How a fib-telling UM fan is flipping the college football script
Brad Zager’s journey from West Bloomfield High to executive producer overseeing all live-event production for Fox Sports is unique and interesting and one most of his friends don’t want their kids hearing.
Zager, 41, bypassed college and began an internship at Prime Sports when he was 18 and had moved to Los Angeles to live with his mother after his parents divorced. This is a right-time-in-the-right-place story. Pure luck, really. His mom’s neighbor had worked there, made a few calls, and the teenager who grew up loving Michigan football and basketball and all Detroit sports was in.
But there was a small issue.
He needed to be a college student. Sure, he told them, he had planned to enroll — a slight fib — but he signed up for a minimum six credits at a local community college.
“I enrolled for two semesters in a row, and then I started faking it,” Zager said laughing. “At some point, this kind of job I picked up turned into a career that I love and every day I thank God and wonder how I got so lucky to have it all fall into place the way it has. When I look at my path, I sometimes feels like it’s a story I would have heard about somebody else and wondered why it didn’t happen to me rather than this dream I’ve been living now since I graduated from West Bloomfield High.”
Zager is an important facet of college football television programming, and the Big Ten, with which it has a contract, is a big part of his vision. He has retooled Fox’s college football show, “Big Noon Kickoff,” and, much like his good fortune with his job out of high school, retired Ohio State coach Urban Meyer became available at just the right time. Meyer is the anchor of a group of analysts that also include former college stars Reggie Bush, Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart. He’s also making a strong push to make noon kickoff’s the prized game time versus the more recent push to put the “big” games in primetime.
Michigan’s game against Army on Saturday will be carried by Fox, and the kickoff show will air at 11 a.m.
The irony that Zager, a big Michigan fan, hired Meyer is not lost on him. Meyer went 7-0 against Michigan.
“I feel I helped do our part by getting him off the sideline,” Zager said laughing. “The rest of it is on the team.”
Growing up in Metro Detroit, Zager’s first sports memory was the 1984 Detroit Tigers. As he looks back at that time, he was struck by how a winning baseball team drew together a community. Everyone was talking about the Tigers. Everyone wanted to watch the games or attend in person.
“That 35-5 start is still such a great sports and baseball moment,” he said. “I was lucky. If you look at my age group, outside of the Lions, I’ve seen every team in Michigan be successful. Obviously, the Red Wings were next level and then there was Michigan in football and basketball winning national championships”
He remains devoted to all the Michigan teams, but he’s particularly fond of the Wolverines.
“I grew up in the heart of the Fab Five, so that team will always be ridiculously special to me for what it did for my whole age group loving basketball and just the passion they brought and that attitude,” Zager said. “Coming off the Bad Boys era right into the Fab Five, we just got to define basketball in Michigan for so long and then Desmond (Howard, winning the 1991 Heisman Trophy) right at that same time in the early ‘90s and then going right into when I moved out here with Charles Woodson and that whole Rose Bowl national championship team. It was great. And then there’s the downsides. I still remember where I was when (Colorado’s) Kordell (Stewart) had that throw (to beat Michigan in 1994), that nauseating feeling for 72 hours after that throw and then just knowing it was somebody from Michigan who caught it in (Michael) Westbrook, which made it worse.
“As a sports fan I can’t imagine many better places to grow up than Michigan and the suburbs where I grew up. Sports are so special in Michigan that it definitely shapes your passion. It was something I always dreamt of being part of but realistically I had no idea what that meant. It sounds great, ‘I want to do something in sports.’ I knew I wasn’t going to play at an early age, so at that point I was like, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I kept saying it and somehow I wound up in this role.”
In his new position, Zager said he and his team researched data regarding television game times and developed a strategy to make the noon kickoff a highlight game.
“The first game we circled was that Michigan-Wisconsin game (on Sept. 21 in Madison),” he said. “That’s an opportunity for college football fans and Big Ten fans to know they don’t have to wait until primetime anymore to see the best game of the day.
“When I was growing up, the thought of the best game in college football was never in primetime. It was always at noon. I think that Michigan-Wisconsin game being back at noon this year, hopefully both teams going in undefeated, will be that first wake-up call to college football fans in the Midwest that the best game of the day can be at noon again.”
He said there was plenty of evidence to support the push toward noon kickoffs.
“You hear primetime in television so much that it’s like that’s the key to all of TV and you start believing it,” Zager said. “And when we started looking at college football over the last couple of years, especially when we got the Big Ten back, most of our highest-rated games of the day were in that noon window. We started asking ourselves why are pushing so much for primetime on college football when the evidence shows us there are fans there right at the beginning of the day, and fans are thirsty for games at noon. If you look at Sunday, afternoon football is at 1 and 4:25. It’s not like there can’t be huge viewership in the afternoon for football. Our 4 o’clock window in the NFL on Sunday is the most watched television program for 10 straight years.
“The noon window in college, it had kinda gotten away over the last few years and it’s time for us to take some ownership.”
The Pac-12 approached Fox recently and said it wouldn’t mind playing games at 9 a.m. — noon in the East. One game that could be considered is Michigan’s opener in 2020 at Washington on Sept. 5. Zager was encouraged that the Pac-12 is open to this conversation.
“It says all of college football is understanding you don’t have to wait until night to play in front of the most amount of viewers,” he said.
But maybe all Michigan fans don’t understand Zager hiring Meyer to join the Fox college football analysts. Zager knows that could be a trigger point, but he also views Meyer as one of the great minds in college football.
Zager knows Michigan fans might be hesitant to give Meyer a chance but hopes they will.
“He’s been very fair to not just Michigan but to all the teams he’s talked about,” Zager said. “I think there’s a lot more focus and scrutiny on what he’s gonna say about Michigan because of the last seven years. In some ways, and I can say this as somebody who grew up in Michigan, if he hadn’t gone 7-0 and it was 3-4 or 4-3, people probably wouldn’t have that animosity the way they do against Urban Meyer. His success against Michigan built up more and more animosity for Michigan fans.”
The Fox college football show originates from the studio, but Zager suggested it may go on the road for the Michigan-Ohio State game on Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. That would put Meyer front and center in a locale where he’s probably not the most popular.
“Our plan is for us to be back there doing the pregame show in Ann Arbor with Urban on the desk,” Zager said. “I know fans will be giving him a hard time, and he knows that but it’s all in the spirit, in the passion of college football. I haven’t met many people who understand and appreciate the passion of the college football fan as much as Urban Meyer. That’s one of the reasons it was tough for him to walk away because he was at the top of the game of something people are so passionate about.”
Army at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Both 1-0
Line: Michigan by 23