The Running Man
Photo/Jim Wright
Rich Eisen has been talking sports with a hefty dose of humor for more than 20 years

“I definitely don’t smoke cigars to train for the 40, but I definitely don’t train at all.”

Rich Eisen, sportscaster, face of the NFL Network, talk-show host and all-around funny guy, is removing his makeup after recording his daily show. He’s preparing to head for Los Angeles International to fly to Dallas to cover the NFL draft for the 13th time. He starts to riff on a question about his cigar regimen vis-à-vis his yearly 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Prompted by a challenge from running back Terrell Davis, it has become an annual charity benefitting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in which Eisen runs in a suit, shirt and tie.

“Maybe I should run with a cigar. It might change my luck. If I’m running down the track with my Partagás Serie D No. 4—my favorite robusto—would it be lit is the question.”

He ponders the physics of sprinting with a stogie as he sits in the DirecTV studios in Los Angeles. “If it’s lit, I don’t run fast enough to put it out. But I don’t know if the NFL would appreciate if I ashed all over the place.”

When it’s pointed out that his performance actually has been improving (his best times—sub six seconds—have all been recorded in recent years), he switches subjects to another gustatory passion. “So I’m like a fine wine—my vintage is improving with each passing year.”

Sports delivered with a healthy dollop of humor has been the trademark of Eisen since he first broke on the national broadcasting scene as a 26-year-old in 1996 with ESPN. Comedy could have been his singular calling, as he dabbled in it as an undergrad at the University of Michigan. “I did stand-up comedy there for three years and thought I might do that. I did it for a couple weekends and I found I just wasn’t cut out for talking to 20 people, making very little money and being around comedy clubs [while I figured] out how to do that.”

But another collegiate extracurricular activity captivated him as well. “I also worked for my school newspaper, the Michigan Daily, and I covered Bo Schembechler’s final season there. I got a taste of what it was to write and do stand-up comedy. I always wanted to marry the two. I always wanted to crack that code.”

He tried the scribe part first. “I got a call from my hometown newspaper editor the day of my graduation. So I wrote for the Staten Island Advance. And man I sure wasn’t cut out for hard news. That just wasn’t my bag. I covered local community boards, the Koch administration, transportation, environment, the cops beat. I would always have this walkie-talkie with the codes being blurted out. I would think something was a double homicide and it would turn out to be a cat in a tree instead.”

Eisen returned to school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, and this time he focused on becoming a sportscaster. “It was really what I wanted to do growing up,” Eisen says. “When I realized I couldn’t hit a curveball or make a jump shot or do anything like that, I realized that I needed to talk about it.”

Eisen brought his sense of humor to his first gig, at ABC affiliate KRCR-TV, in the remote northern California market of Redding. Asked to cover a rodeo, the young sports reporter did a one-on-one interview—with one of the bulls. 

After building up a portfolio, Eisen submitted a tape to a headhunter “under the category of it never hurts/what the hell,” he says. The headhunter called back a few months later, asking for more. A network wanted to see more, and it turned out to be ESPN, the King Kong of the sports TV world. He was hired in 1996.

“I was aged 26. I went straight from Redding, California, to the desk at ESPN.” 

For Eisen, who had watched ESPN from his college frat house as Chris Berman reported on the NFL draft, it was the promised land. “Just the ride of my life,” he says. He would rub shoulders with sportscasters whose style he’d admired, such as Berman, Keith Olbermann and Craig Kilborn. Like Eisen, Kilborn had come from a small California market and flourished on “SportsCenter,” and as an ESPN rookie Eisen questioned if he could make the same transition. “I had no idea if it was possible. I thought it could be. And it did happen. They threw me right into the deep end of the pool.”

The deep end included a pairing with Stuart Scott, who had arrived two years earlier. Eisen had watched Scott on television, and the two became close, developing a charming on-air camaraderie. Scott died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 49. “One of the most joyful, full of life individuals I have ever come across,” Eisen said during an emotion-charged TV segment the day that Scott died. “As you go to bed tonight,” he said, choking back tears, “flip your pillow over to the cool side,” he said, using Scott’s most famous catchphrase. 

Back in 2003, as ESPN was changing its format from highlights with storytelling banter to analysis, Eisen left to become the first on-air personality for the fledgling NFL Network. He would soon develop his annual 40-yard dash in a suit and tie. “No one should be subjected to see me wearing spandex,” he has quipped about his reasoning. It’s also his work uniform, although this day he’s wearing slacks, a sports shirt and a crewneck sweater as he welcomes Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame, who is plugging his new movies Beirut and Tag—all punctuated with good-natured ribbing about sports.  

Despite Eisen’s connection to the NFL, most of today’s talk is directed to baseball (the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry) and hockey (and the failure of Hamm’s favorite team the Blues to win a Stanley Cup). They first met long before Hamm found fame as Don Draper. “I had gone out with some friends,” recalls the actor. “Someone said, ‘That guy from “sports centers” is coming,’ and I said, ‘Oh cool! I like sports, at least I’ll have someone to talk to.’ ” Eisen’s wife-to-be, the former Suzy Shuster, was there and that is how they met. The rest is history. “I was a bartender and a waiter. He was a Staten Island kid who done good.”

The two share a comfortable on-air presence. “I like Rich’s sensibility, back from the old “SportsCenter” days. His sense of humor and intelligence and humility and genuine interest in what he’s talking about shows through,” says Hamm. “When I come here we talk about sports, we talk about this, we talk about that. It’s always easy. It’s the best kind of interview show to do because it just flows.”

It’s the kind of interview Eisen prefers to do. “It’s comfortable,” he says. “That’s what I want to have, a fun conversation. I find that a lot of celebrities when they go on panel talk shows feel like they have to create humor or create the story. With Jon I know there are a couple of sports stories you can tell, you can show his clips and go from there.”

Being comfortable with friends off screen is an opportune time for cigars, says Eisen, who enjoys smoking at poker nights and on the roof of West Hollywood’s Soho House. “I smoke as a treat or a celebration,” he says. “Normally I like to get out of Dodge right after a long event cause I’ve got three kids at home. But finishing the draft I will probably have a nice glass of wine with my guys and a cigar to sort of cap it off.”

A certain relaxed quality pervades the show, which is partly by design: “What I’m trying to do with this show right now is bring an entertainment aspect and comedy feel to an all-sports platform, and on occasion keep my journalism hat on and break news. But I would rather have a two-segment conversation like the one I had with Jon Hamm today than a deep dive with a fellow journalist on the subject of the NFL draft. And so far so good.”

The show, which is produced by AT&T, is simulcast on more than 150 radio stations. With its radio presence and video podcasts at richeisenshow.com, the production is an odd mix. “It’s different,” says Eisen. “It’s technically a TV show on radio rather than a lot of other simulcasts that are more like radio shows on TV. All I know is I’m enjoying it.”

Material like the Jon Hamm interview will be sliced up into different bite-size pieces for the app, tweets and  Facebook posts. “That’s to me the metric, to have a digital platform and get more and more people watching it if they haven’t already seen it live.”

And there’s always laughter. The host has cultivated a coterie of comedians and a relationship with website Funny or Die to continue the mirth. Eisen’s approach—the lighthearted conversation, the satires on the sometimes oh-so-serious reportage—is a fresh departure from the typical sports talk show in which experts bicker over what cornerback is the league’s best or which rule change would improve the game. And it’s one that he revels in. 

“Conversation is king,” he says. “A good conversation trumps a half-hearted argument.”