The Man Who Might Become the Next Face of College Sports
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this disc-golfing Phish phan buttons up well.
By Matt Foley
Adam Zucker is yelling at you, television viewer. You may not know that his voice is booming off the walls of a 4,300-square-foot CBS Sports studio in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, but he is definitely yelling. Or, as they say in the biz, “conveying passion.”
Zucker is like the quarterback on set, issuing reminders of assigned breakdowns to his co-hosts — former NFL linebacker Brian Jones and longtime coach Rick Neuheisel — seconds before going live. His eyes bounce between a string of monitors, checking scores like a student frantically scanning scribbled notes before a final exam.
Three … two … one …
“Hellooo, and welcome to College Football Today. I’m your host.”
In addition to serving as lead anchor and host for shows like Inside College Football and Inside College Basketball, Zucker, 40, took over as the full-time host of CBS Sports’ pregame, halftime and postgame show in 2014. Now the face of the network’s college sports coverage, Zucker is tasked with communicating the network’s message to fans. It’s a simple message, but one he doesn’t take lightly: “We understand why you’re here,” he tells OZY. “And we’re just as invested in, and passionate about, these incredible moments as you are.”
Zucker represents a changing of the guard in sports broadcasting — a fresh personality taking the baton from industry giants like Tim Brando, Greg Gumbel and the late John Saunders. Yet, he’s also a throwback. In this age of new media, where hastily spewed commentary is best served boiling, Zucker’s holistic approach is a reprieve for viewers tired of conjecture. As his role expands, he’ll undoubtedly face criticism — after all, sports fans aren’t the best with change — but CBS is confident that Zucker’s is the right voice to connect across generations. “He’s on the level of Mike Tirico, Chris Berman, Rece Davis,” says college football studio producer Tim Weinkauf. “He can go with the flow as well as anyone, and better than some.”
Adam is an unbelievable jack-of-all-trades. He could produce the show, direct the show … He even knows a little bit about football too.
Rick Neuheisel, former coach and current CBS Sports analyst
Zucker got his start at Syracuse University’s renowned Newhouse School of Public Communications, earning a reporter job at the local CBS station after graduating in 1998. But the New Jersey native’s sports obsession stems from childhood. Defining moments? Going to Jets games with his cousins and watching Yankees pitcher David Cone’s no-hitter with his father. “My dad rarely watched sports,” says Zucker. “But it felt like whenever he sat with us, something memorable would happen.”
A penchant for strict penalty enforcement during backyard football games earned him the nickname “Rulebook,” and yet Zucker chose broadcasting over officiating. In high school, he attended basketball broadcaster Bill Raftery’s summer camp. There were lessons on writing and posture, but the real prize was having Saunders and Chris Fowler, of College GameDay fame, as featured guests. Fifteen years later, at a Big East basketball media day, Zucker tracked Raftery down “just to let him know that one of his campers turned out OK.”
An entry-level position at the Syracuse CBS affiliate was Zucker’s first break. He was already interning at the station but believes his versatility cinched the job. “Early on, I’d been warned not to worry too much about appearance and delivery,” he says. “I got that job because I knew how to shoot video and cut highlights, quickly.” According to Neuheisel, those skills still serve his co-host: “Adam is an unbelievable jack-of-all-trades. He could produce the show, direct the show … He even knows a little bit about football too.”
After one year, he moved to an NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He covered Penn State football and a host of local sports, crossing the state to shoot footage before rushing back to anchor the broadcast. When he met his future wife, Rachel, she had one question: “She asked me, ‘Are you going to have one of those jobs when you’re gone all the time?’” recalls Zucker. “That was a big issue.”
Now married with two kids, Zucker has a job that affords him an enviable work-life balance. “Of course, some things pop up,” he says, “but I get to coach Little League and help with Boy Scouts.” There’s also time to pursue personal interests: He is a disc golf enthusiast and gets to two or three Phish concerts each year (he’s seen about 75 shows since high school).
Zucker joined CBS Sports in 2003, but his recent full-time hosting job on Today, one of the most visible gigs in college sports, introduced him to a hefty new viewer base. According to Brian Jones, Zucker’s good nature is what resonates: “A lot of people in this industry, when you reach the mountaintop, and he’s getting there, it can go to your head. Adam has been the same person since I met him in 2005. He’s a cool cat.”
Last spring, Zucker was asked to do the in-game studio updates during March Madness, a job that had him pulling 12-hour shifts in a windowless room. “I grew up watching these events,” he says. “It’s not lost on me that I get to be doing this.” Still, one must wonder if — like many media personalities — a holy grail exists for Zucker. Is it possible he’ll be lured elsewhere by a new project or more fame and fortune?
“That’s not me,” he insists. “I’ve been handed a glistening football-shaped baton … In 10 years, hopefully everything is exactly how it is now.”
Seems CBS is stuck with its rising star. But what if he hadn’t landed that job in Syracuse? Would the next generational staple of college sports coverage have found his way into our living rooms? “I was going to see 13 Phish shows that summer and then go to SUNY Oswego to study meteorology,” the well-coiffed broadcaster explains. “I got extremely lucky.”
Maybe, but as Zucker said just last week on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show: “You got to stay hot. You got to keep the momentum.”