NEW YORK -- There's been no shortage of Mike Francesa retrospectives in recent years, as he neared the end of a 30-year run at New York's WFAN that included 19 years paired with Chris "Mad Dog" Russo and more than nine more as a solo host after Russo left the station in 2008. The duo's place in the sports-media pantheon was well-covered when the two reunited last year for a charity show at Radio City Music Hall. Earlier this year, a "30 for 30" documentary chronicled the history and legacy of the "Mike and the Mad Dog" show. And for the past four years, Francesa's career has been celebrated at an annual event called Francesacon, which is exactly what it sounds like.
As Francesa neared his final show this week, he unsurprisingly had some opinions of his own about what he'd like his legacy to be.
"If they want to call us pioneers, that's fine, we were," Francesa told me Thursday from the stage at New York's Paley Center for Media, hours before he broadcast his next-to-last show in front of a small group of fans. "But I think what our legacy is at WFAN is that we won. We came to build something, we built a great station and we've always stayed ahead of the competition.
That's the answer of someone laser-focused on his ratings to the very end, perhaps understandably so after a career spent dissecting wins and losses. But this past week it seemed like everyone else had their own reasons for Francesa's appeal.
As Francesa sat onstage at the Paley Center on Thursday, sipping his trademark Diet Coke, he fielded dozens of rapid-fire calls from sports figures, celebrities, fellow media members and exactly one deeply unpopular politician, each congratulating and praising the host.
Francesa was lauded as a broadcasting legend on that penultimate show. He was called a great colleague and mentor. He was described as a walking sports encyclopedia. One guest referred to him as "a Rembrandt with a snow blower," a reference to the host's snow removal vehicle of choice. Indeed, the show at the Paley Center had something of a "This Is Your Life" vibe. (Ian Eagle jokingly introduced himself as Ralph Edwards when he phoned in.) Here's the full list of guests. It's almost comically long:
Jim Nantz, Dan Patrick, Dick Ebersol, Jay Horwitz, Doug Gottlieb, Steve Somers, Victor Cruz, Damon Amendolara, Mark Feinsand, Kim Jones, O.J. Anderson, Chris Russo, Joe Benigno, Evan Roberts, Tiki Barber, Kevin Bernhardt, Jim Cramer, Sweeny Murti, Steve Phillips, Willie Randolph, Mitchell Etess, Joe Mihalich, Brendan Brown, Lonn Trost, Mike Breen, Joe Micheletti, Jerry Bailey, Brian Cashman, Regis Philbin, Bobby Valentine, Joel Hollander, Ira Winderman, Chris Kay, Kurt Warner, Ed Coleman, Pierre McGuire, Tim Cluess, Julie Stewart-Binks, Bobby Ojeda, Bob Baffert, Linda Cohn, Cliff Floyd, Darryl Strawberry, Chris Christie, Michael Breed, John Davidson, Jay Wright, Katie Nolan, Bob Costas, Steve Schirripa, David Diehl, Todd Pletcher, Jay Glazer, Shaun O'Hara, Jim Fassel, Bernie Williams, Suzyn Waldman, Peter Schrager, Tim McCarver, Ian Eagle, Don Imus, Tom Pecora, Neil Smith, Mike Tannenbaum, John Franco, Rich Eisen, Erica Herskowitz, Kenny Smith, P.J. Carlesimo, Eli Manning, Brandon Marshall, Lonnie Quinn, Barry Watkins, Eddie Olczyk, Keith Hernandez, John Calipari, Joe Girardi, John Minko, Carl Banks, Mark Chernoff, Bob Heussler, Julio Rosa and Lawrence Taylor.
The praise continued Friday when, back in the newly dubbed Mike Francesa Studio, the host opened up his phone lines for nearly the entire show to callers, many of whom shared deeply personal praise. One said Francesa helped him battle MS. Another credited Francesa's interviews with authors for getting him back into reading. One said Francesa's show helped improve his relationship with his father. (Not everyone was so sentimental; one guy called in to ask Francesa who he thought shot JFK.) Others, meanwhile, lost all perspective when saying goodbye: One caller said Francesa was what made New York the greatest city in the world, while another compared him to "once-in-a-lifetime" performers like the Beatles and Nirvana.
For my money, though, it was Tom Coughlin -- the former Giants coach who recorded an audio message for Francesa on Thursday -- who came the closest to nailing why Francesa has remained a talk-radio powerhouse for so long, one deserving of a cult following and a Paley Center send-off. After talking about how Francesa "won sports talk in a city where it's hard to win," Coughlin referred to Francesa as "in many ways the conscience of the fans."
After a major event -- good, bad or extremely bad -- WFAN became required listening at 1 p.m., and in recent years, Francesa clips would spread widely online, so even fans who couldn't listen all afternoon could catch an especially good rant.
The chemistry between Francesa and Russo made "Mike and the Mad Dog" the most influential sports talk show ever. But it was Francesa, not Russo, who established himself as the voice of the New York fan, the one who lived and died with his Yankees and Giants. (The show was often at its best when Russo -- famously a fan of a team 3,000 miles away -- played the role of the antagonist, teasing Francesa about the local teams.)
It's satisfying to hear someone articulate what you may be thinking as a fan; it's even more satisfying when it sounds like that someone is about to pop a blood vessel. And it packs more punch when that someone has built up a reputation as the city's preeminent take-haver. (Francesa's meltdown over Eli Manning's benching earlier this month will go down as his final classic rant, though it scores as only a solid B+, given some of his past work.) Francesa had an ego, to be sure, but it was mostly an earned ego, and Francesa's opinions demanded attention in a way others' didn't.
Francesa's appeal, of course, went beyond those takes. His interviews could be newsworthy, his gaffes could go viral and he could shape the sports conversation in New York like few others. But his longevity also meant that generations of fans grew up listening, creating a unique connection with his audience. During his call into the show on Thursday, Rich Eisen spoke of how he'd tune in while riding around working for the Staten Island Advance, before his broadcasting career took off. Chris Christie pointed out that he'd been listening from the time he was in law school through his second term as governor of New Jersey. Fans who called in on Friday shared similar stories: adults who grew up listening on the way home from school, or longtime listeners who have raised their own kids to be fans.
During his final monologue on Monday, Francesa said that he considered it a gift that people cared what his opinions were. He said he was always conscious of what the audience wanted, saying he tried to think about what would interest someone tuning in while stuck in traffic. Francesa talked about how since "Mike and the Mad Dog" debuted, the sports talk host has gone from a fringe player in a city's media scene into a "tastemaker," to use his word. Once upon a time, he said, that title belonged to a newspaper columnist or maybe an 11 p.m. sports anchor. And he boasted that he and Russo were a big part of that shift. He's not wrong.
It should be noted the Francesa isn't retiring altogether. He hasn't yet said what he'll do next, other than that it's unlikely to be a Monday-to-Friday gig. But Francesa's departure from WFAN most certainly marks the end of an era.
For him, for the station and for his army of listeners.