Interviews

ESPN’s Suzy Kolber, a pro’s pro and NFL fixture, talks life, her career and Joe Namath: “He’s a good person”

Kolber didn't utter a word about the 2003 incident with Namath until a 2012 HBO interview. "Joe got help and regained custody of his kids."

Kolber identifies Lesley Visser, Gayle Sierens and Robin Roberts as her three women pioneer sportscasters

 

As NFL viewers well know, ESPN’s Suzy Kolber is visible, reliable, spot-on and smooth. An integral member of the network’s NFL coverage for 18 years, Suzy started on the Sunday Night sidelines in 2001 and was later promoted to a more prominent role, serving as an anchor and host for pre, halftime and post-game programming.  

Yet, what most impresses me is her humility. When we recently spoke on the phone, it was apparent that she’s equally welcoming off-air as she is on; her personal greeting and her television persona are both genuine. There’s nothing forced. She’s confident and comfortable, not flashy.

While Suzy can likely afford a Porsche she drives a Volvo. On a busy Friday during the NFL season, she hooked up with me by phone as she pulled out of the ESPN lot where she says cell service can be spotty.

The Philadelphia raised broadcaster has her priorities and values in order, professionally and personally.  She uses her time efficiently, even squeezing in our unrushed conversation. She talked kindly and with a contagious smile, spending most of the hour gushing about the unrestrained love she has for her job. She’ll tell you that things couldn’t be any better. She leads her life by established priorities. Her words are measured, yet sincere and not too guarded. I found her cordial and not in any way distant or terse. 

We finished up when she pulled into her driveway at her Connecticut home where the fullness of her schedule is greatly enriched by her role as a parent; serving as a single mom to her ten year old daughter Kellyn. Traveling and working as much as she does, particularly in the fall, Suzy cherishes every available moment as a nurturing mom, including coaching her youth sports teams.

The late Friday afternoon we talked, Suzy was particularly excited to walk through the door because her parents were there too, having driven up from Philadelphia. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Suzy’s dad, Gene, was a radio jock back in the day and led the Notre Dame Bandstand in Bethlehem Township before starting his own marketing agency. His air name on small market stations in the Pennsylvania area was Gene Kaye.

I noted Suzy pronounces the o in Kolber like the o in rock, not Kohlber which we hear a lot.

Being around the business for thirty years has not jaded or tempered her enthusiasm to go to work. She prefers the venue over the studio; saying that the stadium energizes her. Suzy’s been around the game so long, knows the ins and outs of wherever she goes for ESPN that arriving in any NFL stadium is like coming home. They all seem to know her.

Suzy and I talked about the infamous Joe Namath episode in 2003, Joe Namath / Suzy Kolber interview, December 20, 2003. For years, she wouldn’t open up about it, not until 2012 when HBO decided to do a special, Namath, that featured Broadway Joe. Kolber agreed to partake in the program only after Namath said he was okay with it.

Initially she made a firm decision right after the incident that the best way to defuse the hubbub was just not to talk about it. Her lips were sealed for nine years. And if you don’t believe it, when I first asked Suzy the year that the Namath interview occurred, there was a pause, she couldn’t immediately recall. “The best way to deal with issues like that is to just not talk about it and I didn’t for the longest time,” she told me. Impressively, it sounds like Kolber expunged it from her memory bank;  which takes imperturbable strength and determination.

I thought of the parallels of Suzy’s accomplishments with another longtime NFL television reporter, Andrea Kremer. They’re both Philly raised, each has one child, both fell in love with the NFL as youngsters and both launched their careers by writing and producing for television.

Kremer was this year’s Rozelle media award winner, an honor bestowed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When I raised it with Suzy, she heaped praise on Andrea. Asked how she would feel to get the award, Suzy began to feel a bit uncomfortable and deflected the attention; albeit she took a quick deep breath, and said, “Wow, that would be a dream.” That was it.

You might say that Suzy is equally deserving and perhaps it will be somewhere in the cards at some point. The line of Rozelle omissions to date begin with Howard Cosell and Brent Musburger.  The two women who have already received the Rozelle are Kremer and Lesley Visser.

 

Tell me about your start.

I interned at WTVJ in Miami while a junior at the University of Miami. After graduating, I went to work for the station as a producer. Tony Segreto, the legendary anchor, hand-picked me. He recognized something in me and challenged me. I was scared to death but I took the challenge. The sports show I produced won an Emmy. Among other things after college, I worked for the Cowboys as a producer/reporter. It was there that I got on-air experience and had an opportunity to meet Lesley Visser for the first time. She was impressive and encouraging.

What did you learn as a producer?

It broadens your core competencies. It stimulates the creative juices. Knowing and understanding the requirements of all elements that go into making a show is humbling. You know everyone’s role and appreciate their contributions. I still remain active as somewhat of a producer today, preparing for each show on ESPN. There is a certain fundamental training that sticks.

Who would you identify as pioneering women sports announcers?

As an intern in Miami, I worked on a series on women in sports. It gave me an opportunity to watch Gayle Sierens. (who started in sports and spent 38 years at WFLA in Tampa before retiring. Sierens was the first woman to do play-by-play of an NFL game on TV in 1987.)

When I later lived in Boca in the early 90s and worked in television in West Palm Beach, I watched Robin Roberts and loved what she did. I did weekend sports there while Robin did Sunday mornings on ESPN. Never would I imagine then that not long afterward I would have the same assignment she had at ESPN.

My three pioneers are Visser, a coach and motivator to so many, Sierens, because of her longevity and breakthrough advances and Robin because of how she inspired me by her self-assured presence on ESPN. As for Lesley, she left me a voice mail years ago that I’ve kept.

Who were your idols as sideline reporters?

I didn’t really have any. I started at ESPN in 1993 with the launch of ESPN2. My first NFL assignment was Sunday Night Football in 2001. I didn’t really try to emulate anyone. Jay Rothman produced the game broadcasts. The mission was to expand the sideline role. Jay wanted me to be an extension of the booth; more than just reporting on injuries. I would be the ears down on the field. When we got Monday Night Football in ’06 I transitioned there too.

The joy of the job is being at the game, talking to the players, feeling the energy of the stadium and crowd.  I’m still thrilled to be on the line of scrimmage. I prefer being there than being studio bound.

The most difficult coach to interview?

Not close, Bill Belichick. When Mike Tirico was with ESPN, he had a good relationship with Belichick. So when Mike was around, we would have him do it. Bill is great on big picture stories, historical aspects of game; but guarded when talking about specific game plans or his players. When I was a sideline reporter, I would occasionally skip the Belichick meeting and would focus on the opposing coach. Yet, I will say that I once asked Belichick about how the game is changing and he gave me a great answer about how teams use their tight ends.

You grew up in Philly. When did you know you wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career and who were the broadcasters you followed or idolized?

I watched the local sports on the network affiliates in Philly and watched guys like Harry Kalas on the Phillies. But it was the national coverage that inspired me. Watching Bob Costas do NFL studio work so smoothly gave me the craving.  I said to myself at a young age, that’s a cool job.  

Knowing that you’ll interview a player after the game, when do you begin to think of the questions you’ll pose? Is it possible in the economy of time you’re given to get the subject to say anything meaningful or memorable?

The interview is a work of art. I craft and craft. I’m given two questions that are being asked just after a player’s life has changed. I take loads of time thinking it through. I listen to answers carefully and follow up accordingly. I have to be prepared for the emotion of the moment.  ESPN had us trained by a professor of interviewing. Still, you have to have a knack for asking the question that are neutral, simple and let the interviewee shine. The best interviews are those that stick to the emotions and address those passions. Pausing is critical too. ESPN’s Lisa Salters interview of Drew Brees after he recently set the record for passing yards was everything an interview should be. Pausing builds drama. Don’t be afraid to pause. Let the interview breathe. Have confidence in that moment.

What would you say was your most accomplished post-game interview?

We decided to interview eight guys not just one guy-after the Bucs’ Super Bowl win. I didn’t have time to prepare. NFL writer Mike Silver saw it and complimented me. Mike told me he gleaned so much from that interview. Instead of just the game MVP, I had eight guys on, starting with John Lynch.

You started at ESPN2 in 1993 How did you prove your worth there to elevate your position to the mainstream network?

The flagship show was SportsNight. It gave me an opportunity to work on the set with Keith Olbermann. We had fewer viewers but we didn’t spare money. We went to the NCAA Tourney.  We would be at the Super Bowl. It exposed me to ESPN’s executives and viewers. I was then asked to host Xtreme Games.  ESPN had me on the launch-mobile, selling the concept to advertisers. When they merged the production of the two ESPNs, management had confidence in me and gave me more opportunities on the mainstream network.

You left ESPN for a number of years and returned. What was behind both the departure and the return?

It was 1996 and I wanted to do NFL work. Fox promised me NFL work and a different stratosphere of money. I didn’t want to leave, I loved ESPN. We tried to get a deal done but we couldn’t so I left.  When I told ESPN that I’m leaving they said they would match. I told ESPN it’s not even close. Still, I left amicably and didn’t burn bridges. It was a lesson for me. It taught me why athletes leave. There’s a natural progression. Fox was launching a new network. I had to travel coast-to-coast every week as an NFL reporter.

My heart though was always at ESPN. Our leader at the time Steve Bornstein told me that the door is always open. I made sure to maintain a good relationship with ESPN while at Fox, so after three years I came back and got an NFL show, Edge NFL Matchup.

When I got back to ESPN I got more money that I got at Fox and then some. I’m one of few who left and came back, (’96-’99). And ESPN was great. From a benefit standpoint, ESPN immediately linked my two tenures together so that there was no gap. The lesson I learned was don’t ever burn a bridge.

What lesson did you learn from Joe Namath’s bizarre behavior when you interviewed him on December 20, 2003 when the Jets celebrated their four-decade team?

We had Joe on just before halftime. Members of the Jets staff ushered him down to the field from one of their suites. We didn’t have a chance to say hello. Things move fast. These quick interviews have to be squeezed in between plays.

We were closing in on when we would have him on. I remember that before he came on-air, he didn’t stand still.  So I had to grab him by the arm. He was not jittery. There was no immediate visible indication that he was drinking. He talked slowly and I remember thinking that maybe he’s cold. Did something happen to him? Was there something wrong? I didn’t think he was he drunk. He spoke very deliberately but answered the first question about the Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. The truck told me to continue.

But once it was apparent that this had to end, I said to myself, let’s get him out of this situation as soon as we can. Meanwhile, fans were yelling from afar for him. I’m thinking, I don’t want him to be embarrassed. I handled it naturally as if it wasn’t captured on camera.

Frankly, I never would have imagined that Jets’ handlers would bring him down in the state he was in. No one said to me he shouldn’t be on air. 

After the interview, I said to myself, the best way to deal with it is to never speak about it. Every media outlet wanted to talk about the incident but I didn’t publicly until many years later (2012 – after some nine years) when HBO did a documentary. I told HBO that I wouldn’t do it unless Joe says it’s okay. Until then, I just kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want it to be the most memorable thing for either of us. The only way to do so is not to  speak about it. I didn’t want to give the subject life.

Bob Costas called me after the HBO show. He said, ‘I’ve always admired you and after seeing the interview, I admire you more.’ That call meant so much to me. Joe and I spoke shortly after the incident and he apologized. There’s always a silver lining. Joe had hit rock bottom with his drinking on national TV, which was unfortunate. Yet, it changed the course of his life. He got help and regained custody of his kids. He’s a good person.

(Editor’s note: Roy Firestone told me that he was in the suite on the infamous night. I begged Don Maynard, Namath’s Super Bowl receiver. to not let Joe on the field..but Joe insisted he do it.

What would be your dream assignment?

It’s what I’m doing. There was talk about play-by-play but it’s too late now. I’m too much of a perfectionist. If I were to do play-by-play, I would have taken steps back years ago to be fully prepared. When the subject came up as a possibility, I was too far along in my career.

I tell students, most importantly women, that if you want to do sports broadcasting of any sorts for a living, start in high school. There’s a progression. Learn the fundamentals early.

Philadelphia, PA – October 23, 2017 – Lincoln Financial Field: Suzy Kolber, Steve Young, Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck and Charles Woodson during Monday Night Countdown
(Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)
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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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