For 19 years, Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo were the passionate, volatile, combative voice of New York sports. Both native Long Islanders who’d had modest success on their own, in 1989 the two were paired (against their will) by their bosses at nascent New York sports talk radio station 660 WFAN in what Francesa calls “a shotgun marriage.” From the outset, they were yin-yang personalities: Francesa the gruff, blunt expert, Russo the high-pitched motormouth aficionado. Nonetheless, despite their considerable differences, they were linked by their shared obsession with athletics and their gift for argumentation, and they soon became afternoon-drive staples in the tri-state area—and then outright superstars, pioneering the template that’s now heard far and wide on radio stations across America, and on ESPN and FS1’s litany of likeminded talking-head programs.
Legions of imitators have followed, but none have achieved the pitch-perfect hostile-yet-brotherly rapport Francesa and Russo shared on the air from 1989-2008. And even if one didn’t spend those decades listening to (or calling into) their show—and singing along to its preeminently catchy, corny theme song—ESPN’s new “30 for 30” documentary, Mike & the Mad Dog, serves as an enthusiastic, entertaining primer on their oft-prickly relationship, as well as the birth of the sports-talk paradigm that rules the land today.
Director Daniel H. Forer’s hour-long work, premiering July 13 on ESPN, is a portrait of the unexpected magic that can arise from the clash of equally outsized—if not obviously complementary—personalities. It’s a nostalgia piece with considerable bite, buoyed by in-depth interviews with Francesa and Russo (and their many colleagues and admirers) and considerable footage of their broadcasts, which would eventually be simulcast on the YES cable network, and which came to an end in 2008 when Russo and his “Donald Duck on steroids” pipes departed WFAN to helm his personal Sirius XM channel (Mad Dog Sports Radio), leaving Francesa to man their prior time slot by himself. Decades after they first fought to work alone, only to find tremendous success as a team, the duo now finally have what they wanted—their own solo shows—although Mike & the Mad Dog suggests that nothing quite beats catching lightning in a bottle, as they did during their tenure together.
Speaking to me a week before Mike & the Mad Dog’s small-screen debut (it first premiered at April’s Tribeca Film Festival), the always lively Russo has nothing but kind words to say about Forer’s doc, opining, “I thought they did a tremendous job.” When pressed about what vital material might have been left on the cutting room floor, he grants that there were some significant omissions: their show’s coverage of Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement and New York Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd’s paralysis; the death of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle in a 2006 plane crash, mere days after they’d ripped him on the air; and their relationship with then-Knicks coach Pat Riley, which went sour after they lambasted him for quitting via a faxed resignation letter (and who, Russo notes, refused to participate in the film). Yet its biggest oversight, he thinks, is the extent to which “Mike and the Mad Dog” created what he calls “the duet.”
“Most of the hosts before me and Mike were solo,” Russo remembers. “We were the first ones to establish the two-way sports-talk with success. And I think people didn’t do that until after we showed that it could be done.” Speaking to me a short time later, Francesa agrees about their legacy, stating, “When you’re first, that’s what happens. And if you’re first and you’re lucky enough to be successful, you are looked at as a pioneer, there’s no way around it. ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ did foster a whole new generation. [ESPN’s] Pardon the Interruption became a template for a lot of the TV shows, and that was really off ‘Mike and the Mad Dog.’”
That legacy was built on Russo and Francesa’s inimitable dynamic, which came out of both men’s blunt style of debate, egotistical conviction that they were always right, and deep knowledge of professional and collegiate sports—even if, as Russo remarks, it wasn’t as black-and-white as many tried to portray it. “I’ve always said it: Mike is a lot funnier, and a lot wittier, than people thought. And Chris was a lot more knowledgeable and sharp, sports-wise, than people thought,” he says. “So I think that combination, at times, got a little overrated—that Mike was the encyclopedic one, and Dog was the goofy one. Which I think that was the perception for a long time. After a while, they realized, hey, Mike’s funny! And Dog knows what he’s talking about! Once that was established, I think the show was sharp.”
For his part, Francesa believes that “what made the show special was the fact that you had two individuals who were very confident and accomplished in their own right, who came together to do a show. And we never stopped being individuals. We always did our own shows. We never vacationed together. The show went on all year—one of us handled the show when the other was out… ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ was about two individuals who always competed with each other, who always pushed each other, but also had this brilliant chemistry that made them a special team.”
That mix was, from the start, combustible, and as Mike & the Mad Dog bears out, it more than once almost led to disaster. “We both hated the show…It was nightmarish in the beginning. We couldn’t stand each other,” recalls Francesa, attributing that animosity to the fact that both had aspirations that didn’t involve being part of a couple. Their initial displeasure with each other had WFAN head honchos angling for a swift cancellation (“It came from everybody,” says Francesa). Almost immediately, though, industry-leading ratings dispelled such notions, turning both men into bona fide local celebrities—and national ones too, as proven by Russo’s appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Their ensuing residence at the top was a lengthy one, buoyed by New York’s 1990s run as one of the centers of the sports world, thanks to championships by the Giants (1990), the Rangers (1994), and the Yankees (1996, 1998-2000), not to mention a Finals appearance by the Knicks (1994) and a World Series trip by the Mets (2000). At its peak, their influence was so great that, as Mike & the Mad Dog amusingly recounts, they were the ones responsible for Mike Piazza being traded to the Mets, via intense on-air campaigning that helped convince team owner Nelson Doubleday to acquire the slugging catcher. That wasn’t the only time they altered the thinking of a club either, says Francesa, who claims that he persuaded Yankees manager Joe Torre to put centerfielder Bernie Williams in the line-up during one (unspecified) playoff game, and that they routinely fielded calls from players who coveted a job in the Big Apple—including Curt Schilling, before he signed with the Boston Red Sox.
While Francesa now states, “we had fun throughout the entire run,” Mike & the Mad Dog doesn’t shy away from the rockier times. There was the spat over Russo’s decision—when Francesa was on vacation—to cut “Mike” out of their opening jingle (which Francesa now asserts “was not that big a deal”). And then there was Francesa’s 2000 refusal to get on a rescheduled flight to an Eastern Conference Finals match-up between the Knicks and Pacers, which led to such a blow-up the two didn’t look at—or speak to—each other off-air for months. “I was completely convinced that we had done our last show together,” Francesa recalls about that tense period. Crisis was averted, however, when Francesa’s fiancé Roe mended their fence by inviting Russo to her and Francesa’s July wedding.
After that near-catastrophe, they persevered for another eight years, albeit not without their share of controversy—most notably in 2001 when, the day after the 9/11 attacks, they reportedly argued (in response to a caller) that American Jews should have to swear a loyalty oath to America ahead of any allegiance to Israel. The audio of this exchange heard in Mike & the Mad Dog is far less cut-and-dried than the media censures that came in the incident’s immediate wake. And today, Francesa remains adamant that, “number one, that whole 9/11 thing was never anything that was true, and that’s been proved out. I always said there was nothing to it, and it’s been proved that there’s nothing to it. Number two, I think you get to a point where you’re a big enough name that people want to make a story out of everything you said.”
Asked if such scrutiny has increased since he began working alongside Francesa in 1989, Russo concedes that there’s more “sensitivity, yes. You’ve got to be a little more careful. Political correctness, absolutely. You can call it that, or you can call it proper sensitivity—it depends on what side of the aisle you stand on.”
Francesa concurs: “That’s where we live now—people are always trying to make everything into a screaming headline.” While he doesn’t think callers have changed too much over the past few decades, Francesa does think social media has altered the landscape, saying, “I think social media has changed, where they [callers] are all trying to one-up themselves to see who can be more clever than the next guy. And they all think that what they’re saying on social media is somehow important, and it really isn’t. But they somehow think it is. It’s given everybody a voice, so I think that’s probably part of it. But I think that’s what sports radio tried to do: give everybody a voice.”
Firestorms were part and parcel of a show that thrived on the strength of its hosts’ go-for-broke sports fervor, epitomized by Russo’s legendary 2003 rant about a particularly bad loss for his beloved San Francisco Giants. To listen to “Mike and the Mad Dog” was to hear two men exposing their intelligence, their arrogance, their kindness, their nastiness, and their good humor for hours each week—a situation that led to uncomfortable exchanges as well as inspired back-and-forths that were akin to how guys might talk at a local bar, or at a corner barbershop (albeit with a far deeper understanding of sports history). They were showmen who felt, to diehard fans—including the legion of “long-time listeners, first-time callers” who’d phone them with questions, comments and criticisms—like old friends. Or as Russo succinctly puts it, “A lot of people like to hear two guys having fun on the radio.”
Which is why, when they broke up in 2008, many took it hard. Mike & the Mad Dog is bookended by footage from 2016’s “Francesacon 3” (an annual gathering of Francesa acolytes), where the duo reunited, to the rabid delight of those in attendance. Though they admit that they sometimes miss having the other as a foil, both sound, after eight years apart, plenty content to continue going it alone. Russo praises the “flexibility” of his national Sirius platform (“You do anything you want”). And Francesa—who’s announced that his December 15 broadcast will be his last for WFAN—sounds happy to have an unplanned future for the moment, confessing, “I have made no decisions, I’ve come to no conclusions, and I haven’t entered into any agreements.”
Even if nothing has been confirmed, Russo expects to join Francesa on the air before the latter departs WFAN, surmising, “I’m sure they’re going to ask me to go on one of those late shows. Before Mike leaves, I would think you are going to have me and Mike on there at WFAN in some capacity.” After that, how their paths might once again cross remains unknown. Still, both are exceedingly proud of what they accomplished together.
“I wanted to try and lift the credibility and the positioning of the sports talk-show host. When we started, the sports talk-show host was the low man on the totem pole in every city,” says Francesa. “Now, he is the guy in every city. He is the voice in every city. I think that’s what changed. And that’s one thing that really began with ‘Mike and the Mad Dog.’”