Thoughts on Harbaugh Interview on The Herd

Radio interviews can be tough, especially when you have a national radio and TV platform. Think of it as a high-wire act in front of hundreds of thousands of people. As someone who has made mistakes as a host on a much smaller scale, I can tell you that it’s the stuff nightmares are made of. Today on ESPN Radio’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Colin was joined by Michigan Football coach Jim Harbaugh…and it was a strange interaction.

To be fair, it’s clear that Jim Harbaugh is a very literal guy who can be a tough interview. Also, personal note that I find Colin to be a smart, talented talk host who seemed like a nice guy when I worked at the Mothership. With that said, I think Harbaugh is right when he tweets…

Trending on Twitter
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At ESPN, we were taught by one of the best. That man’s name, John Sawatsky and his…

“…rules are simple, but he says they get broken all the time: Don’t ask yes-or-no questions, keep questions short and avoid charged words, which can distract people.”

Former 95.7 The Game PD Jason Barrett has added his spin to Sawatsky’s teachings.

I think there’s a lot to be learned from the interview Colin Cowherd conducted with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh this this morning…and man do I wish I had seen the Washington Post transcription before I started writing this. So, credit them for the last part of the transcription. Before we dive in, a few things…

  • I respect the hell out of Colin’s skills as a sports-talk radio host. Very few are as good as he is at using analogies to make a point, and to make you think. He’s incredibly bright, and is often a fun listen.
  • After listening to this twice, if I was Colin, I’d be critical of my performance. The interview seems loose, maybe less planned out than (in retrospect) it should have been. Plus, the questions are all over the map (maybe, partly because of the answers), and Colin doesn’t seem to be listening to the answers. This is where I think he missed a few opportunities.

Let’s pick things up at the second question…

Colin: Is there ever a moment in the day when you’re like: ‘I’m cupcake, I’m soft. … When’s the part of the day when you’re a pushover?”

Harbaugh: (laughs) I don’t know, I don’t know. Uhh, guess I don’t know. Maybe I guess ask Sara, my wife. I don’t know.

Thoughts: I’m not sure what Colin was asking here. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s trying to find out how and when and why Harbaugh tones down his intensity.

Colin: When you go to Michigan, when you take over a program…what was the first thing you changed at Michigan?

Harbaugh: I don’t know what the very first thing that was changed; maybe altered…then we got to work, recruiting players, recruiting players that were already on the roster. One conversation at a time, that’s how you get to know people.”

Thoughts: Colin missed an opportunity here to explore Harbaugh’s answer. To me, digging into how Harbaugh recruited “players that were already on the roster” was a chance to learn more about Harbaugh’s approach to turning Michigan around.

Colin: “Yeah, the um, I watch you on Instragram and I watch you on Twitter. You’re very much into the community. It’s like you, you, it’s not like you weren’t everywhere else, but it does feel different at Michigan because of you’re history there. It does for me when I watch you. You really seem to be all in.”

Harbaugh: “Ah yeah, I would agree. Can’t disagree with that.”

Thoughts: “You really seem to be all in” isn’t a question, thus hard for Harbaugh to respond to.  Why not simply ask, “how does it feel to return to Michigan?” I think that’s the question Colin was asking. This is not Harbaugh’s fault and I would imagine that when Colin goes back to listen to this, he’ll critique himself in the same manner.

Colin: Y’know Jim, I didn’t think you’d go to Michigan. What was the day like you decided; where were you?

Harbaugh: I don’t know if there was a day, or place, or time, uhh, what I felt in my heart, what I wanted to do, I love Michigan, I love football, I love coaching football. (I) feel very blessed. Guess I have an attitude/gratitude that I’m able to be part of this game and be part of this great University.

Thoughts: I’m nitpicking here as I think the question is fine, and the answer, although boring, is also fine. Maybe he should have asked something like “after all your success in the NFL, why Michigan?” Or, “describe your feelings the moment you decided to become the coach of Michigan.”

Colin: What are realistic expectations?

Harbaugh: …that we’re better today than we were yesterday. Better tomorrow that we were today. It’s our plan for success. So simple it just might work.

Thoughts: I like the question. As Sawatsky would say, “it’s open, Neutral and lean,” and not a yes or no question.Hell, I like the answer as it reveals a little about Harbaugh’s approach. Maybe Colin could have followed Harbaugh’s answer by digging into the idea of success via simplicity. I’m curious as to how that works, both in college and at the NFL level.

Colin: College football coaches, NFL coaches Jim, I don’t know the difference hours-wise. Is your day that much different, college to pro’?

Harbaugh: Yeah…there’s more similarities than there are differences, Colin.

Thoughts: Yes or no question got a yes answer.

Colin: Like, basically you get in early, you leave late?

Harbaugh: (chuckles) yeah, that’d be a similarity. Coachin’ football, building a team, more similarities than differences I would say.

Critique: I’d like to know how Harbaugh builds a team and wish Colin had explored that angle. To me, this is a missed opportunity.

Colin: Future of the Big Ten; you’re at Michigan, Urban Meyer at Ohio State, James Franklin (Penn State). When I look at these coaches, I say elite recruiters, elite coaches. My, my, I said this yesterday, The Big Ten feels like it’s a buy for me. Do you have a sense of that and a feel for the conference overall?

NOTE: Colin and Jim then talk until Harbaugh realizes that Colin meant “buy,” not “bye.” I was also confused and thought Colin meant “bye,” as in a weak conference.

Colin: Season opens September 3rd at Utah. Coach, when do you put in a game plan? How does it work?

Harbaugh: It’s a process. It’s been going on for a months and will continue over the next two months.

Thoughts: Boring question. Boring answer.

ColinYou’re not a rear-view mirror guy, it doesn’t seem like. You’re kind of forge your way, go …

Harbaugh: [interrupting] This feels like one of those where you ask like 50 questions on a …

Colin: [also interrupting] Well, you’re giving me slow … Well, you’re not giving me a ton to work with, Coach! So I just want to find something out about Jim Harbaugh, the human being!”

Harbaugh: Okay.

Colin: [posing a hypothetical] I’m a player right now .. and I want to play for a bunch of schools and I’m listening to Jim Harbaugh. I wanna play for Jim!

Harbaugh: [joking] Do you have any eligibility, Colin?

Colin: No, and I can’t play worth a damn. But I’m saying is … I want Jim Harbaugh, the guy. ‘Cause I bring all these coaches on and I want the guy! … I’m a 4.3[-second 40 time] wide receiver, why should I play at  Michigan?

Harbaugh: You are?

Colin: No, but if I was?!?!?

Thoughts: Harbaugh is being funny here. I’m actually lost as to why Colin didn’t have fun with this.

Harbaugh: [audible deep breath, no talking]

Colin: This seems terribly difficult, Jim. This is just not working. I love you to death, Jim, I really do! But it seems like we’re going nowhere with this. And I love you, I’m a huge Harbaugh fan!

Harbaugh: Okay, what can I do to make your interview better?

Thoughts: This strikes me as a very generous thing to say and a real opportunity for Colin.

Colin: I’m just asking open-ended questions and you have not much to say! I want you to sell your program. That’s why I bring Urban [Meyer] on … I love you guys, I want you to sell your program! Listen, I love you, it’s not working, I appreciate you stopping by, Jim Harbaugh. … I’ve been in the business 10 years. That was a clunker. There’s not much I can do about that.

————

It’s easy to sit here in my dining room critiquing a guy and a show that does this 3-hours a day, 5-days a week at a VERY high level. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that that sports-talk-radio is often at it’s best, and host’s are often most comfortable, when it’s not planned, or when it’s off-the-cuff. Experts are often critical of winging it, but those of us who have been on both sides of the glass understand that this often leads to great moments…and sometimes not-so-great moments.

So why didn’t this interview work? I actually don’t think it was that bad…it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t that bad. I think if Colin had asked questions in a way that made them easier to answer, and then listened to the answers, it would have been a stronger interview.

In the end, it’s a lesson for all who work in talk radio; think about…

  • where you want to go with your interview and…
  • …what you hope to find out.
  • write your questions in a manner that will elicit interesting answers. Yes, actually write down your questions!
  • relax and listen to the answers and then react accordingly.

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About Owen 181 Articles
Current sports radio talent coach, former PD at The Beast 980 (L.A.) and 710 ESPN Seattle who was also lucky enough to produce ESPN Radio's Dan Patrick Show. Fixing sports radio one neglected host at a time. Follow me on Twitter @SportRadioCoach.