You never forget the people who take the time to teach you how to get better. What made John Saunders special wasn’t his longevity or versatility as a broadcaster, but his desire to make everyone better working at a place where the best were assembled.
ESPN can be a daunting place for newcomers. It symbolizes graduation, a sign that you have achieved a particular level of the craft. But it isn’t the stress of being on camera or competing with your fellow anchors for precious time that can be stressful for those trying to make their way. It’s walking by those who laid the foundation for the place and knowing the standard they set is what you have to live up to. John Saunders was one of those forefathers. He started at the worldwide leader in 1986. His death today felt like something had been taken Bristol and our airwaves too soon. And yet he had a 30 year run at the undisputed champion of televised sports coverage.
Saunders was as versatile as they come. He was among the first co-anchors with Chris Berman on the landscape shifting “NFL Primetime” show which in my opinion had more to do with the growth and appetite for football and sports content in general then any single program ESPN has ever created including Sportscenter.
Saunders would be seen regularly as a reliable play by play announcer mainly on college basketball and a strong presence hosting studio work on College Football Saturdays. Sunday mornings, you would wake up to him and the other pundits on “The Sports Reporters,” a show originally headlined by the iconic Dick Schapp.
All of these disciplines take specific skill sets that Saunders could easily weave to and from as if it was nothing. He was like a great trial lawyer who knew when to mediate to.
He did this with almost no fanfare. Saunders wasn’t the subject of the blogs who praised or derided ESPN. He was just a steady hand who stayed out of the national profile, so his skill is the type that the casual viewers could easily miss. For every complaint about Sportscenter schtick or bombastic hot takes, there are the John Saunders who remind you what high level broadcasting is at it’s best, a calm, poignant discussion about the games we love.
But I won’t remember John for much of that because I was one of the lucky few who worked alongside him and was mentored by him. Broadcasting is a selfish business. It’s the selfless ones who I admire the most. John Saunders knew that everyone who came to his office wanted his jobs because that’s the nature of our game. But he also wanted to help people find their path even if it meant harm to him. Saunders transitioned his career over his final years into a valuable resource. He wanted to be THE mentor to the ESPN talent, specifically the young ones with promise (see my ego there).
So every few months, I’d get an unsolicited email from John asking if I had the time to come by his office for a chat. “Had the Time?” Seriously, everyone has the time for a legend when they ask for it. Because John knew what it was like to be us and knew where we wanted to go, his advice was instrumental. All networks employ talent coaches but few of them have the requisite experience to tell you what it is like to be in your shoes. I liken this to hitting coaches. Wouldn’t you have had to play baseball on some level to truly explain the mechanics and emotion behind it? John knew the craft, every facet of it so when he had a criticism or praise for that matter, it was soaked in.
Broadcasting can be lonely too. Because we have egos. Because we want to succeed. Because we want to be loved and stroked, networks often fail to employ people in talent offices that truly understand how we feel. They’ve never been on our side of the camera or outside of the managerial meetings that are about us and our performance. But when John closed his door, you were on the inside. He advised in ways that network management might dissuade. He’d point you in the direction you should go and even offer negotiating advice. The last part I probably shouldn’t have revealed but it’s a testament to who he was. He not only sincerely wanted you to succeed, he wanted you to feel completely satisfied in your role and place in the building.
John had one other attribute that I admired and embodied myself. The importance of your roots. I’m working back in Washington because it is the place where I can make the biggest impact, not just in my career, but in my community. John felt the same way about Canada and his home of Toronto. When the Raptors entered the NBA, John begged ESPN to find a way to allow him to become the voice of the team and remain an employee. This type of accommodation is rarely made. But John was a rare person and eventually ESPN allowed Saunders to fulfill those dreams of calling NBA games in his home of Toronto and stay with the network.
In short what you should know about John Saunders is not only was he a great broadcaster, he was a tremendous human being. And he will be missed.