ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit on coaching kids, parenting, and more
By Greg Bach
ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit, one of the top voices of college football, spent much of his youth desperately trying to be invisible.
Shy and quiet, and dealing with the sting of his parents’ divorce, he endured changing schools seven times in a tumultuous eight-year span.
There were new homes to live in.
Unfamiliar classmates to adjust to.
Overbearing stepparents to abide by.
And sports turned out to be a lifeline for conquering the complexities of a chaotic childhood.
A terrific athlete, Herbstreit would go on to become a high school star in football-crazed Ohio and starting quarterback at The Ohio State University, get married and raise four sons, and of course these days enjoy a successful career in front of the camera on ESPN’s wildly popular College GameDay, and as the lead analyst for some of the biggest games on the football calendar every Saturday.
As Herbstreit says in his new book OUT OF THE POCKET: Football, Fatherhood, and College GameDay Saturdays, written with Gene Wojciechowski:
I learned that if you were good at sports, the other kids were more accepting of you, were nicer to you. Sports became my way of coping with my parents’ divorce. I was either playing sports, watching sports, or listening to sports. It was my escape from the pain of our family’s disintegration. It temporarily blocked out the sadness, the sight of my mom freaking out as she tried to navigate the next chapter of her life and of our lives.
He played – and enjoyed – all sports.
“I loved them all,” he says. “Baseball especially, because it was the sport that came most naturally to me.”
But once football grabbed a hold of him, it was the start of a lifetime love affair with the sport.
“I just gravitated to football,” he says. “I was pretty good at it so when you’re good at something you enjoy it. And I just loved the concept of it. I loved the team concept of it, and I started to play organized football in fifth grade.”
The practices, games and interactions with new coaches and new voices every season were incredibly valuable as he navigated the twists and turns of adolescence.
And they have never been forgotten.
“All through my growth and development my coaches were very important to me because it was another voice besides my parents of reiterating core values of hard work and being a good teammate and getting knocked down and getting back up, and that it’s ok to get knocked down,” Herbstreit says. “Just all of those things that I live my life by started in youth football.”
And some of what is occurring across the youth football landscape troubles the father of four.
"So sometimes I watch youth football in 2021 and I get a little concerned because I think there are some people out there who are win-at-all-cost type of coaches," he says. "And while I'm the most competitive guy you're ever going to meet - I want to win - it's not at the expense of not being able to teach messages not just about life, of course, but about the game. Kids learn about the game, and they fall in love with the game, by who they are around early in their lives."
OUT OF THE POCKET
Herbstreit teamed with New York Times best-selling author Gene Wojciechowski, also a features reporter on ESPN’s College GameDay, to put together the book.
He swung the door wide open on his life, though it initially took some time getting comfortable sharing some of the rocky patches of his youth.
“It was kind of like that movie Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and Robin Williams where the first couple times they got together they were just sitting there,” Herbstreit says. “As time went on, I got more and more comfortable. A lot of that stuff I can compartmentalize emotionally to protect myself and I just hadn’t really gone there and thought about it. So to kind of relive some of that was therapeutic in some ways just being able to talk about it. And I learned to really feel comfortable and trust Gene.”
The book traces his childhood journey, where he endured the collapse of his parents’ marriage and too many overbearing stepdads and stepmoms along the way. Readers learn how he emerged as a high school football star in a state that treasures the sport, later becoming captain and starting quarterback at Ohio State.
“I decided to be vulnerable and open up and talk about some personal things that I don’t normally do,” Herbstreit says. “In the book I talk about being an introvert, so it’s a little scary when you open up and talk about things. I hope, more than anything, that some of the stories resonate. The most flattering thing you can hear back is not so much ‘hey, it’s a great book’ but ‘I went through this in my life so thank you for telling your story.’”
And as one of the most respected voices in college football today, fans of the sport are treated to an inside look at life behind the ESPN cameras and away from the GameDay set: his relationships with some of the coaching giants of the game – Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney among them – the production meetings, the broadcast booth, operating amid the chaotic scenes that surround the GameDay set on campuses across the country every Saturday morning, and much more.
Herbstreit and his wife Allison are the parents of four sons, and early on it was a family priority to get them involved in sports.
“My concern is gadgets and distractions and I think if you’re not proactive kids that don’t naturally fall in love with sports at recess, or in the neighborhood, they aren’t necessarily introduced to why they should fall in love with sports,” Herbstreit says. “So as a parent it was very important for me to get my kids involved, and thankfully they wanted to be involved. They looked forward to getting in the car and going to games.”
Like many dads, Herbstreit had to learn to pull back and refrain from bombarding his kids with post-game questions about what they were thinking on a particular play. Or why they did something a certain way in the game.
And he’s hopeful parents can learn from some of his missteps.
“Thank God I started to see their faces when I would do that and I thought ‘man, I’m doing more damage than I am doing good’ and so I need to contain my own competitive spirit that I have,” he says. “I did not want to be one of those dads, no matter what. That’s why I’m so emphatic about trying to help dads not make some of the mistakes I made when my boys were really young.”
Follow Kirk Herbstreit on Instagram @kirkherbstreit and Twitter @KirkHerbstreit
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