In the final instalment of my conversations with Chuck McDonald, we talk about some of the storylines going into the season ahead, including the expanding SEC and increasing trend of the transfer portal. I ask him which game he would choose to watch as a fan and what it was like to work with the peerless commentator, analyst and legendary NFL head coach John Madden.
With some interesting storylines unfolding, what is he keeping an eye on in the impending college football season?
“I always love teams that do it right and build teams that aren’t the big recruiting powerhouses. Iowa State, getting (quarterback) Brock Purdy to come back, they’re loaded and they’re well coached!”
The quarterback position, as always, is a big topic of conversation. “Ohio State has three guys for the most enviable job, except for OU, to be the quarterback. Who doesn’t want to play for (Ohio State head coach) Ryan Day? Who wins that?” At time of interview this was very much up for debate. Redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud has since won the starting job ahead of fellow redshirt freshman Jack Miller and true freshman Kyle McCord ahead of their season opener against Minnesota on September 2nd.
There are other big questions at the critical signal caller position, “who’s the Michigan quarterback, who does Sark (new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian) pick?” Texas lost their key starting field general, Sam Ehlinger in the NFL Draft to Indianapolis, where he is battling Jacob Eason for the Colts’ backup quarterback job.
“Sam Ehlinger,” he adds, “it feels like he’s been there for ten years in college years because you just don’t see that stay. So not only the coaching change, but a completely different quarterback that we haven’t seen in a while. Texas is very interesting to me because they’re clearly talented, have a great roster and clearly have the support.” Former Alabama offensive coordinator Sarkisian has yet to name a starter, sharing reps evenly between junior Casey Thompson and redshirt freshman Hudson Card. Michigan have named redshirt sophomore Cade McNamara as their starter for the September 4th game against Western Michigan.
Oklahoma are a different proposition. They have already secured presumed starting quarterbacks for the two seasons after this one with five-star recruits Caleb Williams and Malachi Nelson. With the much-hyped Spencer Rattler, they have one of the favourites for the Heisman Trophy, but he wonders, “did Rattler figure it out in the second half (of last season)?”
I mentioned have been following Rattler since his appearance on the QB1: Beyond The Lights series on Netflix. He looks like he’s next in the line of great Oklahoma quarterbacks and has gone from a high school sensation to playing in front of huge crowds in Norman. The pressure and expectation on these kids is extraordinary.
“Yeah, you look at it, Baker Mayfield wins the Heisman, Kyler Murray wins the Heisman, Jalen Hurts finished, I think, third in the Heisman, and then you get handed the keys and… it didn’t start well. We did his first game, and he had a great game and it’s like, here we go again. And then, he struggled a little bit, he even got benched going into the half at Red River and came back in that game, and since that moment, since winning that game and maybe getting that wake-up call, we’ve got another talented guy this year.”
“It just seems like it’s stacked for him. He played the rest of the year, so it’s going to be very interesting. But the pressure is insane, these are kids. He’s expected to be as good as Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, who probably got two, three years, before they had that pressure put on them. Baker had played at Texas Tech, transfers and sits for a little while. Kyler had the A&M thing, transferred, was recruited by a lot of people and had to sit. Spencer sat on the bench for a year and then immediately has to be the next Heisman candidate. It’s a tough ask.”
“You see these big programs being able to talk two or three five-stars to come compete against each other”, he mentions. “The third guy in that situation is likely to be the one that transfers.” It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation. He talks about smart players who know when they’re not ready and can create a better situation for themselves. Mac Jones sat behind Tua and Jalen Hurts, waiting for his opportunity and is now impressing in New England, under the tutelage of Bill Belichick.
Baker Mayfield, he said, could have left for the NFL a year earlier. He sees the 2018 No.1 overall draft pick as “a very bright guy. You see the public guy that comes off as a little brash, he’s a smart kid. He forced his way into Oklahoma, he saw that’s where he wanted to be.”
Joe Burrow transferred to LSU and Justin Fields to Ohio State, both having been deeper on the roster than they would have liked at Ohio State and Georgia respectively. Chuck adds an interesting anecdote about Burrow, last year’s No.1 overall draft pick:
“Ryan Day told us a story. Look, we were a coin flip between Dwayne Haskins and Burrow. They thought Burrow would go pro if he had a great year because of his availability and Haskins might stay another year. Ohio State were fully supportive of him (Burrow), and Ryan even helped him pick LSU because of the situation there.”
College football coaches seem to be either more negative towards the transfer portal, or “in the right situations, will be the first guys making a phone call for a kid”. “I think in the long run what’ll be interesting is which guys are going to stick and how many guys just bail the second they don’t get the job.”
On Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC…
“As far as the Texas & Oklahoma thing, it just shows you how fast the landscape is changing. It took us by surprise, which normally I’d wonder how we missed the signs, but clearly the Big 12 teams and leadership were shocked too. I thought an expanded playoffs would mean less need for realignment, but clearly guaranteed pay-outs that the SEC provide were more important to them. How it works out will be interesting, they were always going to be towards the top in the Big 12, who knows how that works out in the SEC?” An expanded playoff means if they can be close, they’d still have access to a berth, but not as automatic as they had.”
“At this point all bets are off on what’s next. Do we get more realignment? I assume to some extent there has to be a reaction. It could lead to mergers, or just partnerships, but something else will happen to try and combat the power the SEC has. The other conferences have to do something. Add in the NIL stuff and CFB just feels very up in the air.”
“Unfortunately, college football is becoming more and more another professional league, which to some extent can’t help but change what it is. I am afraid in the end sections of the country will stop being as passionate about the sport, and eventually we could see some schools decide football is too expensive if they can’t be part of the top tier. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, because that would fundamentally change college athletics in all sports.”
With our time wrapping up quickly, I’m keen to find out a bit more about Chuck’s own views on the game.
Who’s the most underrated player he’s seen?
“Marquise Brown. He was a little, teeny guy when we met him at practice, and you never would have thought he would have been a first-round pick. He came from a junior college; he didn’t even get recruited at first. When you hear his story, it’s impossible not to root for the kid. We liked him, and then he had a good game in front of us and the rest is history.” Brown set an Oklahoma record 265 receiving yards in a single game and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.
“Chase Young, we watched him in a practice before he ever stepped on a field, and everyone’s like, that’s the next Joey Bosa. You knew, but it was still fun to watch it happen.” When you see so many players at college not quite make it, you can sense the real satisfaction watching it when it does. “It’s also fun watching the guys become exactly what you thought they would become and then go on to the pros and do it. Both the Bosa brothers and Chase Young, they’re exactly what you thought was going to happen.”
“Chris Olave would be another one. They (Ohio State) went to look at a different player and were just impressed by him. He’s probably going to be a first-round draft pick. He’s just a hard worker, everything about him is impressive. In his first big game, against Michigan, he blocked a punt and had a couple of touchdown catches. From then, he’s blown up.”
As a fan, if he could go and watch a game, away from the production truck, who would it be?
“The one I haven’t been to when they’re both good, is LSU-Alabama. Especially at LSU, the night game.” He talks about other rivalries he’d like to watch.
“Mississippi-Mississippi State is an absolutely cool rivalry. Florida-Miami, I’ve never been to Florida to watch a college game, I’ve done the Orange Bowl but not the home games when they’re good. I would love to see USC at Notre Dame. I grew up in a Notre Dame house, my dad was a massive Notre Dame fan so we used to watch them all the time. I’ve covered them on the road but never actually been there to a game. That would be cool because it’s such a different atmosphere and it hasn’t changed a lot over the years.”
Working with Pat Summerall and John Madden
He talks about his time covering the NFL, working with Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw. I nearly fall off my chair when he mentions working with John Madden. I grew up watching the NFL and listening to the legendary partnership of Madden and Pat Summerall. What was it like working for such an iconic figure?
“Amazing. A total mentor for me. I was with him for seven years.” His passion for the game, he said was unrivalled. “That guy was by far the most passionate football man I’ve ever been around in all my life.” Chuck talks about the impact Madden had on him, that he was a different person on camera than off, displaying tough love with exceptionally high standards around performance.
“He was the hardest coach I worked for or played for at any sport. He expected perfection, accepted nothing less than the attempt at perfection and drove me to work so hard.”
His gratitude at the lessons learnt from Madden is evident. He talks of learning so much about caring about what he does and how much putting in the work paid off. Of Pat Summerall, he says, taking a moment, “what a guy. One of the greatest guys I’ve ever been around.”
He is keen to recognise the equal impact that those behind the camera made on him. Bob Stenner and Sandy Grossman were the producer and director working with him, and with Summerall and Madden. “When you’re at that level, those guys are equally as important to what made Pat and John, Pat and John.” He said it was “equally cool to be around those guys” and that he and Bob Stenner still talk three or four times a week to this day.
The legacy of Madden, he adds, is really what we watch on the NFL today. He says several producers and directors worked for John Madden. Troy Aikman got into broadcasting because of John Madden. It’s almost like the broadcasting equivalent of the Shanahan coaching tree. “The Bob Stenner and Sandy Grossman, Pat and John coaching tree, is probably giving you 70% of what you’re watching.”
He muses, “as you get older, and you have a bunch of younger guys working for you, I’s important how you treat people and how you teach them. I know how much that affected my career and how much that legacy can continue past you.”
Chuck’s passion for the game he has devoted his impressive career to, lives and breathes has been inspiring to listen to. As “the guy in the truck”, he has had a window into the traditions, rivalries and personalities that make college football such a unique sport, and an increasingly addictive one to follow. “It’s not work”, as he reminds me.
In the spirit of his comments on how you treat people, I would like to say a very big thank you to Chuck. He has been so generous with his time and so eager to share his excitement and stories about the game he loves. It’s infectious and I have loved every minute. It makes me want to see and experience much more in my journey into college football, exciting especially with the season about to kick off.