LOS ANGELES — Terry Bradshaw spills a cup of coffee, but Curt Menefee doesn’t flinch. Menefee leans toward a tray not visible on television for some tissue to help clean up as Bradshaw continues to make a point about the Cincinnati Bengals.
Howie Long helps with the cleanup, and Bradshaw keeps talking. Jimmy Johnson listens intently.
Menefee then ribs Bradshaw about needing another cup of coffee, and Johnson uses coffee as a transition to talk about the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks.
“So Terry spills coffee on live TV … now, how do you react?” Menefee said shortly after while sitting in a dressing room at Fox Studios. “Instead of going into panic mode, we made it part of the show, and we laughed it off and had some fun with it.”
It’s a funny moment in the studio. And Menefee, the longtime sports personality for Fox Sports, would tell you he has one of the most fun jobs in the world as the host of “Fox NFL Sunday.”
It might be coffee one day. The next day, Johnson might get fired up talking about a coaching situation, or Long might have a passionate discussion about the Raiders, a franchise he played with for 13 seasons. Michael Strahan is as busy as anyone on the show with his multiple television jobs. He can be funny, or he can be dialed in and serious when discussing football. If the show had a script, it would go off-script most of the time.
But someone has to keep the show flowing. That’s where Menefee steps in.
His colleagues call him a friend, therapist and a point guard of sorts on the show. Menefee, 58, is in his 18th season as host of a show that’s all about football but might be best known for the wacky moments that make viewers laugh.
Menefee is not just the host; he’s the straightforward personality in an NFL comedy troupe.
“People never go, ‘You did a great job of breaking on the Cover 2.’ It’s, ‘I love it when you guys bust each other’s chops,’” Menefee said. “That’s something that people will remember from the show more than anything else: (Bradshaw) spilled coffee, and you guys laughed it off and talked about it getting on his suit.”
To understand Menefee’s importance, think about the cast. There’s Bradshaw, the four-time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame quarterback from the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. There’s Long, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman who won a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Raiders. There’s Strahan, a Hall of Fame defensive end and the NFL record holder for most single-season sacks (22.5, tied with the Steelers’ T.J. Watt) who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants. And there’s Johnson, a Hall of Fame coach who won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and also a national college football championship at the University of Miami.
Someone relatively new to the mix is Rob Gronkowski, who won four Super Bowls as a tight end with the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and likely is headed to the Hall of Fame. Add in the ever-energetic NFL insider Jay Glazer, and that’s a lot of personality on set with the potential for television chaos. Someone might go on a rant with no one knowing the direction.
Menefee has learned how to let everyone have their time while also making sure the show stays on schedule.
“People have no idea what he does for us,” Glazer said. “He’s our leader. He’s our therapist. There are six of us on the show, so there’s 19 personalities — and Bradshaw and I got 12. For Curt to be able to keep us in check like this … you know, we’re family.”
The coffee spilling is just a microcosm of what Menefee means to the show. Glazer and Bradshaw both have publicly discussed some of their mental health struggles. Glazer said Menefee takes the time to check on them and has been a confidant when times are tough. When he’s dealing with a possible anxiety attack, Glazer said it is Menefee who often is the first to stop what he’s doing to help.
That’s because Menefee has built genuine friendships with the crew. There are offseason vacations. Glazer was Menefee’s best man at his wedding 10 years ago. Their spouses know each other, too.
Menefee said he’s one of the “rare” guests able to spend two days fishing at Johnson’s home in the offseason because Johnson usually only gives visitors one day. Additionally, Menefee watches college football with Bradshaw and Johnson every Saturday, where there’s bonding and where Menefee picks up insight into how they’re thinking about the NFL that might be useful on the show.
“I get to spend time with my best friends in life. That’s not a job,” Menefee said. “It’s just fun time. It’s just an extension of the blessings that I’ve been given and the joy that I’m able to have in life to be able to do this and call it my job. I know that not many people get to say that.”
The friendship is the foundation of what makes the show go. It allows Menefee to know when to let someone keep talking and also when to use nonverbal communication to tell someone to wrap up his point. Menefee gauges what’s working on the fly. He does all of this with show producer Bill Richards speaking to him in his earpiece.
What makes the show so much fun is the unpredictability — but it also can be stressful if someone can’t maintain order. The show isn’t rehearsed, so Menefee will react to a Bradshaw rant or a Johnson monologue on the fly. Controlling the room is an important skill to make sure segments don’t run long and sponsor reads aren’t forgotten.
Emphasis on “controlling the room.”
“I’m not ripping the guys, but if this kindergarten class is going crazy, I need a teacher to say, ‘Now we’re going to commercial,’” Richards said. “We can just let it go and these guys can go for an hour, we’d never take a commercial, and we’d all get fired. Curt keeping the train on the tracks, I can’t tell you how important that is.”
It also helps that Menefee has been on live television since he was 19 years old, going back to his time as a student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s been trained to stay ready for anything.
Menefee took over as the full-time host of “Fox NFL Sunday” in 2007 after James Brown left for CBS. Long said he admired how Menefee handled being the “bullpen guy” as Fox first experimented with using Joe Buck to host and also call games. Menefee taking over meant the show didn’t have to travel to where Buck was working.
For nearly two decades, it’s worked. And friendships have formed in the process.
Menefee’s preparation is meticulous. The Santa Barbara, Calif., resident is up by 5:30 a.m. every day for meditation with his wife, Viollette, and to work out. The early start also allows Menefee to call or text various sources around the NFL on the East Coast who want to communicate early in their day.
Menefee likes to keep football to a minimum on Mondays so that Viollette has a day with him without the pressures of work. By Tuesday, he’s communicating with Richards about the vision for Sunday’s show. The rundown for the show is usually set by Thursday, which is when Menefee begins focusing on teams and stats that will be important for Sunday.
Friday is spent with a lot of texts and phone calls to people around the league. On Saturday, he drives from his home in Santa Barbara roughly 100 miles to a hotel room in Los Angeles for his weekly tradition of watching college football with Bradshaw and Johnson at their hotel around noon. Menefee likes to be back in his room by 5 p.m. to work on some of the written parts of the show, and he prefers to be in bed by 8 p.m. He’s then up by 4 a.m. for meditation and to arrive at the Fox studio by 5 a.m. for show preparation.
Menefee jokes that his football career ended in middle school, but he’s not viewed as a football outsider by his friends on set. They recognize the work he does, including visiting multiple training camps in the offseason and maintaining relationships and insight across the league to help the show’s growth.
He knows the sport and can juggle halftime highlights in multiple markets. He also can help someone with a bit of information on the fly.
“If I was in a pro football game show and I had to phone a friend for some kind of information, Curt would be the guy to call,” Long said. “Curt is so good with a lot of big personalities on the show. We’re not a rehearsal show. To be honest, I think that’s part of the reason why we’re successful, because what you’re seeing is genuine, authentic reactions to a first-time conversation.”
For all of the praise Menefee receives, he’s admittedly his own worst critic. He used to obsess over stumbling over a word or a mispronunciation. He said those things don’t bother him anymore, because, in regular conversation, those things happen.
His focus in after-show conversations with Richards is on the flow of the show. What worked for each segment? What didn’t? For Menefee, it’s more the big picture.
“Did I get Terry in soon enough? Did I wrap him up quick enough?” Menefee said. “Did I transition from this being serious to this being lighthearted or vice versa? I don’t think I’ve ever done a perfect show. I’m still striving, still trying to get there. I haven’t gotten there yet.”
“The best point guard is going to take a couple of shots, and those are the ones you might think about on the way out,” Richards said. “But he’s a great shooter, so he’s making most of them, so nobody cares. Curt’s mistakes aren’t something I spend a lot of time on, because there’s not a lot (of them).”
Glazer’s friendship with Menefee dates back to the 1990s when both were working in New York and Glazer asked Menefee to co-host a show, “Unnecessary Roughness” on the MSG Network. He believes Menefee is great to work with as a friend but added that Menefee can be “very, very, very hard on himself” after a show.
“I always tell him we kind of go as you go,” Glazer said. “So, you may think something wasn’t good, but the rest of us don’t see it. So, don’t put that in our heads. Our show is imperfect. We’re off the cuff. I’ll just say to him, ‘Hey, bro, you beat up on yourself, but the rest of us don’t see what you’re upset about. So, don’t bring it out. Let’s you and I just talk it up.’
“Then we talk it out, and then he’s like, ‘You’re right.’”
Therapist. Point guard. Perfectionist. The adult in the room. There are a lot of ways Menefee is described. His main focus, though, is making sure his friends look good on air.
He’s become a celebrity in his own right. The show was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2019 — so technically, Menefee is a Hall of Famer like his panelists.
But if his friends are shining on air and the viewers continue to come back, he’s happy.
“The No. 1 goal is for people to leave the show feeling like they had a good time, that they enjoyed it, because entertainment is the first thing,” Menefee said. “The second thing is that they get some information out of it.”
Spoken like the adult in the room.
(Top photo: Noam Galai / Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust)