Mike Tirico still is three weeks from his first anniversary at NBC Sports, but it hardly seems that way given a portfolio that has grown larger and faster than most people — Tirico included — anticipated at this point last spring.
“Hopefully, I’ve made a smooth transition,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview to promote NBC’s coverage of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. “It feels smooth on my end, I can tell you that.
“Even though it was 25 years in one place [at ESPN], and we’re not even at one full year at NBC, it feels very natural to me. It feels like I’ve been here for a long time.”
NBC certainly has treated him that way. Hosting the Belmont along with Bob Costas — as he did the first two legs of the horse racing Triple Crown — is one thing. But there are bigger things in sports television.
Last February, Costas stepped down as the network’s prime-time Olympics host, a role Tirico will fill beginning in South Korea next winter.
Then last week the NFL confirmed a Sports Business Daily report that Tirico will call play-by-play for NBC’s portion of the “Thursday Night Football” package, succeeding Al Michaels, who will remain on “Sunday Night Football.”
When Tirico, 50, signed on, it widely was assumed he would be groomed as the future face of NBC Sports. It appears that future is now.
“I had no idea — truly, truly, truly had no idea — of what Bob’s timing was going to be regarding the prime-time Olympic role,” he said. “And I didn’t know what my exact role in the Triple Crown was going to be this time last year. I knew I would be involved in these events; I didn’t know if I was going to be in these positions on these events at all.”
Tirico credited NBC executives, producers and crews as well as stars such as Costas and Michaels for easing his transition.
“The coolest thing for me is I came over here and the two best — arguably ever — at their jobs in Bob Costas and Al Michaels have made me feel so welcome as part of the team,” he said. “That wouldn’t happen in a lot of places and that wouldn’t happen with a lot of people.”
The NFL had to sign off on Tirico joining Cris Collinsworth on Thursdays because NBC and CBS are required to use their No. 1 teams for those games.
But Tirico’s resume makes him more of a 1A to Michaels rather than a second-teamer after a decade on “Monday Night Football.” He worked six regular-season games for NBC last year, some during a weeklong November break for Michaels.
“I knew full well coming over that Al and Cris were contractually obligated to do the Thursday night games and I was comfortable with that,” Tirico said. “At some point down the line I think everybody knew I had an interest in still maintaining my role in the NFL booth and I’m glad I had the chances last year.”
He said being limited to Thursday night play-by-play is “perfect” for him given his other responsibilities, notably the Olympics.
“I’ve been welcomed as part of the NBC family on the inside, and I think that shows on the outside,” he said. “You can’t fake it. You can’t hide from viewers in three, 3 ½ hours. I think people get the sense that there’s a real comfort with all of us together that I think will make the transition — quote-unquote — very seamless.”
Tirico, who grew up in Whitestone, Queens, and attended Bayside High School, said working events in New York always has added meaning for him.
While he did visit Belmont and Aqueduct in his youth, he never had been at a Triple Crown race in person until last month. He said he has gotten support in learning the ropes from NBC colleagues and from the larger racing community.
Tirico also has drawn on lessons learned from a diverse set of assignments over the decades.
“I was the guy who was a, quote, college guy before I did the NBA and the NFL,” he said. “I was a regular sports guy and not a golf guy and then covered golf. I went through this with tennis. I went through it with World Cup with soccer. So five or six times along the way here I’ve been exposed to, hey, you’re not a fill-in-the-blank sports guy.
“So I knew going into this the potential criticism, the inherent skepticism that I can adapt to the role, and I think that experience helped me stay in my lane, rely on our experts and try to make it as comfortable for the viewers as possible.”
Tirico, a Rangers fan growing up, took advantage of NBC’s partnership with the NHL to attend Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville on Monday, in which the Predators tied the series against the Penguins at two games apiece.
“My hockey role is fan,” he said, a role that was limited during his years calling NBA playoff games this time of year for ESPN.
“That scene in Nashville was as good as any building I’ve been in for a live sporting event,” he said, adding that the noise level at Bridgestone Arena topped any he has experienced before.
“If there’s a Game 7 in this series, I don’t know if I’d rather be in Pittsburgh [where the game would be played] or on Broadway in Nashville,” he said. “I’m dead serious. It’s so great. We’re so jaded and so snobbish at times as people who cover sports and as sports fans . . . It’s real, it’s genuine and it’s just neat.”