Lasting 23 1⁄2 years in one place in the famously unstable sports media business is an accomplishment for anyone, even more so for a woman in a male-dominated world, and one in which aging is frowned upon.
But Linda Cohn has done it, and with an added degree of difficulty: a rich, old-school Long Island accent for which she makes no apologies, even though she long ago learned to sand off the rough edges for television.
“I never wanted to be like everybody else,” said Cohn, who at 8 a.m. on Feb. 21 will host her 5,000th “SportsCenter” for ESPN, the most of anyone in the show’s history. “Everybody is from somewhere, right? I’m proud of where I’m from. I wanted to keep those roots.”
Cohn, 56, attended Newfield High School in Selden and began her career at Patchogue-based WALK radio in 1981. One of her professors at SUNY-Oswego, Fritz Messere, told her the trick to softening her accent was simply to speak slowly and open her mouth wider.
It worked, well enough to avoid offending the rest of America, even though there were moments over the years it has slipped out on “SportsCenter.” When she is not on TV, it’s still there, in person, in interviews and on the radio.
“Even though I knew the secret to losing the accent 24/7, I still was proud of the fact I still spoke like this Long Island girl when I wasn’t on TV,” she said.
Cohn said the notion of a 5,000th “SportsCenter” began during a conversation with long-time ESPN executive Norby Williamson, during which the two discussed the evolution of the show and realized Cohn might be a record-holder.
(She said the most likely No. 2 is Steve Levy, who went to Bellmore JFK High School and is a fellow SUNY-Oswego alum.)
“Who knew [ESPN] analytics would be involved with [calculating] how many numbers of ‘SportsCenters’ I’ve done?” she said. “It’s hard to believe. But when you think of how long I’ve been there, I really wasn’t in a state of shock.”
Cohn said a key to the continuing relevance of “SportsCenter” despite challenges from the Internet — as well as a key to her own longevity — is bringing more to the table than mere scores and highlights.
“So many people, and I don’t mind it, say, ‘Take this in the right way, but I grew up with you,’ ” she said. “What does not change is that emotional connection sports fans have with it, and it’s their go-to. So even when maybe the show isn’t the best or they turn it on and it’s not their favorite anchor it’s still on their television because it’s comforting.
“That’s how I think that show has survived and will survive with all of the changes.”
Cohn, an avid Mets and Rangers supporter — and former college hockey goaltender — makes no apologies for bringing a fan’s mentality to the job.
“It’s the information first and everything else comes after it,” she said, “but I never want to be mistaken for a ‘talking head’ because I will never be that and don’t choose to be that. I’m always someone who shows my passion for what I do. Real sports fans expect that of me. That’s what I’m most proud of, the connection I have with the sports fan.
“When people have always commented on my longevity there and how it’s always fresh and it looks like I’m having such a great time, it’s because I am.”
Cohn’s first “SportsCenter” was at 2 a.m. on July 11, 1992, co-hosting with Chris Myers. She arrived at a time when women in sports media still were a novelty.
“I have to say it’s definitely come a long way,” she said. “[Viewers] get it, but that being said, I’m just one mistake away from being ripped apart, and it doesn’t matter how long I’ve been on the show or how many decades I’ve been in sports. I’m still a woman.
“But one thing that has changed is people on social media are also very quick to rip the guys.”
Cohn said she mentors young women interested in the business and advises them never to complain about being held back because of their gender, or to expect anything to be handed to them.
“That’s not going to help you get to where you want to go,” she said. “You have to put that stuff aside and focus in on why you’re in this business. Even though times have changed for the better and things definitely are better for women in this field, don’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, because I’m a woman I should be getting this, this and this.’ ”
One thing that has not changed in the TV business is the additional pressure on women to look the part. Cohn said she “absolutely” takes added pride in doing the job as a woman well into middle age.
“I’m not still hosting ‘SportsCenter’ because, oh, it’s Linda Cohn and we have to do this for her because she’s earned this,” she said. “No. I’m still hosting ‘SportsCenter’ and doing radio shows and doing everything I’m doing because I work hard and continue to challenge myself and not only with my knowledge but yes, with keeping myself in shape and eating the right things and turning back the clock naturally.
“I’m not obsessed with it, but it’s right up there in my top three priorities in life at my age. You know what, I love the fact that I don’t look my age. Maybe it’s cocky and brash, but it’s reality. I know I don’t look 56, but the reason I do the right thing and drink kale and cucumber drinks and work out six days a week is because I want to do it the right way.
“When you hit your 50s you really want to be healthy . . . I don’t want that to come off as cocky Linda, but I am proud of that, and it is a visual medium.”
Cohn, who is divorced, has a 24-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son. She said she has 2 1⁄2 years left on her contract and no plans to stop hosting “SportsCenter” in the short term. “All this fun I’m having, why should I?” she said.
She said she is not aware of what ESPN has planned to celebrate the milestone on the show itself, adding, “I think they just want to surprise me.”