Kirk Herbstreit: The Face of College Football

It's 7:30 on a Friday morning and the face of college football, 42 year old ESPN College Gameday host Kirk Herbstreit, jogs across the University of Alabama campus in a dark dri-fit shirt, blue shorts, and grey Nikes. It's a cloudless sky, late morning dew rising and evaporating into a light fog and Herbstreit, in Tuscaloosa for the latest game of the century, #1 LSU at #2 Alabama -- the first 1 vs. 2 match-up in regular season SEC history -- comes to a sudden stop at the back door of the University of Alabama's football offices. He stops because he and Alabama coach Nick Saban have arrived at the door to the football complex at the exact same instant.
This is the moment that College Gameday sells to its millions of fans, the chance on-campus meeting that makes college football's biggest coaching stars willing accessories to Gameday's reigning gridiron dominance, just regular guys in the football neighborhood. Rarely have sports stars been more closely wedded to the men who cover them. 
It's a small college football world, after all. Forget the tens of millions of screaming fans in the stadiums, the alums staring intently into television screens across the country, Gameday's promotional spots sell this exact moment -- the accessibility of the inaccessible, the humanizing of the great, the meeting of fan and coaching luminary, the entire college football universe fitting onto a postage stamp's worth of campus. 

Only this time it's real and Nick Saban is in a hurry to enter the Alabama offices. He and Herbstreit chat outside for a short while, Saban turns left upon entering the complex and scurries up the stairs, a waiting assistant handing him a warm cup of coffee without forcing him to break stride, and a beaming Herbstreit glides through two double doors and into Alabama's empty gym. This is the second day in a row he's worked out in the Alabama football complex.
Printed pieces of paper with LSU's logo hang above a dozen squat racks and weight benches. But Herbstreit isn't lifting today. He heads straight for the stair-step machine, cranks it up to a high level, and commences twenty minutes of stair climbing.
Barely one minute into his workout, Alabama's strength coach, Scott Cochran, arrives on the scene. Like every other individual associated with college football at a high level, Cochran, a blond-haired 2001 LSU grad, with the raspy voice, chiseled jaw line, and body that appears to have no excess fat and enough raw enthusiasm to convince nuns to streak, enters into easy conversation with Herbstreit about the program, the game, and life in the gym.
As Herbstreit climbs the constantly rotating stairs, sweat breaking through his dri-fit shirt, the two men chat about training strategies and football. Cochran, the man who gained a measure of Internet fame for being recorded telling his Alabama team in 2008 that the reason the #1 Georgia Bulldogs were wearing black was because they were attending a f------ funeral, leaves for a short visit and Herbstreit's stair-climbing workout continues. Five minutes later Cochran returns with a towel for Herbstreit. Five minutes later he brings out a bottle of water. Each time the conversations continue unabated, as if they have never stopped.
This is Herbstreit's life in a nutshell, a running conversation about college football that never really ceases. Few men have become true celebrities talking exclusively about football on television. John Madden is probably the most famous living football talker, the NFL head coach who stepped off the field and into the broadcast booth. Along the way Madden's last name became a verb, a video game, a lifestyle, and a brand.
Sixteen years after he first took the stage on College Gameday Kirk Herbstreit is well on his way to doing to college football what John Madden did to the NFL, making himself the single most famous face and voice associated with the sport. Herbstreit already has his own video game -- EA Sports College Football -- and his fame is such that he's transcended his sport and crossed into the pop culture mainstream.    
According to College Gameday producer Lee Fitting, who has worked alongside Herbstreit for the past eight seasons, "His (Herbstreit's) approval rating is off the charts when we test our show with viewers. They literally brought the results back to me and said, 'We've never seen approval ratings this high. Anytime he's on camera, the dials go up.'"
Herbstreit is a modern day Ferris Bueller, beloved by all, "He runs the ratings gauntlet," says Fitting. "Kids, older people, men, women, they all love him. Most guys that women like, the men don't, but Kirk's different, women like him and so do men."
And everyone recognizes him.
The day before his Friday meeting with Saban outside the back door of the football complex, Fitting and Herbstreit also worked out at Alabama. That morning Fitting was running late and Herbstreit was left alone in the hotel lobby. "Hurry up, Lee," said Herbstreit, "I've been grinning and waving down here for ten minutes."
It wasn't always this way for Herbstreit.
Sixteen years after he replaced Craig James -- he thought he had no chance at the Gameday job when he auditioned at 26 -- Herbstreit an institution, the closest thing to a modern day John Madden in the sporting landscape. But Herbstreit is still only 42 years old. It wasn't so long ago that the face of college football was a graduating senior quarterback at Ohio State who knew his playing career was over. Herbstreit had a decision to make -- talk radio or pharmaceutical sales.
It was the summer of 1993 and one job offered him a starting salary of $80,000, a company car, benefits, the comfortable country club lifestyle plan for a business major diving headlong into the corporate arena. Play golf, shake hands, talk about Ohio State football with doctors, and live a safe, secure, and comfortable life. The other, a radio gig, offered him $12,000 and no benefits.
Herbstreit wrestled with the decision all summer, going so far as to fill out all the paperwork and even submit to urine tests for the pharmaceutical job.
Then he called an audible.
"I’m talking to everybody and most people were saying, 'Take the stability, but my mom and dad said, ‘You’ve got to follow your heart even though you don’t know where it’s going to lead.’
So I did."

Recalling this decision years after the fact, Herbstreit's mom, Judy, simplifies things: "He was trying to think with his brain and with his heart. I told him to follow his passion and everything would work out. You know what, it did."
And this, inexorably, has led him to this moment in his career, it's the biggest regular season game in SEC history and every college football fan is clamoring to know what Herbstreit thinks of the match-up. The Ohio State quarterback who hasn't taken a snap since 1993 is the biggest celebrity in the world of college football.   


Growing up in and around Dayton, Ohio Herbstreit was the youngest of three children, his father, Jim, played and coached defensive backfield at Ohio State. His mother, Judy, born in Texas, was a stay-at-home mom. The couple met in Ohio when Judy's father, Travis Green, was transferred for work to Ohio. She was only there a year, but she met Jim, who used to carry her books home from school, and when her family moved to Los Angeles the next year, the couple wrote letters every day to one another. When Judy returned to Ohio, the couple was married while Jim was still a student at Ohio State. Upon graduation, Jim went to work on Woody Hayes staff at Ohio State.   
"My dad coached before I was born with Woody (Hayes) and Bo (Schembechler) and all that," says Herbstreit. "So by the time I came around, he’d already given that up, I think that was his dream. I have no doubt he could have been a successful coach. See, he came up in the cradle of coaches, he was next in line behind Bo. And then my dad decided he needed to make more money."

(photo courtesy of Judy Herbstreit)

Part Two of OKTC's Kirk Herbstreit profile is here.

Written by
Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021. One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines. Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide. Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports. Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.