BY Art Thiel 06:15PM 10/09/2017

Thiel: Petersen gets stink-eye from ESPN

Calling 7:45 p.m. starts “painful,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen induced a backlash from ESPN, which runs college football a bit like a famous film family ran New York.

These were the oh-so-witty props ESPN used during its telecast of Washington’s game with Cal Saturday night at Husky Stadium to mock UW’s three non-conference games.

The good news for Huskies football fans is that Chris Petersen showed neither scars nor stress from his encounters with Tesio, Clemenza, Luca and other members of the family that owns college football. Far as we know, ESPN did not put a horse’s head in Petersen’s bed.

But neither was he moved to repeat his lamentations about game scheduling that caused ESPN to give him the stink-eye all day Saturday for his apology to Huskies fans over repeated night kickoffs, calling them “painful.”

So I asked, since the network basically owns his industry, is it a good idea to piss off ESPN?

“I don’t know about that,” Petersen said benignly at his Monday presser. “I don’t have the answers. All I know is, the better we do, the better it is for Washington.”

In his mind, Washington does better when games are at 1 p.m., because the house is fuller, the players get Saturday night off and the games can be seen nationally by more recruits. Not fans, recruits.

In the dust-up over Petersen’s remarks — none of which mentioned ESPN specifically, but everyone in the industry knows who the capo dei capi is — his point was not about the interests of fans, but future players in the Midwest and East who may be charmed by purple chrome helmets, a lakeside stadium and fat-guy touchdown plays.

But Saturday nights for athletic 17-year-old boys typically are not spent around screens that are not filled with Snapchat and sexting. So all the TV ratings data that have become part of the national discussion he stirred are irrelevant to Petersen’s desire to reach recruits, not fans.

But Sonny Cor . . . uh, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, one of the hosts of ESPN’s GameDay Saturday, cast Petersen as an ingrate for not appreciating the wonders that ESPN provides (major cash — $1.5 billion over 12 years).

“You should be thanking ESPN for actually having a relationship, thanks to (commissioner) Larry Scott with the Pac-12,” Herbstreit said, “because now your games are seen.”

Actually, Washington played college football on regional/national TV before the invention of the Pac-12 Networks, and even before the invention of ESPN. What’s changed is the amount of money ESPN (and Fox) are willing to pay to control game times so that they can fill up a Saturday with programming that reaches affluent West Coast audiences, who buy the products sold during commercials that pay the salaries of Herbstreit and Petersen.

Herbstreit has just as much cause to be grateful for the Pac-12 as he claims Petersen should have for ESPN. Petersen, as I wrote last week, also has to know that his salary and those of his Pac-12 colleagues are the biggest expenses for athletic departments that are operating mostly in the red.

So I asked Petersen whether, if it meant more control over scheduling in the next negotiation, he would consider taking cuts in salary and staff positions to help the athletic department operate in the black and gain leverage with the national nets.

Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t dismiss the question and storm off.

“I haven’t spent a bunch of time thinking about this stuff,” he said. “I think there’s probably people looking at this to try to keep some sort of balance.

“I think if there’s better ideas out there, everybody’s open to new ideas.”

That vague response is at least a hint at some accountability by adults making money off free labor. But it’s not a new idea to avoid spending more money than the department earns.

Part of ESPN’s pique with Petersen had to do with his unwillingness to meet in person Friday with broadcasters Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore and the production staff for Huskies game with Cal, a standard part of most coaches’ work week.

Jones and Gilmore brought up dismissively Petersen’s late-start complaints during the the first and fourth quarters of the broadcast,  Jones describing Petersen as “irascible and somewhat cantankerous.”

But going back to his Boise State days, Petersen has done TV production meetings by phone instead of in person, because it’s easier and faster for him.

“Since I’ve been here, I think I’ve spoken to everybody on the phone, at the times they wanted,” Petersen said Monday. “The media thing is important. I get that. But there’s always a line you draw. We got to take care of our team. We have a bunch of other things to do.

“I think I’ve always spoken to production people for a half-hour, whatever they want.  Every week.”

That explanation apparently did not mollify ESPN, which Saturday lined up a visual dig at the Huskies.

During the second-half slows in the 38-7 Washington win, sideline reporter Quint Kessenich put on the ground three cupcakes, representing Washington’s routs over Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State.

“Cupcakes and creampuffs out of conference,” he said, “which could ultimately put them in peril in terms of the College Football Playoff.”

The ever-so-modest bakery wit undoubtedly will be deployed by ESPN when the Mercer Bears play Alabama Nov. 18.

The Huskies deserved the discredits last season and this season for weak scheduling. But getting singled out for mockery in an embarrassing industry-wide practice is a telling bit of arrogance that has often been a part of ESPN’s relationships with individuals and organizations.

Petersen seemed a little leery of the food fight.

“(Big-time coaching) is like a political job and I’m not really a political guy,” he said. “I just try to be honest. There are times you do stand up for certain things. Then you move on. What I need to do is move on and concentrate on Arizona State (Saturday in Tempe). One of the things we do around here is to keep players focused on what’s important.”

Smart move. But it was Petersen who brought up the “painful” night starts unsolicited a week earlier and gave the old story fresh life. Poking at the family that provides protection is fraught with peril.

Nobody wants to be Fredo.


  • Steed

    I really doubt ESPN would make fun of other teams like they did the Huskies. I can’t imagine them needling Alabama or Penn State or any of the bigtime teams from that side of the country. The Huskies are some upstart team from south Alaska to ESPN.

    • Buggy White

      Also, why not mention that Alabama has beaten Fresno State and Vanderbilt by a combined score of 100-10 earlier this season. Cupcakes, anyone?

      • art thiel

        Vanderbilt is an SEC team, so they are disqualified from inclusion in the Bakery Division.

    • art thiel

      There is some “out there” quality to Washington, but I think this is personal toward Petersen because he doesn’t bow and scrape to ESPN. I also think Petersen can come off his fastball at minimal cost to the program.

  • Jamo57

    What bothers me more is ESPN’s lazy analysis of the story. Wisconsin bowed out. Replaced by Rutgers who was a regular bowl team at the time. Thus the narrative for the lame bowl show after the conference championship games will diminish Washington again, if they get that far.

    ESPN is arrogant and lazy, but then again a shell of their former selves as well. With the financial downturn that resulted in the heavy layoffs, perhaps we don’t have a complete view in what’s got a burr under their saddle?

    All of which begs the question, how sustainable is this business model?

    • Bruce McDermott

      I believe Rutgers went 10-1 around the time the Rutgers home-and-away was scheduled. And, as you say, Wisconsin bagged out on Washington. In any event, Peterson himself had nothing to do with either of those facts. But ESPN didn’t have time for such distinctions. Pretty classless, overall….

      • art thiel

        Rutgers was a top 10 team in 2008, the year Huskies went 0-12.

        You’re right, Petersen is blameless, but he inherits the baggage.

        ESPN loves taking the big stick into negotiations, and using it. It’s like AT&T was before the breakup.

    • art thiel

      Not to defend ESPN, but swaps in nonconference games happen frequently with all schools, often years out from the date. It’s a crap shoot. None of that makes a difference once a season arrives and the CFP must choose the best four. UW is trapped two years in a row with the same problem.

  • tor5

    Not that anyone cares about the “free labor,” but by the time those players come down from the adrenaline and get home and get to bed, you’re talking 2AM at the earliest. Sure, they’re young and resilient and might stay out that late anyway, but that’s not a good way for adults to encourage healthy habits. It seems Petersen is right in every point he’s making. And ESPN is about as mature as a drunken frat-boy.

    • art thiel

      The kids won’t complain, but it is a crappy deal for them to get to bed at 2a and then be up at 8a Sun for treatment/film study/homework. most of them with killer headaches.

  • Parts

    I have no love for the Huskies (I’m a Duck), but I hate ESPN with a burning passion. Petersen is 100% correct. It needed to be said, I’m glad he said it and I admire the way he has owned his words and actions in the aftermath. He’s setting a good example.

    • art thiel

      The inconveniences to fans, teams and schools for the late start are nearly irrelevant to Scott and the university presidents, who are desperate for revs in an era of decline for brick-and-mortar schools against online educations.

      • tor5

        I’m not sure how you figure on that one, Art. Yes, the universities and athletic departments are always needing revenue, but not because too many students are picking online educations. Every year thousands upon thousands of students are heartbroken because they didn’t get accepted to a brick-and-mortar university. And that’s not changing anytime soon.

  • jafabian

    I’m a bit surprised at ESPN’s agressive response in all this. Herbstreit has but all but alienated the Husky fanbase. I guess ESPN figures they dominate the television sports broadcasting market so much it doesn’t matter. Funny how so many of the Huskies games are in the evening but the Apple Cup is usually in the day.

    • art thiel

      ESPN can do as it pleases because it is a monopolist.

      Several Huskies games will be at 7:45 in part because they are perceived so dominant that the element of contest is minimal.

  • twistandturns

    I don’t like Larry Scott’s comments. First, his response was to defend the contract he negotiated and curtailing any concerns with fans and late games. Then, he flat out lied and said Petersen apologized to him about his comments, which Petersen denied yesterday. Who knows, maybe Petersen lied but I think Scott is shady as heck and kinda like a salesman.

    • art thiel

      What I’m told is Petersen apologized for the subsequent controversy, not the statements he made about the schedule being painful. I doubt Petersen would lie about something like that. I think Scott may have misrepresented Petersen’s words in his media scrum at halftime Saturday.

  • Tman

    Isn’t college football the NFL’s minor leagues? Should the billionaire owners of the NFL be paying all the costs of college football instead of none?

    • art thiel

      I’ve been writing that for decades. Needle hasn’t moved.

  • Bob Miller

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Herbie’s feelings are holdovers from the days when ESPN helped make the blue carpet Broncos of Boise State a nationally recognized football power. Without the almost weekly coverage by ESPN, Boise State wouldn’t have been seen by recruits in Texas and California, where Petersen recruited heavily. Herbstreit and Musburger doing the Chick Filet opener, VaTech vs Boise State, and the year prior, opening night of the season Boise State in Atlanta to play the Georgia Bulldogs, both of which were won by Boise, (Sorry, I’m a Boise guy, and now a Husky guy because of Petersen). What Herbie might have really wanted to say was, “Dude, you’re earning five million dollars a year. Without Espn, you might still be at Boise State, and they might never have climbed out of the WAC”. Maybe.

    • art thiel

      Probably some truth there. Petersen talked about Boise playing all over the clock and calendar to accommodate ESPN’s lust for football content, and admitted it helped.

      He’s trying to have it both ways, but it makes him ripe for the claim of hypocrisy.