The football great on the field and in the booth caught up with Boardroom to discuss his storied past, upcoming season, and new partnership.
This week, College Football finally enters Week 1. As fans from East to West dust off their grills and assemble their Saturday attire, few football fanatics can speak to the magic of the fall festivities better than Desmond Howard.
31 years ago, the Wolverine wideout became the talk of the sport during his senior season in Ann Arbor.
After an opener at Boston College where he scored four touchdowns himself, Week 2 saw Michigan host Notre Dame in the Big House.
Owning the moment, Howard led his team to a comeback win, capped off by “The Catch” in which he laid out for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
The buzz built, with Howard appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and winning that year’s Heisman Trophy.
He then played 10 years in the NFL, highlighted by a Super Bowl MVP and First-Team All Pro performance for the 1996 season.
In retirement, he’s become a face and voice for the sport, hosting ESPN College Gameday. All the while, he’s remained as electric and unique as his playing days, lending his voice to advocacy for today’s student-athletes.
After signing a deal with Town House Game Day Dippers, the hero with hardware in the college and pro game is set to enjoy football season as a fan and commentator. Boardroom spoke with Howard to discuss his tailgate tips, paying student-athletes, and Ann Arbor’s golden era of football and basketball.
Ian Stonebrook: You were a star by your junior year of high school, a standout in college, and played in the NFL for a decade. That puts you at about a 16-year break from tailgating. Explain your evolution in the space from kid to commentator.
Desmond Howard: I’m fascinated by tailgating. I’ve been fortunate enough with my current job that I’ve seen some of the more elaborate tailgates. When you’re traveling for college football? No disrespect to the NFL, but man, these college football fans take it to another level. They are invested, it’s crazy.
The thing that I love is that there are different vibes and flavors based on the region and conference. One glaring difference is that I’m born and raised in the Midwest. In the Big Ten, early afternoon tailgates start and people pass around a couple of brews. In the SEC? You travel to some of these sites and right out the gate it’s brown liquor! That really jumped out at me as I started traveling around the country and watch people do their tailgating.
IS: How’d the deal with Town House come about?
DH: It’s a perfect partnership because it combines my passion for football and tailgating. Town House came out with these Game Day Dippers shaped like little footballs. It can elevate and spice up any tailgate. I have three dipping techniques and four recipes.
One of my favorite recipes is the Homemade Halftime Hummus because I’m a big hummus fan. We just kicked it off in August and when you go get your boxes, check the back because there’s special marked boxes that give you a chance to win the ultimate Fan Cave makeover.
IS: Before building Fan Caves, you were setting records in the Big House. Tell me about 1991 in Ann Arbor. Not only are you the big man on campus but it’s also the arrival of the Fab 5.
DH: It was a good energy. Just from a sports standpoint? It was a good time to be in Ann Arbor. We also just had Rumeal Robinson, Glen Rice, Loy Vaught, and Sean Higgins who won a National Championship in basketball while I was there.
We went from that group to the Fab 5 who pretty much changed the face of college basketball. No group of freshmen ever impacted college basketball the way the Fab 5 did so it was a great time to be in Ann Arbor, it was a lot of fun.
IS: Your rise at Michigan coincided with the explosion of fan gear. What do you recall about seeing your jerseys worn around campus or in college bookstores?
DH: I saw jerseys, but it gets cold in Ann Arbor so they cover those up with Triple Fat Gooses and Timberlands.
But on Saturdays? You saw those jerseys come out a lot. From an apparel standpoint, I think the business was doing quite well.
IS: In 2016, Michigan signed a massive deal with Jordan Brand. What’s this pairing mean to you and how has it been appreciated by alumni?
DH: It’s wonderful. For the GOAT to pick the University of Michigan to do this type of deal? It’s even that much more special.
It’s great to see Michigan with Brand Jordan. I grew up a huge Jordan fan and he’s the greatest basketball player of all time. I loved his stuff and Jordans are iconic. It’s good to see the two brands merge.
IS: NIL is still a major talking point in college football. What would NIL deals have looked like for you in Ann Arbor and what’s your advice to a kid navigating it now?
DH: What it would’ve looked like? I would’ve got paid off of my likeness! I’ve been the biggest advocate on television since I’ve been at ESPN for student-athletes getting paid for their name, image, and likeness. I go way back to when Reggie Bush was at USC.
When he got into that little trouble I said that I thought USC owed Reggie Bush money. It’s really simple: how many of those No. 5 jerseys did they sell before he wore it and how many did they sell after he wore it? Just open up the books, because you have the sales. If you sold way more after because he gave that jersey value. He should be able to benefit and receive a percentage of the profits of that jersey. It makes perfect sense. Only in college sports would somebody fight you on something like that because they don’t want these student-athletes making a penny.
I’ve always been on that side of the debate, but then it became very popular and now everyone is talking about it. But I was on that limb by myself a long time ago before it became cool to talk about it.
IS: Recently, you made headlines for your preseason Final Four. For those questioning it, defend your take.
DH: C’mon bruh, who wants to just sit there and pick Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, and Ohio State? Does it take any imagination to pick those four? It’s just boring. And I’m not trying to be boring, I do my research and I’m an analyst. I like to think outside the box, so don’t fault me because I’m an independent thinker! [laughs] Don’t fault me for that! I’ve never been a follower, I’m sorry, it’s just not in my DNA.
I’ll put it to you like this: a year ago today, Michigan was picked to be No. 4 in their division. Not their conference, their division, and they made it to the College Football Playoff, right? Cincinnati wasn’t on nobody’s radar, but I’ve always liked Cincinnati and Luke Fickell. Huge Luke Fickell fan, and I picked them in 2020 to go to the College Football Playoff but then COVID hit and the Big Ten backed out, so we switched our picks.
But I’ve always been a strong fan of teams who are under the radar. I think the ACC is wide open. People want to give Dabo Swinney the benefit of the doubt, but they didn’t look that great last year and he lost both of his coordinators this season. I think Pitt may be able to win it a second year in a row. They’ve got Kedon Slovis at quarterback and he played fantastic in 2018 at USC, maybe he can find that magic again.
Texas A&M? The biggest story during the offseason was Nick Saban going after Jimbo Fisher and his recruiting class. That was because Jimbo Fisher has been kicking some serious butt in recruiting! He’s been stacking top classes and eventually it should pay off big dividends. Why not this season? A&M beat Alabama a year ago. Now put fuel on the fire with the way Saban coming after Jimbo the way he did? It’s gonna be a dog fight when Texas A&M plays Alabama.
Those were the teams I picked for the Final Four, but they’re my picks! Why does it make people mad? You don’t have to pay attention to them! [laughs] I’m sorry but I’m an independent thinker, I’ve got to think outside the box every now and then. We’ll see how it plays out.