Being Dan Patrick

Being Dan Patrick
Photo/David Yellen
Dan Patrick sits at the center of a sports lover’s paradise, a man cave/studio from which he broadcasts his show to an eager audience following on radio and television.
One of the most recognizable faces in the world of sports reporting ends his day with a fine cigar

Led Zeppelin booms. Dan Patrick reaches for his driver, tees off on his golf simulator, says “270 yards,” in a triumphant tone, and throws his arms up in victory. Later, he displays some of his hardwood skills from his college days at East Kentucky State, bouncing the ball off a wall and through the basket. Welcome to just another day of work at the Dan Patrick Show.

Patrick saunters his angular 6' 2" frame across his man cave/studio and slides behind the desk to resume his sports broadcast to an audience watching on television and listening on radio. It’s Monday morning and opinions are winging. The Miami Heat played south of lukewarm last night—that’s the call-in consensus the morning after San Antonio dusted them in the NBA Finals.

“Is Michael Jordan smiling today?” Patrick asks guest Reggie Miller, former basketball great and an analyst for TNT. “Perhaps,” Miller says. “Michael has an ego. We can stop the Mount Rushmore talk.” Miller has eliminated LeBron James’s granite likeness from his all-time pecking order (without providing an argument) so that only the stony visages of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jordan and Larry Bird remain. “This was the Miami Cavaliers,” Miller continues. “It was Michael with Jermaine, Randy and Tito.” Patrick speaks up in his deep, orotund voice, which never grates on the listener.
“LeBron looked around and went, ‘Oh my God. I am on an island, and I don’t see anyone coming to my rescue.’ ”

Minutes before, news broke that Tony Gwynn had died. Patrick and Miller offered personal recollections about the legendary hitter, sotto voce. It’s but a moment in time. Here then gone. Life presses on. Radio, mirroring reality, is an endless array of discrete moments, tossed together.

Patrick’s colorful broadcasts hail from Milford, Connecticut, a burgh that Northeasterners may associate with jai alai, which lasted 25 years. Here, in a once barren loft, now transformed into a luminous man cave, sits a pinball machine and a golf simulator, a red pool table and a basketball hoop. Patrick, 58, whose career exploded in the mid-’90s as a “SportsCenter” anchor with Keith Olbermann for ESPN, sits with the four “Danettes” behind him, his all-male cast of supporting characters. He solicits their views spontaneously, and in regular segments such as “What Did We Learn Today?” It’s reminiscent of that line from Jimmy Cannon, a scribe for the New York Journal-American: “Sports is the toy department of human life.” Interviews with comedian Dennis Miller and golfer Michelle Wie, endless analysis of LeBron, it’s all caressed with Patrick’s imperceptible skill and served up with pace and a light touch.

The show is simulcast on DirecTV. Sports radio simulcasts—usually the brainchild of some producer deciding that a host, plus a laptop and a water bottle, must be televised—are often as visually interesting as a CEO going on about ignition switch recalls on C-Span. But Patrick, drawing inspiration from Howard Stern’s ensemble approach to radio, seeks activity and fun. We see the sausage being made.

Life is good for Patrick, who has appeared in several movies, won the 2012 Marconi Award for his on-air work, helped anchor NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics and will host “Sports Jeopardy” this fall on Sony’s Crackle.com Internet network.
Patrick reclines in a leather chair in the SeaGar Loft, a private cigar club in Milford, talking of his childhood love of sports, his tenure at ESPN, and the conceptual freedom he now enjoys with DirecTV.  From a far wall the sweet scent of a humidor beckons. Owner Joe Filanowski Jr. suggests we try a couple of Padrón Serie 1926 or 1964 Anniversary Series smokes. Patrick doesn’t puff often, but draws deep when he does. He recalls his first cigar.

“It was 15 years ago. A guy gave me a Cohiba Robusto and said, ‘Just to let you know, not all cigars are this good and this powerful.’ He was right on both fronts. As I was walking sideways, I thought ‘Wow—I think that was a good smoke.’ ”

Patrick likes to sample various brands and has an eclectic taste. He enjoys Fuente Fuente OpusX, Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, My Fathers, Liga Privadas. “What else do I smoke here, Joe?” he asks. “La Flor Dominicana,” Filanowski calls out. “Joe knows what I’ll like,” says Patrick, “and he’ll say ‘Try this.’ ” 

Filanowski is more than just a trusted cigar purveyor. When Patrick needed a home smoking room, he turned to Filanowski. “Joe did the construction. He put a powerful fan in my man cave at home,” Patrick says. Cigars are a relatively new passion for Patrick, but he has loved sports since he was a boy.

The sporting life began for Patrick in Mason, Ohio. “I knew at 12 that I wanted to do this. I consumed sports magazines. I read Sports Illustrated cover to cover, cut out all the pictures and put them on my bedroom wall. My father would open it, and it was like looking through Swiss cheese. So he kept his subscription and got me my own.”  

Growing up in the small village of Mason (“one traffic light,” says Patrick) meant watching Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s. At their peak, they reached the World Series three times, culminating with the “Big Red Machine,” one of the best eight-man lineups ever assembled. He hung on the spirited broadcasts of Joe Nuxhall and Marty Brennaman, the radio voice of the Reds for 40 years.

His father played semipro baseball and later worked in the computer science department in the University of Dayton, where Dan graduated. He inherited a deep, resonant voice from his grandmother Bobo. Things were going slowly after college. “I was 27, and I didn’t get the local job in Dayton. I was crushed. I almost stopped with the dream of being a sportscaster full time.” Patrick went to CNN, audition tape in hand, and was told to leave the tape. “I remember saying to the receptionist, ‘Can I see Mr. MacPhail, because I am going back to Ohio.’ ” The word Ohio helped, as William MacPhail—then the head of CNN’s sports department—was also from the Buckeye State. “He invited me back, looked at my tapes, and hired me that day,” Patrick says. He worked there as a sports reporter for six years.

Patrick yearned for full-time sports work, and left CNN in 1989 for ESPN, the 24-hour cable sports network headquartered in Bristol, Connecticut. He first learned how to do interviews, taking a seminar from John Sawatsky, who tutored Patrick to have a beginning, middle and end to each conversation. “I might know the answer when I ask a question, but I want you to tell me the answer. My job is to be a conduit,” says Patrick, puffing on his Padrón. “People ask, ‘How do you do great interviews?’ It’s a great interview if the people give me great answers. But you have to be stealth. Athletes want to be challenged.”

The notoriety Patrick earned at ESPN owed more to improvisation than to interviewing, and his teaming up with Olbermann to host “SportsCenter” in 1992. What David Letterman has been to evening talk shows, Patrick and Olbermann were to sports anchors: funny and irreverent wiseasses. It initially got them called on the carpet. “We got accused of being self-gratuitous when we were at ‘SportsCenter,’ ” Patrick recalls. “They were worried they were going to have another Chris Berman. Without Berman, you don’t have ESPN. They needed that personality. Only a few people are able to do it, but they never embraced it.”

It began with sarcasm. “We were calling ‘SportsCenter’ ‘The Big Show.’ We did that because we didn’t know who was watching; so we mocked ourselves. ‘Welcome to “The Big Show.” Ed Sullivan would say, ‘We have a really, really big show.’ Sullivan gets the Beatles and 50 million people tune in; I was doing Indians highlights and there are 19 people watching, but it’s ‘The Big Show.’ ”

Management fumed. They said, ‘You will not call it “The Big Show.” You will say, “This is SportsCenter.” I remember my boss Bob Eaton slamming his fist on the table and saying ‘We will not put up with this.’ ”

Patrick was spooked. “I’ve got three kids and I’m saying, ‘I can’t get fired.’ ” His partner was less moved. “Keith says, ‘Fuck ‘em.’ I go ‘Fuck ‘em?’ He said: ‘Fuck ‘em.’ So that night we started to over-annunciate.” This is SportsCenter became This-s-s-s is SportsCenter. “As if every time we said it we wanted management to hear it,” says Patrick. “They started the This is ‘SportsCenter’ ad campaign right after that.”

A lot of what we did was to entertain ourselves. My goal was to break Keith up and make him laugh. He was the same way, a great teammate. We had Howie Schwab as our research guy—such unbelievable people behind the scenes. It was our own little clubhouse. We got away with murder.”

The duo became known for inventing catchphrases. After hearing Marv Albert describe hot shooting Sam Cassell as being “on fire,” Patrick used his own version, calling it el fuego. A Spanish teacher called to correct him, descibing how Patrick was calling players “the fire” rather than what he presumably intended. It became en fuego. The highlights were live, so the two had to come up with things on the fly. “We came up with phrases to entertain ourselves during the highlights,” Patrick says. “I remember Benny Distefano hit a triple and I said, ‘You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.’ ”

Those mid-’90s phrases come back to you. Remember Olbermann’s “Biscuit in the basket” after a hockey goal? How about “check please,” as in this contest is over. “It’s deep and I don’t think it’s playable” was saved for long home runs. If a team celebrated too soon it was a case of “premature jocularity.” Using a term from his youth playing Wiffle ball, Patrick would say “the whiff,” to mock a strikeout victim.

It was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spontaneity, and fans ate it up. Bob Costas, whose 10-year-old never missed the show, called the duo “The Bards of Bristol.” Imitators arose. We got “booyah” for a home run and “He must be butter because he’s on a roll” courtesy of Stuart Scott at ESPN. In time, sports anchors were no longer just delivering the scores. “Everyone started doing it and we didn’t want to do it anymore,” Patrick recalls.

Departures are rarely smooth, and Patrick’s ESPN exit was no exception. “The last three years I was there I didn’t appreciate it. I wasn’t growing. Everybody was leaving. Keith was gone. I was away from my family. It was eating away at me,” he says. “There was this show, “NBA Coast to Coast,” and I was going to have to be there several nights a week until all the games were over. My wife, Susan, said, ‘How come every time you get a new contract you work more?’ She said, ‘The kids (Jack, now 22; Grace, 21; Georgia, 18; and Mollye, 16) are all going to be gone when you get home.’ ”

Patrick drove to work one day in 2007, and says he was given a take-it-or-leave-it offer. “I remember thinking—I’m here 18 years and you give me a take-it-or-leave-it. I go, ‘No, I’m going to leave it.’ ” He called his wife. “I said, ‘I just left ESPN. I quit.’ She said, ‘We’ll sell the house if we have to.’ She had clarity and perspective.”

Patrick started out on his own, broadcasting from his home attic. “There were times when we didn’t know if we would even make payroll. That was pretty humbling,” he recalls. “It was a national radio show, and we were up in the attic.” But Patrick found a partner in DirecTV. “This could never have happened without [DirecTV’s] Chris Long,” says Patrick, nodding at the kaleidoscopic loft of his downtown set, which resembles the dream playground of just about every American male.

“I didn’t like where the show was going in its embryonic stages. I needed a financial net to help us to be able to challenge ESPN and everyone else. I remember calling Chris Long from the parking lot. I said I loved what DirecTV did with sports, but they didn’t have a face to their sports. I asked him if he was interested in buying my show.”

Patrick had to figure out how much, and insisted on making “a TV show about a radio show on TV.” The Danettes had to be included, or else it was no deal. “You’d see behind the scene during commercials. With 11 cameras you get to see a show with all its warts. Chris Long said ‘Absolutely, I’m interested.’ I said ‘If you trust me, trust me 100 percent. I can’t fail, because my name is on it.’ ”

Creative control is a term that gets tossed about, but it accurately describes the relationship Patrick enjoys. His audience has responded. “I started out with 13 affiliates; now we have about 270. Chris Long to this day demands greatness.” Greatness takes many forms. Radio needs pace and laughter, variety and an element of surprise, and provocative (or at least evocative) guests. Patrick doesn’t run from tough issues. When asked about steroids in sport, he says: “I don’t think the average fan cares about steroids. We care because it desecrates our scrapbook and heroes, and how dare you do that?”

Numerical comparisons in baseball are the most interesting and fun in sport, but because of the cheating, comparing and contrasting is difficult, if not impossible. “I’m bothered that we can’t have an argument that we can have in other sports,” Patrick adds, “because that’s the artificially inflated white elephant in the room.” Asked what he thought of Bob Costas’ view that some players, such as Roger Clemens, had accomplished enough to make the Hall of Fame even before being caught with PEDs, Patrick disagreed strongly. “Are you the father of the year if you get caught cheating on your wife 10 years in, but were father of the year prior to that that? No, it’s your entire career. So how can you be a Hall of Famer if you cheated in your Hall of Fame career?”

Patrick faced his own moral peccadillo when he met Pete Rose. “I loved him,” Patrick said of his boyhood hero. “One of the few times I wasn’t professional was when I interviewed Pete in Florida. I finished the interview and said, ‘I just want you to know, you embarrassed the entire city of Cincinnati.’ He said, ‘How so?’ I said, ‘What you put this city through.’ I wanted him to know. Part of it was my childhood, buying into Pete Rose, wearing number 14, and sliding head first.” Rose’s response? “He said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ ” Sounds like Rose ruined Dan’s scrapbook.

Sports spawns endless trivia, a subject Patrick enjoys. He’s turning it into more work with the Sports Jeopardy gig for Sony’s Crackle. “I saw the possibility for ‘Sports Jeopardy,’ and I reached out to Steve Moscow at Sony and said, ‘I’m your guy.’ He’s been sitting on the idea for 20 years. I want it to be fun, not stiff or corporate feeling. It’s going to be a barroom chat, even though you are watching at home.

“I first met my wife, and we were at a party in New York. I wouldn’t let people leave until they stumped me with a trivia question. About seven guys lined up with their wives or girlfriends. They had to go to the back of the line and then come back with another trivia question. We all think we know more than the other guy. That’s the fun part of it.”

Patrick is asked to field a question of his own, difficulty about eight: Who was the first baseball player to win the MVP at two positions? He guesses Alex Rodriguez. The answer is Stan Musial, who won the MVP in 1943 as an outfielder, in 1946 at first base and in 1948 in the outfield again. To the back of the line, Dan!

Back in the Milford studio, Patrick has Joel Embiid, picked third by the Philadelphia 76ers, on the phone. Since Embiid played soccer in Cameroon, Patrick asks if he’d rather be famous for soccer or basketball. Embiid pauses and says soccer. Patrick breaks up.

The time is nearly up and Patrick says, “Let’s go around the room and see what we learned today.” Opinions come from the Danettes, and most center around how much appreciation they have gained for Embiid after his comment about soccer. Andrew Perloff, known as McLovin, notes:  “You said, ‘No show spends more time on nonsense than us.’ ”

Milford sits between New York and Boston, but its reach is national. Good for us. Sports fans don’t have to listen to four consecutive hours of phone calls about why the Yankees signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal in the first place. They’d much rather try to decode Dennis Miller.

Shouler, the editor of Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia, is an associate professor of philosophy at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey.