Sean McDonough’s Long And Winding Path To Becoming The Best Play-By-Play Guy On TV

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When Sean McDonough got the Monday Night Football job, his phone didn’t stop buzzing for days. Friends, coworkers, contemporaries, and colleagues all wanted to let him know how proud they were of him. McDonough had been on what he called a “winding path,” and it finally led him to one of the biggest calls in sports.

ESPN’s Rece Davis has said before that he thinks McDonough is the best play-by-play guy on TV. Mike Tirico once spoke to a group of students at Syracuse and when one of them asked how to be a play-by-play guy, Tirico told them to “watch Sean McDonough.”

McDonough has kept every text he received when he got the MNF job. He scrolls through them now and again when he’s on the road. The names are easily recognizable and include everyone from Jay Bilas to Mike Breen. Quickly it’s easy to see: if Sean McDonough isn’t your favorite broadcaster, he’s your favorite broadcaster’s favorite broadcaster.

“When it’s all said and done he’s going to be in that Hall of Fame group,” Bill Raftery says. “He’s done so many sports well. He’s a quick study, and he has an insatiable appetite to know everything. The key with him is he knows it, but he doesn’t dispense it in a professorial or condescending way. It’s just good, solid knowledge.”

It’s a very short list of guys who can go into any seemingly any sport and call it well. McDonough is one of them. There’s something to be said about being steady and consistent, even if it means getting passed over time and again for the big gigs. McDonough’s rise was quick – he called the World Series at the age of 30. But that’s when the winding path came into play. He called Big East basketball, and college football games from Nevada to Wyoming. And he’d have people always asking why he wasn’t calling bigger games.

“He took the hits that we all take when you think you’re going to be moved into a position,” Raftery says. “He put his head down and worked his ass off. ”

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A big break came in the form of a three-man booth at ESPN, and two friends he’d have for life. The ESPN college basketball crew with McDonough, Raftery, and Bilas allowed McDonough to find a balance between an expert call and his sense of humor. Because there were three guys cracking wise, it never seemed like there was any animosity between one another.

“I liked him more when he had hair,” Raftery quips. “When the hair went, he went downhill.”

Camaraderie like that is rare enough among two person crews, but what made this group special is that three people clicked almost seamlessly despite all three having big personalities.

They were genuinely having a good time, and everyone knew it.

“They’re two of my very best friends,” Bilas says. “Being on the air was just an extension of everything that was going on that day. It was one big ride with my friends. Right away we hit it off as friends and we took all that onto the air. It was not without sacrifice. Sean could not do his job the way he wanted. Raftery couldn’t do his job fully the way he wanted. And neither could I. We were all giving something up, but what we got out of it was so much better than what we gave up. Sean took the biggest hit of everybody. I’m not sure a play-by-play person has had to lay out as often as we made him, but it was fun as hell and he was a fabulous teammate.”

When Raftery left for FOX, there was a bit of a reckoning. Obviously Bilas and McDonough were happy for him, but the two were a bit depressed by the news, as well. Sean and Jay talked a lot about how it was never going to be the same.

Then a bit of perspective set in. Look what they had – how cool was that? Not everyone gets a chance to work with their close friends, and come out of it as even better friends than they started.

McDonough somehow got another opportunity like that with his college football experience on his team with Chris Spielman and Todd McShay. The three poked fun at each other, and McDonough knew when to insert levity or sincerity in between Spielman’s football knowledge and McShay’s scouting eye.

The group bonded together and delivered consistently one of the best college football broadcasts each and every Saturday. But they all knew last year was going to be the last college football season they’d have together. Spielman’s contract was up (he ended up heading to FOX), and there were rumblings that McDonough would get a bigger gig. So before the Fiesta Bowl, McDonough, Spielman, McShay, and the production team all got together at McDonough’s house in Arizona. They told stories about their time working with each other, and McDonough got choked up.

“When you invest in somebody personally,” Spielman says, “that makes you want to perform all the more better for them. The best compliment I can pay Sean is that he forced me to be better to try and stay at his level. I never wanted to disappoint him during a game.”

Spielman admittedly doesn’t keep too many people close to him, but Sean is one of them. And it was largely because of the respect the pair had for each other. If Sean gives him advice – or even a criticism – Spielman takes it to heart.

The former four-time Pro Bowler tells a story about how he and Sean were out to dinner once, and McDonough noticed that Chris didn’t say thank you to the server. Rather than let it go by, Sean called Spielman out on it.

“I get into a shell or get zoned in,” Spielman says. “I’m rude, but I have no intentions of being rude. But Sean tells me, ‘you know, you really ought to start saying thank you once in awhile.’ But that’s the kind of relationship where he felt comfortable holding me accountable.”

The next time Spielman forgot, McDonough reminded him. By the third time, Chris found himself being aware of it, and now it’s a part of his routine. His intentions were never to be standoffish, but there was a trust between the two of them that Sean could say something, and Chris wouldn’t take offense.

“He’s made me a better broadcaster.” Spielman says, “But he’s also made me a better person.”

Consistently, it seems that McDonough invests in a friendship with his broadcast partners, at least to a level in which they’re comfortable. With Raftery and Bilas, it was going into a city and spending as much time as possible together eating, drinking, and sharing stories. With Spielman it was working out together, or going to mass. The job allowed for routine, and all the time spent together led to understanding each other’s quirks and personalities.

With the Monday Night Football gig and his relationship with Jon Gruden, that’s still a work in progress. There’s no substitute for time spent together – especially when it comes to games called in the booth.

Maybe it goes unrecognized during a broadcast, but it’s about setting the tone. McDonough makes a connection to the game itself, to its subjects, and to the booth. It takes live reps to get there, and in the event of Monday Night Football, we’re only about a dozen reps in. Tirico, who is one of the best ever and a mentor to seemingly everyone in the business (including McDonough) had a bunch of reps – seven seasons and 150 games – with Gruden. Sean’s still feeling the Mad Scientist out.

“I’m a little afraid of Jon,” McDonough says following the Monday Night Football production meeting on the second floor of the Charlotte Marriott City Center a few hours before Week 5’s matchup between the Buccaneers and Panthers. “He whacked me with a noodle in Week 2. That’s when you know it’s a terrible game, when you’ve got the props out. I think those things come naturally. Bilas and Raftery, I don’t know if there’ll be any team that could have better chemistry. They’re two of my closest friends. I text with Spielman every single day. I want to get to know Jon in the same way. He’s a good ball buster, and I’d like him to do more of it too.”

Replacing Tirico was never going to be easy. There might not be another guy like him in the business. Thankfully there might not be another guy like McDonough – and the experience he has – either.

Luckily ESPN sees what McDonough can do, and there’s a trust that things will keep getting better.

“He’s got great editorial sensibilities,” Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman says. “Maybe it’s just in his DNA. I love that about him. He is a great backstop for us, and a great forward thinker. He’s got an elite call and a great voice. Back in the day you had those Hall of Fame broadcasters, and he has a Hall of Fame voice. It cuts through.”

Ask anybody who knows him what Sean does best – it was easy to see in the three-man booth with Raftery and Bilas – and they’ll tell you it’s crack jokes and bust stones. The problem is you can’t come into a booth doing that right away or you might rub guys the wrong way. Luckily Gruden can dish it as well as he can take it, and little by little you’re starting to see McDonough picking his spots.

“It’s a cadence,” Gruden says. “His speed is different than Mike’s speed. When is he done making his point? When is it time to take the ball? Where is he taking the game? That’s where the conversation goes. We’ve gotten better. As long as I don’t screw it up, we’ll continue to do that.”

If anything, there’s this feeling that McDonough wants to do right not by just Gruden, or the production staff, but by Tirico, and by anyone who’s ever been a part of Monday Night Football. And there’s always going to be the thought in the back of his mind that he finally got back to the top, and he wants to do everything he can to stay there.

“I’ve done college football games in every corner of the country and I was excited to be at every one of those places,” McDonough says. “But when it’s Monday Night Football, you think about everything you did to get here, and you’re appreciative. If this had happened to me when I was 30, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it as much. The World Series happened to me when I was 30, and I probably should’ve appreciated it more than I did at the time.”

The appreciation is there, and McDonough is still smiling in the booth during the intro, giving Gruden fist pumps when Jon nails a segment, or high-fiving Rothman at the end of a production meeting. Sean’s going to make the most of this opportunity, if not for him, than for all of the friends who still send him texts and want to see him succeed.

“When they play the theme music I still feel like a jolt of electricity going through my body,” McDonough says. “I still can’t believe I’m in this position. Maybe it doesn’t stand alone like it used to – but it’s still Monday Night Football.”