not. I have over two years left on my contract. They have a non-compete clause which means I can’t go to work for a competitor. I could go back right away, but that would void my contract and they wouldn’t have to pay me for the next two and half years. I can do anything that’s not in media or I can void my contract and go to work for any of ESPN’s competitors right away, which I’m not anxious to do. I’m not in a hurry. I’ll probably sit tight and enjoy two and a half years. I’m listening to offers right now, but I told everyone ahead of time going into it that I’m in no hurry to jump back in it. I want to go home. That’s really what I want to do. I’ll likely just kind of sit and see if anything opens up with the Indians or Cavs or something that takes me home and cover the teams that I really care about. In the meantime, just really enjoy myself. I’ve traveled a ton and just relax more than anything just totally. I’ve done a two-hour daily network show for the last 15 years and that can be exhausting, so I’m just enjoying my free time and I’m very thankful that ESPN has to pay for the next two and a half years.
Q: How did you get into this position in the first place? What exactly led you to the broadcasting career?
A: Well, I played baseball as a youngster and into college and always wanted to play professionally. I had a series of knee injuries that derailed that plan. I kind of figured that if I couldn’t play baseball I wanted to be around sports in some capacity. Bowling Green had a really good communications department, so once the baseball career was derailed with injury, I really focused on communications degree, radio, television, film, broadcast journalism. I volunteered at the schools radio stations. Oddly enough, I did my internship right there in Syracuse at the NBC Station, Channel 3. So, I knew what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know what capacity I wanted to do it in. I just knew, hey, I love talking about sports. Most of my college work was radio. When I went to Channel 3, I got to do a lot of on air stuff, from a demo standpoint. I put together a pretty good demo tape. That’s what got me started in the road of television. I sent it out as I was getting ready to graduate. I sent it to any small market within a 500 radius of my home, which was Sandusky, Ohio. So, I sent my tape out and a really small market in Kentucky called and said we don’t have a sports opening, we have a news opening. So, I drove down there. It was a very small CBS affiliate, took the job as a news reporter. That was about 30 years ago. It will be 30 years in November.
Q: How did you transition into sports out of news?
A: So, oddly enough, my first actual work day, we had a change in general managers, which was kind of odd to me because the general manager that actually interviewed and hired me was getting promoted and was leaving. The incoming general manager met individually with all the employees, which took a few weeks. He wanted to get to know all of us. In that meeting, he wanted to know my background. He knew I was a baseball player. He said how did it end up that you’re doing news? I said I’m just doing news to get my foot in the door. I really want to do sports. He said do you have a sports tape and I said I do actually. He said let me look at it. He watched it and said you need to be doing sports here. You’re better than our sportscaster now. I quickly transitioned into sports. In fact, three weeks after my first day I was doing the 11 o’clock sports. So, my news experience was three weeks. It was a lucky break. You’ll find more often than not that everybody who gets into this business has a funny story here or there about a lucky break, something that turned their way. That’s always a big part of it. Skill is a huge part of it, but everyone’s success story includes a lucky bounce here or there.
Q: Definitely. So, how did you get to the next platform at ESPN. How did you work your way up there?
A: Well, from Kentucky, I looked very, very young when I started, which was really holding me back. I would send my tape out to bigger markets, primarily Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus and the news directors would always say the same thing: call us in five years, you look like you’re in high school. So, it took me a little while. I was in Kentucky for three years. I got hired at a very small startup Fox affiliate in Martinsburg, West Virginia, which was about an hour from D.C. It was in the West Virginia panhandle right next to Virginia, Maryland where that hold corridor comes together on I-81. I was there for seven months. I had sent to tape to the Fox affiliate in Connecticut, in Hartford, prior to me getting the interview in Martinsburg. They decided at that time they weren’t going to fill it, it was a number three position. They decided after posting it, they weren’t going to fill it, so I never heard from them. But, about four months after I left Kentucky and moved to Martinsburg, the weekend person was leaving. He was going to Pittsburgh. So, they had an opening and they called the number I had on my resume and that number wasn’t a working number anymore because it was my home number in Kentucky. So then they called the station at I worked at and they said no he left a couple months ago, he’s in Martinsburg now. So, the news director called the station in Martinsburg and got ahold of me that way and said I know it’s four months later, but we really liked your tape and it was a for a number three job, but now we have a number two opening. So, I went and interviewed and they offered me the job. I was only in Martinsburg for seven months. I moved to Martinsburg to Hartford, Connecticut. I was there for 15 months when a station in Columbus that I had previously sent my work to had an opening. I had sent an updated tape to them from Connecticut and they had called me and I went in for an interview and I really wanted to be in Ohio. That was my dream all long. I didn’t want to be in Connecticut or Kentucky or anywhere else. Even though I was only in Connecticut for 15 months and my second job for seven months, I went home to WPNS, the CBS affiliate in Columbus. I was there for five years and then I went to Tampa, Florida for five years. Really the only reason I left, because I love Columbus and I love being home, it was a huge pay raise. Tampa, at the time was the 12th market. It paid much better than Columbus and I loved the 365 days of sunshine. I went to Tampa and was the sports director at the ABC station for five years. While I was there, ESPN called me a couple of times. Once for a sports anchor job for SportsCenter, which I never really wanted to do. I just thought it was too restrictive. Reading highlights are OK, but I wanted to do way more than that. I love interviews. I said I wasn’t interested. I stayed in Tampa. They called me when they started Around the Horn. I didn’t like the idea of that show. I thought it wouldn’t work. They offered me that job in 2001. Here we are 17 years later and that show is still going. But I wasn’t really interest and I didn’t want to live in D.C. either. So, I said no. Then they called me back a year later and offered me a job in New York City hosting their morning, which was called Cold Pizza. Just when they explained the concept of the show, I said this is much more what I’m looking for. It’s a two hour show with interviews, some highlights, a lot of guests, a lot of athletes, some debate. It was way more what I was looking for, so I took that. I was with Cold Pizza, when they moved the show, when it was in Manhattan, for five years. When they changed it to HD, the studio we were using in Manhattan was kind of spaced starved and they couldn’t convert that studio to HD. They just didn’t have enough space. So, they moved the show to Connecticut and changed the name to First Take. I was with Cold Pizza/First Take for nine years. Then they turned the show to all debate, two hours of screaming and yelling at each other.
Q: Yeah, I was about to ask you what it was like to work with Skip Bayless.
A: I mean about as you’d imagine. Wonderful guy off the air. The person you see on the air is a total character. It’s just a contrived TV character he’s come up with. He believes all of those things, but Skip isn’t combative or loud or an antagonist in real life. Not even close to that. He’s quiet, shy, and very cordial. What you see when you turn on the TV is a complete contrived character that he’s built through the years, but he definitely believes all of the things that he says. He’s not making any of it up believe it or not. As much as I enjoyed doing the show when it first went to debate, it devolved into four topics a day and doing like, Tim Tebow, four times in a two hour segment. It just became mindless dribble to me. I couldn’t do it. At the same time, SportsCenter had an opening for a host from noon to three. I liked the idea of keeping my hours early. They were recruiting me, telling me we’re kind of doing the show like you were doing when it was Cold Pizza, a lot of interviews, a lot of athletes, a lot of breakdown segments. It just fit what I wanted to do more. So, I went to that. I did that for four years. After that, they moved me to the on the road division. They decided they were going to do live SportsCenters from wherever the biggest sporting event was at that time. So, I would be at the NBA Finals, I would be at the Major League All-Star Game, the World Series, the Super Bowl, College Football Championship, the Master’s. All of the big events. When I was 25, I might have loved that, but I just didn’t like living out of a suitcase and had just signed a four year contract. I thought it was a little bit of a dirty pool. I told them, look you guys didn’t tell me anything about this, about this job reassignment, which I thought was a little disingenuous. I thought, look I gave you guys 13 really solid years here. I just committed four more years to my life and as soon as I do, you change my assignment to travel. So, they knew that I was very unhappy. But, I did that for about a year. When I heard that the layoffs were coming, I knew that I had all this time on my contract and they knew I didn’t like traveling, so I just told my agent that I wanted to be bought out. I didn’t want to continue traveling for three more years. I couldn’t see myself doing that. He went to them and told them I was interested in a buyout and that’s exactly what they did. So, that’s kind of my story start to finish. Along the way, there were a lot of tough decisions to make. I almost left ESPN a couple times. Once to go to the NFL Network, once to go to the MLB Network. In the end, they always stepped up and made an offer to me that was too good to say no to. As much as they thought the SportsCenter on the Road was a great assignment, I thought it was a terrible assignment for me. I just didn’t enjoy doing that much travel. I think we kind of came to the best decision for everybody, which is I’m free to do whatever I want with whomever I want once my contract expires. Then if I want to break my contract, I can. I can go work for NBC, I can go work for Fox Sports and go wherever I want now, but I would have to break my ESPN contract to do that. I’ve had some nice offers to do just that, but in the end, I have my accountant telling me, Jay, you can travel, you can use this as practice retirement for two and a half years and do whatever you want and still make a lot of money. When it’s done then you can go back to work. How often does anybody at 50 years-old get an opportunity to just sit around for a couple years and live on, essentially, a lotter ticket? He had a lot to do with kind of talking me into, you know, you’re right, the work will always be there. In the meantime, just because I’m intrigued by it, I may do some teaching. I’ve had a couple of really nice offers to teach. I’m going down to down to Florida August 1-3 and my alma mater, Bowling Green, has contacted me about doing some stuff there with them, too. I haven’t really made any decisions on that, but I can do that and not violate the contract. So, I may do that for two years. I don’t want to do it a lot. I don’t want to do it fulltime. I might do a class or two here or there. I like the idea of if I want to pack a bag and run to Europe for a week, I don’t have to worry about letting anybody down.
Q: Speaking upon all the places you’ve worked, you’ve actually never worked at home in Cleveland, have you?
A: I have not and oddly enough, that’s always been my goal. When I started in this business, all I really wanted to do was work in Cleveland. And it’s funny because now that I have the opportunity, I’ve heard from all of the local affiliates in Cleveland. I’ve told them all the same thing. At some point I will definitely come home and work. I don’t know when, but at some point, I will definitely call Cleveland home again.
Q: That’s good to hear. I would love to see you there. Speaking of being home in Cleveland, I just had a personal question, what was your reaction when the Cavaliers won and the Indians were in the World Series. How was it as a fan as well as being on SportsCenter to take it professional, but still be excited at the same time?
A: It was really surreal because after you go through year after year of losing and never sniffing a championship and getting the sense that you’re never going to. Having the Cavs win in June and then the Indians one win away from doing it again in October and being at all of those games in the middle of Cleveland, in the middle of all the celebrations to experience that. And my bosses were kind of using that as a selling point to my job. They were like, look, I know you don’t like to travel, but look where you are. It couldn’t have worked out any better for you. And I’m said, yeah, but they’re not going to be here every year. So, it was an opportunity that I’ll never forget. It was just a once and a lifetime thing to be right there between Quicken Loans and Progressive Field when Kyrie hit that three. It felt like a proverbial champagne cork popped out of a 50 year-old brew and the celebration was just spilling into the streets of Cleveland for hours. It was something to see. I tell everybody, if you were there, you’ll never forget it. I was also pumped because my son was able to be there too. He is also a huge Cleveland sports fan.
Q: I remember you were on SportsCenter, you were actually talking to Lisa Kerney and you were in Cleveland doing your update on the game and they actually showed your celebration with your son and I thought that was very nice.
A: Yeah, it was very cool. He was finishing his education. He was getting his masters at Rutgers, but he still had one year of athletic eligibility. All of this was going on while he was getting ready to jump in the Olympic trials. He’s a long jumper. So, he just finished the NCAA Championships and he was training every day for the Olympic trials. Here he was just a week from jumping in the Olympic trials and he said, I’m flying home to be with dad for Game 7. It was an unbelievable experience. The whole thing was really, it was incredible. I’m very thankful that I was there for the Cavs championship and I was at all seven of the Indians games. In fact, I was in a field suite for Game 7 with Bernie Kosar. Not the memory that I want, but a memory that I’ll never let go of either. Just the fact that we got that far and when Rajai Davis hit that home run and the soothing pandemonium inside our suite. It’s all stuff that I’m very blessed to have experienced and that I’ll never forget.
Q: You’ve seen a lot of things and it’s pretty cool to be able to talk about that.
A: Right. What I’ve realized is that I have seen a lot of things, countless Super Bowls, World Series, NBA Championships. They literally don’t mean anything to me anymore. The first time I covered a Super Bowl, I was like a kid on Christmas morning. After doing it for as long as I’ve done it, I realized the only thing that moves my meter now are big games involving my teams, which is why, at some point, perhaps sooner or later, want to be in Cleveland. Those are the experiences that mean the most to me by far.