Inevitably, Sunday nights would find Mike McCarthy within earshot of his radio. This was back in the dark ages — though others might call it a more enlightened period — when sports-talk radio as we know it didn’t exist, because Mike Francesa hadn’t invented it yet.
It was the early 1980s, and the best sports-talk show in town — “One on One” — could be found on WFUV, Fordham University’s radio station. McCarthy, a student at Marist College with an internship at MSG Network and big plans, never missed it.
“I was an avid listener. I pledged to a buddy of mine, ‘If I ever get the job I want at the Garden, I’m going to hire every one of these people,’ ” said McCarthy, the former head of MSG Network and now the Milwaukee Bucks chief operating officer. “It was the only sports-radio talk show in New York at the time, which is hard to believe now. … Mike Breen, Mike Kay, Bob Papa. … I listened every Sunday.”
McCarthy joined MSG Network full-time following graduation and eventually got that job he wanted.
“We ended up hiring every one of those people for one job or another at the Garden,” he said.
Yes, Breen, Kay, Papa, now the primary play-by-play men for three of the city’s most popular sports franchises, all got a big hand from McCarthy when they were starting out. The list doesn’t end there.
“He’s got this Bill Walsh coaching tree of talent that he kind of ID’d at their infancy stages,” said Eric Gelfand, Jets senior vice president of communications — who worked with McCarthy at the Garden and with the St. Louis Blues, where McCarthy landed as CEO in 2005 after 23 years at MSG. “Breen, Kay, Gus Johnson, Greg Gumbel, Tracy Wolfson, Doris Burke, Jenna Wolfe, Bob Wischusen, even Keith Hernandez. Mike put all of them in their first real positions. … And he has a network of folks behind the camera sprinkled in every nook and cranny of the business.”
Kay was the Yankees’ beat reporter for the Daily News in the early 1990s when McCarthy hired him to report from the clubhouse following games. He later moved to radio play-by-play, and when the YES Network formed in 2002 he began calling Yankees games on television.
“Mike played a huge role in my career,” Kay said. “He put me on the air, with the biggest break being allowing me to do the Knicks and Yankees clubhouse report while I was still a newspaper writer. That experience and air time was invaluable in leading me to where I am today.”
In 1987 Papa, a few years behind Kay and Breen at Fordham, was hired by McCarthy to be the analyst, alongside play-by-play man Bruce Beck, for Liberty Conference football telecasts.
“The conference wanted me,” said Papa, who has handled Giants radio play-by-play since 1995, “but Mike had to approve.”
Breen was a regular fill-in for Don Criqui doing sports reports on Don Imus’ radio show when McCarthy recommended him for the Knicks radio play-by-play gig.
“Mike gave me my big break,” said Breen, now the voice of the Knicks on MSG and the NBA for ESPN. “Some [at MSG] were nervous. In the meeting to hire me, one of the executives said, ‘Are we sure we want our play-by-play man to be the same guy doing penis jokes on the Imus show?’ So Mike had to fight for me.
“I really didn’t have any name. I was inexperienced. But he fought for me to get the job. He said, ‘We want a young guy who we can grow with.’ He had heard me on WFUV. … He knew my name and he listened to Imus and he thought it would be good so he pushed it through. Otherwise I don’t get that job.”
McCarthy’s love of sports began at the grass roots level, grass being the operative word.
His father, Johnny, was the Mets’ head groundskeeper, at the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium, for more than 30 years. Mike, the oldest of five, grew up around the ballpark. He spent three years on the grounds crew in high school in the late 1970s, when watching the outfield grass grow was preferable to watching anything on the field.
“A lot of good memories, a lot of bad baseball,” McCarthy said over breakfast recently in Midtown, “but you couldn’t have a better job as a kid.”
A cross-country runner at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, McCarthy ran around the Shea warning track regularly. One day first baseman Ed Kranepool approached him and said the players had a French horn in the clubhouse that no one could play. He asked if McCarthy, since he was in such good shape, would give it a try.
“There was table in the clubhouse with seemingly millions of dollars on it,” McCarthy said. “They’re betting whether I could get a sound out of it. The premise was: If you have good lungs and are athletic, you can.
“But the thing was loaded with talcum powder. I blew into it and it went everywhere — my face, my hair. My father was hiding in one of the lockers crying laughing.”
That may have been the last time anyone put anything over on Mike McCarthy, who after graduating from Marist in 1982, rose from intern to stage manager to director to producer to executive producer and, finally, to MSG Network president.
“One of the smartest guys you’ll ever meet,” said Gelfand, who calls McCarthy a “good friend and mentor.” “He’s always three, four steps ahead — not just of the situation, but of everybody else.
“Mike is easily one of the smartest people I have ever met,” Kay said. “He’s brilliant. Anything he wants to do he would be a huge success. If he ever wanted to be a comedian, he would probably have his own Netflix or HBO special.”
McCarthy, 56, joined the Bucks full-time in November, reuniting with Peter Feigin, Bucks president and a former Knicks vice president. With owners Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, also New Yorkers, they are building a new arena in downtown Milwaukee, part of a revitalization of one of the nation’s most underrated cities. McCarthy and his wife, Allison, have relocated from Fairfield, Conn., and are adjusting to winters on Lake Michigan.
“Man, it’s cold,” he said. “You see it in peoples’ faces there, they earn their summers.”
His new job is similar to the multi-faceted role McCarthy played in St. Louis, where he joined Dave Checketts’ ownership group. In addition to making a struggling Blues franchise solvent again, both on the ice and at the gate, SGP Worldwide also renovated the downtown Peabody Opera House.
“He may not be the first person to think of something, but almost always he’s the first person to see the true potential,” said Leon Schweir, senior vice president of production and digital content for the Pac-12 Networks, a longtime colleague of McCarthy’s at MSG Network. “He always challenges you, wants to hear what you have to say. But he’s always thinking ‘Well, we did it this way today. What if we did it differently the next day?’ That’s been the key to his ability as an executive, to always think of how you can do something a little different.”
McCarthy shrugs off the accolades, saying he was “fortunate” to find those young broadcasters when he did. All these years later, the fan in him contends he would have been just as happy counting Marv Albert into or out of a commercial break.
“I kept getting promoted against my will at the Garden,” he said. “I never really wanted to leave my courtside stage-manager position. Every time I got promoted my seat got worse. I was like ‘What the hell just happened to me? I used to be sitting courtside.’ ”