ESPN's Suzy Kolber: 'Philly people have an edge, and that fits me'
In an exclusive Q&A with Metro, the sideline reporter and studio host talks NFL draft, being a woman in sports and how preparation is key.
Few women in sports have had as dazzling a career in broadcasting as ESPNs Suzy Kolber. From studio host to sideline reporter, Kolber's Philly roots helped forge her love of sports. After starting as an intern while at school at the University of Miami, the trailblazing sports personality started at ESPN in 1996 and hasn't left since. This fall she'll host "Monday Night Countdown" as well as a variety of other NFL programs.
Metro caught up with Kolber amid preparations to cover the green room at the NFL draft in her hometown of Philadelphia:
The NFL draft in Philly is looking like it will be huge. The entire Ben Franklin Parkway has been taken over. You've spent the majority of your career working closely with the league. What are you thoughts about the heights it has reached?
It's hard to picture it in your mind how are they going to turn the steps of the museum into this grand stage.
What's funny is, in my neighborhood, I have a daughter who is 9 years old. I drop her off and pick her up at sporting events and we run into parents of her friends and it's unbelievable how people ask "Are you ready to enjoy some downtime?" and for all of us who work in this business all we can do it laugh.
It doesn't really end until after the draft when it ramps down. When the NFL goes dark I usually disappear. I time it to my daughter's last day of school — and I have it timed actually. There's a mandatory minicamp second week of June, I work that week and I am done. It's year-round and that's the only break.
Otherwise, the regular season rolls into playoffs, to the Super Bowl a couple weeks after that, then free agency, the combine and you're heavily into draft prep at that point and then the owners meetings and draft. It's unbelievable how it has been turned into a year-round sport. We have taken advantage of it. Now for me, my true passion is the NFL and I get to host a show that is a year-round show. It's amazing how there is never a shortage of news or stories.
Where does covering the draft and talking to kids who are in the midst of a life-altering moment rank among all of the duties you have covering the NFL?
One of my favorite roles that I have is the green room on the first night of the draft. It is the ultimate reality TV show. What I enjoy so much about it is that I take a lot of time to heavily research each one of the kids that's there, this year there are 22 in the green room. It makes the whole experience to me so much fun and I can do my job so much better if I really know them, their parents' names, where they came from, their experiences — and many came from a really tough background. There are so many single moms and knowing their stories makes it so meaningful to stand in the room and watch that kid's name called. The emotions from the whole family, the instant change of life and lifestyle — from ultimate poverty into instant millionaire. It's the ultimate reality TV.
These kids have worked so hard and they've scarified so much — understanding the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. Being the first person to interview that player, I just love. It is one of my favorite things that I do.
You grew up in the Philly area and you work in sports. Do you still have an emotional connection to the teams here? Where are your rooting interests?
There was a very deep-rooted love of sports in my family which included my granddad Bernard Freedman, my mom's dad, who would listen to Phillies games on the radio if they weren't on TV. We had tickets, my dad was in marketing and advertising and he was very tied in to the teams and athletes themselves. We typically had half the season for the Sixers, half the season for the Phillies, we went to a handful of Flyers games and a couple of Eagles games. There was something always in my heart that I was just born with this love of the NFL. When I was really little I was a huge Dolphins fan. It goes back to the undefeated season. I loved Bob Greise and the logo — something about that.
Probably the biggest memory for me as an Eagles fan was I love Ron Jaworski. Imprinted in my brain was his introduction to the Super Bowl [in 1980]. I have it ingrained in my brain. I remember watching that game as an Eagles fan.
I think in general Philadelphia is such a great sports city. I always reminded myself how fortunate I was that that was the home team. To have guys like Dr. J and George McGinnis and Doug Collins, that was the home team — the Phillies, Carlton, Schmidt and those guys — that's the home team. Bobby Clarke, Dave Shultz, how lucky was that? I had an appreciation for good teams and being fortunate.
Did the local media and fan base help encourage your love for sports?
I wonder if some of it was a subconscious thing, too. You don't even realize as a little kid that you are constantly submersed in it. I remember the local papers, some of which aren't in existence anymore, but being so much in the fabric of Philadelphia and taking pride too in that. Philadelphia sports fans have a reputation — it's hard-core — and Philly people have an edge and that fits me, my personality. I am old-school and hard-core. I love that approach.
What has your experience been as a woman working in this industry?
I would say that from the time that I started when there were practically no women, now it's fairly prevalent. But back when I was in college and interning in the business and initially covering Miami sports, at times it could be me in a room with 250 guys at a championship press conference, and I sat in the room and asked the first question. It never felt out of place for me because sports has always been a part of my life and it came naturally for me.
I believe that the fan watching clearly saw that I was passionate about what I was talking about and I always try to be as knowledgeable as I could be. I was my own harshest critic. I think all of those things, I never felt throughout my career that I was treated differently or had an issue of disrespect, never had a curious locker room incident. I would be hard-pressed to remember a time I wasn't treated right as a woman.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female sports journalist?
My advice always is to be as versatile as you possibly can be. I think it was incredibly valuable for me to be a producer at first. I carry that role with me today, it make me so much better on the air to know what everyone is doing around me. Above everything else, do it for the right reasons, because you love sports — not because you want to be on TV.
What will it be like sitting at the anchor's desk for "Monday Night Countdown" and the other NFL shows after the departure of Chris Berman?
I'll say this in terms of appreciating Chris and what he did for ESPN: When I was saying the final on-air goodbye in our Super Bowl show, I choked up because there is a true deep appreciation for what he did — what he did for sports television and for ESPN. To be an iconic figure in this business is really incredible. I have a deep respect for everything he did. And I can tell you that as the season was going on I kind of didn't want it to wind down. It was a sign of the times, things change and people have to move on and I guess I found it sad. I didn't want it to end. I am very aware of the responsibility for all of us moving forward and I'd say the biggest thing is the way people with TV is different now. I want "Monday Night Countdown" to reflect that.
I want the show to have a new, dynamic sort of feel. I really am excited to, once the draft ends, to get to work on that and for the show to have a new feel and new vibe and new look. But everything is in its infancy and that's exciting. I am thrilled to have the opportunity and honor to carry it forward. It's the first time in the history of the "Monday Night Countdown" show that we are doing a full two hours and 15 minutes live from onsite, plus halftime and postgame. It's a big responsibility and I am really excited to get started.
What kind of prep work do you do for the NFL draft? For a regular week of games?
I would say the only thing I am not doing personally, I am not watching game film outside of [when] we had a full day or so at "Draft 101" with Jon Gruden in Florida. Our draft staff was working on that first night, running through a mock draft. We run through teams and what directions they should go and players, and what's so much fun about that [is] Jon is so famous for his cutups and in film, and he is calling out players as we are talking. It's such a great opportunity to answer "Why do you like him or why don't you?" So it's the ultimate shorthand in film watching, that a Super Bowl-winning coach has done for you, which is great. My film watching is limited to that.
For me it's just as important to know what they look like and who are their families. So it starts for me at the Senior Bowl and that's when the talking begins and you prep for the combine. And in Indianapolis in my hotel, when not on the air, I am watching the combine.
I begin, at that point, talking to general managers getting thoughts on players, coaches, and start compiling my notes. Then in the last handful of days before the draft, a lot of these guys go into the office really, really early and I am up talking to them. When they are driving into work and I am spending time on the phone with them, when it's most convenient for them.
At the end of this week, I meet with the "Monday Night Football" editor [Jim Carr] — so much credit to him. He sifts through endless footage for all of our players and he is out hero. He does this unbelievable job of every player you need to know about. There's a packet of info on that guy. I have read, I have absorbed, I have taken notes and he and I will sit down and go through the green room guys, the hottest topics and stuff.
Are there any NFL draft storylines this year that are of particular interest to you?
My A-plus is the story of DeShaun Watson, the quarterback from Clemson, because it's near and dear to my heart. Way back when Warrick Dunn was a running back for the Buccaneers, one of my favorite stories was his charity called Home for the Holidays. And it originated because his mother, a single mom working a second job to make ends meet, was killed. [She was] a police officer [working] off duty as a security guard. So he created this program for single moms, [who were] disadvantaged, but they had to work hard to get into the program and earn a home, fully furnished, through Habitat for Humanity. And I was there as they awarded these families their very first homes, and DeShaun Watson's mom Diane was one of those women who knew about the program, and did all of the community service time and did all the paper work and she qualified. Dunn presented DeShaun and his family a home. DeShaun talked about the foundation that that home provided gave him hope and allowed him to become what he became.
DeShaun does the same thing now. He volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. He is the face of it and when he gets his NFL career going he wants to be part of it as well. To me that the ultimate story of these players, the platform they are given and what they are capable of doing.