ESPN Loses Its Mind: What Howie Schwab Meant To BristolS

Information was sacred to Howie Schwab, the longtime researcher and producer who was laid off by ESPN on Wednesday. "Not knowledge," as the critic Lee Siegel once clarified. "Information." Siegel was writing about Stump the Schwab, the game show that made Schwab an unlikely half-celebrity, but it'll work here as an epitaph for Schwab's career at ESPN. His 26 years in Bristol were spent in service of information, dedicated to the idea of sports as discrete packets of unprocessed data, to be sorted and stored and perhaps later retrieved, or maybe jotted down on a card and hurried over to the SportsCenter desk, where an anchor always knew Schwab was coming by the jangling of coins in his pocket.

Information was sacred, Schwab felt, even in a place where information was also a commodity, something to be packaged and sold.

You meet a lot of people like Howie Schwab if you spend any time at ESPN. They are the gray matter there, the residue of the network's outrageous growth in the 1990s, which was principally an explosion of information. Here's Mike Freeman, writing in ESPN: The Uncensored History about the changes wrought by John Walsh after he arrived in Bristol in 1988:

Walsh also boosted the research department, which had consisted of one man, the tireless Howie Schwab, who suddenly had a dozen companions. Walsh hired additional producers and reporters, increasing the number of reporters on the scene instead of just picking up feeds and bolstering ESPN's stable of specific sport experts, almost all of them print reporters. … He felt fans could not get enough statistics and inside information about the major sports, so he proposed creating extensive separate shows for each of the sports.

That was the ESPN I grew up watching, the network that made a fetish of knowing stuff, and that was, in a way, the ESPN of Howie Schwab.

He was a researcher first, signing on as a freelancer in 1987, but he became a sort of roving brain-for-hire within ESPN, the guy behind the camera who fed statistics to the people in front of it, and then, in 2004, he became one of those people, too. I never really watched Stump the Schwab, but I loved that it was on TV at all. If the animating principle of First Take is that compelling television happens only when people profess to know less than they actually do, it was Stump the Schwab's conceit that there is virtue in knowing more than you have any business knowing. It was a show for the sort of people who grew up reading the agate page—the same sort of dedicated anal-retentives who wind up on the research desk at ESPN, quibbling with editors over loose details or tying up the lines all day at the Elias Sports Bureau or hauling an apposite stat out of the depths of an old almanac, as indispensable to the news operation as they are, on occasion, insufferable. With Stump the Schwab, it was as if ESPN had turned itself inside out. The office noodge was the star.

Schwab was the guy ESPN put on red-carpet duty during the ESPYs, simply because he knew everyone, and knew everything about everyone, even the X-Gamers. He was Dick Vitale's amanuensis, and probably more. One source told us Schwab wrote everything for Vitale. He'd take notes for him. Dickie V. would fall asleep while watching games and wake up with Schwab at his side. "Howie," he'd say, according to our source, "what did I miss?"

I heard a story about Schwab last week that tells you a lot about Schwab and a lot more about the company that let him go. (I didn't hear this from Schwab, for the record. He refused to talk to us.) This happened in 2002. Mark Shapiro was ESPN's senior vice president for programming at the time, and Schwab was handling the BottomLine, ESPN's news ticker, another product of the network's fat mid-1990s. On this particular day, Schwab was watching TV at home and saw a mention of the Australian Open final run across the BottomLine—16th-seeded Thomas Johansson vs. ninth-seeded Marat Safin—only someone had removed the seeds from next to the names.

It turned out that a directive had come down from Mark Shapiro's office, on the belief that a 16-vs.-9 final wasn't exactly appointment television; why mention the seeds at all? Schwab complained, according to our source, and eventually he and Shapiro had it out.

Schwab thought it was inaccurate. Information is sacred, after all.

Shapiro supposedly hung up on him. Information is a commodity, too.

Last week, the noodge was deemed expendable, another casualty of the ongoing corporate violence being committed at ESPN in the name of efficiency. On Monday, Schwab had attended a National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association banquet in Salisbury, N.C., where his friend Dick Vitale was being inducted into the organization's hall of fame. Schwab was sharing a table with the ESPN brass that was there, George Bodenheimer and Steve Anderson, one or both of whom had to have known the ax was swinging above Schwab's neck. "What a birthday gift for Dickie V," Schwab tweeted. "He turns 74 and goes into the Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He belongs in the human being Hall of Fame!" On Tuesday, he got an email saying he had a meeting the next day. On Wednesday, he was laid off. He wrote on his Facebook page:

After 26 years at ESPN, I am extremely disappointed to say farewell. I have been proud of my association and my work during my tenure. I was a loyal employee, displayed respect for others, worked with numerous charities, represented the company well. I always did everything asked of me and more. What did I get in return today … word that I should get lost. The only thing that mattered was my salary, which in my view was the lone reason I lost my job.

Not long ago, I did a stint in ESPN The Magazine's research department. The most Howie-like guy I knew there was the deputy research chief, Roger Jackson, a man given at any moment to filibustering the office on, say, the relative merits of Pac-12 sports information departments. (A friend remembers listening to Roger rank them all.) New factcheckers, trying to impress, would sometimes test themselves against him, challenging Roger on a detail or a recollection, and I would wince over in my cubicle, feeling the pedantry coming on like some sort of weather pattern.

Roger could be impossible. He was impossible. But there is something basically ennobling about the role of the office noodge at a place like ESPN. The best thing in the world is to know stuff, the noodge says—anything at all, and all for the sake of merely knowing it. Mastery is the point. On Thursday, I found out that Roger had been laid off, too.

Image by Jim Cooke