His listeners may not agree with him, they may not even like him, but for more than a quarter century Mike Francesa has had the ear of the New York sports fan. He made up one half of the powerhouse Mike and the Mad Dog program, which anchored WFAN-AM 660’s around-the-clock sports coverage for 19 years, and even though he’s flying solo now, his style
Neither has his locale. The 59-year-old Francesa has always called Long Island home, from growing up a Yankee fan in Atlantic Beach to raising his own family along the Sound in Nassau County. That’s off the air. On the air he dissects New York sports like a surgeon would his patient—thoroughly, decisively, usually accurately—but with more than a dash of attitude to go with it, just like a native New Yorker is apt to do.
Long Island Pulse recently put a mike on Mike and grilled him like he does guests on the radio. We caught him in the car on the way to his afternoon show after a Mets game (hands-free and all). Not surprisingly, he voiced his opinions.
Long Island Pulse: I think a lot of people would call being a sports talk radio host a dream job. What’s your take?
Mike Francesa: A lot of people love the idea of having a job in sports and entertainment. Most kids grow up probably wanting to be rock stars or movie stars and I think a lot of them want to be [an] athlete or thinking they’re going to be an athlete, whether they’re the Yankee center fielder [or] the Knick point guard. When they realize they can’t do that, a lot of people want to stay in the business and one way is in the media. I’ve never worked a day in my life; that’s how I look at it.
LIP: You’re on the air for well over 1,000 hours during the course of a year. I don’t think you’re going to get sympathy from anyone, but is your job more difficult than people might think it is?
MF: The show was the longest show in the country when I had a partner and it’s stayed the longest show in the country [referring to Mike and the Mad Dog with co-host Chris Russo which aired between 1989-2008]. It never changed. Even the two- or three-person shows, none are as long as my show. Part of that is economics. We’re able to influence one rating period in the midday and control the afternoon drive also.
LIP: Is it more or less a seven-day-a-week thing where you always have to be aware of what’s going on?
MF: It’s a 24-7 thing. If you don’t like doing this, if it’s not what you enjoy, it’s going to be a hard job. If you’re not interested in sports and interested in the games, it’s not a good job for you. You’d have to do a tremendous amount of preparation. During football season, every Sunday I start at 6am and I don’t stop until the Sunday night game ends. I watch games every day and every night. Now with the technology, it’s a very different business than it used to be. It’s much easier but it’s also much more challenging. When I started, I had information that others didn’t have. Now with the technology, the average fan has that. I’m not providing that anymore. I’m providing entertainment, perspective and opinion.
LIP: Joe and Evan tweet. Carton and Boomer tweet. Even Chris Russo tweets. You do not. Why?
MF: I’m not a Twitter guy. I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a big problem for people. The last thing someone like me should do is Twitter. I’m on the air for 5½ hours a day. I ask people to come listen to me for 5½ hours, to hear my opinions. And then to bombard them with my opinions when I’m not on the air, to me, doesn’t make any sense. I want people to have to come to my show to hear me, and fortunately they’ve wanted to do that all these years. These people who have a show and do that have no ratings.
LIP: Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. You were born and raised in Long Beach, correct?
MF: I grew up on the west end, Atlantic Beach, right in that area and then I went to Long Beach catholic school for eight years…I’ve never left the Island ever. I lived in Long Beach, Lido Beach and I’ve lived on the North Shore for almost 20 years. I never wanted to live in the city or Connecticut, I never wanted to go to Greenwich. I’m a Long Island guy. I’ve always loved Long Island.
LIP: Have you ever thought of leaving the New York area?
MF: I would miss New York terribly. I really love New York. I don’t like California—I don’t even like California to visit. The only good thing there is the weather. I do like certain parts of the country, but I love this part of the country.
LIP: What were your sports allegiances growing up?
MF: I’ve been a Yankee fan my whole life. My rooting interest in football teams has moved around based on what player I liked or what person I knew in the business. Basketball’s the same thing. The Yankees are the only team I’ve spent my whole life with.
LIP: Does that make it difficult to do your job?
MF: Not at all. I’m a grownup; I’m not that kind of fan. I like to see the Yankees win and I root for them, but I don’t get depressed if they don’t win. I think I’ve been completely objective when they’re bad or good. I have no problem criticizing them.
LIP: You are a well-known Mickey Mantle fan. Who else have you been a fan of?
MF: Mickey Mantle was the only sports idol I’ve ever had. Other than that, Bernie Williams is an enormous favorite of mine. I’ve made no secret of that. As a kid, I was a Bobby Murcer fan.
LIP: What sports did you play growing up or in high school?
MF: I played everything, but baseball was my best sport…I went to the University of South Florida as a freshman and tore my knee up playing ball and that’s when I transferred back to St. John’s. I went into communications and they’d also started a program called sports administration. My mother wanted me to go into law school, to become a sports attorney or an agent, but I was recruited to this program and I was one of its first-ever graduates…They did have student radio at St. John’s, but I had to work to support myself. I didn’t have time to do radio. I went to school from 7am to noon and then I worked. I actually had an internship with the New York Sets of World TeamTennis and I was offered a full-time job there, but I knew that tennis wasn’t my life. I’m a football, baseball, basketball guy. I didn’t know I was headed into sports talk, but I was at CBS behind the scenes and then my career really started to take off.
LIP: What made the Mike and the Mad Dog program so successful?
MF: We were two unique individuals with incredible chemistry—that’s it in a nutshell. It’s a legendary show. It’s one of the great shows ever. I’m biased, but I think it’s the best sports talk show of all time and a lot of people say the same thing.
LIP: At the end, you were quoted as saying that the show didn’t have a good last six months. Why?
MF: We had had our problems through the years. It’s very hard to have two guys, both of whom are very driven and very different, who are being pulled in all these different directions, and both think they can do it on their own. We had enormous success together, but it had also run its course. There were at least two other times when I thought the show was definitely breaking up and it didn’t. It stayed together and it flourished. We went through a bad six months and it didn’t survive…It put the pressure on me to maintain our success. A lot of people wrote that I wouldn’t be able to do that, but fortunately the show has.
LIP: How emotional was that split for you?
MF: Our breakup was very public. There was a lot written about it and it was emotional for a couple reasons. Number one, we’d done the same thing for 19 years and number two, it created a tremendous amount of anticipation. At the time, Imus had just left the station and there was a lot of pressure on me to keep the station going and going at that level. ESPN had come after us for years and it’s well documented that when they heard we were quitting, they threw a party and said our run was over. They found out that that was a very foolhardy statement to make because our ratings are better than they were, even with the Dog.
LIP: And now you’re on the YES Network.
MF: We do some things for tv technically and we do help the YES ratings, but it’s really a radio show that’s on tv.
LIP: Who is your least favorite team now?
MF: I really don’t have one. Nowadays I have a pretty good war with the Jets, but I liked Joe Namath.
LIP: I know you aren’t sitting at home watching a 20-inch TV. What is the Francesa sports-viewing experience comprised of?
MF: I have one special room that has three main televisions. I never need more than three.
LIP: You’re coming up on 60 years old and recently signed a contract extension. What does the future hold for you?
MF: I’m looking forward to having a good show at 1pm. That’s it—today’s show. When you get to be close to 60, it’s about being happy and grateful and still enjoying it. I can promise you that I won’t be doing this after 70. I mean this and I hope I can prove this—my theory has always been to leave on top. I think my job is a special job. I think it’s the best job in New York. For me, I’m a lot closer to the end than the beginning. I’m not on the 18th hole yet, but I can see the clubhouse.
The Francesa Hall of Fame Rant
(Comprised of answers excerpted from the interview)
Alex Rodriguez was too good for too long to think it’s just about steroids. I’m sure the steroids helped him, but he had as much physical talent as I have ever seen in an athlete.
Andy Pettitte has great heart, great toughness, but I’ve never thought him as a Hall of Famer. If he puts in two more good years, he’d change my mind. He’s starting to.
Sabathia has got a chance. It’s about putting up enough good years. You really need to have 10 really good years in the bank.
Johan Santana won the Cy Young Award twice but he’s not a Hall of Famer. Ron Guidry had as good a career as Johan Santana. Other than Sandy Koufax, which is a very unusual situation, you have to basically do it really good to great for a long time. A guy like Mattingly had years that made him Hall of Fame-like, but he didn’t have enough of them. It’s the same thing with Santana and Guidry. Longevity is a big part of the Hall of Fame in baseball.
David Wright will end up there. He has the profile and I think he’ll double his numbers and get there.
Football? I would say right now, if you’re going to ask me today, Eli Manning will end up in Canton. Absolutely. He’s a two-time Super Bowl MVP. It’s hard for him not to be.
Mark Sanchez had early success based on running an offense where he was the secondary part of the offense. And then they tried to make him the primary part of the offense and he collapsed under the pressure. He came up with an incredible running game, and then they wanted him to drive the team and he hasn’t been able to. I also think he’s been badly coached.