Where Are They Now?: Jonathan Coachman
Not many people get to live out their childhood dreams. Jonathan Coachman has gotten to do just that and much more.
“There’s only one thing I’ve ever wanted to do for a living,” Coachman told WWE.com in a recent interview. “And that is being a sports broadcaster.”
After working for several local news stations throughout Kansas, The Coach joined WWE in 2000 as a backstage interviewer, but soon became an announcer on Raw, SmackDown and Heat, as well as Mr. McMahon’s on-air assistant. He even mixed it up in the ring a few times. Those unique experiences have prepared The Coach for his current gig at ESPN, where he calls the highlights on SportsCenter, hosts his own radio shows and takes part in the network’s NFL coverage.
Coachman grew up playing as many sports as possible and went on to play basketball at McPherson College in Kansas. During his time in college, Coach got his first taste of the broadcast booth.
“We had a tiny radio station in town,” he explained. “The owners let me do play-by-play for a couple different colleges. I even parlayed those shows into college credit. My college didn’t really have a broadcasting program, so I told them it would be good for credit. They bought it.”
Shortly after graduating, Coachman, in his own words, “stumbled” into his first professional broadcasting job at KAKE in Wichita, Kan.
“[My audition] was horrible, I was awful, not very good at all,” Coach said. “But I kept calling them and calling them and calling them. The news director finally called me that Friday. He said he just got fired, but they were letting him stay until the end of the day. He said, ‘I don’t think you’re ready to work at this level, but I want to hire you as the weekend sports anchor if you can get here by 5 o’clock today. I jumped in my car and prayed that it would get there.”
Coach’s car made it to Wichita and he was on the air soon after. Though he had on-air experience from his college days, the young broadcaster didn’t realize how tough the professional ranks were.
“I didn’t realize how good I needed to be to get to the level where I am now,” he said. “Every single day was a challenge just to get on the air. We’d do three minutes at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. and I’d barely get the segment written and edited. I remember thinking, “Man, how do people do this five days a week?”
He stuck with it and greatly improved, enough to get a call to work at KMBC in Kansas City, Mo. One of his first stories, oddly enough, was about WWE coming to town. Coach was sent to Florida to produce a series of stories on WWE, which was in the middle of the Attitude Era boom. It was an unbelievable experience for a 22-year old Coachman.
“My eyes were as big as saucers,” he recalled. “I got to see The Rock from a distance and interviewed five or six different guys. I’ll never forget sitting down with Al Snow and thinking he was the biggest star on the planet.”
Coach covered WWE on several more occasions during his time at KMBC, while covering the Kansas City Chiefs on a full-time basis. He built up a great rapport with WWE staff and earned a tryout to become a WWE announcer in 1999. He was offered a job almost immediately, but still had two years left on his contract with KMBC.
“They said, ‘Absolutely not. You can’t do both,’” Coach said. “I didn’t understand why. But WWE was blowing up. It was getting so big they basically said they were willing to do things to get me out of my contract [with KMBC.] Like Ted DiBiase said, ‘Everybody’s got a price.’”
WWE helped KMBC purchase a helicopter to get Coach out of his contract after the football season. In the meantime, he traveled to WWE’s television tapings every week and shadowed his fellow announcers, like Michael Cole and Jim Ross, to learn how things worked.
“I had four months to see things, to be on the road, to watch, to learn,” Coachman told WWE.com. “By the time January 2000 rolled around, I thought I was ready.”
Coachman was thrown right into the deep end for his first interview. The newbie was given the task of going one-on-one with The Great One — The Rock. Understandably, The Coach was a little nervous about getting up close and personal with The Brahma Bull.
“At that point, I knew him, but he was still very intimidating,” he said. “But I’ll never forget how kind and giving he was. He said, ‘Listen, I really want them to remember your name.’”
“He goes, ‘The Coach of what? A little girls’ softball team?’” the announcer recalled. “He said The Coach about ten times. The crowd was eating it up because he was making fun of me, but at the end of the night, I walked out of the building, and all the fans waiting were screaming, ‘Coach!’ It was because of him that it stuck from the beginning.”
Coachman continued as a backstage reporter and announcer for several years, until 2003, when WWE Chairman Mr. McMahon presented him with a unique opportunity.
“He came up to me and said, ‘We need to get you in the ring, and I think we can really make people hate you,’” Coachman remembered.
At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, the former college athlete could convincingly make the transition to an in-ring performer. He joined the dark side at SummerSlam 2003, smacking Shane McMahon with a steel chair during The Boy Wonder’s bout with Eric Bischoff. The Coach wasn’t just putting in work on television. Coachman was dedicated to becoming proficient in the ring and went to great lengths to do so, working with trainers like Tom Prichard and Superstars like Christian and The Hurricane.
“I was in the ring every day,” he said. “I would do Live Events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There were a lot of guys who were willing to help me and teach me. It’s still, to this day, the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Coachman was soon splitting time between announcing on Sunday Night Heat with Al Snow and battling in the ring over the Raw commentary table with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. It wasn’t long before Coach moved from the announcer’s desk to the executive offices, taking on an Executive Assistant role for Mr. McMahon. Getting to work closely with The Chairman helped Coachman develop over the rest of his WWE career and beyond.
“Working with anybody else, including my bosses at ESPN, is like working for Mr. Rogers compared to working with him,” Coach said. “Working with him intimately on a daily basis was very eye-opening, sometimes intimidating, but I also got to do a lot of things because he trusted me. Being around him taught me a lot. It taught me not to be afraid of anything. I don’t mean just physically, but don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to take chances.”
While he was working a busy WWE schedule, Coachman was still squeezing in outside gigs every week. Sports fanatics probably remember Coachman calling games on College Sports Television (now CBS Sports Network) and for the WNBA’s New York Liberty, while hosting in-studio shows for the New York Knicks on MSG. While the extra work proved beneficial to his long-term goals of finding a full-time sports gig and settling down to have a family, it’s not something he’d consider doing again.
“It was tough,” he told WWE.com. “For two and a half years, I worked seven days a week, doing whatever was thrown in front of me. I couldn’t do wrestling and sports forever. It would have killed me.”
“Like WWE, I went in for the audition and by the end of the day, I had a contract offer on the table,” he recalled. “But online stuff was starting to get big around then, so it didn’t take long for somebody to put on Facebook or something that they saw me at ESPN.”
Coach soon found himself meeting with WWE officials, who wanted to know his status, as he still had four months left on his contract.
“I said I’ve been offered a deal and I was going to take it,” Coachman explained. “Even if I wanted to stay, if you get offered something at ESPN, I would have been silly not to take it. Quite honestly, it probably would have never come around again.”
He wasn’t expecting the reaction he got from WWE.
“They told me they were going to take me off the air immediately,” he said, noting that they wanted to try Mick Foley as an announcer. “They said, ‘We know your first kid is on the way and the travel can be difficult. Stay home and take care of that. If we need you, we’ll call you. If not, enjoy having your first kid and having some time at home.’ It meant the world to me.”
Since joining ESPN, Coachman has become a jack of all trades. He’s hosted “Coach & Company,” an afternoon drive time radio show that has since moved to Sundays. During the NFL season, he hosts “Football Sundays,” a TV and radio simulcast covering all the football highlights. During the college basketball season, he hosts ESPN’s extensive television coverage three days a week. He also anchors SportsCenter, ESPN’s centerpiece show, whenever possible.
“I’m very blessed that I get to do the three things I really wanted to do in college hoops, the NFL and SportsCenter,” he said.
He credited his decade of working for WWE with getting him ready for the daily grind at ESPN.
“I’ve become a very, very good writer,” Coach said. “And I don’t feel like I anchor, I perform. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve taken out of WWE. I’ve gotten to a point where The Coach is somebody people believe in, whether I’m doing wrestling or college basketball on a Tuesday night. Without all of those different experiences at WWE, I know I wouldn’t be as good doing this as I am now.”
When he’s not working at ESPN, Coachman’s time is devoted to his two children. When he can, he enjoys golfing with one of his closest friends and a fellow WWE alumnus, Todd Grisham.
For everything in his life, Coach is extremely grateful.
“For most people, this is their hobby,” he said. “Watching sports is what they do in their spare time. That’s what I do for a living and I never get sick of it. Some people might call that being a workaholic, I just call it being lucky.”
You can follow Jonathan Coachman on Twitter @TheCoachESPN. You can listen to his radio show, Coach & Company, Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET on ESPNRadio.com, Sirius Channel 84 or your local ESPN Radio affiliate.