Considered one of the best NFL TV producers of all time, Fred Gaudelli will receive the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton this August.
Gaudelli, 62, is receiving the honor for his decades as primetime’s lead NFL producer, from ESPN’s Sunday nights to ABC’s Mondays to NBC’s Sundays and last year on Amazon’s Thursdays.
Before he receives the award in August, Gaudelli spoke with us on a range of topics:
• How he went from the ESPN mailroom to Canton • Inside his moves from ESPN to ABC to NBC to Amazon • Who is the best play-by-player and analyst ever? • What he would tell Tony Romo • If he thinks Tom Brady will be a broadcaster
It was enjoyable to talk with Fred, and I hope you enjoy it.
Where did you grow up? What were you like as a kid?
Fred Gaudelli: I grew up in Harrison, New York. I was an obsessed sports fan. I read everything about sports. I played every sport. It was my goal to have a career in sports.
How good were you? What was your best sport?
FG: I was an average athlete, at best. I would probably say my best sport was baseball, but I wasn’t above average in anything. But I was above average in my knowledge of sports.
How did you get so interested in sports?
FG: My dad grew up in Brooklyn, but was a Yankees fan. I was a Yankees fan, a Giants fan, Knicks fan and a Rangers fan. I just became obsessed with the teams and the history of the teams. I watched everything, and obviously we’re talking about way before the internet or anything like that. I read everything I could read.
Let’s fast forward you to college: Where and why?
FG: I went to LIU, which was then known as C.W. Post.
I had applied to one school, Emerson, because I knew I wanted a career in broadcasting. I got accepted. My father just took me up for what he thought was going to be just a requisite visit — register for classes and that would be it.
I didn’t realize there wasn’t a campus. It was basically a bunch of buildings in the middle of the city. And my conception of college was campus and all those things. We’re driving home and I said, “I don’t want to go here.” He said, “What are you talking about? It’s the only school you applied to.” I said, “Yeah, it just doesn’t fit my conception of college.” He’s like, “Well, you better figure it out.”
My aunt was a school teacher, and had a student who was sports-obsessed like me. She said, “Hey, he went to C.W. Post, and he does sports on the radio there.” At that point, I wanted to be Marv Albert. That’s what I wanted to be. So I was looking to do on-air work. So I went there for a visit.
It was probably early May, and it was like an 80-degree day with a beautiful campus and Frisbees flying and all those things — that fit the picture of college that I had. I went for the visit, and I enrolled that day. The student that my aunt had taught is a guy named Dan Reagan, who directed the Islanders, the Mets and was a year ahead of me. And he kind of took me under his wing and we did a lot of games together on the radio — football and basketball — at C.W. Post.
What was your first job?
FG: I was working at, I think it was called WVOX in New Rochelle. I was doing weekend sports on the radio … just doing a one-minute report at the top of the hour.
The owner of the station was a pretty well-known guy. His name was Bill O’Shaughnessy. He came in one day and he said, “Hey, have you heard of ESPN?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of it. I’ve never seen it.” (We didn’t have cable in Westchester back then.) He said, “A good friend of mine runs production. Would you like to go for an interview?”
I had done an internship my last semester at Metro Media, Channel 5, which is now Fox. I worked on “Sports Extra.” That was the show with Bill Mazer. It was like the week-in-review of New York sports. I worked in production, and I thought, “You know, this might be a better route for me. I don’t have the voice of an Al Michaels or a Dick Enberg or a Pat Summerall, and, to me, the voice is huge, if you’re a talent.”
So I said, “Yeah, I’d love to get interviewed.” I went up to Bristol. This would have been like July of ’82. I met his friend for about 30 seconds. He sent me directly to HR. HR said we have a job in the mail room if you’d like to apply for it. They called me like the first week in August and said, “Hey, we’re offering you the job.” I started at ESPN in the mail room on August 24, 1982.
Take me through how you got from the mail room to doing “Monday Night Football.”
Well, six months later, there was an opening in remote production, which is the department that produced all the events and the games. From March 1983 until March 2001, I was in that department.
I rose to senior coordinating producer. I was just under Jed Drake, who was the executive producer. I started producing college football in 1987. And then in 1990, I took over “Sunday Night Football” from John Wildhack. I produced the draft from 1990 to 2001. I produced the ESPY Awards, the X Games, you know, all those things.
From like ’95 to ’99, Howard Katz ran production at ESPN. We forged a great relationship. He left for ABC. He told me at some point, he would like me to produce “Monday Night Football” for him. He brought Don Ohlmeyer in for one year. After that year, Don decided that he no longer wanted to produce it. Howard called me and offered me the job.
That’s how I got to Monday night in winter of 2001. The booth was Al [Michaels], Dennis [Miller,] Dan [Fouts] with Melissa [Stark] and Eric [Dickerson] on the sidelines.
And you had that booth for just one year. Then it went to Al and John [Madden]. What is your best story about how that happened?
FG: The regular season had ended, and I was in my office on West 66th. Howard Katz asked me to come to his office. He said to me, “Sit down.” I sat down and he said, “What would you say to me if I told you you could have John Madden for the next four years?”
I was like, “What?” I said, “Just Al and John?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Well, look, I love the guys I’m working with, but that would be an all-time booth. I don’t know how you would turn it down.”
He said, ‘I think there’s a good chance we’re going to get him.’
I said, “Fantastic.”
Four years later, ESPN gets Monday night. You were in line to potentially stay on MNF as it moved from Sunday to Monday. Meanwhile NBC got “Sunday Night Football.” How did everything work out for you?
FG: The day that it was announced that ABC was losing “Monday Night Football” and ESPN was picking it up, I received a call from George Bodenheimer, who had run ESPN and, at that point, was running ABC Sports.
He said, “Hey, listen, we have two great production teams and two great announce teams, and we’re not sure what we’re going to do.” That would have been like March of 2005.
Then, about six weeks later, he called me and he said, “Listen, I just wanted to tell you, you’re not our preference to remain the producer of ‘Monday Night Football,’ but we’d like you to stay at ESPN. And I’d like you to set up a meeting with [ESPN executive VP of programming and production] Mark Shapiro.” I set up a meeting with Mark. It wasn’t a great meeting. I left there pretty certain that I needed to leave, that there wasn’t really a role that I was going to enjoy at ESPN.
So at that point, I decided, hey, just focus on this last season and everything else will take care of itself. It was a Super Bowl season at ABC. We were going to be doing Super Bowl 40. [Director] Drew [Esocoff] immediately went to NBC. Madden followed quickly. At that point, Tommy Roy was going to be the producer of “Sunday Night Football” for NBC.
Halfway through that summer, Shapiro leaves to go to Six Flags. Norby Williamson takes over, and Norby calls me and he basically says, “Listen, I can’t give you ‘Monday Night Football,’ but I can pretty much give you any other job you want.” I started laughing. Norby goes, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Well, that’s what Shapiro told me until I told them the job I wanted, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you can’t have that one either.’” Norby asked, “What’s the job?” I said, “I want the NBA Finals.” Norby said, “Done.” I said, “You might want to check the contract of Ed Feibischoff because I think he’s guaranteed this,” which is what Shapiro told me.
He goes, “Are you kidding me?” I said, “No, check it. If it’s not there, and you want to give me the job? Yeah, I’ll take it, but I don’t think it’s there.” He was on my voicemail, 7 a.m. the first day of his job, so I really give Norby a lot of props for that.
After our conversation, he calls me back at about two o’clock. He goes, “Man, you were right. I can’t give it to you. Is there any other job you want?” I said, “Norby, I really appreciate it. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to produce this season. And then at the end of the season, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do. But, you know, I just don’t want the distraction of trying to find a job and going through my last season and the Super Bowl.”
Norby stayed on top of it: “Hey, what about this? What about that?” Some of those were jobs my friends had. I wasn’t going to try to go in and take a job away from one of my friends. Some of the jobs were not anything I was really interested in. And I just kept repeating, “Hey, let’s get to the end of the season and see what happens.” Because at that point, NFL Network had “Thursday Night Football,” the full slate. I figured I could get that job.
I just wanted to hold out hope for NBC because Drew was going and John was going. At some point, Howard Katz and Sandy Montag convinced Dick Ebersol just to have a meeting with me.
So I met with Dick. I want to say it was the first week in November of 2005. I went to 30 Rock. We sat in his office. We spoke for about two hours, had a great conversation. And at the end of it, he said, “Listen, if I didn’t have somebody, I would hire you in two seconds, but I have to be loyal to my people. Tommy Roy has done an amazing job for me and has produced a couple of Super Bowls. I owe it to him.” I said, “Look, I respect that, but if anything ever changes, please call me.”
So now we fast-forward to December. And Dick calls me and says, “Hey, listen, I’d really love to come sit in the truck for a Monday night game. I’d love to bring Tommy. I’d like to bring Cris Collinsworth. Are you OK with that?”
I said, “I’m 100 percent OK with it, but I probably just need you to get the OK from George Bodenheimer since you guys are on a different level than I’m at.” He said, “No problem. I’ll take care of it.”
It’s a Monday night game in Baltimore. He sits in the truck for the first half with Tommy. And then at halftime, he comes up to me and he says, “Hey, do me a favor. When you get back to the hotel, just call me. I just want to talk to you for a few minutes.” So I was like, “Great.” I’m walking out. Madden’s on the bus, and Madden’s like, “Fred, Fred, Fred, come here.” So I go on to the bus.
He goes, “You gotta act surprised, but Dick Ebersol is going to offer you the Sunday night job.”
I’m like, “What?”
“You’ve got to act surprised, but I wanted to tell you.”
Now, I go back to the hotel, call and go up to my room. Tommy’s there. Sandy Montag, who is my agent, is there.
Ebersol says to me, “Well, your good friends at ESPN decided to dump all their golf. We acquired most of it. I gave Tommy the choice of producing all the golf and being able to live in Florida or staying on ‘Sunday Night Football.’ He decided to produce the golf, so we’re offering you ‘Sunday Night Football.’ Sandy and I have worked out the numbers, do you want the job?”
I said, “Hell, yeah.”
Now he, Tommy, Sandy and I walk down to the bar. The first person we see is Drew. I said, “Drew, you’re not going to believe this, but I’m now the producer of ‘Sunday Night Football.’”
Drew starts laughing, says, “Tommy, it was great working with you.” Then Ebersol makes a beeline for Al. Tells Al that he has hired me. Now it’s Madden, Drew and myself all going to Sunday night.
The next morning, I called George Bodenheimer to tell him. I say, “Listen, Dick Ebersol offered me Sunday night, and I’m accepting it.”
And he said, “I understand. I’m sorry to see you leave, but I understand.” Then I called Norby, who was great about it. I said, “I’m really sorry, you were great to me, but this is the job that I really wanted, and since you didn’t have Monday night, I’m taking it.”
[Editor’s note: Jay Rothman and Chip Dean were the producer and director for Monday night after Gaudelli and Esocoff went to NBC.]
Before Al followed you to NBC, did you try out Collinsworth on play-by-play with Madden?
FG: Oh, yeah, we had that rehearsal. We did a wild card game on a Saturday night. It was New England at Denver. We were at John’s studio in Pleasanton, Calif. Cris came in. Cris did play-by-play. John was color. We had the live feed coming back. We had a couple of our own cameras there. And we did like three quarters of the game.
How was it?
FG: It was fine. It was going to take work. We were going to have to do a lot more games to get the rhythm and all that, but it certainly had potential.
But it wasn’t going to be the surefire lock that Al and John were.
Al had a signed contract to remain with Disney. I reported about that back then. Did you think Al wasn’t coming? How did that go down?
FG: I knew Al wanted to come. There was a great delta between what Disney had signed him for and what NBC was offering.
I think he was just trying to figure out how to bridge that delta, but, in his heart, I know he wanted to come, [that] he wanted to stay with the rest of the team.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of from your time on SNF?
FG: We were the No. 1 show in primetime for 12 straight years. We quickly made Sunday night the primetime destination over Monday night, which Al and I, I don’t think … saw happening, either ever or that quickly. Because “Monday Night Football” was part of the American fabric for 35 years, and people were just conditioned that the big games were on Monday night.
Through the league, and, really, Howard Katz and commissioner [Roger] Goodell really making sure that we had a great and flexible schedule, [and] the way that Dick was able to market the whole thing, that enabled us to turn that tide really quickly.
You can say what you want about the Emmys, but there was one time where we won “Best Live Series” six years in a row, then we lost and then we won it five years in a row. No show had ever won that more than three times. We won it 11 times. Three of our five Super Bowls won “Best Live Special.” It’s been a highly acclaimed show from viewership and from critical acclaim for the entire duration. Those would be the things I’m most proud of.
How did Amazon come about for you?
FG: [NBC Universal CEO] Jeff Shell got a call from [Amazon SVP, Prime Video] Mike Hopkins and said, “Hey, we’re looking for somebody to produce our Thursday night telecasts. Would your company be interested?” So Jeff threw it to [NBC Sports chairman] Pete Bevacqua, who threw it to [NBC executive producer] Sam Flood and I and the only prerequisite was, “You can’t lose money.” But there’s really no way to lose money on this unless you strike the worst possible deal of all time.
At that point, we were losing hockey. We didn’t have Big 10 football yet, and we had a lot of talented people that would really thrive on another big primetime football show, so we aggressively bid for it.
I knew this past season, whether I stayed on Sunday night or whatever else, this was going to be my last year in the truck. I pretty much decided that. I just said to Pete and to Sam, “Hey, if you guys think it makes a difference, if it helps us, tell them I’ll produce the games for the first year. And then I’ll be the executive producer for the remaining two years.” They were like, “Hey, are you sure you want to do that?” I said, “Yeah. Look, this is my last year anyway. We can get [new SNF producer] Rob Hyland in a year sooner. He gets another year under his belt before he has to do a Super Bowl.
I said, “I think this would be good for me personally, because it’ll give me a lot of energy to try to create something.”
They agreed to let me do it. I’m really glad I did. It really provided for me what I hoped it would, and that was a lot of energy and a lot of juice because you were constantly thinking about what we were going to do on this show, and how we were going to create this show and how we were going to make this show suitable for the NFL fan.
I told Amazon, “Look, here’s the deal: If you want my opinion, you have one chance to make a first impression. NFL fans are very particular. They’re very particular about what goes in primetime. If you want to have a high-quality football broadcast, I’m your guy. If you want to do a lot of experimentation and gimmick stuff, I’m not your guy.”
They said, “No, no, we buy what you’re saying. We want to establish credibility right away.”
How will it work now for this coming season and beyond?
FG: I’m the executive producer of Sunday night and Thursday night. Right now, I’m sitting in on all the meetings for both those shows as we gear up for the 2023 season. I’m working with Rob Hyland on Sunday night and [producer] Mark Teitelman on Thursday night.
On Sundays, I’ll be in the studio with the “Football Night in America” gang and then on Thursday nights, I’ll probably go to a handful of games … but I’ll have a live feed in my house. I’ll be able to communicate in real time to the truck, which I don’t expect to be doing a lot of, but I’ll be home watching, taking notes and trying to help them solve any problems that might arise.
Let’s get to some opinion stuff. Who’s the best NFL TV analyst of all time?
FG: I’d say John Madden.
FG: I think John redefined the position. First of all, John is like one of the smartest people I’ve ever met about a lot of things. He’s worldly. He never really let that side out on television. He played the football coach on TV.
John obviously understood football, but he understood the medium of television. There have been a lot of imitators, but there’s never been another. There won’t be another. He was able to bring out every aspect of ball — from X’s and O’s to the sidelines to the equipment manager to the trainer to all the things that no one else ever talked about — he knew would be interesting or funny or compelling to the viewer. He was able to do that before anyone else ever even thought about it.
He also trained — and put myself on this list — countless people on how to produce football and how to cover football. What we were doing before was not even scratching the surface of what we could be doing. He trained generations of people on how to cover football.
Who’s the best play-by-play guy?
FG: I’m going to say Al Michaels. There’s just no one better in the big moment than Al, ever.
If you had to take one analyst today?
FG: Cris Collinsworth
FG: Because I think Chris does the most complete job. Chris obviously spent 15, 20 years in a studio, where he had to give opinions, where he had to be able to talk on a lot of different topics and a lot of different subjects and really learned how to do that in a very concise manner. He understands the X’s and O’s as well as anybody. He’s up to date with all the analytics obviously. He owns a company that makes its way in analytics.
He has the widest breadth of a presentation of any analyst out there. He can tell stories. He can do replays. He can talk analytics, and he can do it in an entertaining way.
What would you say to Tony Romo now if you were his producer?
FG: What I would say to Tony Romo? Keep doing what you’re doing. And dig a little deeper.
What did you make of all the announcer movement — Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to Monday night, etc. — last year?
FG: I think you’ve perfectly characterized what Jimmy Pitaro did. He went full–on Steinbrenner and got the two best people he could possibly get. I’ve never spoken to Eric Shanks about this, but I’m guessing he had a value on those positions and didn’t want to exceed that value.
But what he put out there was excellent. I really liked listening to Kevin [Burkhardt] and Greg [Olsen]. I thought they did a really good job — especially for two guys not in their first year together, but their first year on the biggest stage and then the Super Bowl. I thought they both had a really excellent Super Bowl.
It was certainly unique. I’ve never really seen that in my 40 years in the business.
I was really kind of shocked about the money that was being thrown around. But I get why ESPN did it. I truly do. They wanted to have a first-class booth. They had been struggling to produce that for a while. And Jimmy did what he had to do to get it.
And what was your reaction when you heard Tom Brady agreed to become a Fox analyst?
FG: I was really surprised.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know Tom, but I’ve been in meetings with Tom for over 20 years. And while he definitely knew our team, I never heard him express any interest in being an analyst. I knew he was beginning to dabble in media. He had the TBTimes, where he had these cartoons after games that he’d have his staff put together that were really pretty fun and somewhat innovative.
And then you could see him dipping more into media, but I saw him more like Peyton [Manning], a media mogul and kind of doing it on his terms.
Like I said, I never got the impression once that being in a booth and doing what we were doing was something that appealed to him. It doesn’t mean it didn’t, I just never had that interaction with him where he was curious about what we were doing or how we were doing it and what our lives were like or what the process was like. So I was surprised.
Does he eventually do it?
FG: I mean, he’s signed on to do it. I guess until you see him in the booth, there’s always that question whether he does it or not, but at this point, I have to take him for his word.
When you go into Canton and you think about your speech, who is at the top of the list that you want to thank?
FG: Well, obviously, my mother and father. They would be one, two or co-No. 1s. But there are so many people. Dick Ebersol, Howard Katz, Steve Anderson,Steve Bornstein, John Walsh, John Wildhack, Mark Lazarus, Al, Madden, Cris, Michelle Tafoya, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul McGuire, Andrea Kremer, Drew Esocoff, obviously, Marc Payton, who was my director at ESPN for all those years, Commissioner Goodell, he’s been a great supporter of mine through the years.