Interview: Jonathan Coachman Talks ESPN's 'Off The Top Rope' Segment About WWE And Being A 'SportsCenter' Anchor
It was Tuesday night's 9 p.m. SportsCenter and Jonathan Coachman had just finished telling a story about how coach Rick Pitino and Louisville's indiscretions kept the Cardinals out of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Moments later, within the same broadcast, Coachman was interviewing WWE Hall of Famer Edge as part of ESPN's new Off The Top Rope segment, which has been doing everything from showing Monday Night Raw highlights to flashing back to memorable moments in WWE history and most importantly, allowing fans to get to know Superstars better through candid interviews.
This particular segment had "The Coach" speaking to Edge about reliving being a scrawny kid and witnessing Hulk Hogan versus The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI at the Toronto Skydome in 1990 to having his own WrestleMania wars, whether they were against The Undertaker, Mick Foley or in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs (TLC) match.
The interview marks a full circle for Coachman, who left WWE after a decade — of announcing, commentating and even performing — to join ESPN in 2008, only for him to eventually be delivering a WWE-based segment as a longtime SportsCenter anchor for The Worldwide Leader in Sports. Pretty amazing.
In just a short time, Off The Top Rope has been home to everything from "The Coach" breaking news about Seth Rollins shredding his knee and being forced to vacate his World Heavyweight title in November to a serious discussion with Daniel Bryan about concussions last month.
Here, "The Coach" speaks to Tech Times about the occurrences that paved the way for ESPN to allow him to spawn Off The Top Rope, how he hopes to expand upon the segment, working with his best friend and former fellow WWE employee, Todd Grisham, his favorite on-camera moment with The Rock, Shane McMahon's return and the tech devices he can't live without.
It almost feels like WWE has an 'Inside Man' with you being at ESPN. When you first made the move from WWE to ESPN, there wasn't much — if any — mention of your background in sports entertainment, as you were trying to establish yourself with a new company. So, how did this Off The Top Rope segment come about after all these years?
Jonathan Coachman: When I got here, gosh, eight years now, it was no secret that we had different management in place and there was one guy in particular, who was my boss at the time, and wasn't really big on having a SportsCenter anchor have the background that I had because there was some people that said because I spent 10 in the WWE that maybe I didn't have the credentials or the talent to be a big-time SportsCenter anchor.
Now, fast forward five years and a lot of the difficulties that I had in trying to overcome that perception of me was over. I felt very comfortable. I knew that I belonged. I knew I was one of the best anchors that ESPN had, but also did not want to be in this box of being just a SportsCenter anchor because sometimes there's an expectation that goes along with that title, but also a limitation. We changed management, changed bosses and thank goodness we have two guys now who are amazing at their thought processes, looking at the big picture and understanding that in 2016, you can't ignore a large group of people that really, really like a particular product just because it may not fit into the box of what mainstream sports is.
So, I told them, 'Don't look at me as a SportsCenter guy, but look at me as a guy who could do SportsCenter and could go out the box. And instead of that being a bad thing or negative thing, look at it as something you never had. Something we could explore that we've never done before because you never had the guy in place to make it happen.'
So, to fast forward now to last summer, I had been meeting with management on several occasions and saying, 'we need to have this on our show. We certainly will report the news whenever The Rock or John Cena would make news or do something, on ESPN.com. And I said, 'how come we're not doing a segment or something where we show what's going on in the world of wrestling?' We were on at 9 a.m. at the time to 2 a.m. live and if we can't take 10 minutes out of our day for just pure entertainment — to just have fun and at the same time bring a huge number of eyeballs to ESPN and SportsCenter that, quite honestly, 75 to 80 percent of wrestling fans don't watch ...
I believe that now with Off The Top Rope and the things we're doing with WWE, we're bringing a lot of those eyeballs that normally wouldn't watch and maybe they'll stick around for an extra few minutes after Off The Top Rope or say, 'You know what? I'm going to watch this hour of programming because I know at some point Off The Top Rope is going to come on.'
It has been an incredible success. It's very popular, fans love it, I love doing it. As far as being an inside man, I'm always going to be a WWE guy at heart. I told somebody on Twitter the other day that if you consider my two jobs — that I've been incredibly lucky to have and I realize that — the WWE would be like my lungs or my kidneys, but ESPN is my heart. I need ESPN to survive, but I also need the WWE to live. I love the product, I miss performing in the ring and if this is how I could bring the two together, then I'm happy to do so. I'm incredibly excited about the last six months and also where this partnership could go.
Last week, Off The Top Rope kicked off its "Legends of WrestleMania Month" by looking back at Shawn Michael's best WrestleMania moments. How did that particular segment come about and do you have full control about what the particular Off The Top Rope topic will be about?
How it works is I run everything. We have a great back-and-forth relationship, but I have a group of four guys who basically do all of this on our own time. So, we have our normal jobs of me anchoring SportsCenter and these other guys handle assignments for ESPN and we just do this above and beyond our normal title, so it really is a labor of love.
But I told the guys when this started that, 'This can't be every week that we recap Raw and have a guest because eventually, if we have that same formula, it's going to get old.' The formula works of highlights of something and then having a guest, but you have to have themes sometimes, you have to have different months sometimes.
You can use the month of March to count down WrestleMania just as the company was doing. So, I came up with the idea of having a "Legends of WrestleMania Month" and it's a little dicey because it's guys who are not competing anymore and sometimes it may not work out at the last minute, but we've been lucky so far to have Shawn Michaels, Edge [Tuesday night] and we're hoping to have Stone Cold [Steve Austin] and Mick Foley and Triple H by the time WrestleMania gets here and we have other plans in the works for the coming months, too.
I want fans to know that when they come to Off The Top Rope, they're going to see something that they couldn't see on Raw, that they didn't see on Raw. And for people who missed Raw, over the course of a minute and a half, they could see what happened. The guys and the Divas have been incredibly excited about being on the show. Let's face it — SportsCenter is the iconic brand that it is. I had a conversation with somebody down there [in WWE] the other day and he told me that all of the boys are talking about this in the locker room and they all want to be part of it and say they were on SportsCenter at least once. That was a thrill to hear. Shawn felt the same way. He told me as we got done that, 'Listen, this is a thrill and incredible relationship' that I've been able to foster between the companies and to just keep doing what I've been doing.
People forget why we do this. I got into this business to have fun and because I loved it and I enjoyed it. We all need to make money and we all need to make a living, but at the end of the day, when it's all said and done and we're done living here, can we look back and say we enjoyed it? That's the basis of where I come from when it comes to doing this job and doing this segment.
Could this segment ever be the scene for a developing WWE storyline down the road?
I don't think it will ever happen because one thing I was asked about when this was started was to keep my credibility and keep ESPN's credibility. I make sure to let everyone know that we're not covering this as far as results are concerned or wins and losses. It's entertainment, but what we're doing is also very real. When you have a Superstar on our show, it's going to be them as who they are. They're not going to be in character, we're not going to talk about storylines, we're not going to talk about what happens when they got backstage on Raw. It's strictly to get to know the Superstar better.
So, if a fan wants to go to Monday Night Raw, WWE Network, or go and buy tickets to a house show and watch these guys in person because they bought into who they are ... that's what I'm trying to accomplish. But one thing I won't do is help facilitate the storyline because people will watch and think 'Is this real or is this part of a storyline for a show?' It's always going to be who the real person is, who they are, what they're about, why the sport flows through their veins and I think that's the right formula for us to keep the line from getting blurry.
How would you like the segment to evolve beyond WrestleMania?
I want to get it to a place where not only is there a guest every week and we recap Raw, but I'd also like it to be a place where we break news, where if something happens in the world of WWE that we're the place that you come to. When Seth Rollins tore up his knee, I was the guy who made the call to find out exactly what happened and got my hands on pictures and videos and I was the one who broke it.
I think in a perfect world, to completely honest with you, I would love to have a 30-minute show, whether it be for WWE Network and we simulcast it on ESPN -- almost like an Entertainment Tonight, 30-minute weekly show, where you have the recap of Raw, an interview or two. Ultimately, I would love to expand to a 30-minute show that runs on both networks. With the right leadership and right situation, I think we can make that happen.
It's unique that you work with Todd Grisham at ESPN after you guys were co-workers in WWE. You even co-anchored SportsCenter together before.
Yeah, that was a thrill. Todd's my best friend in the whole world. He's like a brother to me and when he was at the time where he felt the need to leave the WWE, I did everything I possibly could to help him with ESPN.
We had many discussions in the early 2000s and our dreams were to always be at ESPN. We would always say, 'Do you think we're good enough to be on SportsCenter? Do you think we're good enough, if we had the opportunity, to sit in those chairs and anchor that show?'
Eating some fast food, getting into our hotel room at 2 in the morning, we would watch as if it was such a far-fetched idea for us to be at ESPN and I never thought it would be possible. So, for us to now be here and have done some shows together, it's a really, really cool thing.
With the WWE, you were a part of many memorable moments with various Superstars. Is there one such moment that stands out for you?
I was very proud of how my career there evolved from just being a backstage interview guy to somebody who was willing to get in the ring, mix it up, get physical and really gain the respect of the guys in the locker room. I was very proud of that. I think my proudest moment was ... my first two or three years, people knew me as the guy The Rock made fun of and I'd have to do all these stupid things to allow The Rock to have his laughs.
We were in San Diego -- I'll never forget it -- and Rock had already left [the WWE for Hollywood] and was just coming back every now and then, very rarely. I was evolving and in character and I loved being a character. I loved getting up from behind the announcing desk and being physical and being in the storyline.
And it was me and this guy Eugene, who was a character that everybody loved, so The Rock made a call saying, 'Hey, I'm in L.A. I could shoot down and let's make it a surprise.' We did this thing where it was me, Eugene and then at the last minute, he was ready to leave the building and leave the business forever and they hit Rock's music and the place ... came ... unglued. It was the most amazing moment for me.
I was standing in the ring -- and I get goosebumps even telling the story right now. I realized right there that I had gone from being this goofball to a guy that The Rock respected enough to say, 'I want to do this and I want Coach to be part of it.' It ended with me getting the Rock Bottom and The People's Elbow — something that any fan would die to get because it's two of the most famous moves in the history of wrestling. It was a 22-minute segment and it was magic for 22 minutes. I was honored to be part of it and to this day, it's my single best on-camera memory from the WWE.
Last month, Shane McMahon's return to WWE generated the kind of electricity that its fans haven't felt in some time. What's your take on his return and WrestleMania 32 Hell in a Cell match with The Undertaker and what does it mean for the company?
Well, one thing that frustrates me and always has about wrestling fans who love the business, is they don't quite understand how difficult a business this is. What I mean by that is we all have our favorite shows and if NCIS, which is one of my favorite shows, if that was 52 weeks a year, you better believe there'd be a few episodes that weren't as good as the others. The way Vince has chosen to do his business is to not have an off-season. That's what he chose to do. So, I always encourage fans to, instead of complaining about, 'Oh, this show wasn't good or this show wasn't good,' just enjoy it for what it is. You get to have three hours. And by the way, I think that's a mistake. I think two hours is plenty. Even in the early 2000s, when there were at least 15 main-event legit stars, it was still only a two-hour show. I understand contracts and TV money — I get all that — but I wish they would [go] back to two hours. That would really help.
However, Shane McMahon has always been a dynamic performer. The Undertaker is now at a point where he put his body through almost everything he possibly could and he's able to get up about once a year, twice a year and still have a magical Undertaker performance. That's what I expect from WrestleMania. That's what WrestleMania is all about.
It's about surprising the fans with something big and Hell in a Cell is not something you just throw out there. Hell in a Cell is something that rarely could you find two guys who are willing to do it, but can do it to the extent where the fans leave saying, 'Holy crap! What did I just watch?' Shane McMahon has always been willing to put his body on the line and [his] reputation on the line. He's been gone for such a long time for whatever the reasons are and for him to come back, it shocked a lot of people, and that's what Raw and the business is about. It's hard to do that week in and week out. If you can, it becomes magic.
We would be remiss to be speaking with you without asking what some of your favorite tech devices are? Ones you can't live without.
I can't do without FaceTime. I have two young kids, who are seven and five. They're my third and fourth leg, so FaceTime has become an incredible tool for me. My iPad is something that has replaced the laptop and I hardly use my desktop anymore. But between my iPad, my iPhone with FaceTime ... I'm not a big tech guy. But I have become way better on Instagram and Snapchat and all these things that help connect The Coach brand with the fans at home.