Randy Zellea Speaks With The Coach As He Talks ESPN, WWE and more with the Coach!!
Randy Zellea of BSP recently interviewed ESPN Anchor Jonathan Coachman. Many are familiar with Coachman, as he established himself with the WWE where he worked with some of the biggest names in wrestling. Coachmen left wrestling and transitioned into ESPN where he has become a household name, both on Prime Time Radio and TV broadcasts.
After talking with Jonathan for over 45 minutes, it was obvious that he was one of the many chasing the dream and following his passion in the media industry. I honestly felt that giving excerpts of the interview I conducted with “the Coach” in a written feature would not carry the same message as the message he sent out.. Coachman’s dedication and desire to succeed in the media industry is unmatched as he made sacrifices, as well as, being in the right place in the right time.
I followed Coachman for years through WWE TV because he always found away to be entertaining in front and behind the camera. Since his arrival to ESPN, Coachman has become a leader and a mentor to other anchors coming into the company. Though he left the Wrestling business in 2008, the coach had the opportunity to rekindle some of his magic and taped skits with Pro Wrestling personalities John Cena and “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson when they visited ESPN to promote their projects.
The lesson to take away from this interview is that if you have a passion and desire for something; do not be afraid to do the work. Do not be afraid to say “YES” and chase the dream, because the journey could be just as amazing as the end point. During this interview you will learn about “the Coach’s” path to WWE and his transition to ESPN.
Q: How did you get your first break in the broadcasting field?
A: When I got out of college, I did not have a job in journalism. I was not on TV; but was working four or five jobs in Lawrence, Kansas and having a ball. I had called a producer I had worked for in college in Wichita, Kansas and he thought I was working in TV .I didn’t tell him differently and they obviously didn’t do their homework. They had an opening for a #3 guy at KAKE TV in Wichita and they had me down for an interview. I get down there and I was horrible!! I had no business being hired and I spent the following week blowing up their phones. The following week I got a call from their news director and he said “I'm going to be honest with you, you are not ready for this job you are not at this level yet, but I just got fired. I am able to work until 5pm this afternoon, so, because I feel you have some talent, and I want to tick them off a little bit, I want to hire you as our weekend sports anchor if you can get here by 5pm today.” It was about a three hour drive and I was mowing lawns at the time. I told my boss, and keep in mind I am 21 years old, and I said “listen man, I have to go and I have to go right now.” I jumped in the car drove to the station and that was how I got my start.
Q: You were an athlete when you were younger. Can you talk about those experiences?
A: I played baseball, basketball and football, but I was a really good baseball player. In fact, I had some back issues and the doctors stated I had to play a game where I didn’t have to twist a lot, or I could have played in college. I was really good and I still play a lot of softball to this day. One of my best friends from High School ended up playing baseball for Wichita State and we all know they have a great program there. The last two years of High School, we won 5A state basketball championship with our coach Mike Henson. His son Steve played in the NBA and was our high school coach. The younger brother was my age, and he went on to play Kansas. I was very involved in sports as I played college basketball as well.
Q: It’s crazy how opportunities become available. Is it really the right place at the right time type of situation?
A: Here is why that happens in this business. In other industries, everything is cut and dry and you are not going to become a doctor unless you have certain test scores and you know what you’re doing. In TV, its very subjective business. One person might think you have talent, and somebody else might not. This is what I tell people all the time, including young anchors who are new to ESPN. I pride myself in helping anyone I can, by giving advice as much as I can, due to my background of traveling all over the world and by being on worldwide TV for so long. A lot of the younger anchors come to me and I tell them for the first five years, when you get here change your middle name to YES. Whatever they ask you to do, just do it. By doing that, they know they could count on you. You will be able to have the opportunity to be on every show in the building at some point. At that point, you will figure out what you like to do . The same thing could be said when you could do local sports for radio, podcasts, web pages, just start by saying “YES”. The more you say “YES” the more people will gravitate towards you and it certainly has worked for me.
Q: When did you put your focus on TV instead of other forms of media? Most media members usually start out on the print side then transition over to radio and or TV, Did you have a choice in this situation?
A: This goes back to loving TV. I do not mean just sports. I love everything on TV. I love reality TV, but the thing is the other options were not available. I didn’t have the option to be part of other outlets. If someone came to me at the age of 21 and asked if I wanted a radio show, I would have taken it, but at the time, all the connections I had were in TV. When I was in college, for me to graduate in my major, I had to be the sports editor of our college paper and had a column. I enjoyed writing while I was in WWE. I had my own a column in the WWE Magazine. I would eventually like to start writing here too. I also pride myself on knowing the business well, and that’s just not me being over confident. I know the business well and writers do not seem to make much money. It’s a hard way to break into the business and to make it to the top. You have to be incredibly good at what you do. I was not sure if it would be something I would be great at. I know the road I would have to take to be successful. I do not do play by play because I'm not Brent Mussberger or Brad Nessler, but I am pretty good in the studio, so that’s what I do.
Q: Did your time with WWE help you in ESPN?
A: It was a lot. Every time I sit on set on all the big shows I know, whether it’s on the 11PM Sports Center or the Sunday NFL show, everything I do, I find myself mentally referring back to the things I learned working with Vince McMahon and everybody in the WWE. People do not understand how difficult it is to entertain, act and make people believe, when most people don’t want to believe it is true. The one thing about working with the Rock, and I have people mentioning it every day to me, is about the skits that we did for so long. To see the evolution of our relationship going from him abusing me to him coming back and us doing things as we were at the same level, was awesome for me. The decision for me to get into the ring and get involved on a physical aspect was a difficult one for me. It was one I felt I needed to do because I had the size of 6’3 and 240lbs and it was something that would earn me the respect of the boys, while making me one of them. What I didn’t’t realize was what would happen and that I would learn to entertain on the highest level… the timing, how you say things, your facial expressions, you know all the little things I utilize today. I wish all of our anchors could go through all that training, knowing that Vince is watching your every move and he is ready to shred you and rip you apart. I lasted almost ten years in that environment, and because of that, it allowed me to be ahead of the game when I got here. I felt like I was working for Mr. Rodgers compared to Mr. McMahon. The different things I did over my career with WWE, has helped me when I am doing things at the highest level. ESPN is the highest level and that is not lost on me, and I do not forget that. Every single day when I come to work weather I am sick or I am healthy. I’m out to give it all I got because I want to improve, because I care. I love people who care and who show me that they want to give an effort in life, whatever it is, because you know you are gonna get my best effort.
Q: Do you have any personal stories that you can share with us about working with Vince McMahon?
A: Vince McMahon is a very unique guy, and he does not trust a lot of people. He had trust in me and because of that, he wanted me around him a lot, whether I was hosting something or not. If he wanted to yell and couldn’t find someone that he couldn’t yell at, he would yell at me just to get it out of his system. Because of Vince having the ability to trust me, and the fact I did anything he needed me to do, the first time we went over to the middle east to Afghanistan, I was one of the 18 people who got to go to represent WWE because I was able to talk, and get in the ring if I needed to. I did get in the ring as I had a match with Ric Flair over there, and I lost to him via the figure four leg lock, and it is a highlight in my career. Some people call it the figure two, but it is what it is (laughs). While there, I got to see firsthand what life was like out in the desert. It was a scary, as we were in the line of the fire, and we went in places that nobody really got to see up close. Those are some the greatest experiences I will look back on because of that relationship I had with him. I will be indebted to him. We get along great to this day, and if there was an opportunity to be on Monday Night Raw and do Sports Center at the same time I would that in a heartbeat.
Q: How did it feel to do some of the same type of skits at ESPN with the Rock and John Cena? How was it crossing over from the WWE with ESPN?
A: It was very cool. To be honest with you, the people who were in charge at the time at ESPN, to be blunt they just were not high on anyone from wrestling being on there and I had to fight and claw ,and I had to stand up for my brand and what I believe in. I spent a full decade creating the Coach, and I have been the coach my whole life, since I was a kid, but I really became the Coach in WWE. I was not going to become Jonathan Coachman just because I was on ESPN. In order to be memorable or successful for people to understand you, you have to be true to your brand, and my brand is “The Coach”. Doing those things when Cena and Rock would show up, was validation for me, because everybody on campus wanted me to do it. We would do our skits, but then my bosses would be like “we can’t do this” but then, the reaction was so great. Over time those things helped me get to where I am today, like when I had my radio shows “Coach and Company” I was the coach, and whether I was on TV or on the radio people get it. Those interactions helped to keep my brand alive and helped to where I am today.
Q: How did your family handle your schedule back then and now? Did it affect your decision to leave WWE?
A: Once I found out my daughter was on her way,that was what made the decision to leave. There was a lot thought that went into this decision, but at the end of the day, I wanted to be home with my children. I am lucky enough to have two children and I home everyday with them. Also, there were a lot of bad habits that I developed over the last decade, especially when I was in the ring. I knew if I wanted to survive and live a productive, healthy life, then I needed to get out that environment. The overriding feeling was that I really missed sports. I was craving sports. In my last three years in WWE I signed a deal knowing that I had three years to try and get out. I knew how difficult it would be to find a regular sports job after working in pro wrestling for so long. I spent a good portion of that three year contract working at MSG network in NY and CBS college sports. I was working almost every day creating a bridge, because I was not going to go from WWE to ESPN; it was not going to happen. The family aspect opened my eyes a bit, as the travel became difficult. I began dreading going to the airport and I don’t want to do something I would dread .I was burnt out.
Q: How did the opportunity for ESPN become available?
A: It was luck. I have been very lucky, and it’s not lost on me, and when I do speeches at colleges or have an audience, I always preach timing is everything and goes back to saying yes to everything as long as it’s productive. You never know when the door is going to open, and if you’re sitting home there is no way for that opportunity to knock. It just doesn’t happen. So what happened for me was I was trying to hustle and do whatever I could. I was working at MSG and my boss wanted to hire me full time to leave wrestling. I loved it there. I was doing Knicks and Rangers games and all these different things. It was in NY though and I was in Stamford, CT., but beggars can’t be choosers. With about six months left on my contract, my boss left her job and told nobody where she was going. She said “you have to trust me and hang tight and don’t sign any contracts or anything.” Three months later in April of 2008, I got a phone call and she was the senior vice president of Talent at ESPN. That’s how I got my audition and my job. As I stated before, there were a lot of executives who didn’t want to hire me, but because of the position she was in and because she believed in me and the talent that I had, she pushed the hiring through and she got me in there. It feels so long ago now but it was five years ago.
Q: I feel bad you had to sit through that period when the Knicks were that bad.
A: It was an amazing experience even when they were bad. I was there when LeBron scored 50, when Kobe scored 61. It was awesome when they were bad. I could only imagine the days when they were great 30 years ago. That would have been awesome.
Q: You opened the door for Todd Grisham, can you talk about the string of talent in the revolving door of ESPN? Is it hard to find new talent?
A: It could be an issue, especially with Fox starting their own network. First, they like most of the young talent, where they come from because, they are hungry. They hire young, inexpensive talent from small markets, and they try to develop them. I look at it like hiring minor leaguers, because you don’t want to sign any big free agents. What happens is that these young anchors come in, and they don’t understand that 40% or more of what we do is entertainment. I am all for the journalistic integrity, and I'm all for staying between the white lines, but for people who are sitting at home ninety per cent of them are miserable, as well as, hate their jobs and want to be entertained. There is a reason why Duck Dynasty is so popular, they entertain you. When we are doing sports, we can’t assume that because we love sports, we are entertaining. We need to be entertaining, and that is what I think I bring on a daily basis. I think that is something that I am able to bring to the table; how to entertain, whether it is on radio or TV. Bringing Todd Grisham in is great because he came from the same environment I did. He is closer to me then a best friend or a brother. We are very close. For you to get your best friend to start in a very tough company to break into, it was unbelievable and validating, because we tried for a year and a half to get them to look at his tape. They wouldn’t even look at it, and they kept saying they were not interested in bringing in another WWE guy. Fast forward almost two years later when his contract was expiring. He called me and asked if we could help get his tape looked at. He said that they were going to be in Hartford for a show, and it wouldn’t cost them anything to bring him in for an audition. Can we see what could happen? I sent an email up to my bosses, and they wrote back within seconds saying they were going to look at it. That’s when I realized how my status has grown within ESPN, as well as, how they viewed me has changed. That was years ago now, and I feel they have taken off the cuffs. They now feel confident on putting me on any show and it would work.
Q: How much of it is being in the right place at the right time?
A: It’s a lot. I did my own show for year and then, in this business when you have opportunities, you jump on it. Dan Lebatard had another opportunity and let’s take coach off the air and give it to Dan. We strategically said we are gonna put coach on a new NFL show which was our biggest thing, we will have Coach on Mike and Mike and the Herd when they are gone but you are not going do your show Monday through Friday. I had started doing the 11pm sports center which was my dream to do. Our top show above everything else. It was a perfect time for me not to do a full time radio show because I was filing in on our biggest shows and I was doing Sports Center. That’s has been an education process for me to learn how to separate the two between working seven hours on a Sunday and giving my opinion to going to sports center where I can’t give it. Now I do not always follow those rules but I will tell you that radio has helped my TV performance because you are talking and doing so much and you are so relaxed. The timing, jokes and the entertainment value on radio must be good and on a high level. Being on radio raised my level on TV at the same time.
Q: Ever say oh my how did I get here? Ever get a little overwhelmed by the success you have had?
A: There are times and I am a very introspective person. The reason I became this way is because after working in wrestling for 10 years I have had a lot of a good and bad things happen. I had some friends pass away. When that happens you find yourself stepping out of yourself because you are not sure how long it will last. The first time I ever did Mike and Mike and you find yourself siting in a chair on a show you have been watching for 13 years guys that have professional and financially reached the top of the game. You’re sitting there and it’s where you want to be on the top of the mountain even if only for the day. You want to reach pinnacle. Yes filling in is great, but it is not your show. The first time I did the show I sat there and I felt like I was in somebody else's body looking at myself and wanted to ask Golic how I got here from the desert. It was an overwhelming. I have those feelings all the time. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t say yes. I worked so hard and I put myself in the position to do the best job I can. I know that I have had a lot of luck but I will put my talent and resume against anybody and hopefully I have found my home and hoping I will be here for years.
Q: I've heard a rumor about Vince McMahon playing a prank on you that involved cops. It was published in one of the WWE publications, any truth to it?
A: What you read and heard was 100% true. The thing about WWE is you have to be accepted on many different levels. From 2003 on, I was one of the boys. If you were willing to put your neck on the line and get in the ring, that separates you from everybody else. Up until that point, I had to be accepted into the crew, so to speak. Basically, Jerry Brisco came up to me in 2001 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and he said he wanted me to run a football pool. $10 to pick all the games, and everybody did it. And I started on a Tuesday, it was a Smackdown taping, I'll never forget it. I had my own room I did interviews in, and all the sudden two cops show up. They were very serious, and said I understand you're running a gambling pool. You sold one to one of our undercover cops here. It's a felony in North Carolina and we're going to have to take you in. So we're walking down the hallway, and we stop in front of Vince's office, and they said we should probably let him know because you're not going to be here for a while. We walk in and it's Vince, Triple H, Stephanie, The Rock, Kevin Dunn and Jerry Brisco. I should have known that, with Jerry in the room, something was going on, but I was so terrified because I was 26 years old. The real cops proceeded to tell Vince they've caught me in a gambling pool and we need to take him downtown. Vince got in my face, and he was an inch away from my nose. He was cursing, telling me my priorities were bad, and spending company time to run a gambling pool. This entire riff lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the office bit, the officer said it was $1,500 to get me out, and Vince said F-no, he's on his own. They handcuffed me, and I asked if there was anything I could put over my face. Vince threw me a pair of sweaty gym shorts that got stuck on my face. I walked out of the office and the first person I see is The Undertaker. He looks at me with shock, and it was so real because no one else was in on it except those people in the office. They walked me out, and all the fans could see me and they drove me about a mile down the road, and got a call on the radio that they had to come back to pick up something. They turn around, come back, and everyone's there with Vince in front of everybody laughing their asses off. Greatest rip in the history of the business, and for about 10 minutes I literally walked to a place in the building and started crying. I thought my career was over. I thought how can I tell my dad I got fired over a $10 football pool.
Q: Who were your three favorite wrestlers?
A: Number one in the ring, Kurt Angle was the best I've ever seen. He was able to transition from amateur wrestling to pro wrestling seamlessly. He was an amazing performer. He simply got the whole thing, and people don't care how good you can wrestle, but how well you can entertain them, and he was able to do both. He was a great character that was incredibly believable. The number one overall was The Rock and it's not even close, but Kurt Angle was a better wrestler than the The Rock. The Rock has taught me more than anybody else about timing. If it's good, it's okay to go long, because we always had to stay within the time frame and when you work with The Rock, it always went way over the time frame. But, he told me they can't yell at you if it's great. He had the guts, and was so confident in himself, that he was willing to put his butt on the line every single time, and I respected that. Maybe the third guy is Chris Jericho. I respected him because he never missed a show or a flight. He could take some of the nastiest bumps you've ever seen and he would get right back up, while some guys would get a hang nail and they wouldn't wrestle. Chris Jericho was, day in and day out, one of the toughest guys I ever saw in my life. I started calling him Gumby because he was so agile and never have any physical issues.
Q: I've been told Steve Austin was very intense. He would eat, sleep and breathe the business. I'm not sure how much time you spent with him, but talk about your experience with Steve. Is he the most dedicated performer in the history of the business?
A: Maybe John Cena, but John is not as serious as Steve was. Nobody loved the business more than Stone Cold Steve Austin. We reconnected recently, I had him on my radio show and he has his own podcast. We get along very well. He was a guy who believed in what he was doing. And there were times that he believed in it enough that he walked out because the creative control was not what he thought it should have been. No one made more money for Vince McMahon than Steve Austin, and Vince knows that. He's incredibly talented, and now he's a great podcast host. It took him so long to become successful, and when he got his shot, Stone Cold knew he had to be at every single show. You have to show up, whether you're sick or not. I believe in hard work and being great and Stone Cold did, too.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now?
A: I seriously hope I have two different things, and I could have one and be very happy. Either a radio show with ESPN as a permanent anchor or be a part of the NFL family. People don't stay forever, so if things open up, who knows from 10 years from now. I see myself at ESPN as a top anchor or a host. And I would hope by then I own something. I enjoyed working on my show, but it was a very challenging time slot for national radio. There's so many national shows that cover up mine. I was grateful to have it for a year. If I did it again, I'd want it to be one of the main shows that is heard all across the country.