How do you pay tribute to Mike (Sports Pope) Francesa, a man who has paid tribute to himself five days a week for 30 years?
It’s a tough task bordering on the impossible. When it comes to celebrating himself, how could anyone top Francesa? Whether it was him rhapsodizing about his superior knowledge of everything, from the inner working of the National Football League to the machinations of a Long Island-based electric company, “nothing can get by him,” as his opening jingle reminds us every day.
His sycophants make paying homage even harder. For years they opened their breathless calls by verbally genuflecting to Francesa. Now, with the countdown to his final WFAN broadcast, next Friday, in its final stages, caller testimonials are at their most grandiose, saccharine levels, more fitting a beloved head of state than a Gasbag screaming at callers between Kars For Kids commercials.
The affection is rooted in something unique and special. And that’s where any attempt at topping one of Francesa’s tribute’s to himself must begin. First, with Christopher (Mad Dog) Russo, then as a solo act, Francesa cast his own spell over the New York sports scene. Like him, love him, or loathe him, he provided something for everybody, which translated into him being an afternoon-drive ratings powerhouse in sports talk.
His style forged a commonality between those who loved him and those who detested him. No matter how they felt, and there was never a middle ground with Francesa, they all tuned in to hear what he had to say. Rarely did the Pope leave them with nothing to chew on or stew over.
He had a one-of-a-kind ability to constantly inspire the following words: “Did you hear what Francesa said?”
That’s why we all tuned in.
It could be about him torching a particular team, coach, or media member he wanted to discredit. Or his constant, insufferable name dropping. It could be about one of his gaffes. Or him falling asleep at the microphone to a Sweeny Murti lullaby. Or an interview where he either made the subject squirm or played Twinkie Munch when he wouldn’t challenge a celebrity he was fond of (Remember the infamous A-Rod spot?). Or his interaction with a particular caller.
Francesa always left you wanting to come back for more, setting the stage for the next show. The audience wanted to be there, especially when a big story was going down. For some, it was about the inside info he might provide. For others it was about hearing their own opinions rubber-stamped by the Pope. Others just wanted to listen to someone who in his own mind was always right and vehemently disagree with him.
They all tuned in. That’s the only thing that really mattered.
It would take a team of psychiatrists to figure out what makes Francesa tick. Still, when they ultimately published their findings, they would conclude he had the perfect personality for the profession he chose. His huge ego “inspired” Francesa to have a short fuse with callers who dared challenge His Holiness with their primitive knowledge of sports.
While Francesa would banish them with a dismissive wave, he relied on the callers to fuel the show and his ego. Except for Francesa, no one is right all the time. He skirted this reality by bending the truth and in some instances out-right lying. His version of the truth WAS the truth. Francesa believed it, so it had to be.
His attempts to navigate around the truth provided some funny, albeit cringe-inducing elements to what always was a hardcore sports show. In a time when Gasbags fill the air with ancillary babble, talking about themselves while laughing hysterically at their own lame observations, Francesa was Francesa, sticking with what kept him the undisputed king of local sports talk.
Francesa still knows what works. That’s why we wonder why he ultimately decided to leave WFAN. None of his reasons seem particularly valid or even consequential. Especially now, when all of local sports talk radio, including some of WFAN’s offerings are scripted and formulaic. In contrast to these shows that have gone cookie cutter, featuring “drops” and forced laughter, Francesa’s offering, around for three decades, sounds much different.
Yes, it’s ironic. And it’s only because Francesa had complete control of his show that he was able to maintain the status quo, a familiar sound his listeners found compelling. So, perhaps a fitting way to conclude our tribute is reminding Francesa he is leaving a lot of disappointed listeners, friend and foe alike, behind.
He will be hard pressed to find such a large, very large, and loyal audience in his next endeavor. Still, that might not bother him. What will get to him is in a few weeks, or a month, or whenever, when a big story is breaking and there will be no microphone and no one listening.
That’s going to hurt Mike Francesa.
And hurt us too.
Now, get out.
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