Is NBC’s Mike Tirico up to the task? Can the gifted generalist replace two giants, Al Michaels and Bob Costas?

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There’s been almost nothing to suggest that Al Michaels has lost the spring to his step. He’s as flawless as can humanly be and has been the soundtrack for NFL’s primetime telecasts for 34 years. Al’s demonstrating that 75 is the new 55.

By most any measure, time in grade, consistency, versatility and acceptance by fans, his reputation is impeccable. As the veteran interviewer Roy Feinstein said about Michaels, “He’s America’s play-by-play man.” When the NFL kicks off, Al will be headed into his penultimate season with NBC’s Sunday Night Football. This coming one and then one more and that’s it for Al at NBC.

Bob Costas was the face of NBC Sports for many of his forty years with the network. At 68 he’s still the ultimate master in the studio. He is encyclopedic, his comments remain pithy and his command of the language is unparalleled among his peers. The other three in his wordsmith class were Vin Scully who’s retired and both Howard Cosell and Jack Whitaker who have passed.

Bob was critical when he deemed it was needed. The biggest issue he tackled in recent years was the loss of lives caused by NFL injuries.

Understandably, NBC walks a fine line. The NFL is a cherished partner and Sunday Night Football is the network’s highest rated program each week. So neither party was comfortable with Bob using his pulpit on-air or off to bring attention to the subject. As a result, Costas left NBC.

The two today, Michaels and Costas, are still the best at what they do. Mention the two to most fans and they’re not only familiar with their names, they’re respectful of their quality of work.

One other important matter. As their careers advanced, both men began to limit their work schedules. As such, when the two were on-air, viewers knew it must be a pretty important sporting event. Now, flash forward a couple years and both these huge names of the network’s recent past will be gone.

The Tirico Challenge

Bring on Mike Tirico, 53. He’s being asked to follow both. Not easy.

Bob Costas (r) with Mike Tirico

NBC made a commitment several years ago to the talented Mike Tirico who’s apparently locked in to call Sunday Night Football in 2022, the final season of the league’s contract with Fox, CBS and NBC. Tirico will also serve as NBC’s lead voice in the studio including hosting the Olympics. Mike already served nicely under the bright lights of the Winter Games in 2018.

There’s no question that Mike can do anything and exceptionally so, whether in the studio or at the event. For that matter, Joe Buck paid him the greatest compliment when he identified his trio of role models; Al Michaels, his dad Jack and yes, Mike Tirico. Joe’s overly impressed by Mike’s versatility. Name the sport and Tirico likely did it.

There are questions. Think of the mission. Mike is being asked to replace (okay, succeed) two giants, not one, two! Can a blessed generalist inherit the chair of arguably the nation’s best ever all-around play-by-play voice and move into Bob Costas’ chair which still is warm?

Al Michaels 

Can he pull off the kinds of things that Costas did regularly, engage in an annual back and forth with David Stern which usually turned into a spirited and entertaining debate. Can he put his fingerprints on sit-downs, as Bob did with his childhood idol Mickey Mantle, when the HOFer admitted he was a rotten dad or with Mark McGwire ten years ago who fessed up to Costas about his steroid use? Can Tirico mirror what Costas did, asking striking questions of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky who’s now locked up in the state pen?

By nature, Tirico is not controversial. Mike hosts cheerfully. He will rarely if ever say anything that will potentially piss off viewers. It’s not his personality. I don’t recall any subject where he’s taken a controversial stance, one that drew ire.

While there might not be another Costas on-air anytime soon, there are no uproarious complaints about Tirico’s work either. And that’s an important standard for any network. Unlike Costas who spiced his gig with thoughtful opinions, Tirico doesn’t take sides. He told this publication, months ago, “I happen to have Tony Dungy (on Sunday Night Football pre-game) sitting to my left. He’s someone I consider to be the conscience of the sport.” 

While Mike’s solid, warm and his work is unassailable, he’s not a stylist in the personality of a Musburger, Whitaker, McKay or Costas, arguably the top four sports studio hosts ever. Before Costas at NBC, there was Bryant Gumbel who too expressed opinions.

Tirico’s a breezy listen but in time he’ll have to fashion his own unique identity to elbow his way into the conversation of the aforementioned company.

If you’re taking over the host’s chair, following in the giant footsteps of Costas, the question is whether being smooth is sufficient or do you have to be probing, provocative and challenging? Taking over for Michaels too is from a network perspective like following Scully in Southern California. Is Mike up to it? It’s a tough task?

Other than the Olympics and the NFL, Bob limited his work at NBC. In addition to the NFL and the Olympics, you’d see him at the Triple Crown or another big event or two but that’s it. Tirico though works regularly. During the pandemic he’s hosted a daily show on NBC Sports Network. 

Michaels does Sunday Night Football. That’s it. Tirico does college football and even some NHL on a plain Wednesday night on NBCSN. I’ll position it another way. In his heyday, would Tom Brokaw run out and cover a two-alarm fire or would he cover only major stories that move the nation.

Mike doesn’t temper his enthusiasm for his work. It’s the ESPN approach of versatility, productivity and visibility. Does Tirico’s constant presence, decrease or increase his overall appeal and approval? In the next number of years, we’ll see how he’s accepted.

Things are always changing. Broadcasting has become a commoditized business. The days of outspokenness on adjacent NFL programming might be behind us. James Brown and Curt Menefee, both of whom are terrific, on CBS and Fox respectively, make their presence felt. Yet they’re also traffic cops, cognizant of their roles as mental bookkeepers of time allotment among the analysts on the set.

Opinion mongers like Stephen A. Smith and Colin Cowherd have their own shows, but they’re well removed from game broadcasts where it becomes a tricky intersection of church and state.

Will Tirico be the victim of his own hard work? Will he have the punch needed for his seat? Stay tuned. I can assure you of one thing. Mike won’t embarrass himself.

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 and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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