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I recently sat down with the legendary sportscaster, Chris Fowler. Chris is one of the most well-known sports broadcasters on ESPN, where he is the play-by-play announcer for Saturday Night Football. During our time together, we had the chance to talk about everything from his annual visit to the Himalayas to his feelings on the PAC-12 reshuffling.
Although you may find it hard to imagine, there was a time when public speaking gave Chris anxiety. Chris was able to overcome this fear and convert public speaking from one of his fears to one of the most powerful tools in his toolbelt. Luckily, his father was a professional theater director, which meant that he began working on a set from a young age. Over time, this helped him loosen up a bit. Coupled with the fact that there is a tremendous amount of money to be made as a broadcaster, Chris said he felt that he had no other choice than to become comfortable speaking in front of large crowds and cameras.
One night, while Chris was backstage at the ESPY awards, he felt a punch in the arm. When he turned toward the punch, he was shocked when he saw an angry Burt Reynolds. Chris could not figure out why Burt was so angry with him. He later found out through their mutual friend, Lee Corso, that Burt was under the mistaken impression that Chris made comments about his divorce from Loni Anderson. Chris thinks that Burt confused him with one of the many “generic-looking white guys with dark hair” on TV. Unfortunately, Chris was never able to clear the air with Burt.
There has been a lot of shuffling of leagues within the NCAA recently, which has led to much uncertainty and concern that the NCAA itself is becoming superfluous. Chris largely agrees with this, as many of the larger, more prominent schools would prefer it that way. The schools themselves are bringing much more to the table than the NCAA is. This makes the consolidation of teams into two powerful conferences almost inevitable, and Chris believes we are seeing the beginning of this phenomenon now.
This year, Chris will be covering some of the most important games in college football, so I had to get his opinion on who he thinks is in the running for the championship. While he would have liked to have some “out of the box” picks, the college football scene is very top-heavy, which makes it tough to bet on the underdogs. With that being said, he’s got his money on Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, and Michigan.
I have the continuing privilege of interviewing some of the most interesting and influential people in their respective fields, like Chris Fowler. If you want to hear the full interview, where we discuss things like meeting Wasfia Nazreen and the advice Chris received from Lance Armstrong, or if you want to see our upcoming guest list, be sure to check out the Walker Webcast.
If you have any comments or questions about the evolving economic landscape and how it is impacting the CRE space, our experts are available and fully operational to help. Additionally, if you have topics you would like covered during one of our future Walker Webcast, we would be happy to take your suggestions.
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Willy Walker: Good afternoon and welcome to another Walker webcast. It's a super, super big pleasure for me to have Chris Fowler joining me today. Chris, I think back to a recent podcast that you did with Brendan Hunt, who is the assistant coach in Ted Lasso. And in that interview with him, he talked about a chance meeting you in a Chicago bar and making it easy for Brendan Hunt to become what Brendan Hunt is today and you treated him really nicely. And I would say you and I had a chance meeting for one of our first our mutual friend Jim Courier actually introduced us. But then a year or two after you and I had met, we had a chance meeting on an airplane flying from Melbourne to Sydney after the Australian Open and had a really fun time getting to know one another much better and twice listening to that about Brendan. And so, I had my chance meeting with Chris Fowler one day.
Chris Fowler: Well, Brendan's message was “Tip well,” You might become a famous actor, you might need a favor to come on your podcast. I said I wasn't a memorably bad tipper, not memorably bad. He didn't say I gave him the greatest tip ever. But yeah, he said I was in there by myself. And this Irish bar. He was a waiter back in the 90s. That's a pretty cool story.
Willy Walker: I love that. So, I want to start, Chris, with ten questions that give background to you and what you do. And in the process your answers will also inform our listeners a little bit about Chris Fowler, what you do, and all the varying components of your life.
So let me start here. If I met you at the University of Colorado in 1983 or 1984 and asked you what you wanted to do professionally in your life, would it have been broadcasting or would you have potentially said that you wanted to follow in your dad's footsteps to academia or something in the theatrical world which your father had obviously turned you on to?
Chris Fowler: Definitely not the latter two, because I had no interest in academia. It was a trade school for me, journalism school, to acquire the skills I needed that didn't have the guts to be an actor. My dad was around the theater. He was a professional theater director as well as a professor. So, I had opportunities to be like the little kid in the Shakespearean play that runs on stage. My Lord, my Lord, But I didn't. I saw so much anxiety and tension around his theater productions because it inevitably came home with him, and he was pretty highly wounded. And I thought, My God, I want nothing to do with this. This is so much anxiety. I don't have the nerve to be an actor or be out there on stage. I took a long time to get over this sort of anxiety about public speaking, in fact. So, I did, because there was too much money to be made and saying, you can't say no to these opportunities, right? You better get over it.
I knew what I wanted to do since I was ten years old. Everything I did in college, I was busy. I was doing all kinds of jobs, making all kinds of connections, and doing everything I could in the media to get the skills necessary and to make some contacts and have fun, because I loved the variety of jobs, I was able to do. That was more important to me than being in the classroom, actually. And I knew from a very early age, from age ten, my grandmother turned me on to sports what I wanted to do for a living. From listening to Chicago area broadcasts of Cubs games, Blackhawks games, Bulls games. So yeah, I'm living that dream I’ve had since I was ten years old.
Willy Walker: So, you've covered lots of sports. What's your favorite sport?
Chris Fowler: It's a tie. And people don't believe me. The football people cannot believe that I love tennis as much as college football, but I do. I was kind of a hack tennis player as a kid. Never very good at it. Thankfully, my tennis skills didn’t factor into the ability to get the job I have. But the sports are so different. I love the distinction between them. The ultimate team sport, the ultimate individual sport. 22 guys with controlled chaos on a field, just two people on a court. I think that I'm blessed to be able to have the chance to call championship events of my two favorite sports, and it is a flat foot tie. I love soccer, I love hockey, and a lot of other sports, but those two are my favorites.
Willy Walker: How many of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks have you climbed?
Chris Fowler: Somebody asked me that. You know, I climbed a bunch when I was a little kid because we came to Colorado for summers for the first time in like ten or 11. And I remember my brother and I would look out the window at these mountains as we drove into Colorado's high country for the first time and go, Oh, we thought they were the Himalayas, but someday, someday, maybe we could climb those. Like a month later, we're climbing. That's what you do out there. And I got a taste early and piled them up early. I think I'm sitting at 35 because I've made very slow progress in recent years climbing different ones. Now you've got to drive all the way to the southwest part of the state. Even though we spend our summers in Breckenridge. I haven't been able to get enough time to go do that. So, the dream of hitting all 54, I don't know if that's going to happen, but I'm not caught up in the numbers. I enjoy every climb, even if I climb a mountain ten times. I reclimbed a couple this summer that I'd been up to. I've been up many, many times.
Willy Walker: That’s Conundrum Peak?
Chris Fowler: It was Quandary Peak.
And I climbed Mount Massive, which is the second highest in the state, which I haven't climbed since I was 15. So, from 15 to 60, there's a hell of a gap. And that's a huge part of my happiness out there is climbing mountains. But I don't get caught up so much in the scorecard as I used to when I was a kid.
Willy Walker: What's the largest audience to watch in an event where you commented?
Chris Fowler: The College Football Playoff, might have been the first one in the playoff era. That’s 24-25 million, which is a huge number.
Willy Walker: But you also covered the World Cup?
Chris Fowler: Yeah. Okay. I hosted ESPN's coverage of the World Cup. Now a billion people watch the World Cup, they weren't watching ESPN’s coverage. Yeah, I mean, that was what you're asking. That's one of the big thrills I've had because I am a soccer fan. I love global sports. I have a very strong feeling for South Africa, I've been there many times. So, to be able to host the World Cup in that country was really powerful for me. But I didn't call the game too. So, there's a little bit of a distinction when you host it. You're setting the table, and I love doing that on Game Day and other things I've done. But the ultimate thing for me is to be documented and by calling it and I think that the championship games in football, I put them on a par with Wimbledon finals, U.S. Open finals, but they're watched by a lot more people than the tennis matches. So, I'd have to say the playoff games, which are pretty big audiences.
Willy Walker: So, you've been married to Jennifer for 23 years. You've worked for basically the same employer for 37 years. You have two SUVs, one that's 11 years old and one that's 15 years old. Where's the deep sense of loyalty come from, Chris?
Chris Fowler: (Laughs) I don't know if it's loyalty or just stubbornness or laziness. I mean, not when it comes to marriage. But I think if you find a good thing, you stick with it.
The SUVs I now have gotten rid of, I had a ‘97 (Ford) Explorer until 2012. I had it for 15 years as my only vehicle. No, it was my only vehicle. Then we got an Audi SUV and kept it for 11 years. And finally, down in Miami, I thought I don't need a car to drive in the snow anymore. Forget the four-wheel drive. I want a car-car. I want a Miami type car that I can drive. So, I got a BMW M5, which is like a rocket and a beautifully made car. So, I've never been a car person. I had sports cars when I was a kid and I had sensible vehicles, like you said, for 27 some years. And now coming full circle back to my teenage self, I have a very fast car that thankfully I haven't gotten a speeding ticket in yet, But I don't know. I mean, I probably keep it for a long time too. I tend to do that.
You don't set out to work for one company for 37 years, that's for sure, in this business that's a pipe dream. But because I get to do a lot of different things in one company, it's been easy to stay there. It's always been the right choice to stay versus leave when given opportunities. I'm glad I made the right choice and didn't leave because something at the time pissed me off and I wanted to bolt. I made a mature, restrained, prudent decision and stayed with the company and that's been a great choice.
Willy Walker: And now that Bob Iger is back running Disney, you and Bob have both been at Capital Cities/ABC, ESPN into Disney for about the same amount.
Chris Fowler: I don't know that our careers are quite intertwined. I mean, it's been interesting to be a Disney employee, it’s never a dull place. And it's gratifying in a lot of ways.
Willy Walker: John Madden. Howard Cosell. Brent Musburger. Pat Summerall. Jim Nantz. Other than yourself – best sports broadcaster of all time.
Chris Fowler: Oh, wow. Well, I'm not going to call myself number one.
Willy Walker: I did.
Chris Fowler: Yeah. Oh, no, Come on. That's very nice. But let's be real. I mean, I don't get competitive in the business. I don't rate myself versus my peers or current people. I really don't look at it that way. I really view it as meeting my own standard and not trying to get competitive because it's such a subjective business. You like different bands than your friends maybe, we all like different movies or TV shows. We like different announcers, just stylistically. But there's certainly been plenty of people who have helped me and influenced me. Al Michaels has been a tremendous mentor to me. He does exactly what I do, which is play by play lately. So, Jim McKay was one when he hosted the Olympics and was a big influence on me as a very young kid because I saw the humanity that he brought to the job and how it wasn't about stats and the scoreboard necessarily is about people and stories, and he never forgot that. And in watching those early Olympic Games, I think I developed a passion for the Olympics for global sports because of the lens that he let us all watch through. So those are two names that come to mind. But there's so many.
Willy Walker: Do you think Al Michaels has ever had an event that he's covered that replicated the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980?
Chris Fowler: Not in terms of the connection with the public. I mean, when you're in your early thirties and you come up with, “Do you believe in miracles?” Yes, and it still gives people chills 30 years later. But look, I mean, he's done incredibly high-level work for a long, long time. So maybe the catchphrase is hard to match. But the body of work, the excellence across a wide range of sports that has been the standard in football game calling for a long time, and he’s still going. Works for my buddy Kirk at Amazon now.
Willy Walker: As somebody who both knows college football as well as anyone and also is a graduate of the great University of Colorado, does “Prime Time” actually arrive in Boulder?
Chris Fowler: Man, “Prime Time” hype arrives. I think you have to match it.
Willy Walker: That I realize, and you understand the nuance in my question.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, I mean the prime time yes. Because they were dead on the slab. The program was dead. Okay. Defibrillators were needed.
Willy Walker: I went to watch last year for one win in a season.
Chris Fowler: One win, but zero buzz. I mean, zero energy, zero relevance and all those things really matter. In modern football you have to have energy to have juice. You have to have buy-in from the public, from the media, from your players. They had none of that. So, Deion comes in and provides all those things as only he can. I mean, only he can, and sort of rewrites the book and how to construct a roster. Now, a lot of us are curious, a little anxious, and I have quite as much faith as he does that, they're going to win big now. Neither does Vegas. If you look at the over under for their wins for this season, it's three and a half. It's a pretty modest total. I think most Buffs fans would consider it a real failure to win four games, five games, right. They're thinking about bigger goals than that.
But realistically, it's never been done this way. I think the season comes down to a couple of games at home, Nebraska and Colorado State, two rivals, and that will define how things are going early on because I don't think it'll be easy to win against CCU. It's fun. I was there for the spring game. It was crazy. It snowed. You know, they thought no one was going to show up. I said, no no no this is Colorado. I promise they want to be here, they're excited for the spring game. They're going to show up. And they filled the stadium in a blizzard, basically. And the game went off. It was a great showcase, and it was an awesome two, three days for me really to be back in Boulder and see those ex-players hang around and get some love from Deion and get a chance to talk to the players. And then that little that I know most of the guys we're going to talk about in spring and out the door, we kind of had a sense, but I mean, the extent of the roster turnover is mind boggling. So, we'll see. But it's fun. It's fun. And for now, you got to ride the wave and players are buying in and that's the most important thing.
Willy Walker: You start the season covering the Utah versus Florida game. How many hours, Chris, will you spend on research on the two teams, rosters, player profiles, what have you, in getting prepared for a nationally broadcast game between Utah and Florida?
Chris Fowler: Well, it's really tricky. Here, I'll show you a visual aid. It’s show and tell. This is my chart. This is the Utah Florida chart. And I got it a couple of days ago. And I'm looking at it, highlighting it, filling in the stats. These are the analytics reports. I’m headed down to Gainesville to see the Gators this coming week. I also go to Tallahassee to see Florida State because we have Florida State, LSU three days after that Utah, Florida game. So, this preparation is unlike anything else. I have three games that fall within the U.S. Open, which is really daunting, unprecedented for me. So, I'm doing the best I can. I have a lot of years of experience and time management in figuring out how not to waste my time, but what I really need to spend it on.
So, I can't spend the usual 40 or 50 hours a week, which I would typically do for a prime-time game alone just on that game because it's divided up. And when tennis and the U.S. Open starts on Monday collides with football – I mean, it's nuts. I will go in there and call a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the afternoon, run back to the bus, get that chart out, make a phone call, look at some tape, get ready for a night match back in Arthur Ashe Stadium and then go home, and maybe sneak some football prep before I go to bed. And that happens pretty much every day I'm at tennis because you cannot just ignore football. I have to combine the two. And to do three games within the Open.
They just kept asking, I just kept saying yes, I don't know. They're all really fun, good games, but it's like two days of tennis, two days of football, one day of tennis, two days of football, five days of tennis, one day of football, one day of tennis. That's at warp speed. But that is the 14 days of the U.S. Open for me.
Willy Walker: So, you'll do the men's semis on Friday, then fly off to do Saturday Night Football and then come back.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, that's Texas/Alabama, which is a monster game, which is why they asked me why I said yes. So yeah, I didn't want to miss that. I do not want to miss the men's semis or the men's final, because each one of these matches you've got guys like Djokovic and Alcaraz battling feels like it's a piece of tennis history. So, it'll be a blast. I’m blessed man, I get to do all of that stuff within two weeks. I'm not complaining. Don't get me wrong. It's a challenge. And I'll do my best to meet my standard. But it's also really, really fun.
Willy Walker: When you say you're going down to Florida this week, Chris, what are you looking for? In other words, are you spending time with coaches or are you spending time with players or are you trying to kind of put the face to the data that you've studied up on? What are you actually looking for when you're doing that?
Chris Fowler: Yeah, you're all over it. It's all of those things. I mean, you do meet with coaches and players. I mean, that's essential for me to go down there. It's not just to watch a practice. We do watch a practice so you can get a sense of, yeah, here's what this guy looks like. It's not just a little guy you see running on tape or on the page because I don't cover Florida much. So, getting eyes on them is important. Florida State will have a few times this year as part of the ACC package, so I'll get something out of being with that team for a full day other than just getting ready for their opener. So yeah, you do all that stuff, and you talk to the equipment manager, you talk to the strength coach, you talk to the sports information people. You're trying to get a sense of what this team is about chemistry wise. Florida had some serious chemistry. They were a disaster. They cratered at the end of last year. Right. So, I need to sort of get a sense of whether or not Billy Napier, their coach, has been able to build that right away in year two. And b) there's no substitute for being there in person.
Willy Walker: You mentioned Florida State. Your old partner, Lee Corso, is a Florida State graduate. And interestingly, as I was doing some research on you Chris, you already know where this is going…
Chris Fowler: I don't know. I have a feeling I do.
Willy Walker: I did not know that Burt Reynolds was a groupie at Florida State. And I was listening to you replaying the day that Burt Reynolds, I'll condense this down, so you don’t have to tell the whole story over again. But Burt Reynolds thought you said something about him at some time that you still to this day, can't figure out what it was. But he came up and he said, you want to go. And you're like, excuse me, what are you talking about? What's up with Burt Reynolds walking up to you and being like, Let's go.
Chris Fowler: The late great – I was a huge fan, who doesn’t love “Smokey and the Bandit”? I mean, you have “The Longest Yard” for me, my favorite movies.
Willy Walker: All great classics!
Chris Fowler: So, yeah, he punches me in the arm backstage at the ESPY Awards in Radio City, out of the darkness I feel this punch in the arm. I look over at Burt, and he's got blood in his eyes. Really pissed off at me, but he won't tell me why. I can't figure out exactly why he thought I said something about Loni Anderson when they were going through marital troubles. I mean, why would I do that on GameDay? In what world am I talking about a celebrity divorce? And I asked Mr. (Lee) Corso, would you please try to get to the bottom of this because it's a mistaken identity. It's not me you’ve mistaken me for somebody else. There's a lot of dudes on TV, generic looking white guy with dark hair. It's not me.
So, yeah, the second time I see him, he gets in my face and says: “You don't want to fight a 70-year-old man.” And he was right about that. I mean, are you kidding me? As I've said, like, lose-lose. If you punch Burt Reynolds, if you defend yourself and it comes to that, you hit him. You've hit a 70-year-old legend on the field where he played, you will be wrestled to the ground by Leon County sheriff and spend game day night in jail. Okay. If you lose, now you've been beat up by a 70-year-old man in front of 75,000 people. There was no way to win that one. I never did, though, ever figure it out what it was he had against me, and I never will now. A mystery.
Willy Walker: On your podcast, Who You Got? To anyone who's listening to this, I would strongly recommend Chris's podcast because it's fantastic and he has these amazing guests on. But you venture much broader than just sports you've got plenty of great people on. And Chrissie Evert, your interview was great. I want to talk in a moment about your interview with Lance (Armstrong), because I wrote Lance over the weekend and just said that I thought the conversation he had with you I've listened to a lot that Lance has done in that conversation you had with Lance went to a space that I have not seen him go to. It speaks volumes about your relationship with him and why he went kind of so deep so quickly, particularly the comment when he said that he had thought when he was getting remarried that he would change his name, which just shocked me.
I saw David Yarrow last week, Chris, and I told him that I had you on. And Yarrow just his face opened up and he said, Oh, my God, Chris Fowler, he's just the best. And Yarrow, who's one of the most incredible photographers of our time doing these wonderful things with the lens. What's the guiding, if you will, principle as it relates to you and the guests that you have on Who You Got in the sense of what are you looking for? Are you looking for leadership lessons? You're looking for things that just interest you? Are you looking for areas of the world outside of sport that you like to venture into?
Chris Fowler: Yeah, sometimes, I want to learn about a topic and the research. As you know, doing a podcast can be really fascinating when the topic interests you. Getting ready for guests, I'll get a background on all kinds of things. I learned a lot about tequila when I had the CEO at a tequila company, a woman, very prominent in the business. I did a show on Bourbon and had Pappy Van Winkl’s grandson on. I like bourbon. So those are kind of outlier episodes, but normally it's just really interesting people that either I already know, enjoy hanging out with and have a structured conversation because it's fun to talk to Charles Barkley or Dick Vitale or Jay Bilas or Mike Tirico – on and on. I've had a lot of colleagues from the business that I have known. Some I didn't know very well, but I wanted to have the experience. Stephen A. Smith, I didn't know well, Andrés Cantor, the great Spanish language announcer, “Goal!” guys like that from my business that I don't really interact with regularly are a blast.
And then we've had an incredible range of people from Matthew McConaughey to Sheryl Crow, our mutual friend Mike Mills of R.E.M., because I love music, too. So, David Yarrow is just so brilliant at something I appreciate, which is photography. And I love wildlife, too. So swapping stories with guys like that, and my wife Jennifer co-produces it. We do all of this together. We think about guests together, research them, and make the edit points. We don't have some huge apparatus to help us put this out. It's not intended as a for-profit thing. It's just a labor of love and a creative outlet for me, which is why I didn't want to do a sports pod. I don't want to do stuff that's just like the content I do on ESPN. This is very different, as you point out.
Willy Walker: One of the ones that really interested me and something that you obviously love very much, being in the outdoors, mountain climbing – Wasfia Nazreen, the Bangladeshi woman who summited K2 is, I think what was it? She's the 16th woman to Summit K2 or something. I was shocked in the conversation, Chris, about how few people have actually summited K2. And I think one of the stats you put out there was more people have gone to the moon than have summited K2, whereas we all think that Everest, that over 5000 people have actually summited Everest. How did you track her down? Because her story is so incredible.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, there's a great example. You do this, you become aware of somebody that you never expect to meet. You read about in this case, her achievements. And you're just in awe and you find a way to get connected. You make the approach. You let her know the mountains are important to you and some of the things that she has made important in her life. Her association with the Dalai Lama was the one who told her that she should make the mountains her calling. She actually studied under him. She's a friend of his as well as a mentee. So, she's got all these different facets. But just to meet her would be incredibly interesting. And so, we finally made it happen and struck up a sort of a long-distance friendship and stayed in touch. She put me in touch with the legendary Sherpa in Nepal that she knew very well who guided me and my brother and a buddy around Nepal this spring. I never would have met him if not through her.
I am not the best at social networking and sort of like making the most of contacts and branching out and trying to keep my contacts file as robust as possible. I let opportunities go, but there are certain times in life where you say, wait a second, this is really a precious opportunity to get to know this person, to learn from her, to share with the people the context that she knows and continue to learn and grow. And it's been so cool. There haven't been many episodes that have provided that kind of opportunity – but that one did. And I am in a huge debt for connecting me with the sherpa who is the wisest dude I've ever met. He summited Everest 17 times. Lakpa Rita Sherpa is his name. He's got a company in Seattle called Khangri Experience. He takes people all over the world and yeah, he's become a friend too. A podcast for that reason has been wonderful.
Willy Walker: I want to pull one quote from that and just have you comment on that before we go to you and your brother going back to the Himalaya after 25 years between the two. But one of the quotes that I took from that, Chris, that I thought was amazing was she was talking about base camp at Everest, and she said base camp in the Himalayan is “our version of Burning Man,” which I started laughing at so much of it’s this eclectic group of people all hanging out in this place that they actually shouldn't be hanging out together. And I was just curious, have you ever been to Burning Man?
Chris Fowler: I'm afraid I have not. I've been to plenty of music festivals, but not Burning Man. She also said it was a shit show and I have been in various shit shows. But no, it was very colorful in the way she expressed stuff. Have you been to Burning Man? And I should ask you.
Willy Walker: I have not, Chris. My girlfriend is twisting my arm to go with her in two weeks. And I think I'm very thankful that I have a busy work schedule that that makes it so I cannot go.
Chris Fowler: Is it always this time of year because I can never go in September.
Willy Walker: Yeah, it's always right on top of your busiest time for the season.
Chris Fowler: Maybe when I retire I will go to Burning Man.
Willy Walker: Exactly. You and your brother going back to the Himalaya and then the annual pilgrimage you made to your mother's gravesite up in the mountains. What is it about you and the mountains and spending time with your brother and going up to your mom's grave every year that sort of gives you inner peace. There's something very important to the Chris Fowler that I know that is part of the mountains and that calling that keeps bringing you back, but taking the time to go 25 years later with your brother to go over to the Himalaya, that must have been a really unique experience.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, thanks. That's very well put. To answer your question, I'm not really sure where the pull initially began. I spent my childhood in Breckenridge in the summer, like I said, climbing at a very young age even before we have pictures on our wall. My brother and I shared a basement when we were kids, a bedroom down there. We had pictures of Everest and the Matterhorn and Kaiju peak, which is an obscure peak in Pakistan, unclimbed at that point. And just for some reason stared at those posters and gained inspiration. And imagine what would it be like to even see them with their own eyes, much less climb them. So, the fascination was really an early one.
Like anybody who finds a place where a feeling of inspiration of peace comes over them, I found that really young in the mountains. For other people, it might be another expression of nature. I love really all kinds of nature. I just find mountains to be the most profound expression of nature. But I feel alive and at peace by the ocean, in a forest, floating down a river. I mean, for me that's church. That's where I find inspiration. That's where I see divinity, you know, is in the beauty of nature. And so, the mountains are the ultimate expression for me in Nepal being the ultimate mountains, it was a life changing experience to go in ‘98 with my brother when I was in my thirties, before I was even engaged to Jennifer. And just be blown away by laying eyes on Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse and these mountains that are deities in that culture. They are literally gods. And they call Everest “Sagarmāthā” and not Mount Everest. That's the Western name named after a British guy. So, God is mother.
You experience not just seeing the mountain with your own eyes, but how they're viewed through other people's eyes who grew up there. The Nepalese culture is beautiful, and so many things that are important to them struck a chord with me, the simplicity of their existence, the unattachment to material objects and the unimportance ultimately of wealth, etc., and sort of what they gain inspiration from. So, it took me 25 damn years to get back, which I never thought it would. And then we went back this year for various reasons. And we can get into that if you want. But mountains, large and small – are inspiring to me.
Willy Walker: So, as I think about the metaphor of mountains to sort of the human gods that we have on Earth. You cover a lot of them. I was coming back from having done an interview with Alex Rodriguez down in Miami, probably about two months ago Chris, and I posted on Instagram that it had been really great with Alex and a friend of mine texted me on the side and he said, isn’t that the guy who doped? Isn't that the guy who, like, broke all the rules? Like, why are you proud of interviewing him? And I kind of took a deep breath at first, and then I went and pulled out the Teddy Roosevelt quote, and I'm going to read half of it, I'm going to go through the entire thing. “But it is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who was actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
You are in the arena, and you cover a lot of people in the arena. I listened to your conversation with Lance Armstrong, someone who has gotten a lot of similar criticism to Alex Rodriguez, and you have stayed deeply loyal to Lance as one of your longtime great friends. It was very evident in the conversation. How do you look, if you will, at those people and how they carry themselves under the microscope? And how do you differentiate really between those who seem to have been successful at doing it, those who don't, but to some degree, to all of us who are just lay people, you have a real bird's eye view of these people, what they have to go through. I listened to your discussion about Djokovic and Alcaraz and about the fact that Djokovic has gone 15 majors without losing a tiebreaker until he lost to Alcaraz in the second set at Wimbledon. And I'm sitting there thinking about just, a mind that is so dialed in that you are almost sit there and say, if he can be so great at that, you can give him a little bit of flexibility on the other part of his life. Or Lance saying to you, Chris, and I'm sorry, that's such a long question, but I think it's an important one. Lance, sitting there when you said as you look back, Lance, what would you tell others to do? And he was like, slow down, realize what's going on, because when he was in the tunnel, it was all just flying by him so fast that he couldn't kind of be present on what was actually happening. You know these people; you engage with them. What's your view on all this as far as being in the arena and being outside of the arena?
Chris Fowler: I think that scar tissue is a great teacher. And all growth is experienced. And if you've had a lot of painful, humiliating experiences, which Lance has, you should have learned something. You should have grown. And I think he has. I am loyal to old friends. I'm loyal to him in that way. That doesn't mean I don't acknowledge he made a lot of huge mistakes. And it doesn't mean that I apologize for the things that he did and the way that he treated people because he's contrite about that. As you would have heard in that conversation. He knows that it wasn't just the doping stuff, which he believes was given too much play because it's just a part of cycling. I'm sorry, but it just is. Doesn't excuse it at all. But the way that the fallout from that caused him to mistreat people that he cared about. I think he's contrite. I think he realizes that he was an ass to a lot of people. So, I think admitting that – he's not the easiest person to admit or mistake for sure, he is complicated that way. But, you know, I think he's got a lot to offer. We're still friends. I think that you can be really loyal and supportive and care about the memories you built with somebody and the things that he's achieved without forgiving everything, and without excusing mistakes that that person makes.
It was a really interesting thing because when you do a conversation which you have with people, you're very close to, people you know very well. Sometimes it's difficult. I knew we were going to get into the deep stuff, Lance’s background, the mistakes he made, but he dove in before I even got there. So, it gave me permission to go right into it in a way that he doesn't really do very often, and he doesn't do a lot of podcast interviews like this at all. And I was appreciative of his honesty, and he didn't make me take the awkward step of having to take off the gloves and go at him as a friend. He sort of opened it up right away. And so that's why we had that kind of conversation, and it was not one that we could have had ten or 15 years ago. It took him evolving to a certain degree with all he's been through to get to a point where we can have that kind of honest exchange.
Willy Walker: I thought one of the lines that sort of stopped me in my tracks when I heard it, Chris, was when he said, “Not to diminish the misdeeds I have lived.” And I thought that when he put it in that term that “I’ve lived,” many people say it's not to dismiss the stuff I've done or the mistakes I made or whatever else, but to put it in that term of the “the misdeeds I have lived,” I thought said, he really does own that in a very different way than how I've heard a lot of other people talk about past misdeeds.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, I think so. I think it's taken him a long time to get there, a lot of therapy and a lot of soul searching and a lot of people that care about him and can speak bluntly to him, nudging him there. I think by instinct, he's not a contrite person. I think he doesn't admit mistakes very easily, but I think he's grown and evolved a lot. And I'm proud of that part of it. And I think he will continue to grow. And he's a very, very interesting person to be around. He's polarizing. I get it. And for some people who will just never forgive or turn the page, I understand I don't live in a black and white binary world. That’s just how I think about things. I think there's many shades to things that happen in sports that are subtle and worth discussing but are not best judged really quickly from a black and white standpoint.
Willy Walker: I remember in that interview you talk about how you met Lance for the first time when he was actually still a triathlete. And you were in your first anchoring job with collegiate sports American or something.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, he wanted to be the next Mark Allen, the Iron Man thing at the time and didn't even hone in on cycling yet. And I was doing Scholastic Sports America and I met him, and he was 16 years old, just trying to make enough bucks at these small triathlons to keep the gas in his Alpha Romeo. And then as he signed a pro contract and made a bunch of money and moved to Austin and I was there for all those stages and then getting cancer and being in Indi in the hospital, when it looked like he wasn’t going to make it at all. And then bouncing back and having the audacity to think he could compete at a high level in the sport better than he had pre-cancer. When the Tour and I got engaged to Jennifer, on the final day of his first Tour victory in ‘99, the ride into Paris. And was there for the victory party and was there for the retirement party. It's been a lot of things, a lot of chapters along the way, a lot of craziness. If I ever do write a book, there will probably be a chapter about some of this stuff because I'm not a very reflective person. Opportunities like this to sit and think about the past are interesting to me because I don't really spend much of any time doing it. But wow, there's a lot and a lot of history involving Mr. Armstrong.
Willy Walker: Am I correct that you introduced him to Sheryl Crow?
Chris Fowler: No, no, no. We're dear friends with Sheryl Crow through him.
Willy Walker: Okay. I thought you'd known Sheryl because we haven't talked about music here. And you are a huge music fan.
Chris Fowler: I am. It is important to me as sports, and it was an early passion for me as sports. In the beginning, it was metal. And I was one of those kids that, you know, slept out. And this is really old-time stuff because this isn't happening where you sleep out on the sidewalk outside the record store when the tickets go on sale for Black Sabbath or The Who, the Scorpions or Def Leppard or someone like that. And then you get those tickets, you go to the show. And I just blasted my eardrums with loud rock and roll out of my Cerwin Vega 212 hardrocker speakers and on vinyl at first, and then eventually CD and now I'm back to vinyl full circle. It's just a really important part. It's fun for me and the many, many other genres that come around.
Obviously, I had a radio show in college and that's where I first fell in love with bands like R.E.M. and why it was a thrill to eventually meet them and hang out a bit later on. And U2, and it all kinds of that 80’s first wave stuff. But jazz, classical, I mean, I really have a bizarre eclectic music file and love all of it.
Willy Walker: You remember going to see the reconstituted Guns N‘Roses at about 2:30 in the morning in New York at one time with one of our mutual friends?
Chris Fowler: Were you at that show?
Willy Walker: I was not. I was not. He sent me a text and said, when you're on with Chris, you've got to bring up going to see guns in the reconstituted Guns N Roses in New York.
Chris Fowler: I mean, reconstituted, met no Slash, it meant Axl with a few kilos over his fighting weight. Yeah, that was that was a bizarre show. And they came on about midnight and then finished about 3:30 am, I think. Jim did hang around at the end as I did, but I saw Guns N‘Roses in Hyde Park this summer during Wimbledon, I have to say – very different kind of show. The triumphant kind of reassembling of the band, Slash was back, and they cranked it out for three hours and so they are still going strong.
Willy Walker: So, you're in the south of France with Lance at some point and he gets a phone call to go to Bono's house for dinner and you end up tagging along for dinner at his house in the south of France.
Chris Fowler: You did your homework.
Willy Walker: There are a lot of things, Chris, that I'm jealous of you doing. Having dinner at Bono's place in the south of France is right up there.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, well, it was right up there for me, too. I mean, it was an out-of-body experience, I promise. I mean, Bono and Lance were friends. They were sharing ideas about what to do philanthropically at that point. He had just retired. It was a retirement party for about five couples in the south of France. And Bono calls him and says, “Come on over for dinner” and Lance said “I'd love to. That's very nice. But I got all my people here.” So, it's a big group. And Bono's like, “Bring your people, bring all your people.” So, we got a bunch of SUVs and drove over to this amazing place in Eze, the south of France, which has a massive amount of Mediterranean water frontage, and he was just a perfect host, and it was a surreal experience. I sat right across from him. He stood up, gave Lance some huge toast, beautiful, flowery. I mean, the guy can write songs, and is a beautiful wordsmith. Then he points to me and goes, “Now you go.” I didn't realize we were all going to give a toast and I was going to have to follow him. So, you kind of hope something comes to mind. And then I got a chance to talk to Bono about the show in Boulder at Red Rocks, where they filmed under a blood red sky. I was in their incredible tour for the album War, which is one of the most powerful experiences of my life. He couldn't believe I was there because it rained, it was about half full, so not many people were there. And he told me the whole story about how important it was for the band. I was just sitting there. This is Bono's house. I'm talking to Bono about that show, and he was lovely. We stayed there for about five hours. He invited us to stay for dinner. He had a massage. The masseuse came in, was going to give him a massage. He wanted us to stay while that happened and then go to dinner. And we had something else planned so graciously declined and finally got out of his way. But it's about a five-hour lunch at his house, and I'll never forget it.
Willy Walker: I have a really quick anecdote that I'm just going to sneak in here. I don't like to talk about myself during these, but this is one that I just gotta throw in there. A number of years ago, when my son was at CU, I took him to go see U2 up in Baltimore and I told him, “Hey, it's going to be late at night. You're going to get home late. No whining or crying when we get up to go to school in the morning.” He said “Dad, I'm all in.” We go up, we go to the concert, we go backstage. Afterwards we see Bono. He couldn't have been nicer to my son. It was awesome. We come back home and the next morning I go to wake him up and I'm waking him up and he's lying and then he's just crying. “Dad, I don't want to go to school.” And I turn to go, “Jack, just think. I mean, you get to go to school and tell everyone you got to meet Bono last night.” My son rolls over in bed and he looks at me, “Dad, none of my friends know who Bono is.” You know, it's a dagger. Just a dagger. It was great.
So, everyone would kill me if I didn't go into college football for a moment with you. Three topics I want to touch base on before we close this up, and I give you back the rest of your evening. The first one is just the shuffling of the decks as it relates to the leagues and the Pac-12 and the demise of the Pac-12. You call it “the age of instability.” I mean, everyone's chasing the incremental dollar. Who knows where it all ends?
My question, I guess, Chris is this, does the NCAA become superfluous and it just becomes this new reconstitution of actual leagues rather than the overarching body of the NCAA, because it seems to not have any say in what's going on right now?
Chris Fowler: No, it doesn't. And I do think it becomes superfluous. I think that's the way they want it in the sport. The top schools don't want to be governed by the NCAA. They don't see it as a model. It's very up to date. So, I think what you're going to see very quickly just happened way faster than I thought it would, but we all assumed there would end up being two really powerful conferences. The Big Ten align mostly with Fox, but other networks, the ACC aligned with ABC and ESPN, and they're going to pick off the attractive members of other conferences. The only way these days you have a stable conference is if you have teams that no one else covets because then you can just sit there and make a few bucks and have a few eyeballs on you. But the other two conferences will continue to grab up teams, the others will want to continue to go there. The Big 12 will survive in some fashion. The ACC doesn't know what's going to happen next, but I think this is an era when tradition, stability and nostalgia don't matter much. And college football has sold those things for a long time. A lot of people love the sport because they represent those things in a different way than the NFL and are becoming more and more like pro football, which is what college has done on several fronts.
You know, the NFL is the most popular sport in America. So, in some ways that makes sense. But you also lose the ability to differentiate, to sell something different, to be distinct from the NFL and for all the people that love college because it was distinct, get really, really disillusioned and some may drift away. But the bottom line is that now everything is laid bare. Let's not pretend this is about anything other than huge piles of cash.
And for a while, they try to pretend. For decades they tried to pretend that wasn't the truth. And it has been for a long time. And so, the very thing that these administrators have accused players of doing, which is being selfish, being greedy, going for money grabs, self-interest over the collective. That's exactly what is happening in the sport throughout the landscape. I mean, everybody's in it for themselves. They're grabbing as many dollars as they can. They don't care about the school and their state down the road getting left behind. That's of no concern to Oregon and Washington when they go to the Big Ten. I mean, should it be? It really is. As you know more about business than I do. It's just self-interest. It's “What's best for me?” And that's the way it is for players, for coaches, for schools, for conferences.
Willy Walker: I heard you talking on one of your podcasts about the Rose Bowl and the fact that the Pac-12 and Big Ten, you'd have these conference dinners where everyone would come together and raise a glass about the great history of the Rose Bowl, the Ten meeting Pac-12.
When I lived in the UK, Chris, I'd go up and I remember distinctly going up to a Liverpool game and it was as much about all the tradition behind it and having the players come in and talk to us about these great matches that they had against Chelsea and all this. There was as much fun as actually watching the game and I'm sure there are plenty of UK fans who like the game a lot more than the chants and everything else. But as an outsider, I loved all that. And I think you raise a really serious point as it relates to that, like the only time that college game days ever had a D3 game was when you went to cover Amherst Williams and you talked about the tradition of that rivalry and why it makes that game so much more than just a football game. And I do think that this chase for the money could end up really being detrimental to the underlying game of college football.
Chris Fowler: Yeah, I do too. I think each program will have its individual history in the way that Liverpool has its own history, and the top clubs in the Premier League all have their own folklore, right? I mean, Michigan, Oregon, USC, they're going to have their own individual histories. It's just the collective history of the Pac-12 that is going to become ancient history. It's going to be dissolved, it's going to be a piece of nostalgia where the Southwest conference is, and some rivalries will suffer. I don't mean to say that those programs who have been the pillars of the sport won't continue to sell their tradition. They will. It'll just be this kind of transition where you're going to have to get used to new marriages of convenience, and not just the old regional ties with teams. But I'm not saying that each program surrenders their own tradition because they don't. SC doesn't forget about its past and the championships and the Heisman because they're going to the Big Ten. It's just going to feel very different. And I do think there's a lot of exciting things about this. We focus on the sadness and what we're losing, but that's just not the world I live in. I'm going to be involved in the sport for some period of time going forward. And there's also some exciting, cool new stuff like these realignment names, USC playing at Ohio State and vice versa. And Oregon going to Michigan on a regular basis and it's a conference game. And now you got Texas and Alabama this year, the game I'm covering in Tuscaloosa. Non-Conference. But they're going to be playing a lot. And then teams across the SEC and new rivalries. So, there's a lot of cool new stuff too. And I'm not one to sit around and just cry about the past. I think there's sad aspects to it, but in the end, what good does it do? I'm still going to love the sport.
Willy Walker: So, then the one other question I had on that is NILs (name, image, likeness policy) and the portal. Do they democratize the sport, or do they just make the big get bigger?
Chris Fowler: To be determined. I do think that the portal gives you a chance to assemble a roster at a place like Colorado, which you talked about, which was the thinnest roster in power five a year ago and has 70 new faces. Impossible to even think about rebuilding without the portal. In the past, it would take years, you know, the way Bill Snyder rebuilt the debacle at Kansas State into something big but took a bunch of recruiting classes to do it. But now you can do it like that.
But I do think that every modification we've had in the end, the elite power programs find a way to make it work for them. Right? And I think that NIL is an example. I mean, yeah, you can have a bunch of money and compete with the top schools, but it's hard to outspend and these are bidding wars, I mean, people understand that's what's going on, right? I mean, here comes a guy at a high school who's a quarterback and one school can give a $150. They can't go higher. It's like poker, you know, so someone else is offering $200. And then they offer $250. That's what it is. That's exactly the conversations that are being had with parents and agents and schools or the representatives of schools that the NIL collectives that operate technically outside the framework, but they're very much a part of it, and that's not going to stop. In the past it was called cheating. Now it's NIL and the players are benefiting, and I think it's impossible to turn the clock back, although as you know, with all reforms, there are unintended consequences. And this is unregulated Wild West stuff. You combine the portal with NIL and the fact that players are being recruited who are not even in the portal. So, they have not declared their intention to leave their school. They're just hanging out on campus waiting for the upcoming season and they're being bombarded with approaches saying, hey, for $250, come over here, get in the portal and come here. So that kind of coercion and raiding of rosters is unsavory. It's a problem. I don't know what they can do to regulate it short of the federal government which many people just are horrified by the idea of that happening. But I don't know how else you can regulate it.
Willy Walker: And final thing on college football, looking at a postseason, you're going to cover some of the most important games to kick off the beginning of the season. Who's looking good in your book as it relates to the national champion?
Chris Fowler: Well, I'd like to be creative and say a bunch of other teams. But the problem we have is this sport is so top heavy, which is why your question was a good one. I mean, what's going to break up this this block of teams and we know who they are. They're the same team to use Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan. I mean, those are the preseason top four in there. LSC could be in there. Be nice to those West Coast representation. You know, Penn State, Notre Dame a few teams sort of like vying on the fringe, but if you expand the 12 teams, well, you might get the same four in the semis.
Inclusivity, expansion, bigger, more teams involved in the playoff hunt, more playoff games on TV. Okay when it whittles down, who's going to go on the road and beat those teams in a playoff game in the quarterfinals to get into the Final Four? I just don't see it really shifting or changing, so I have a hard time looking outside of those teams. I would love USC to make a run. I would love to have West Coast representation in the playoff mix and Utah has come close and fallen short. I want a more geographic spread. It does not do us good to have this sport dominated purely by the southeastern part of the country. I could have thrown in Florida State and Clemson in that list of contenders, they are very much in the playoff mix, too. But to have the sport dominated by the Southeast to the degree that it has been, is not good for it. And that's pretty clear.
But they're not going anywhere. Those are the teams who have the resources. And there's only two kinds of programs, ones that have decided from a top down, administration on down. Whatever it takes. And the ones who don't. And that's it. Whatever it takes group are the ones you see competing for championships. The ones who aren't in that group aren't. That's only going to get more pronounced going forward.
Willy Walker: I heard you make the comment about the fact that West Coast recruiting is going to completely change because of this shift of all these West Coast teams now playing on the East Coast. And I was sitting there thinking about, well, what if you're a parent, you want to watch your son play college football in your backyard? And then I was like, and then they can't travel. And then I said, oh, now they all have NILs. They can afford for mom and dad to come to the game. So, I guess they are sitting there bemoaning the fact that some of the parents couldn’t watch their kids live. And then I was like, no, I think they could probably afford it these days.
Chris Fowler: Yeah. The thing is that post-COVID, there was kind of a shift kids were saying closer to home, and then that era where everybody isolated and then that quickly it blew up with a portal in the NIL now, it's who knows what's going to happen in recruiting. It's going to be more national than ever, though. Recruiting while still really important for the programs they want to be stable year in, year out, sort of takes a backseat to free agency. It's like the importance of free agency and building a roster in pro sports versus the drafts. I mean, for some franchises it is 50-50. Some say it's way more important the free agent market than the draft. And I think as we're seeing in college football, the portal is becoming more important than recruiting.
Willy Walker: Yeah. Chris, you've been super generous with your time. It's been incredibly fun for me to just pick your brain and hear about all the things going on in your world. I'm going to put together a dinner and we're going to have Courier, Mills, Yarrow, you, and me. It's going to be four of my great buddies. And we'll talk about the arts. We'll talk about tennis. And we'll talk about broadcasting.
Chris Fowler: My God. So, if you could make that happen, I'll crawl to where that’d be. That's a fun group. And I really enjoyed our time here and keep up the great work and I hope to see you not in two screens but face to face sometime soon.
Willy Walker: Thanks again, Chris. Have a great evening.
Chris Fowler: You bet. You too.