When Stephen A. Smith first heard the respective, distinctive voices of Chris “Mad Dog” Russo and Mike Francesa on the radio, he was a high school sports reporter for the New York Daily News in the early 1990s.
More than 30 years later, the ESPN commentator is quick to point out that the style of sports debate he has made a career out of started with Francesa and Russo on New York’s WFAN.
Francesa and Russo haven’t appeared publicly on-air together – outside of a brief reunion at “FrancesaCon” years ago – since their show, “Mike and the Mad Dog” ended in 2008. Russo departed for SiriusXM, which named a channel after him, and Francesa took over the afternoon drive time show, which he did solo for the next 12 years (with a brief retirement sprinkled in).
That changes Wednesday.
Francesa and Russo will join Smith and host Molly Qerim on “First Take” for the full two hours (10 a.m.-noon ET).
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“I believe in paying homage to people that paved the way for me,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. “If there’s ever a time that I would be more than happy to step back and let them go at it if it came to that, that’s certainly not a problem that I have.”
Why is Mike Francesa on ‘First Take’ with Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo?
The idea of sports talk radio was a novelty at the time their show took off. The way the two hosts went back and forth was what caught Smith’s attention.
“Doggie was a bat out of hell,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports about Russo, who joins Smith every Tuesday on “First Take.”
Francesa seemed to know everything about everything. The duo had to dispense their blessing if one was to matter in the New York sports world during the 1990s. Winding up on the wrong side of their opinions was bad news.
“Two legends as far as I’m concerned, and pioneers in this business,” Smith said.
Russo and Smith – both bombastic by style – have good on-screen chemistry, and ESPN executives approached Smith with the idea of reuniting “Mad Dog” and “The Sports Pope.”
“I said to them, ‘It would be an honor,’ ” Smith said. “These guys jump-started sports debate as far as I’m concerned.”
Smith said “First Take” is a show that does not ignore history. Having two sports historians on his show is a privilege and opens up the topics of discussion. They can speak about the athletes and stories from the ’80s and ’90s and the changes in sports through the decades since.
“They have an expert opinion to provide and to supplement and add additional substance to anything that I might dispute,” said Smith, who filmed “General Hospital” in Los Angeles on Tuesday before flying back to New York for the big event.
“With my luck, they’ll probably end up ganging up on me, which might not be the prettiest thing in the world for me. And I’ll wear all of that.”
First time, long time
While Smith was between stints at ESPN, from 2009 to 2011, Francesa was sure to credit Smith for being on top of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh trio joining the Miami Heat. Smith never forgot it, even though he has more of a relationship with Russo.
In Smith’s mind, Russo brings to “First Take” Tuesdays what he’s done every day for more than 35 years.
“He knows what the hell he’s talking about. He’s incredibly passionate about it and he’s absolutely hysterical while doing it,” Smith said, adding that the entire cast of debate partners – such as Michael Irvin on Mondays – “works for me. It works for ‘First Take.’ I couldn’t be happier to have him on the show.”
Russo told Howard Stern last year he is paid $10,000 per episode. But it’s not about the money, Smith said.
“It’s the fun that we’re having,” he said. “It’s the information that we provide. It’s the fact that you can come watch this show and have an absolute blast doing so.”
Smith bets Francesa will enjoy himself on the show.
“And we’re going to see to it, that he has a good time,” Smith said, “because he deserves it.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.