Fox Sports Legendary Producer Bob Stenner Sounds Two-Minute Warning on 50-Year Career
While the legendary voices of Pat Summerall and John Madden carried more weight than arguably any other sports broadcasting duo in history, there was a voice in their ears for 21 years who helped guide them to the prominence they achieved — Bob Stenner.
Stenner, the tandem’s longtime producer and current NFL on FOX producer for Thom Brennaman and David Diehl, leads a game announce team for the final time this season, and the veteran’s exit from the producer chair comes after 50 years as a TV producer, 40 of which he spent in the NFL’s lead production role for FOX and CBS.
Stenner, who served as lead producer in the NFL, NBA, auto racing, NCAA Basketball, boxing, and horse racing for several years, transitions into an advisory role with the NFL on FOX production teams immediately following the final down of the season. While he acknowledges there is no perfect time to walk away, Stenner admits the time is right.
“If someone could sit on my shoulder and see what I’ve seen, they’d know I’ve had the greatest life and career,” Stenner said. “We work with sports heroes on a daily basis, so I have been beyond fortunate. But young producers are constantly moving up and until someone like me moves out, no one can truly advance. I’m still at the top of my game, but I probably can serve FOX better by advising young producers, directors, and announcers. I didn’t have a mentor, so I’m hoping to be that person for the next guy.”
Stenner was “that person,” the nucleus of some of the most high-profile sporting events in the country, for 50 years. Embarking on his career as a mail clerk in the CBS mailroom with no experience, he nevertheless quickly climbed the ladder. Stenner went on to produce eight Super Bowls and garner 11 Emmys and the prestigious Eclipse Award in 1973 for co-producing the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes the year that Secretariat won the Triple Crown. If anyone is equipped to groom the next generation, it’s the Long Island, NY, native, who will travel with production teams to consult regarding their performance.
“What we do in this business, and it’s backwards because it has to be, is put the best producers and best directors with the best talent,” Stenner explained. “When you bring in new talent and production teams, they’re all trying to find their way around. But you aren’t going to put your brand-new producer and director with your top announcing team. This is one business in which we don’t do enough to critique our own work. Someone has to be looking at the product closely, trying to make it better on a weekly basis.”
The original group assembled under Stenner’s tutelage raised each other’s game each and every week for 21 years.
“It’s a rare opportunity in the business when you get to work with a team for a long time,” Madden said. “That is what we had in Bob Stenner, Sandy Grossman, Pat Summerall, and myself. Bob was the best, the top football producer in the game during his time. I started with him in 1981 and worked with him through the 2002 Super Bowl, and he was a big part of my television career.”
Stenner’s career track took him from the mailroom to the promotions and ad sales department at WCBS Radio, and then to the same position at WCBS-TV.
“I wasn’t there long before the assistant programming director asked if I wanted to produce Frank Gifford’s local pre-game show,” the former baseball player recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely,’ not knowing what the heck that meant other than I knew who Frank was. But by the next year, I was doing Giants’ home games, the network pre-game show and then a full schedule. I started out not knowing what I was doing, but I asked people to teach me as I went.”
Stenner also soaked up invaluable lessons from Summerall and Madden, with whom he worked from 1981 to 2002 at CBS and then at FOX. Simply put, he was witness to a piece of sports history.
“Pat taught me to be prepared down to the smallest detail, while John demanded everybody be 24/7 into football,” said Stenner, with FOX Sports since its inception. “He would teach, almost by humiliation, young people coming into our group by bombarding them with questions about simple numbers and rosters and other things. He was a teacher and taskmaster. You made sure you knew everything because you didn’t want to be embarrassed by not having your stuff together. You never wanted to be the weak link who let something slip through the cracks.”
According to anyone who has worked with Stenner, he was the strongest link in any broadcast.
“My NFL broadcasting career would not have been complete had I not worked with Bob Stenner,” said veteran play-by-play man Dick Stockton, who teamed with him on NBA coverage. “We worked together for seven years and Bob always was the quintessential leader. Any game you worked with Bob at the helm carried with it an aura of top-level preparation and approach. You knew you were working with a man at the top of his profession, and it made you feel better than you were. He always came to the event with an idea to make the broadcast a cut above, and it was a privilege to be in his company.”
From nearly the first minute he hit the air with Summerall and Madden, Stenner realized the network had captured lightning in a bottle.
“I knew almost immediately we had something special,” the Huntington Beach, CA, resident recalled. “John is such a unique person. He’s very curious, and he’s a teacher, as are many
coaches. That translates well to broadcasting because he could educate the fan. It was evident from the public’s reaction how much people loved John and how much they enjoyed him in the booth with Pat. Fans fell in love with them.
“What made them so dynamic was the fact John was somewhat longwinded, while Pat was so succinct,” added Stenner, who teamed with director Sandy Grossman during those years. “John knew early on he could fly that plane anywhere he wanted, and Pat would land it safely. That’s a good feeling to have in the booth. There was nothing John could do or say that Pat couldn’t fix for him. Pat was a genius. He was a minimalist with words, but his words painted vivid pictures. That’s the mark of a magnificent storyteller.”
By the same token, the husband and father of two is convinced the mark of an effective producer lies in the art of communication.
“Being a great producer is all about people skills,” stated Stenner, who worked with Brennaman and Brian Billick at FOX after the Summerall/Madden era concluded. “A producer gives everybody the tools to do their job perfectly, gets out of the way and lets them do it. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that if you see someone making a mistake, let them make that mistake because, in live TV, you have to make another decision two seconds later. When it’s over, you talk about it, but if you yell while it’s happening, you’ve lost them anyway. And while the producer is the pulse of the broadcast and has the final say, I always solicit everyone’s opinions and choose the best one in making decisions.”
Veteran broadcaster Mike Joy, a pit reporter for Stenner’s CBS’ NASCAR productions and now the voice of NASCAR on FOX, vividly recalls his former producer’s modus operandi.
“One of the best times in my career was when Bob helped me transition from radio to TV,” Joy said. “Some producers came to work with their whole show planned out word for word, but not Bob. He sought consensus, valued everyone’s input, and then crafted a show we were all very proud to be part of. He relied on his announcers for our knowledge of the sport and its personalities, and he always brought out the best in us. The best of many great Stenner moments was the finish of the 1994 Daytona 500. Bob hit the ‘all call’ with a lap-and-a-half to go and barked, ‘Everybody lay out. Okay, Ned, be a dad. Take your boy home.’ I still tear up recalling Ned Jarrett’s emotional last-lap call of his son, Dale, holding off Dale Earnhardt to win his first 500.”
Stenner points to his protégés as the greatest legacies and accomplishments in his storied career.
“Look at who’s working at CBS and FOX now and most of them came up under me in some capacity,” he stated. “I take great pride in the fact that people like Lance Barrow (CBS) Richie Zyontz (FOX) worked for me and now are the lead producers at their networks. I want to continue to teach producers, not just about how to do TV but about how to be good people and communicators. I look at these guys at the top of their game and know I had a hand in that, and that’s a great feeling. And to have worked with Pat and John and feel like I truly contributed to them getting to that point is phenomenal. Obviously, they were talented beyond measure, but it’s a team effort, and I’m proud to have been on that team.”
That feeling is mutual.
“It has been an incredible blessing to work with Bob over the last eight years,” Brennaman said. “There’s no way I could ever repay what he has given to try and make me, and everyone he’s worked with, better. He’s an extraordinarily talented producer, who during his remarkable run, has seen and done it all. Far more importantly, Bob is an even better man than he is a producer. I would love to believe there’s a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for Bob. After all, he was the driving force behind the greatest television football broadcast team in the history of the league. His impact is indescribable.”
While just a few months shy of his final NFL game as a producer, Stenner acknowledges the emotional toll those closing minutes could take on the man who has made his life and living creating television with some of the best in the business.
“I try not to think about what it will be like in that last game, but I was watching George Strait’s final concert, and his last song was ‘The Cowboy Rides Away,’ he explained. “The lyrics, ‘As the credits roll, a sad song starts to play, and this is where the cowboy rides away’ really struck a chord with me. In a few months, that’s going to be me. Strait said he didn’t know how it would feel to perform his last concert, but when he took the stage at Cowboys Stadium and heard thousands cheering, he was a bit saddened because he won’t have that anymore. To a degree, that’s a bit like being a producer. One minute you’re the guy who calls the shots, produced eight Super Bowls and is well-respected, and your identity is in your work. But the next minute, you’re just another guy.
“While it will be sad for me, I won’t allow myself to dwell on it during the game,” Stenner continued. “But when it’s over and everyone has said ‘good-bye’ that final time, it will be an emotional time for me. That will be my ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’ moment.”