Why Mike Francesa’s radio-domination almost never happened

Mike Francesa was done. The interview was over. And the new sports radio station in town had turned him down. Cold.

In early 1987, what we now know as WFAN was months away from launching. Francesa, a St. John’s grad, was a well-regarded researcher at CBS Sports, sometimes described as “Brent Musburger’s brain,” not yet the studio analyst he’d become a few years later.

And Francesa wanted to be part of the nation’s first all sports-talk station. Badly.

“ ‘You’ve got a big job with CBS,’ ” Francesa recalled an executive with what was then known as “Sports Radio 1050” saying during his interview. “Why do you want to be a producer with us? That’s a step down for you.’”

Francesa stopped him.

“No, no, no. I want to be on the air,” Francesa said, his voice dripping with Long Island. “They said, ‘What are you, nuts? We’re bringing in the best guys in the country.’ I’m like, OK, but gimme a shot. They’re like, ‘Nope.’ I couldn’t get them to give me a shot.”

That executive had his reasons. Well, one anyway.

“The reason I didn’t want to put him on the air was his New York accent,” said Luke Griffin. “I was just blind to [the appeal of] that. But this was local [radio] and the three people doing the hiring were all national guys, from networks. We were looking for the nondescript accent . . . We really didn’t know what we were doing.”

But Jim Nantz knew what Francesa had to offer and, as Francesa’s luck would have it, he also knew Griffin.

Two years earlier, Nantz had become the host of CBS’ college football and basketball studio shows. He credited Francesa with helping him navigate his auditions, and continued to view him as an invaluable resource even after Nantz landed the gig. So Nantz made a phone call on his pal’s behalf, and Griffin relented.

Mike Francesa and Chris Russo in 2007.Getty Images

“They gave me a shot on a weekend and the next thing you know I never left,” Francesa said. “If it hadn’t been for Nantz knowing Luke Griffin, I don’t think I’d ever have gotten a shot.”

Nantz, now CBS’s lead play-by-play man, downplayed his role in jump-starting Francesa’s radio career.

“Mike was going to figure it out on his own,” he said. “He just needed a little extra push . . . To put the guy on the radio was a leap of faith, but I don’t think it took very long for them to realize they had something very special in their midst.”

But even special has…

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