Mike Francesa ran Ben McAdoo and Pete Carroll Out of Town. But The Town Is Going to Miss Him Now
By Mike Damergis (@USFLAuthor)
When I moved to Toronto in 1996 there were a few things I really missed from New York. Like a slice of pizza from the Bronx, fresh New York bagels and listening to Mike Francesa and Chris Russo.
People are creatures of habit and flicking on WFAN Radio when I got in my car was second nature.
Now you have to remember, WFAN was still almost eight years away from streaming online, and we were 20 years away from Alexa, where I could say, “play WFAN Sports Radio 660 New York.”
I craved listening to my hometown sports despite working for a sports radio station in Toronto that covered hockey the way WFAN did baseball.
At times I could get the station’s signal late at night despite being 490 miles away in Ontario, Canada.
I would sit in my car listening to WFAN during the Yankees ’96 run to the World Series.
Old habits are hard to break.
On Friday, December 15, 2017, millions of New York sports fans will be forced to adjust a habit they’ve had for five, 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years as Francesa says goodbye to the place he’s called home for three decades.
Let that sink in – the 1980s until now!
Think how much the world has changed since 1987.
Donald Trump was known as the owner of the USFL’s New Generals and the guy that battled the NFL – well, maybe one thing is the same.
Through modern world events, from World Wars to World Series games, radio has been there for the American public.
Mike Francesa has been there for us as well, through heartbreak and euphoria, in life and with our teams, he has tried to make sense of it all.
When Former Yankee manager Billy Martin was killed in a car accident Christmas Day in 1989, I remember listening for over an hour to Mike talk about Martin’s turbulent career and life.
This was the first time I realized the impact of sports radio.
A sports story could be covered for more than just a few minutes or a short headline in the news.
That’s what Mike did best of all, when a story broke, he put things in perspective.
Nothing displayed that more than the days following the September 11 attacks as a hurt nation listened to Mike and Chris for some sense of normalcy in the world.
The Mike Francesa/Chris Russo duo made its listeners feel like there would be a tomorrow and things would be good again.
A little more than five years ago, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast.
Millions of people lost power and thousands of homes were destroyed up and down the coast by the floods.
The city’s infrastructure was damaged beyond belief. There was a rush on food and generators across the Tri-State area. Gas lines formed like it was the 1970s.
It took the media a little time to survey the severity of the storm.
“Sandy Hook was one of the strangest days you can go through, we had to throw everything out the window,” said Ray Martel, who produced Mike’s show from 2010 through 2012. “We let people call and talk about it, the news broke in the morning when we were getting prepped.”
Watching the images of the devastating damage from his office, Francesca immediately knew this had to be covered instead of the day’s sports.
‘That’s it, call whatever guests we have, we’re going to focus on this,'” Francesa said, according to Martel, now a producer at WOR Radio. “We had a relationship with MSNBC. We got some correspondents on, we covered it well for a sports show, despite some people wanting a distraction, we needed to cover it.”
When the New York City Marathon was still a go less than a week after the storm, Francesa laced into the city for even thinking of running the race while thousands of people were without power in lower Manhattan and hotels were taken up by out of town visitors for the event.
The city and the New York Road Runners re-thought their stance on going ahead with the race and cancelled it.
That was the power of Mike’s opinion.
On days when the headlines weren’t screaming out a story, Francesa knew how to get things going.
Francesa knew how to push the right buttons, according to Marc Malusis, who was the board operator and then producer for Francesa and Russo from 2001 through 2007.
“Mike understands what makes the New York Sports fan tick,” says Malusis, who has been a mainstay on SNY over the last 11 years. “He has a great understanding of the pulse of what the audience wants to hear.”
Today’s listeners got a taste of vintage Francesa when the Giants botched the handling of Eli Manning over the last few weeks.
Francesa fueled the uproar that led to the firing of head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese.
“Mike’s power is his voice, his opinion, the ability to influence decision-makers. Guys with power that ran organizations, listened during the afternoon,” says Malusis. “Now it’s ‘shock and awe’ to grab headlines. What Mike does is the power of his opinion. His place with the New York sports fan is cemented forever. His opinion matters and it’s hard to get to that point. You have to have the career that Mike has had and few if any, have had that career.”
Martel recalled a few years back when NBC ran an inappropriate ad for the Arena Football League that caught the attention of Francesa and Russo.
“Mike and Chris at that time ripped it,” says Martel.” “NBC bosses came on and said it’s not that bad, a couple hours later, NBC sent a press release saying they were pulling that ad.”
Executives weren’t the only ones who bowed to what was on the air between 1 – 6:30 p.m. on WFAN, but coaches knew and respected the weight the show carried as well.
Going back almost 25 years ago now, I still can hear in my mind Francesa’s rants on the late-season collapses by the Jets in ’93 and ’94, which led to the ousting of head coaches Bruce Coslet and Pete Carroll.
After blowing a 24-6 lead to the Dolphins in ’94, in the game that became famous because of Dan Marino’s “fake spike,” Francesa went to town blasting the Jets organization and the team.
After the season, head coach Pete Carroll was fired.
Carroll, well aware of the impact of the station called in after he was let go and spoke candidly to Francesa and Russo.
The emotional interview lasted close to an hour without spots.
Francesa pushed aside all commercials, understanding the significance of the moment.
The Jets lost 32 of next 36 games.
After that loss, it took the Jets three years to recover.
When “Mike and the Mad Dog” was picked up by the YES Network, transplanted New Yorkers were able to finally get their hometown sports.
“When they went on the YES Network, their outreach changed,” said Malusis. “But their show didn’t change, they wanted to make it clear that they were doing a radio show that was on TV.”
Although they covered local stories, teams like the Yankees or Giants were considered national news.
In 2002, an interview with Giants’ tight end Jeremy Shockey ignited a firestorm and made its way quickly down the turnpike to the Eagles and the Philadelphia press.Shockey said the Eagles weren’t “all that good” and “know in their hearts they really can’t beat us.
Alex Rodriguez would watch the show every day when he was working out and come on as a guest when he was with the Texas Rangers.
Television gave a face to a voice, which really didn’t exist in radio until recent times.
From 1998 through 2008, the show had seen three producers come and go (Chris Carlin, Malusis and Eddie Erickson), but Mike and Chris were the constant.
That was about to change.
As documented in recent film on ESPN, “30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog,” their relationship wasn’t always warm and fuzzy.
There were periods when the two didn’t talk between breaks and there are stories of intense conversations in program director Mark Chernoff’s office.
The most difficult time may have been when Russo was heading to Sirius/XM to launch his own network.
“The rumors were being leaked all over and Chris was under contract,” says Eddie Erickson, who produced the afternoon spot from 2007 through 2010. “It was very tense. During the breaks Chris left the studio.”
The dynamic of the show changed drastically as Mike was the hard-nosed sports news guy and as Chris often called himself a “radio entertainer.”
But it’s been 10 years since the duo parted ways – that’s half the time the two were together.
Francesa is still going strong despite the emergence of social media outlets and the birth of new sports networks on television, satellite radio, online content and most recently options like Siri or Alexa.
Mike remains the Go-to-Guy for not only New York sports but national stories as well.
“It’s the instant credibility, you grow up in this city, you’re in the car with your dad or mom, they’re going to listen to Mike,” says Malusis. “People still tune to him, they want to hear what he has to say at 1:05.”
“Having worked on the show for 5 years, and the station for 14, to be here for the final Mike show is very surreal,” says Brian Monzo, who has been Francesa’s producer since 2012. “The show has been a staple for New York for 30 years, and to be one of the two people [my board operator, Chris McMonigle] that get to watch the last show live, is going to be awesome.
“What can you say? He’s iconic,” added Erickson, while covering baseball’s Winter Meetings as Russo’s producer on the Mad Dog channel of all things. “Like everyone else, I grew up listening to ‘Mike and The Mad Dog.’ Had to be near a radio at 1.”
It saddens me as I write these final words, because it reminds of when Reggie Jackson was reflecting on George Steinbrenner after he passed.
Jackson told Ed Randall, “today’s players didn’t see him when I saw him, when he was in full bloom; there’s a lot of guys that couldn’t handle George.”
I feel that way about Mike, because future listeners will never appreciate him the way my generation did., when he was in his all his glory.
Weekdays at 1 will never be the same.
Where will listeners turn?
Mike Damergis is a Clinical Professor/Sports Communication & Media Graduate Coordinator at Iona College for the Department of Mass Communication at Iona College.
Damergis is the author of The USFL –The Rebel League The NFL Didn’t Respect But Feared,” which features then-owner Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals.
Mike is currently a freelance Sports Anchor at Fox News Radio Network and a NFL/NCAA game-day producer for Compass Media Networks. Damergis served as the radio game-day producer for the New York Giants in 2004 and 2009. He recently produced and anchored “Baseball This Morning” on Sirius/XM from 2006 through 2010 and was instrumental in launching the first-ever Fantasy Sports Radio channel.