Sportsnet: What do you remember about the first show on the FAN?
McCown: You see, that’s the problem — you’re talking to the wrong person here.
What? You launched the station.
Yeah, but my memory on all this stuff is horrible. I have too many things in my head. I probably can’t tell you one guest I had on yesterday.
No. I mean, if I think about it, maybe. But when it’s done, it’s over. And you’re asking me to remember what it was like 25 years ago? Here’s what I can remember: We launched at the SkyDome in the lobby of the hotel, and there was no real announcement. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We literally went from music to all sports, dead cold. I was the first voice, so I introduced the format and the station and the name. They gave me a t-shirt with the new station logo on it and I wore that underneath a dress shirt. And there’s a crowd gathered there, I guess people knew that we were going all sports. And when I announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Fan,” I ripped open my shirt and there was the t-shirt.
No you didn’t. Did people cheer?
You’re asking me to remember stuff. The great fortune, everybody knows the story now, but that was ’92 and it was September.
Yeah, the Blue Jays were red hot and won the World Series. Then the following year they won another and the Maple Leafs won their first 10 games of the regular season, they were in first place. You couldn’t have possibly launched at a better time. We had the Blue Jays games, we had the Leafs games, everything was perfect.
Did you know this model was going to work?
Were you nervous?
I don’t do nervous.
You’ve never been nervous for an interview?
Broadcasting, no. But I have anxiety issues. I have a hard time sitting in a theatre when I’m not on an aisle. I don’t do public speaking because I get anxiety attacks.
Too many people?
I don’t know what it is. If I stay in my comfort zone, I’m 100 per cent fine. Broadcasting, talking one-on-one, small groups of people, I’m fine. When it comes to big crowds, I don’t do that.
Do you like talking about yourself?
Well, no. See, this is work for me. Look, here’s the truth: We wouldn’t be doing this interview if you didn’t work for Sportsnet.
Oh, I know.
You see, I’ve done it — there’s only one interview, and I’ve done that interview. Have things changed? No. Do I remember more? No, I remember less. So, what’s the point? How helpful is this going to be at this point in my career? Jesus, I’m almost finished. It’s over. My contract’s up [soon], I have no idea if I want to re-sign.
Shouldn’t you know?
What do you want to do next week? What do you want to do in three months? What do you want to do for the next two or three years of your life?
Go on a bunch of vacations.
You and I are on exactly the same page. That’s what I would like to do. I’d like to go on a bunch of vacations.
So, why don’t you?
Because I’m working. If I don’t renew the contract then I can do those things, and so here is the dilemma: At some point in your life you have to decide when is this over. And I don’t know the answer to that yet. I have three months to figure that out.
Did you think about the end at this time last year, and the year before that?
When I was in my 40s, I pledged that I was going to quit broadcasting at 50, because I had this stupid idea that I could still play golf and I was gonna go play the senior tour at age 50. That’s what I wanted to do, and it didn’t happen. I guess I just looked and said, “OK, my life isn’t bad, it’s going to be hard for me to make more money than what I make, this might not be a good idea.”
How’s your golf game now?
Crummy. I used to be a very good player.
I was a golf pro for five years before I got into broadcasting — right out of high school. I got into broadcasting by accident, because if you’re a golf pro here, you need a winter job. I took a winter job in broadcasting and had no aspirations to do this, but it’s what I fell into. I started working at a station in Sarnia. I was in sales. I wasn’t even on air.
How’d you do in sales?
Crummy. So, I came back to Toronto and then got hired by Foster Hewitt, and I hated it, so I decided to go back to golf. The sales manager also was the sports director — in those days that was not all that uncommon. He said, “Why don’t you just do on-air for a while, and sell in between times?” So I did a bunch of sportscasts a day and I sold, and that lasted a few months and I went back to him and I said, “I hate this.”
I didn’t hate on-air, I hated the sales part. I said, “I’m gonna give myself six months. I’m gonna go and get a job in radio and if it works, fine, if it doesn’t I’m gonna go back to golf.” He said to me, “OK, go on air, but you can go on air here.” So, I literally started my on-air career in Toronto, kinda top of the food chain, which almost never happens. Certainly not then.
Were you immediately good?
Oh God, no.
How bad were you?
I don’t know how you quantify how bad I was. I learned on the go, on air. I made mistakes and mumbled and stumbled and bumbled and booted words. Then it evolved into doing a talk show. I talked them into it, one night a week on CKFH, Foster Hewitt’s station, which is now the FAN . Then we went to two nights a week, then five. I did the first nightly sports talk show in the country in the mid ’70s.
What were your goals for the show then? Were they the same as they are now?
Never had any goals, really.
Seriously? Aim high, kids.
Have a job. Make as much money as you can. I didn’t think about the future. And the future just kind of evolved. I wound up moving to Vegas in the ’80s, I quit broadcasting.
I wasn’t happy. I’d gone to Global Television and I launched Sportsline, which wound up lasting 25 years and essentially spawned TSN and Sportsnet. But I got into a dispute with the people at Global, so I quit.
You didn’t feel you had enough.
I felt the people that had the power were idiots. I had tolerated it for as long as I could and — I mean, look, I was full of piss and vinegar back then. I quit, I decided to write a book, so I moved to Vegas. Lived there for four years, then got a phone call. I was literally lying in my pool in Las Vegas
On a floaty?
Yep, on a floaty. In early summer. I had cup holders, so I had my cup of tea over here, I had an ashtray here for my cigarette, and I had a cordless telephone.
What a life. I wouldn’t have answered.
The sun was shining; the sky was blue. Guy calls, says, “Would you like to come back to Toronto, work in radio?” And I said, “Hmm…” I looked around, “I don’t think so.” A couple days later he calls back, as God as my witness, I’m in the pool, same scenario. “How ‘bout if we offer this.” “Hmmm..” looked around, “nah, I don’t think so.”
What did he offer?
I honestly don’t remember. It wasn’t enough to motivate me. About a week after that, I’d had time to hem and haw — Should I? Shouldn’t I? I thought, well, that ship has sailed, and I wasn’t unhappy. Then they called again and said, “Alright, what if we offer you this?” And the day they called, it was raining and I was inside.
Wait, that’s why you got back into radio — because it was raining?
Who in the hell knows? It’s intriguing that that’s what happened. So, the summer of ’88 I came back and started doing a talk show again, five nights a week.
Why did you decide your on-air character had to be a bit of a jerk?
Because I was a disaster at the beginning when I started doing sports talk. I think I was on 10 to midnight, and sports talk at that point was basically a phone-in show. When you take two phone calls in two hours because that’s all the calls, you’re not doing well. It was about six months in and I realized, “I’m gonna get fired.” I was doing what most people do today: I was just being me. And you know what? Me is boring.
I said, you know what, I’ll be an actor. Who’s the character? All the behind-the-scenes stuff actors do all the time. What are his characteristics? The actor wants to know everything they can about the character they’re going to play, so they can inject that into the role. I thought a lot about that. I was married to an actress at one point.
Two. Of four. I decided the character would be the obnoxious know-it-all: “I’m smarter than you, you’re too dumb to even engage me in conversation.” I figured this out on the weekend. Monday night I went on, I was a completely different guy. I was yelling and screaming, I had opinions on everything, and the phones started to ring. Then I started yelling at callers, and I would hang up on them. “I just wanna ask you one question before I hang up on you: How did you manage to dial the telephone while in a straitjacket?” Click.
I had a whole slew of lines for all these people, so I became the obnoxious asshole. And guess what? Ratings went way up. Over the next few days, this evolved, and I started writing down the characteristics of On-air Bob. This is who he is: He’s got an opinion on everything, he tolerates nothing, he’ll say anything any time. On a daily basis I would add things to the list that I would do on air. I created this persona, and it worked. The dilemma that I discovered, that I never anticipated, is that now all the sudden I’m like Sybil. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Sybil.
Sybil is a story of a person with [multiple] personalities. She has completely different people inside her and they manifest themselves outside of her control.
And this is you?
Well, it wasn’t outside my control, but I had two different characters. There was Home Bob and there was Radio Bob. What I discovered was two things: Getting into Radio Bob was pretty easy. Getting out of it was a lot tougher.
You’d be Radio Bob at home?
Every once in a while I’d realize, wait a second, that’s not me. And as you get better known, especially through TV, people recognize you. Fan meets you on the street, well, I better be TV Bob for them. So you’re in it, you’re out of it, you’re in it, you’re out of it — it’ll drive you nuts. And this happens literally 24 hours a day, so that’s my dilemma, my plight. But I created it myself.
Have you talked to anybody about this?
Like a psychiatrist?
I actually went to a psychiatrist many, many years ago.
How was it?
I liked it. I don’t think I needed it.
Why’d you go?
Relationship issues. Nothing to do with this. I think I went twice, maybe three times. The relationship failed anyway. You go to see a shrink [laughs], it’s an interesting process because you start with one premise which is: We have relationship issues. And then immediately it becomes, well, let’s talk about you. I got the sense that he was trying to fix me. Didn’t mind that, actually. Afterwards I felt pretty good and I thought this could be useful. I don’t think I need fixing, but what the heck. That can’t hurt.
Well, that’s good
Yeah, it was good. And it was all her fault. It’s always the other person’s fault, so it endorsed my opinion of myself, which I thought was useful.
How long have you and your current wife been together?
Almost 20 years. We have a daughter who’s going to be 16 this year, so a few years before that. My all-time record for relationships.
What was your previous record?
A couple days. [Laughs.]
But you’d also have weddings.
Oh yeah, there were a few of those. [Laughs.] We’ll avoid those conversations.
Did a friend name you Bobcat?
Bill Watters. He was my co-host when I came back from Vegas in the ’80s, and I don’t know where he got it from. He just said it. Actually, the full name was Mercury Bobcat, after the car. One of the first subcompact cars was the Mercury Bobcat.
He named you after a tiny car.
I suspect he’d used the term for other people before.
When did you start wearing sunglasses on air?
When we went to TV. We did a week of trial shows with the TV lights, and TV lights generate huge heat. By the end of every day my head was just exploding. “Jesus, what is going on?” Thursday was sunny, I put sunglasses on, drove to the station, forgot to take them off. I did the show, and I didn’t get a headache. The next day, wore the sunglasses, no headache. My eyes are hyper-sensitive to light.
It suits your character.
It has nothing to do with that. For a long time, I didn’t tell the story of why I wore sunglasses. I said, “None of your damn business, screw off.”
I’m glad you didn’t say that to me. What is it that makes you a good interviewer, do you think?
I listen. I’ve never written down a question, I don’t know where the conversation is going to go, I don’t know what I’m gonna say next. I do it deliberately, because it forces you to listen, and if you listen to the answer, the next question will become obvious.
The thing that drives me crazy in listening to other people do what I do is first they want to tell you what they think before they ask you what you think. Best questions: What? Where? Who? Why? One word. The shorter the questions, the better the interview. I’ll have a time to tell you what I think but I’m not gonna tell you while I’m interviewing somebody.
Who stands out among all the interviews you’ve done?
Bear Bryant, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown. I spent a full day with Jim Brown; he came to Toronto. I talked to him about what came to be known as the Cleveland Meeting, which is a meeting in the ’60s: Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Lew Alcindor, Bill Russell — big-name black athletes. This is civil rights time, Martin Luther King time, and they met in Cleveland to talk about black athletes and their role and obligations in society.
It was an underpublicized event but a really important one, I thought, sociologically. We talked a lot about that, that hour. We finished, we’re chit chatting and I said, “What are you doing the rest of the day?” He said, “I’m in town for the day, what else should I do?” I said, “You wanna play golf?” I drove him up to my golf club and spent the next five hours on a golf cart with Jim Brown.
He is an interesting guy. He’s not all good — there is some darkness in Jim Brown. But he’s lived an extraordinary life. He was the greatest football player, I think, in history, retired at age 29, just literally walked away — not injured, not worn out, every bit as good as he was the day he started, literally the only athlete I know that walked away on top. He did it because he was a deep thinker and he wanted to do other things.
Again, he’s got demons, lots of allegations of wife beating and stuff like that. I don’t pretend to know whether he did or didn’t do it, but just a fascinating, fascinating guy on so many levels, and the kind of guy you could talk to about stuff forever. Incredibly smart. So those three [athletes] kind of pop out in terms of interviews.
Ali used to call you out of the blue, right?
Yeah, we met in ‘73 and we kind of formed a bond. I was doing this talk show late at night and my producer got Ali’s phone number somehow, and Ali said, “Sure I’ll come on.” And then every few weeks out of nowhere, Ali would call. And, of course, basically we’d stop everything and go OK, line two Chicago: “Ali, how are ya?” Sometimes we’d talk about fighting, sometimes we’d talk about politics. Sometimes he’d say, “I wanna read you my story,” or “I got a new poem,” or “I love your show and I admire your style, but the pay is so cheap I won’t be back for a while.”
Before the Foreman fight in Zaire, he said, “Ali hits with the left, he hits with the right, he knocks George Foreman clear outta sight. And who’d have thunk when they come to the fight, that they’d see the launching of the first coloured satellite.” This is genius stuff, and that’s what inspired me was being around people who are thoughtful and opinionated and risk-takers.
I grew up with the ’60s. I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I lived the racial tension. My grandmother was a racist, I’m not proud to say. She was a southern belle, she lived in Columbus, Ohio, but she thought she was living in Columbus, Georgia. She talked with a drawl, said “y’all” all the time. Made grits for breakfast every morning. “Bobby, y’all want some grits?”
I remember distinctly when I was about eight years old, my grandma and I were getting on a bus to go somewhere. I grew up [in Canada], but I went back there every summer to see my dad’s side of the family. She gets to the bus and she’s putting the money in, and I march to the back of the bus and I sit down. My grandmother looks around and sees me at the back and she panics. “Come here, come here!” I get out of my seat, “What?” She says, “Why were you sitting at the back? Negroes sit in the back of the bus. White people sit at the front of the bus.” I’ll remember that forever. This was a foreign concept. What? Why? I started to pay attention. I started to see washrooms: white, coloured. And I started to realize, this is different, we don’t have that in Canada. I came to understand what the race issue was.
I lived through [John F.] Kennedy’s assassination, then Martin Luther King was killed and then Bobby Kennedy was killed. It was serious, serious shit, and I lived through that. I was very young, but I was very aware of all this stuff I think because of my grandmother and what happened on that bus that day. I was really focused on, “Why is it that way?” And so those are all the kinds of things that motivated me mentally. And then I had an issue with Cito Gaston, in the early ’90s.
Was that the toughest thing you’ve ever been through professionally? [McCown was very outspoken about his dislike for Gaston as a manager, and Gaston told media he wondered whether some, McCown included, would take the same shots at him if he were white.]
Yes, because it affected my kids. It was horrible. My kids were in grade school at the time and they were called names because of me. Because Cito Gaston called me a racist. Only time I’ve ever held a news conference was when that happened. It was packed, too. It was great.
Were you nervous?
No, I was mad, though. I had to contain my anger. And my anger was a result of the reaction to being called a racist, because unfortunately in society to a great many people you are what somebody says you are. You call somebody a racist and they think you are. How do you stand up and say, “No, I’m not.” All of a sudden the onus is on me to prove that I’m not. I was up for days thinking, “How do I prove I’m not that guy?”
There was a meeting with Cito several weeks later, it was a private meeting — Paul Beeston was there and a few other people. I prepared a speech. I essentially said, “This is what happened to my kids.” I said, “The very interesting thing is the days following the accusation I was sitting in my office, literally obsessed with, how do I get out of this? How do I respond? And I looked around and I had eight pictures in my old office on the walls of me with various people I’d interviewed.” I said to Cito, “Here’s the interesting thing: Six of them are black. Now, if I’m a racist, would I display those pictures? If you walk into the home of a KKK person are you gonna see any of that?” That was just part of what I said to him. And at the end of it, Cito said, “Well, if you’re not a racist, I apologize. If you are a racist, I don’t.” That was his response. I said, “Cito, you are an effing asshole,” and I walked out. I haven’t spoken to him since.
Are you a Blue Jays fan today?
I’m at the lowest level of being a sports fan you could possibly be at. People always ask me, “What’s your favourite sport?” I don’t really have a favourite sport. I like to play golf, I watch some golf on TV, but I’m not obsessed by it. Hockey, I’m lukewarm. I’ll watch the Blue Jays, summertime, evening, there’s nothing else to watch. Can’t remember the last time I watched a game beginning to end. A basketball game, occasionally. I’ll watch a little bit of tennis, a little bit of curling. I don’t get up in the morning and go to the newspaper or go online and go, “Who won the game last night?”
But you do prepare a little bit for your show, right? Or do you walk in there and you have no clue?
That’s closer to the truth than the former. I really don’t prepare. I don’t consciously prepare.
Are you the best host you’ve ever been today?
I think you improve all the time, yeah. I can say this: Nobody’s told me that I’m too old to do it, or I’m losing my mind. I know my memory isn’t as good as it used to be, mostly in terms of names. I’m really terrible with names, so I have to be cautious of that.
I’ve learned too it’s not an embarrassment to not know. Used to be, I gotta know everything, I can’t get caught not knowing something. Then I got to the point where I said, you know what? If I don’t know, I don’t know. You do anything long enough and you get to the point where you can do it without thinking about it. You can do it, not only not thinking about it, but not really trying.
Why has Prime Time Sports been No. 1 for almost 30 years?
Because we know how to do it and nobody else does, and the shocking thing is nobody can figure it out. Is it talent? I don’t know the answer. These are good people that have gone up against me — heck, Bill Watters went up against me. Part of it is guests. I have a distinct advantage, because if you do it for so long, we establish relationships with people, and I think we have the best guests. If there’s a story, we are gonna get the right person to talk to.
We have three to four guys on every week. We pay them. They don’t come on because they’re getting paid, they come on because they enjoy the conversation. And part of it is that I don’t tend to go to the obvious. We’ll have a list of suggested topics our producers put together for a particular guest. Those guests have now come to understand there’s maybe a 10 per cent chance we’re getting to any of those topics. And I don’t know what I want to talk to them about necessarily, but something’s gonna come up, and that’s gonna be the germ of the conversation. People like that. It’s not the obvious thing.
But there’s also a loyalty factor. Part of it is habit. When you have the audience, it’s a lot easier to keep the audience than to get them. And nobody’s been able to get the audience. People are creatures of habit. They’ve got 590 punched in and when they get in their car on the way home that’s what they listen to.
What’s going to happen when you leave?
Don’t know. I don’t care.
I don’t listen to the show when I’m not on it.
Have you thought about your last show and what it’ll look like?
Here’s what I can promise you: No one will know it’ s my last show, except me.
No chance. My announcement will be at one minute to seven on a Friday.
What will you say?
“Well, that’s it for me. It’s been fun. Goodbye.”
Yeah, I’m gonna cry because I don’t have to work anymore and I get to do what I wanna do when I wanna do it. There’ll be maybe some cheering, but there won’t be any tears.
Admit it’ll be a little emotional. You’ve been doing this a long time.
It won’t be emotional at all! It won’t even be marginally emotional! Are you serious?
I’ve got news for you: When your retirement day comes, you’ll go: “Yippee, goodbye, thanks a lot, see ya.”
How come you’ve been doing this so long, then?
Where are you gonna find a job where you can work three hours a day and get paid a crap load of money? If I could find another one, I’d have gone there. But I can’t find one, and I’ve been looking for a long time.
Your pay per hour is decent.
Lawyers got nothing on me.
Inside the biggest collapse in Toronto Blue Jays history
It was the worst stretch in franchise history — eight days that saw a three-and-a-half-game lead in the AL East crumble. Thirty years later, we revisit the devastating end to the 1987 season.