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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McGuinness

When Saturday Comes

I sat down with Stewart Mandel, editor-in-chief of The Athletic's college football coverage and co-host of "The Audible" podcast with Bruce Feldman, to discuss why the 2023 season will be the last of its kind, the rise of Jennifer Cohen and what sets Sonny Dykes apart.

Stewart Mandel is ready for gametime. After a wild summer in which the tectonic plates of college football have been shaken beyond belief with realignment, his excitement at the prospect of the first Saturday in September is palpable.

“Whatever happens in summer - transfers, NIL, realignment - I can’t tell you how many times I hear that this is going to be the death of college football,” Mandel says. “But then you get to Saturday and all that goes out the window: there’s nothing like college football Saturday’s. My favorite part is when you look at the schedule and see the big night game - Ohio State v Penn State. Then, in the noon eastern window Wake Forest’s going to a seventh overtime. You don’t know where the excitement is going to come from and you can’t stop watching. This season is the last of this era in college football.”

Mandel has been a national college football writer for two decades with Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports previously before joining The Athletic, the subscription-based sports journalism website. Rivalries, crises at universities, big game upsets and SEC ticker tape: he’s seen it all. I ask him how The Audible, an acclaimed sports podcast, began.

The Audible Podcast “It came about in the infant stage of podcasting. I joined Fox a month or two after Bruce Feldman did. We’ve been friends since I interned at ESPN magazine coming out of college, but we never worked at the same place. He started The Audible in 2014. Then, Fox put us together. When I left Fox in 2017, and I have to thank Fox for this, they could have easily said ‘we own The Audible’. They let us keep it.”

The Audible’s impact is impressive with a far reaching and devout audience, but not surprising, given Mandel and Feldman are two of college football’s leading voices nationally. In between providing some of the best stand back analysis of the sport, they know how to press the others’ buttons. References to coaching their children’s sports teams, distaste for the other's music preferences and love of Seinfeld abound. “It’s fun. Some days we drive each other crazy,” he says. “I think the biggest reward is when you're out at a game, like walking to Alabama-Texas from the parking lot to the stadium. People shouting - ‘Love the Audible!’ That doesn’t normally happen with written stories and is one of the great things about podcasts. You have a connection with your audience and level of engagement that goes so much deeper than the written word. That’s one of the most satisfying things. Bruce is at a game each weekend during the season with Fox so he has more of those stories than I do.”

The Path of Least Resistance The pace of change in college athletics can be ferocious, even if universities aren’t conditioned to necessarily move quickly. Seeing universities struggle with high profile issues each year is a given when you’re on the college football beat. Conversation turns to Mandel’s alma mater, Northwestern, which recently fired its head coach of 17 years and former star player, Pat Fitzgerald over a hazing scandal. “In general colleges often take the path of least resistance,” Mandel tells me.

“At Northwestern they quietly put the press release out on a Friday, suspended the coach and hoped the whole thing would go away. Obviously that backfired. Universities as a whole are not run like Fortune 500 companies. Universities have a very slow and deliberate culture, and are in the media spotlight just like a major company. When a crisis happens at a university they are often paralyzed as they don’t have processes in place. That’s why you often see a strategy of run and hide instead of proactively getting out in front of a story. The details of the hazing scandal at Northwestern are awful. To this day, nobody that I know has said that Pat Fitzgerald did or saw this.” As soon as Northwestern’s president admitted he ‘might have erred in his decision’ to suspend Fitzgerald the game was up. “We know how the cycle goes,” Mandel adds. “Outrage, backlash, then they have to appease the masses.” When I cite the example of how effectively freshly minted USC Athletics Director, Jennifer Cohen, dealt with former Washington Huskies head coach Jimmy Lake during her time in Seattle, Mandel chimes in.

“She was very decisive about Jimmy Lake,” Mandel says. “It was obviously tough too as it meant acknowledging she was wrong in hiring him in the first place. She did what she needed to do. Now she’s going to USC, a place that has had one PR fiasco after another for 10-12 years. I think when issues arise on her watch, she’ll be much better equipped to handle it than many of her predecessors.” The process of women moving to senior positions within college athletics is painfully slow, with just a tiny fraction of Power 5 schools (the top 65 college football schools in the country) having female Athletics Directors in charge. The hiring of the established Cohen at USC might serve to have a galvanizing impact on college athletics.

“Most of these athletics departments have 50% women participating in sports,” maintains Mandel. “It’s stupid. They’re way behind other industries that are correcting the gender gap. I thought the Jennifer Cohen hire was pretty significant as all the other schools that have women ADs are more basketball schools. USC is a marquee football powerhouse school. Hopefully that breaks that barrier a little bit. When is a women commissioner going to happen at the Power 5 level? To me, that’s the next big milestone.”

Dykes Primed After TCU’s Fairytale Season Last season epitomized the zany nature of college football, when TCU came out of nowhere to reach the national championship game for the first time, before being slayed by defending champions Georgia. In his first season, TCU’s head coach, Sonny Dykes, brought in a swashbuckling brand of offensive football, resulting in the Horned Frogs becoming a lovable underdog across the country. I put it to Mandel that a major part of Dykes’ appeal is his down-to-earth manner as much as offensive philosophy. “I got to know Sonny when he was head coach at Cal and you’re right: the thing about a lot of these football coaches is that they’re not normal and they live in a different world,” Mandel says. “Sonny Dykes is very normal. He has great perspective. In the days leading up to the championship game I remember thinking - ‘my goodness, he’s about to have the biggest game of his career and at the press conferences he’s totally unphased’. Even he would acknowledge his team caught lightning in a bottle last year. They probably were not the second best team in the country but I’m fascinated by what he does next. They lost a lot of really good players on offense but that’s Sonny Dykes’ specialty.”

With Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC, TCU can benefit by becoming that dominant Big-12 team, especially being stationed in such a fertile recruiting ground in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. You can count on Dykes to be very much in the shop window if that occurs.

“There was definitely a contingent that wanted him as Texas coach when they hired Sark (Steve Sarkisian). If Sark doesn’t work out I think Sonny would be the next one up,” says Mandel.

Pac-12 Going Dark

Mandel’s determined to make the most of the Pac-12’s final season in existence following its recent defenestration. It’s flush with the most talented quarterback class and some of the best offenses in the country. A fitting last hurrah would be for it to send a team to the Playoff and buck the trend of the last 7 years. Mandel thinks that prospect is on:

“The mindset of ‘the Pac-12 is so difficult that it is hard to make it to the playoff’ is partially to blame. But look at the SEC. Someone always goes 12-0. The Pac-12 just hasn’t had great teams during this time period to make the playoff. If you look at USC under Pete Carroll, the Chip Kelly Oregon teams - I see some teams this year that could be that team. USC is the one that is the popular pick but Washington has a scary good offense and some really good players on defense. Someone could come out of there and make the playoff because they have teams at that elite level.”

Live and Dangerous

As we lurch inevitably towards a college football Super League following the scuttling of the Pac-12, and the erosion of traditional rivalries and geography, it’s important that what connects the masses to the game - football in remote, ethereal places such as Corvallis, Oregon and a unique atmosphere in Pullman, Washington - stays on the college football map. Along with football driving the bus in most athletics departments, TV networks set the agenda for how football is being reshaped. Next year, as Mandel reminds me, we’ll have Oregon playing at Rutgers and realignment at center stage. That’s when the game strays into an area that might put some people off.

While we’re wrapping up, I tell Stewart Mandel that my children Leo (4) and Tessa (2) are ardent fans of The Audible’s theme song, Dangerous.

“Are they really?” he adds with a glint in his eye. “We were bootstrapping it on the pod for the first two years. We realized we needed a theme song so I asked my brother to base it on the first song from Weezer’s Green Album. Bruce hates that kind of music. If we ever do another one that he approves of, it will be some R&B song.”

College football is about to take us to dreamland again this fall.

Tune in, turn the volume up, and tell your children.



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