How Miami shaped ESPN’s Suzy Kolber
A lifetime football fan, she learned the TV game in South Florida
You likely know Suzy Kolber from her long and distinguished career in sports television. The energetic and enthusiastic TV personality has spent all but three of the last 29 years with ESPN, primarily covering the NFL in some capacity.
She’s front and center every Monday night during football season, anchoring the ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’ pregame show, Monday Night Countdown. Along with the pregame show, she handles the Monday Night Football halftime and postgame coverage from the site of each weekly game. Plus, since 2004, you’ve seen her interviewing the top picks annually at the NFL Draft. Kolber has also hosted other pro football programming on ESPN’s family of networks. Besides her favored football, she’s hosted SportsCenter, NASCAR Countdown, the X-Games, Wimbledon and the French Open over the years. Kolber was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 and was named the Maxwell Football Club’s Sports Broadcaster of the Year in 2006 – the first female to be so honored.
Just this month, she wrapped up a true offseason, “for the first time in many, many years.” After covering the 2022 NFL Draft in Las Vegas in April, she got to enjoy helping coach her daughter Kellyn’s U14 travel softball team and spent some time at her beloved Jersey Shore, too. However, the NFL stops for no one and she’ll be getting back to the gridiron grind with ESPN’s Pro Football Hall of Fame coverage the first weekend of August in Canton, Ohio.
BIENVENIDOS A MIAMI
But the 58-year-old Kolber’s television career sprang to life in South Florida. The Philadelphia-area native is a University of Miami product (Class of 1986) and started working, first as an intern, covering sports on TV in the region before she even graduated from the U. After graduation, she spent a short stint at CBS Sports before returning to the 305 and eventually landing at ESPN.
She’s proud to explain that her experience at the University of Miami and working in the diverse and progressive South Florida market really shaped her, both personally and professionally, in many ways.
“The whole package about Miami, and being in that market was so great for so many different types of sports,” explained Kolber who covered a wide variety of sports in the Sunshine State, including greyhound racing and water sports. “There was horse racing, and NASCAR was always big in the south. There were so many different types of things that I was exposed to through the years. It was such an ideal market to be a part of in so many different ways. And then there are so many transient people and you get exposed to so many different types of personalities in the industry. The entire package was there.”
Kolber emphasizes the importance of versatility in becoming a solid broadcaster, a trait she gathered while working at UM’s Dynamic Cable and either interning, freelancing, or working full-time at various South Florida stations such as WPEC-TV, WCIX-TV WPLG-TV and WTVJ-TV. She won a local Sports Emmy in 1998 at WTVJ, where she produced the 5:30 p.m. sportscast.
“Young people that I talk to, they only see the finished product – that you’re on television – and they don’t realize the amount of time, the work, or the sacrifice it takes to get to that point. I’m always trying to share that along with just how crucial it is to be versatile in whichever field it’s your dream to land. It just makes you that much better.
“The fact that I started out as a producer, I was behind the scenes for many years and I was writing and did all of my own editing. I loved the creativity of putting feature packages together with no anchor or reporter involved in it and I think understanding all of the different aspects of a broadcast and how to put a broadcast on the air, makes you so much better in the end,” said Kolber, who first hit the national TV stage when she landed an on-camera role as part of the launch of the new and revolutionary ESPN2, in 1993. She was tabbed to host SportsNight, the new network’s signature show. “And for me now, I would like to think that I’m a different type of host on our shows because I’ve been a producer and I understand all of the inner workings of what it takes to get a show on the air.”
But what led this Philly-born football fanatic, to go to college at Miami? Believe it or not, it was the first, and only, school to which she applied.
“I was in high school and my mom [Sandra] and I broke out this big book of colleges from all across the country, and I remember her saying to me, ‘Given how much you love to be outside, you love sports, wouldn’t something like the University of Miami be great?’ As it turned out, during my junior year, my dad [Gene] had a business trip to South Florida and we set up a meeting with the admissions department, got a tour of the school and I fell in love.
“And it was everything that I could’ve dreamed a college would be. And then from a professional standpoint, Miami was one of the most progressive markets in terms of television. So many people that you still see on the air today on many of the networks came from Miami TV. And even some of the formatting of things that we take for granted on TV, like news magazine-type shows, the ways newscasts are done, a lot of it came from that market.”
Truth be told, she admits she had some serious leanings toward The Magic City even well before applying to college.
LOVE OF THE GAME
“I was a big-time Dolphins fan growing up because that was the era… the undefeated 1972 season. I had a poster of [Dolphins quarterback] Bob Griese on my wall as a kid. I loved the uniforms and I loved the open-ended stadium, the Orange Bowl, with the palm trees in the end zone. Part of the allure of going there for college was, that was my favorite stadium and that was my favorite team.”
One of the highlights of her very early years in the sports TV business was getting the opportunity to see her Dolphins knock off the then-undefeated Chicago Bears from the roof of the Orange Bowl press box in a Monday Night Football game on December 2, 1985. The Miami win preserved her childhood favorites, the 1972 Dolphins, as the only team to go unbeaten and win the Super Bowl. Kolber still has the press pass from the game, and in fact, it was featured on a Monday Night Countdown episode once prior to a Dolphins home game at Hard Rock Stadium. (See photo below) It was the only game the vaunted Bears would lose en route to winning Super Bowl XX.
Her most memorable game that she covered was Super Bowl XL – her first Super Bowl as a sideline reporter – and it ended at the postgame party where she received the ultimate compliment from the late John Madden after the ABC broadcast wrapped up, with the legendary broadcaster telling her, “Now that’s how you do a sideline!”
“I can’t explain why I fell in love with the game the way I did, but as a little kid I always loved sports and I think there was something about football, being a team sport, that I loved. And the players looked like gladiators in their uniforms. If no one else in the house was interested in watching a game with me, I’d watch on my own.
“I remember I was eight years old, and I loved halftime of Monday Night Football. Back then, there was no SportsCenter. Howard Cosell would do the halftime highlights so I would stay up so I could watch all of the week’s highlights and I had this International House of Pancakes cardboard standings board with all of the little plastic helmets of all of the teams. I’d watch the highlights and put the helmets on the board in the order of their division standings for the week.”
Kolber still has that standings board encased in a display in the workout room of her home on the Connecticut shoreline. She has another memory of that formative part of her life also on display there, too. Her jersey, helmet and playbook from when she made the pee wee football team in Upper Dublin, Pennsylvania. Sadly, 10-year-old Suzy never got the chance to play her favorite sport.
“This is the early 1970s and no girls are doing this,” Kolber said about being one of the first girls in the country to try and play organized football. (She actually first acquired her helmet and pads because she “wanted to be a football player for Halloween,” then continued to wear the equipment to play in the backyard, eventually getting the chance to register for the team a season later.) She actually wanted to play quarterback like her favorite player, Griese, but settled on tight end because she says “it was so hard to put my hand up first” when the coaches were asking about positions.
“I went through all of the practices, and made the ‘A’ team and then parents were so cruel. they threatened to shut down the league if I played. Think about that now. What the heck is the difference that a little girl wants to play? The coaches knew I was there for all of the right reasons and that I loved it.”
Rather than cause a whole team to fold and cost her friends and schoolmates a chance to play, Suzy decided to step away from the team, but it didn’t tarnish her love of the game.
“That was it, that was the opportunity,” she says. “So if anyone ever asks me, ‘Is it a genuine love of football?’ well, as an 8-year old I was watching it, and as a 10-year-old I was playing it, and I was maybe one of the first girls in the country to try to actually play organized football.
“So that’s the root of it, somehow, in my soul, from the time I was four, I always loved it. And what’s kind of the cool thing is that they told me I couldn’t play back then, but I made it into my career, so my football career has lasted a lot longer than if I was a player.
“And now, I have people like [Hall of Fame quarterback] Steve Young who have said to me, ‘You’re our quarterback. On that set, you’re the quarterback.’ I get to be the quarterback for Hall of Famers like Steve Young, and Randy Moss, and other great guys like Booger McFarland, Louis Riddick and all of these other amazing people on our set.”