Adam Zucker, Aaron Taylor, Brian Jones, Randy Cross, and Rick Neuheisel get together every Tuesday for what each of them calls the best part of their week: Inside College Football on CBS Sports Network.
All of them have been with the show for more than a decade at various times. This particular quintet in its eighth season, which creates a bond and camaraderie that is rare in the ever-changing landscape of sports television. While most shows see analysts or hosts come and go, Inside College Football has managed to find continuity, which has led to one of the most comfortable sets in the business.
Four of the analysts liken the vibe to being in a great locker room, one where there is respect, trust, and plenty of jokes and banter. However, what makes it work as a show isn’t just that the group gets along. It’s that they collectively know each other’s strengths and play to them.
“I always liken it to our locker room,” Jones says. “It’s the only locker room we have remaining. So, the camaraderie works because we genuinely like each other, one. Two, everyone has their own unique way of conveying the information that’s at hand, and we don’t step on each other’s toes from that standpoint. We’re all just unique in our own way and how we present the information. We give you all the information, the pertinent information, you get on other shows. We just have a damn good time presenting it.”
“You get four different kind of styles of it, which I think is something that’s unique to what we do,” Cross adds. “Because there’s very little redundancy, outside of we may be picking the same teams. But what Rick says, and I say, and Aaron says, and Brian says is usually kind of our own version — not of the same thing, but of what we think.”
Those varying viewpoints are one of the great strengths of the show, as each person has carved out a different niche. When brought together, they are able to provide a comprehensive look at games from four distinct viewpoints that few shows are capable of matching, much less willing to offer.
“We got a great quarterback in Adam,” Neuheisel says. “He is a TV man and then some. I tease him all the time that he’s got a cape that says ‘TV Man.’ He could literally go and grab a camera and shoot the show, he can go write the show. He’s a phenom as our quarterback, the point guard. And then we got a bunch of people who come from different places in the world of football: A couple of Hall of Famers in Aaron and Randy, who give you insights from the trenches; Randy has found a way to become the guy who has more intelligence of how the numbers break down a game than anybody in the business; and then Brian and I, we give analysis from a defensive side and from a coach’s side. So, it works.”
It’s an approach that only works when everyone is comfortable being themselves on TV, which is one of the benefits of having analysts that have spent so much time in the business. They aren’t worried about venturing out beyond their area of expertise, because they have learned to be comfortable in simply talking about what they know best.
“I come from the viewpoint that I know what I know, versus what I did when I was young in my career, when it was like, I wanted to win an Emmy and hit a home run on every game, whether I’d seen the team play or not, and I was BS-ing,” Taylor says. “And what I do now is I’ll stop and think about what do I know about this team. And if there’s nothing I know — I hadn’t seen Michigan play live, so I downloaded their tape against Rutgers so I could watch it offline on the airplane and I started ripping through film, and right away, I saw how much more physical their offensive line is. Right away, I saw their tight end was getting after it and he was bringing his backside shoulder and backside knee, and at the point of attack, they were as physical they had been under Harbaugh in the last three or four years.
“So that’s what I chose to talk about,” he continues. “It’s like, those are the things I see instead of talking about the quarterbacks and what’s going on in the [Heisman] race and looking up some statistic that I want to build my comment around.”
Embracing how their experiences can shape their discussion also allows them to dive into bigger, more important topics with a nuance and openness that is typically lacking on other sports shows. Those conversations, like one this past week about mental health, are part of what separate Inside College Football. The trust built in their locker room makes everyone on the show willing to, as Brian Jones mentions, talk about traumatic shared experiences openly on television. It’s assisted by a show format and longer time slot that allows them to push those conversations further and deeper than a 30 minute or hour show could.
An important conversation. A healthy conversation.@AdamZuckerCBS, @JonesN4mo, @randycrossFB, and @AaronTaylorCFB share perspectives, personal experiences, and thoughts on the growing awareness of mental health throughout sports. pic.twitter.com/dueHCqITed
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 20, 2021
All of this works in balance; the serious conversations, the in-depth ball talk, and all the jokes and “yucks,” as they like to call them. Striking it isn’t easy, but it’s the product trial and error and a near-constant conversation about how things can be done better. After years of being guided by Tim Weinkauf, the past two years have seen Amy Salmanson, who started her career at CBS working on the show, take over as executive producer. From a booth perspective, leading the show is about letting those conversations go where they need to and being willing to change plans on the fly to allow the guys to have fun and go off on tangents. At the same time, that ability to be flexible is what makes the show what it is.
“I say every week in the control room, and last night I said I think four times, ‘I’ve lost total control.’ And I don’t really mean that, I have it. They listen to me. We rein it in. We get on time. All that. We get everything we need to. But you just have to know when there’s a moment you let it go, and there’s always somewhere else you can take that time from,” Salmanson says. “Some stuff just goes on, or if it’s a good conversation … like the roundtable segments are something that wasn’t in the show when I used to work on it and started coming back in. That’s something that I think is really important, to have other topics that we can talk about. Sometimes they’re quick and sometimes they go way longer than they’re scripted for. But going into every week, I just have a plan of, you know something’s going to be great that you’re not expecting with this group. It just is going to happen. So, you just have to be prepared for it and bob and weave and adjust, and make sure that you take the time from somewhere else and let those moments play out and let them happen.”
That trust from the booth also builds comfort on the set. There isn’t as much panic if a segment goes long, because they know there’s slack on the leash and they’ll just pull it back later. It’s also where having a two-hour show helps, because it naturally offers more room for going off-plan, and that lends itself to a more natural and comfortable feel both for the guys on set and the viewer at home.
“It’s a luxury, the time. And if you do games — and we’ve all done games or are doing games — it’s such a stark contrast to your window in a game that is, like, 5-10 seconds compared to the windows you get in this format,” Cross says. “And I’ve been on studio shows that were also two hours long that were so rigidly formatted, that really, what you thought didn’t have anything to do with what you were going to eventually be saying on TV. It was, here’s the point, here’s what we’re doing, and here’s your opportunity. So it’s really very, very refreshing. I guess I’m by virtue of age, the most experienced of the group [laughs]. I’d say that the way this thing is set up, just sort of dovetails into our styles, and the way that we like to work.”
“You have to stay inside the lines on Saturday, but on Tuesdays, we get to finger paint,” Neuheisel adds. “I go back to the longform format, the ability to be a little bit more conversational because of the big grant of time that we’re given. I think all of us feel like this is a nice little TV show. We feel like we’re going to talk ball to everybody who really likes ball, and we’re going to do it in a way that we’re going to enjoy each other’s company along the way. And that’s rare when you’re talking about the value of TV time and getting to the next commercial and what have you.”
Steering the ship and working as the bridge between the booth and the analysts is Zucker, who directs traffic, sets up talking points, and moves the show along as best he can despite what can devolve into a bit of chaos on set when jokes are flying. Zucker is both ringmaster and antagonist, knowing exactly how to wind up all four of the analysts to set them off, but also having just enough control to get them back on track and make sure the show hits all of its marks.
“Adam is so above the show in terms of, he sees it like a producer or a coordinating producer where he knows what’s coming,” Taylor says. “He knows what the elements are. He knows that he’s got time to get the zinger in, he knows what we talked about off set and he’ll bring that in to get me to, say, the offensive line at Syracuse and how bad they are. I watch what he does, and it’s like, I feel like I watch Adam do his job at times like I used to when I got off the bench in Green Bay to go watch Barry Sanders run. It was like, ‘I’m on the same field is Barry Sanders, I’ve earned my right to be on that field and I hold my own, but that dude’s doing something different that I wasn’t given.’”
To a man, everyone on the show speaks glowingly about each other and what they bring to the table. They crack jokes and tease each other in the way great friends do, but it all comes from from a place of genuine respect and friendship that is rare in the world of television. Every show wants to create that comfortable feeling and welcoming vibe for an audience, but it’s hard to do that when pieces change constantly. After eight years with the same group, they don’t have to worry about that, and their comfort and excitement to talk ball with each other is a separator in a crowded landscape of football studio shows.
“It was always, ‘Be somebody that someone would watch on TV and want to hang out with.’ I think that’s who we are, and sometimes I feel like I’m just hanging out on the show,” Zucker says. “Saturdays are a million miles an hour. You’re watching 20 games on screens. You’re trying to regurgitate stuff to the viewer as soon as you can. It’s raw. Tuesday, it’s been digested and we’re kind of the bridge between weeks. I feel like we capture the spirit of college football, whether that can feel like a locker room or just like five guys hanging out. Rick and BJ and I are together on the weekends, but Randy and Aaron have been at games. There’s always so much to talk about among us, whether it’s alma maters, or we all watch the same thing, and it’s constant. We text each other like crazy on Saturdays. Saturday is like buying a present on your way to a birthday party and dropping it off, but Tuesdays, we’ve put it all together and got it in a nice bag with all the tissue paper, and we get to have a blast with it.”
“We genuinely care about each other, I love these guys and Amy,” Jones says. “I get so giddy when I’m headed to that studio — albeit I’m always late. I just love it. When I show up, there’s a pep in your step. You know you’re about to go in there with your buddies and, essentially, your family – your football family – and make magic. And it never gets old. It’s never stale. You get your football fix and you’re gonna get your fun fix with Inside College Football, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wanna have a damn good time no matter what it is I’m doing.”