Posted on Mon, Dec. 27, 2004
Herbstreit caught in middle
Former Ohio State quarterback receives threats from Buckeye fans over association with ESPN
By Tom Reed
Beacon Journal staff writer
SAN ANTONIO - While growing up, Kirk Herbstreit daydreamed in his back yard about playing quarterback for Ohio State.
He realized his goal in 1992, becoming a captain and earning team Most Valuable Player honors. He laid down roots in Columbus, married an OSU cheerleader and started a family.
Herbstreit is a Buckeye to the core. Except when millions of Americans watch him on ESPN. That's when he trades the Ohio State Block `O' for journalism's Big O: objectivity.
It's a transition some rabid fans apparently don't understand.
Since ESPN The Magazine published Maurice Clarett's allegations of widespread improprieties at OSU last month, Herbstreit has found himself caught in the middle of controversy, a highly visible target for some Buckeyes zealots who see him as a traitor.
Herbstreit said Monday he has received death threats directed at him and his family. Though he says the majority of Buckeyes fans remain supportive and understanding, the experience has shaken him.
``This has taken a toll on me,'' Herbstreit said. ``It has been a long year because of my associations and feelings for Ohio State. I feel bad for my university, but I also have a job to do.''
Herbstreit is in San Antonio as part of the ESPN broadcast team calling Wednesday night's MasterCard Alamo Bowl featuring Ohio State and Oklahoma State.
He embodies the synergy ESPN has created in the sports media industry, working as a TV analyst, radio personality and an on line and magazine contributor. He is virtually everywhere -- including Columbus, a city still fuming from Clarett's accusations prompting a second NCAA investigation into the Ohio State football program.
Herbstreit did not write the ESPN articles spelling out Clarett's claims or those of other ex-Buckeyes corroborating parts of Clarett's story. The former quarterback said he never witnessed the improper conduct Clarett alleges during his playing days and he hopes the NCAA's probe exonerates the program.
That hasn't stopped some from making Herbstreit guilty by association.
``I have taken the brunt of it,'' the Centerville native said. ``A lot of people assume me and the guys who wrote the stories eat lunch every day at the ESPN mess hall.
``It's frustrating to me. I have been told to move out of Columbus, that I was no longer welcome, that I have prostituted myself for ESPN's money. It's really kind of bizarre... It's something that concerns you, especially with kids.''
Herbstreit expects to scale back or possibly quit his Columbus radio show and he has considered relocating even though he's in the process of building a new home for his wife and three small boys.
He was the recipient of ``seven or eight,'' threatening e-mails after the ESPN stories broke, but also has received many others expressing sympathy with his awkward position.
``I have to be careful not to let a few idiots destroy the relations I have with so many great Buckeyes fans,'' Herbstreit said.
Ohio State administrators and coaches have denied the Clarett allegations and athletic director Andy Geiger in particular has been critical of ESPN's coverage. Geiger declined a Beacon Journal request to discuss ESPN two weeks ago.
ESPN spokesman Mike Hume said Wednesday his company stands by its reporting. Hume added that the university has maintained a professional working relationship with ESPN despite the dispute. ESPN and ABC network personnel received full cooperation from the Buckeyes program for broadcasts of the Purdue and Michigan games.
OSU associate athletic director for communications Steve Snapp said Herbstreit and ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico attended practice Monday and they would meet with players and coaches today.
``We understand that it's tough being in the public spotlight,'' Snapp said. ``We have nothing but the utmost respect for Kirk and we're proud of the work former Buckeyes like Kirk and (college basketball analyst) Clark Kellogg have done.''
Herbstreit hopes to chat with some in the OSU football program after the season. He said he has no desire to meet with Geiger, who criticized Herbstreit, though not by name, in a news conference last month.
``I understand the fan's mentality, but ESPN is not out to hurt Ohio State,'' he said.
Herbstreit was critical of the OSU offense early in the season and said if he were a quarterback or receiving recruit, he would ``have a tough time going to Ohio State.''
The analyst has changed his opinion. He is impressed with the Buckeyes' late-season transformation and how the coaching staff has made creative use of its receivers and quarterback Troy Smith, who will miss Wednesday's game due to suspension.
Herbstreit said analyzing the Clarett allegations is difficult, but comes with the territory. The former running back says OSU's improper benefits include: supplying loaner cars, arranging high-paying, no-work jobs and receiving cash from boosters. He also accuses the university of academic fraud.
``I might sound like Richie Cunningham, but some of the stuff sounds so far-fetched for me,'' Herbstreit said. ``I was never exposed to anything like that and I was a captain. I must have really (stunk). (Former Buckeye) Joey Galloway has said jokingly he was downright offended that no one ever offered him any benefits.''