Just three hours before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson turned the wrestling world upside-down by returning to WWE, Jonathan Coachman was as far removed from the moment as could be while preparing for an “NBA Tonight” broadcast at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. studios. And the former WWE announcer wasn’t complaining. Coachman, 36, is too busy splitting time between ESPN and the homestead, where he and wife Amy are raising a 2-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son, to be too nostalgic. Coachman started at ESPN in August 2008, completing a winding road to find professional and personal balance. But that doesn’t mean he and his WWE roots are ever too far removed.
On Super Bowl Sunday you started a “SportsCenter” segment from a recliner as opposed to a regular broadcast chair and showed off some of that “Coach” WWE attitude. Does your WWE background help you on ESPN?
I definitely think it helps, the background that I have. And even though a lot of people don’t like to admit it, a lot of what we do is entertainment. I mean, people don’t watch to be bored, they watch to be entertained. So, there are times when we’re in meetings and coming up with ideas, and they’ll kind of ask me what I’d like to do or what we should do because of what I’ve done in the past. Because [at WWE] I was willing to do anything if it meant entertaining the people, even if it made me look like an idiot, which most of the time it did…. It kind of breaks up the monotony of just doing highlight, highlight, highlight. And the more we do it, the more the people in charge will allow us to do it. So I enjoy it, stuff like that, it’s easy to do, and I think it’s entertaining.
You had some unique moments in WWE, including a urinal incident with Mr. McMahon and being thrown through a wall by DX. When you were planning your transition from pro wrestling into sports, were you worried about being typecast as a clown as opposed to a legitimate sportscaster and not being able to accomplish what you wanted?
Well, you really hit the nail on the head, and it’s funny you mention DX because the one day I remember vividly is — you know, before I came to ESPN very few people realize that I was on MSG Network in New York for a year. And prior to that I was on CSTV, which is now CBS College Sports, for about a year, year-and-a-half. I knew I needed a buffer, so to speak, before coming from wrestling to here. And, that was a big concern of mine, because I knew I couldn’t just walk out the door there and walk in the door here. While I was working at MSG, that was one of their concerns, and so I promised them, I won’t do any more stupid stuff or anything of that nature. And [WWE was] in Rochester, New York, one night, and I showed up at the building, and they said, “Hey, we’ve got this great idea tonight. We need you to go out and get a pair of zebra print thong underwear.” And, I’m thinking, “What are they going to have me do?” So I went out to Spencer’s, of all places, and found some. And, the skit was basically me yelling at them, them pulling my pants down, shoving my head through a wall and then spray-painting my derriere. And as I’m doing it, all I can think in my head is, “I’m going to have an e-mail or a phone call or something tomorrow that says, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We don’t need you working here anymore.’” And it definitely concerned me because every place that I worked, starting with CSTV, they were like, “We really like you, we think you have a lot of talent, but we’re not going to promote that you’re part of the network because we don’t want the backlash of wrestling.” Which really was frustrating, because I think that people in wrestling, The Rock, John Cena, Triple H, they have proven, and I’ve proven, that we are as talented as anybody in the country at doing television and doing entertainment. So that was frustrating…. As soon as I got here, even for the first year, there was still that concern that certain people may not want me here or may not think I was qualified because of where I came from. I felt like like I was overqualified because a lot of TV is entertainment and not so much the Xs and Os of sports. So I thought I was more than ready to come here, but it was certainly a concern the last couple of years, yeah.
When did you realize you maybe wanted to do something different than WWE?
Well, when I came to WWE in 1999, I came from a sports job. So doing sports on television was always my dream. I took the WWE job because I was 22 years old, I thought it would be great to travel the country. I never thought I’d stay there for almost 10 years. And, so when I met my wife around 2005, I knew that if I wanted to have a family I couldn’t continue to do WWE at the level I was doing because I was on the road four or five days a week, every week of the year. So probably around 2005 or 2006 I decided in my head, “I’m going to sign one more deal and see where the relationship goes.” We got married during that time. And we knew we wanted to have kids. You know, I may go back someday, I don’t know, I can’t predict the future. But for this time, and for that time, I knew I had to get out. And I was very lucky. It was funny. One person hired me at CSTV and MSG, and then she came here to ESPN. And that’s how I made it to all of these places, is one person believing in me. And her name is Laurie Orlando. So I owe her everything, to be honest with you.
Do you get a chance to watch WWE these days?
Very little, but not because I don’t want to. I work on Monday nights, and then when I’m home, my daughter dominates the television set, she’s 2 1/2. So, it’s not that I don’t want to, but I just don’t have the time right now.
There have been a lot of stories about announcers having to deal with Vince McMahon as a producer while on the microphone. What was your experience like?
There were times, especially when I started doing the bigger shows, where I — you know, he’s a perfectionist, he built it from the ground up, I respected him and still do to this day — and because of the way he was, so hard, so difficult, I got to the point where I could almost repeat in within a quarter or half a second what he was telling me. We got that much in synch. It’s difficult. There were times when I’d leave a show, and literally, I don’t know what a migraine headache is, but I think that’s what I had. Your head is really pounding, and it feels like it’s just going to explode after asking your brain to shape everything perfectly for two hours. So, did I enjoy it all the time? No. Did it make me mentally, incredibly strong? Absolutely. And I always said this the last two or three years I was there: No matter who I work for when I leave here, it’ll be like working for Mister Rogers compared to working for him. And I mean that in a good way. We left on the best of terms, and I still go and see everybody when they’re around, in Hartford or Springfield or Bridgeport. And we get along great. So, it was a great time for me. Anybody that complains isn’t mentally tough, and I don’t want to hear it. I hate people that leave and then bash him, bash the company and say what a horrible guy he is, because he’s not. He just asks a lot. And you’ve got to bring a lot, that’s it.
What would you like fans to know about what you’re doing?
Well, on the weekends I have a radio show called the “Coach and Coleman Show” on ESPN Radio. So, I’m trying to branch out into that. I think the biggest thing I’d want people to know who are reading this who are wrestling fans is that I enjoyed my time there, and I didn’t leave because I didn’t like wrestling anymore. A lot of times fans, whenever The Rock left or somebody else left, they take it personally, like we’re walking out on them. And that wasn’t what I did at all. And that’s why when people ask me on the street if I’ll ever go back, I never say no because I don’t know. I didn’t leave because I didn’t like it or because I wasn’t enjoying it. I did it for my family. And that’s just the honest truth of it. So I just got lucky that I landed someplace like ESPN.
What’s your family life like these days?
That’s another reason why I love Vince and I love wrestling. I met my wife in Vegas while she was there for a show. And she just happened to be from Iowa and I’m from Kansas. And our parents live about five hours apart, driving-wise. And now we have two beautiful kids, a 2-year-old daughter and a 6-month-old son. The lifestyle of being in professional wrestling isn’t always the best. It’s a lot of fun. But it’s not always the healthiest. So [ESPN] has really allowed me to separate the two. When I’m home, I’m home, and when I’m here, I’m here. I still watch a lot of games [at home], because you have to be an expert at this level. And especially when you have your own radio show you’ve got to be able to talk about any sport at any time…. [ESPN] is so great, my wife is fantastic and my kids are everything to me. It’s a great work-life balance, and ESPN is very big on work-life balance, as well.
You’re at work right now. How is everything going?
It’s pretty normal. I came here basically with three goals: To eventually do “SportsCenter,” which I do all the time now; to be a part of the NBA coverage, which is what I do now as well….; and also to someday do my own radio show here. Now, you never know what you’re going to be able to do or what they’re going to allow you to do, and it’s a very competitive environment. But at the same time everybody gets along, everybody helps each other, and a lot of times you forget that you’re at the very best place to work when it comes to sports. And that never gets lost on me, the fact that I’m here. And that’s why every single day I give it everything I’ve got, because I just want to get better. As far as life is concerned and getting to do what you want to do I can’t ask for any more than what I did with Vince or what I’m doing now. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, so I don’t know what else I would do, to be honest with you.