Mike Tirico talks ND-MSU, his move to NBC, and one crazy summer

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Mike Tirico is a busy man. And in the middle of one of the craziest 11-week stretches you’ll ever see, he was kind enough to talk shop with me for the Inside the Irish blog.

As he bounced between East Lansing and South Bend, and still made it to his son’s soccer game in-between, he was kind enough to chat about his move to NBC, his return to college football, his first time at a Notre Dame football game, and the upcoming Ryder Cup.

Hope you all enjoy.

 

You’ve had quite a summer. Going between the British Open to the Olympics to ND Football. How are you holding up?

It’s been great. And the pace of it all has helped with the workload for sure. It’s an 11-week stretch with the Open Championship golf, hosting the Ryder Cup, three Notre Dame games, two NFL preseason games, getting started on Football Night in America three Sundays in a row, and then, of course, 17 days at the Olympics, including the closing ceremony. Throw that all in the hopper and it’s been a lot of travel and a lot of good TV the last 11 weeks on my end.

I think by this point, most people will start to associate me with NBC as I’ve been on a decent amount of time these last 11 weeks.

 

Has that been helpful, considering your footprint at ESPN? Was that a big part of the decision to come to NBC? 

The Olympics were right up there, along with being a part of Super Bowl coverage in the years that we have it. Those were big pieces of me coming to NBC, the most attractive things. But all these other events have been phenomenal. The NBC golf team with Dan (Hicks) and Johnny (Miller) and Tommy Roy leading that group, they’re as good as there is in the sport and to be welcomed by them and be a part of their big events is huge.

And this Notre Dame package has turned into a great opportunity for me to revisit my college football roots. I’ve stayed involved in the sport each year at ESPN but to get back and be on campus and to do three games in a row at one of the cathedrals of the sport in South Bend, it’s just been phenomenal on my end.

 

What’s been your experience with Notre Dame Football? Have you called a game here? Been to a game as a fan?

I have never been to Notre Dame, it’s was my first time there. Quite simply, NBC has had the Notre Dame contract for the last 25 years, this is the 26th, and I’ve worked at ESPN the last 25 years. So a home game in South Bend wasn’t in the cards for any of us who called games. So I never had a chance to go to a game there.

I was thrilled to tour the campus, soak up some of the vibe and call a game from that stadium. It’s a bucket list thing for any of us who broadcast college football, to call a game in South Bend, and I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I can do that now. And I’m absolutely looking forward to a primetime game there, with a great rival in Michigan State and the 50-year anniversary of one of the legendary games in the history of the sport.

Both teams are ranked and it’s an important game for both. You couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of an environment to celebrate and enjoy college football.

 

So what were your first impressions?

I drove to campus on Wednesday night, spent Thursday 3 or 4 hours just touring the campus and walking around and getting a sense of the place. I think if you’re doing a home game for three weeks there, it’s good to have a sense of what makes it special. I had been there before for basketball games, but the football experience is different and I never really had a chance to see the campus. So to be able to soak all of it up was great.

It’s one of the great campuses in America in terms of where the students live, where they go to school, the religion roots of the campus, the meaningful places on the campus, all of those things are part of the fabric.

And then when you get to sports — most of the great venues in sports are gone. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field. Madison Square Garden, although it’s been redone several times. Those are really it, except for college venues.

And in college football, in terms of venues, there are very few where you can say all these great players — Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, first-round picks, NFL guys — played here. And because of Notre Dame’s legacy and the school’s they’ve played over the years — like Michigan, USC, Michigan State and Army and Navy — you’ve got a lot of the great players in college football played in that stadium. So you have that plus the winningest school in college football in terms of winning percentage.

The prior Saturday, I went to a Michigan home game, the night before that I went to Syracuse. So in a nine-day stretch I got to go to my alma mater to watch a game, to Michigan, home of the biggest crowd and the program with the most wins, and then the next Saturday go to the place and school that’s No. 1 in terms of all-time winning percentage, at Notre Dame. To experience college football in those places in a week, as a fan, a true fan of the sport, it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

So let’s talk about Michigan. It’s somewhere you’ve been around, living in Ann Arbor. And it’s a place that’s always interesting to Notre Dame, especially with Jim Harbaugh there. What do you make of Harbaugh? What’s the best thing about him coming to Michigan? And do you think he’ll eventually change?

Within the framework of tradition, he has brought new, he’s brought innovative, he’s brought energy, he’s brought edge. And it’s all working because there are results on the field to back it up. I think they’ve lost two games in the first 14 or 15 as a coach.

The guy is getting results. He got results in San Francisco with the 49ers and he gets results here. At the end of the day that’s what gives you the runway to do what you want to do and put your spin on the program.

I think it’s great for college football. I think it’s great that Michigan State has just been awesome the last three years. When you look at the circle around the Great Lakes, those of us who live up here love football. We love football. For 51 years in the NFL, the Vikings, the Packers, the Lions and the Bears have all been in the same division. Those four teams all around the Great Lakes, they’ve all been within the same division. So they have a great rivalry.

Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. Four great schools in terms of history and legacy — we’re talking Heismans, national championships, we’re talking over 500 wins, the winningest programs in the sport — when they’re all good, it’s great. So when we see Notre Dame intersect with Ohio State or Michigan State or Michigan when they come back onto the schedule, it’s great for the sport and those are the games that inspire the kids who live up this way to play ball. And that just feeds to future generation.

So it’s a long-winded answer, but Michigan getting good again is great for the sport because in a couple of years when they meet again, if Michigan and Notre Dame are really good, then the football fans will get a great Saturday and a great weekend. That’s all they want.

 

You’re probably one of the only people who has actually watched the entire Michigan State-Furman game. What do you expect to see from the Spartans this weekend? 

I don’t think we know. And I don’t think they know just yet. I think they’ll have a much better answer come Sunday morning.

Here’s what we know: They are in the mold of the Dantonio teams that have turned this thing around to where they’ve finished in the top five or six here for the last three years in a row. They’re physical, they’re well coached, and they run a great program.

We just spent the day there. You’d want to send your kid to Mark Dantonio to play football. He is a task master. He’s hard on the guys, but they love him. And that’s when you know that the guy is really good. And he is.

We don’t know how Tyler O’Connor, the quarterback, is going to play for a whole year. We know he won his first road start at Ohio State. I told Tyler today that if you win at Notre Dame you should walk right out that tunnel and end your career. If you start two road games and it’s a win at Ohio State and a win at Notre Dame, you’ve done it all.

It’s probably not going to be too big for him. He’s a fifth-year senior, he’s only got one year to play but it’s really great the leadership role that he now has. They can run the ball, they’ve got a good offensive line, and running backs. On the defensive side of the ball they’ve got guys who can make some plays, a very good linebacking corps. So even though the names have changed, there’s still the blueprint for what has made them very good.

We don’t know, and candidly they don’t know, if their best players are good enough to be a top five team or not. I think we’ll start getting those answers this week and then they still play Michigan and Ohio State, among others. There’s plenty of runway to find out how good the Spartans are this year. I think they’re a really good team and they’ll play a physical game as they always do.

 

What’s your experience with Brian Kelly?

I’ve been around Brian at Cincinnati and maybe at Central, too. I was trying to piece that together and I think I might have done a MAC game when he coached at Central. Certainly at Cincinnati a few times and our paths would cross at a couple of other events during the year, and then when he coached Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama, I called that game for ESPN Radio. So I spent time around Brian in the lead up to that as well.

I know him a little bit, but not very well. But certainly know him and know why his style of football has helped Notre Dame return to being one of the college football’s most watched teams.

 

How do you think he handled the quarterback situation? Do you think he regrets playing two guys before deciding on DeShone Kizer, who is quickly ascending as one of the premier guys in the country?

I don’t think there are any regrets at all. I thought he handled it really well. When you’re in a situation with two quarterbacks, it’s always very delicate. And I think this one is made more delicate because Malik is coming off of an injury. And you don’t want to see a guy lose his starting spot because he got injured. So they tried to figure out how to manage that. And by giving them both an opportunity to play, DeShone Kizer was clearly the better quarterback in that game and he proved to be a better thrower.

So in this day and age with the way the offense is spread, that’s probably the best place to go for your No. 1 quarterback. And DeShone proved that on the field. I thought Brian handled it very well. I thought he approached it the right way and things sorted out over time. So it all works.

I will say this: Malik was terrific in terms of trying to accept the role and we saw him last week as we left practice and Malik was staying to throw extra footballs. He knows that he’s just a play away, that’s how he lost the job. And I give that man a lot of credit for embracing what the role is for the moment. That showed me that he can handle it well.

 

You’ll leave Notre Dame and then head out to host the Ryder Cup. What makes you so excited about the event?

When Al Michaels left ABC and the Disney family to go to NBC, part of the trade to allow Al out of his deal was Oswald the Rabbit, some extended rights to Olympic highlights I believe, and ESPN got the first day of the Ryder Cup. So in ‘08 in Louisville at Valhalla and in 2010 in Wales and in 2012 at Medina, I got to do the Friday at the Ryder Cup, and the ‘08 day at Valhalla is still one of my favorite and will remain one of my favorite days ever at work.

The two captains were Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, who a few years before that in the run up to it were both my partners in the 18th tower. So two guys who I sat alongside for three years in the booth are now out there as the captains of the Ryder Cup.

It was such a cool event, the atmosphere in Louisville was incredible that day. We were on the air from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you didn’t think once that you were tired. It was a great day and I love the Ryder Cup. I think it’s special because you never talk about salaries, you’re talking about guys who are playing for continent or country, and every shot really matters.

People may watch Thursday and Friday at a major, but you know most of the guys are kind of jockeying around to get in contention for the last nine on Sunday, but here your second shot on the second hole on Friday could be the difference in the match. And the point could be the difference in retaining, winning or losing the cup.

I love it, I cannot wait to get there on Wednesday, and to be around it and then host the coverage while the guys call it on Friday and Saturday.

 

So who do you put as the U.S. Team’s fourth captain’s pick?

Davis has enough guys in his ears, but Bubba is still out there, right? I’ve got a guy with two majors who represented the United States of America when other guys were saying no thanks about the Olympics. But not only did he represent us by going, but he represented us by how he comported himself there. Bubba wasn’t having a good first nine holes on Thursday’s first round and he’s walking off the green and opening up his bag and giving Olympic pins and golf pins to kids who were watching.

Bubba sat one row behind me on the night that Michael Phelps won two gold medals. And with 50 meters to go, Phelps flips to turn to beat Chad le Clos, who was talking trash beforehand, and Bubba is up right behind me screaming, “Come on, Phelps! Come on, Michael!” He’s rooting like a fan.

A guy who when many people in the golf world turned their backs on the Olympics, Bubba embraced it and represented the country. He’s a damn good golfer. He’s won the Masters twice. I take him on my side anytime. If there’s a pick and he’s still out there, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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