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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Mike Francesa has been long-playing tune in our heads

“I’ve been kind of the sports soundtrack of their lives for the last 30 years,” the longtime WFAN host said before his final show with the station.

Mike Francesa helped revolutionized sports talk radio at WFAN with Chris "Mad Dog" Russo. Nine years since they split up, Francesa remains the top-rated host in New York. After 30 years at WFAN, 2017 is his last. Watch his final year unfold as Francesa's fans, colleagues and athletes from the New York area spoke about what it will be like to no longer have this icon on the air. (Credit: Newsday staff) (Photo Credit: ESPN, WFAN)

Mike Francesa’s long, winding road of a farewell tour reached its final destination on Friday at the most appropriate stop of all — a show given over entirely to callers.

Because remember: For all the big guy’s outsized presence, none of this really was about him. It was about you.

Technically, Francesa is a sports guy, of course. But his role over 30 years at WFAN was more akin to that of a musician than an athlete.

We relate to jocks largely based on the games they play. We relate to music largely based on its place in our own lives, encountering an old favorite and remembering where we were and who we were with when we heard it before.

That was the way it was with Francesa. For a big chunk of most New York sports fans’ lives — and in many cases the entirety of their lives — he was a Long Island-accented tune that got stuck in our heads.

Callers repeatedly told stories of listening in the back seat as children and now in the front seat as parents. Francesa recalled attending FrancesaCon and hearing it from people who lined up for pictures.

“Everyone would say, ‘Oh, I started with my dad, I started with my dad, I started with my dad,’ ” he said. “You heard that time and again. These were all people in their 20s or 30s, that young generation, and there are so many of them. [They say], ‘Now I listen with my kid. I’ve been listening since I was 8 years old. I‘ve been listening since I was 10 years old.’

“You hear that over and over, so yes, it drives down that I’ve been kind of the sports soundtrack of their lives for the last 30 years.”

It goes beyond the music analogy. Francesa, former partner Chris “Mad Dog” Russo and all the other sports talk hosts whom listeners love to love, or hate, or both, also come with personalities we get to know intimately.

In Francesa’s case, that personality was on full display for 27 1⁄2 hours a week, perhaps in a more distilled version than off-air life but still a reasonable facsimile of the real person.

So yes, the guy largely is who you heard for yourself: stubborn, argumentative, cocky . . . well, you know him as well as I do. That is the point. He took up residence in the confined space of our cars in the 1980s and did not leave.

“Radio is so personal,” he said. “It’s so much different than any other medium in that people feel like they know you. They feel like you’re approachable. They will write you these long letters . . . That’s what I think radio provides, and that’s why I think radio is never going anywhere.”

Francesa is going somewhere, although he has not yet said where. But it is difficult to believe his new media home will have close to the impact that his old one did.

On Friday, he at last allowed some hard edges to soften. One caller gently pointed out that he wished the host had been more willing to admit mistakes. “Fair point,” he said.

Francesa has had mercurial relationships with many people in his life, including the two colleagues closest to him in his time at WFAN. But on Friday Russo bid him a heartfelt adieu on his SiriusXM radio show and WFAN’s longtime programming boss, Mark Chernoff, embraced him on the sidewalk outside the station’s Soho studios.

Resistance is futile. In 2007, after about 18 months on the media beat, I wrote a column swearing off critiques of “Mike and the Mad Dog” because nothing ever changed with them — and reading it back 10 years later, nothing ever did, other than Russo leaving.

“If you want to publicize your gripes with them, try another media critic,” I wrote then. “Or start a blog. Or buy an ad. Or call the show and have Francesa dismiss you as a moron. By all means, though, keep listening. In a vast continent of impossible-to-listen-to radio yakkers, there is something about these jesters that works.”

For the final ride home Friday, Francesa’s driver, Julio Rosa, chose the Green Day song “Good Riddance,” a staple of montages at bar and bat mitzvahs, sweet 16 parties, high school graduations and other nostalgic events.

This one qualified, too. Mike’s off.

New York Sports