Stephen Bardo always had been a quick-rising basketball broadcaster.
The member of the 1989 Illinois Final Four team and former NBA player started his career as the Illini Radio Network analyst from 2000-05 and parlayed that into a reporting gig for WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago from 2003-2006.
After covering and calling the Illini's 2005 Final Four run, Bardo made the leap to the mothership, calling games for ESPN.
Bardo moved up the chain, calling West Coast Conference and Missouri Valley Conference games before landing a more regular role on Big Ten telecasts and studio work. He even appeared on the wildly popular topical ESPN2 debate show "First Take: for several appearances in recent years.
But his ascent at the Worldwide Leader stalled last year when he was assigned to cover mostly Big 12 Conference games.
"It's no knock to cover the Big 12 Conference because it's a great conference steeped in tradition," Bardo said. "But for a guy that came from a legendary team in the Big Ten where my name resonates pretty well, to get moved off of that was kind of a signal to me that my days are probably numbered at ESPN."
After almost a decade at ESPN, Bardo felt like he had fallen out of favor. So he began to look at other opportunities. Given his history, it's no surprise Bardo found a new landing spot quickly.
This week, Bardo announced he will join the Big Ten Network as an in-game and studio analyst. OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner caught up with Bardo to talk about why the professional change made sense personally and professionally.
How did this all go down?
Bardo: "Well, I'm coming down the stretch in the college basketball season, and I'm just not sure if ESPN is going to re-sign me or not. So my agent was smart enough to start talking with the folks at the Big Ten Network. There was mutual interest. If you love what you do, you'll do what you love to do in any situation. The more I started to look at it, the more the Big Ten Network became appealing. I was at their opening kickoff party seven years ago … in Chicago. I was very excited because there's very few opportunities for guys who do what I do at this level. So another network, especially one in Chicago that's covering the Big Ten Conference, was obviously going to be appealing from Day One. So I've kept my eye on the network, and I think they continue to do great things. I'm just glad to be a part of the team."
You were with ESPN since 2005. You covered the Big Ten for most of it but spent most of last year covering the Big 12. You told me earlier this year you weren't all that satisfied there. What changed at ESPN?
Bardo: "I've always been very up front with you guys, and I'll continue to be. In my opinion, there was a change at the top and the guy that was there that brought me in knew a lot about basketball. The guy that came in and replaced him didn't know so much about basketball. So it comes down to a style preference. Guys that come in with a new regime, they like their own people. It's no different from any other sport or any other business. My style wasn't preferred, I thought. It's no knock to cover the Big 12 Conference because it's a great conference steeped in tradition, but for a guy that came from a legendary team in the Big Ten where my name resonates pretty well, to get moved off of that was kind of a signal to me that my days are probably numbered at ESPN."
In this business, especially at ESPN - which is under scrutiny more than any other network because it's the big one - it seems like they're having this struggle between content and entertainment. Is that kind of what you were in the middle of as well?
Bardo: "I think so. It seems there's a shift taking place among college basketball at ESPN where they would appreciate different styles. It seems now they don't appreciate different styles. There seems to be kind of a - for lack of a better word - the preferred style, which is more statistical, less personality-driven. My thing is, I know the game. I think my work speaks for itself. But I like to have fun, and I want the listeners to know that I feel like I'm blessed to have this opportunity and you're going to hear my enthusiasm come through. I'll call the game like I see it. I feel like I can break a game down as well as anyone, but I'm also going to inject some personality into the broadcast because I think people like that. Unfortunately, it didn't work out.
"But I tell you what, I wouldn't change a thing because I loved my time at ESPN. I learned the business. I worked with some great individuals. I've made some great friendships. Just like any career field, it's very rare that people have a long run, 10 years or more, in one place, and our profession is no different."
What will your role be at the Big Ten Network?
Bardo: "I'm going to have equal amount of studio and games. That'll be a plus because that's a lot more studio work that I got at ESPN. Plus, the studio's in downtown Chicago, so it's not like I got to jump on a plane and fly to Hartford, Connecticut, and drive 40 minutes in the snow [to ESPN headquarters]. I can just drive in the snow for a couple miles to downtown Chicago. There's definitely perks where that's concerned."
Did you play Jimmy Jackson, who's at BTN, when you were in college? Was there an overlap between your careers?
Bardo: "We were seniors when Jimmy was a freshman [at Ohio State]. You could tell he was going to be tremendous one. But I'm going to remind him of this when I get over there, Kendall [Gill] and I put the handcuffs on him. It's going to be fun because he's the man over there. He's been with them since Day One. He's done a really good job of heading that up. I like to be appreciated for my work, and people over there have really been appreciative of what I've been able to accomplish and they're excited about me coming."
You bring up Kendall Gill. How's he doing. After his suspension at Comcast SportsNet because of his altercation with Big Ten Network analyst Tim Doyle, is he going to get back into this?
Bardo: "He was really hurt by the whole situation. He knows he made a mistake. It looks favorable that he'll be back on Comcast next season. I think they just wanted to send a strong message that they just can't tolerate that type of activity. To me, he's fortunate that he wasn't fired on the spot because you just can't do that in a workplace. So I think that just tells you what kind of equity, friendships and trust that he built up throughout the years because he's a super, super guy. They love him over there, and they have fought battles to try to keep him on. I think he's going to be fine. He's doing great. He and I live about five minutes from each other. We talk almost every day, and he's doing well and I'll pass along that you guys asked about him."
Back to you. Personally, you don't have to get on a lot of flights now. You get to travel in the Midwest and be closer to your family in Chicago. Is that a big improvement for you too?
Bardo: "That's huge because my oldest son is a junior at the University of Illinois. My youngest lives with his mother in Michigan. So I'm hoping I get to do a number of Michigan-Michigan State games because I could just go scoop him up and he could hang with me. During the season, again I loved my time at ESPN, but it was very tough to spend quality time with my sons while I was away. That's the tradeoff you have to make sometimes. I think this scenario is really going to benefit my time with my children a lot more. That was one of the things that was very, very attractive about this opportunity."
Will all your work be with BTN? Fox Sports has a minority share of the Big Ten Network and they're launching a new channel, Fox Sports 1. Is there any chance you'll be a part of that too?
Bardo: "There's been talk about that because they're talking to people who are familiar with some of the teams [in the new Big East]. I've covered Creighton. I've covered Butler. I've covered DePaul and Marquette. They're right down the road for me. Things could be favorable in that regard. It's just early right now and a lot of conjecture. There's nothing etched in stone. I hope that I would be able to do a few games here and there that don't conflict with the Big Ten Network. But honestly, nothing concrete has been talked about thus far."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU