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From the Broadcast Booth to the Front Office, John Lynch Called His Own Shots

The 49ers GM made a seamless transition from game-caller to team-builder

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

These days, when 49ers GM John Lynch serenades a bar, he favors “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” But when Lynch was an announcer at Fox, he had a different go-to. After a day at Fox’s offseason retreat, Lynch climbed onto a chair. He gave fellow announcers the stony look of a strong safety. Then he sang “God Bless America.”

Full-throated displays of patriotism are pretty unusual at network off-sites. But, sure enough, the other announcers started to sing along with Lynch. One compared it to the “La Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca. “You better sing,” joked Kevin Burkhardt, who was Lynch’s play-by-play partner. “Because if he’s looking at you and you’re not singing, he’s going to kick your ass.”

Among former TV analysts, Lynch is a unique creature. Like Matt Millen, he jumped from the no. 2 Fox booth to the front office with no prior experience. Unlike Millen’s tenure with the Lions, Lynch has actually succeeded. Lynch’s Fox colleagues couldn’t have predicted he would draft tight end George Kittle in the fifth round. They saw something more basic. The qualities Lynch exuded in the booth and the bar were the same ones that got him hired as a GM. At least in terms of style, Lynch proved that game-caller and team-builder come from the same songbook.

Just about every NFL analyst’s TV career begins while they’re still a player. Before games, announcers interview players to try to extract inside dope. A player who feeds this dope to the network guys, and speaks reasonably well, is tabbed as a potential announcer.

In the 1990s, when Pat Summerall and John Madden called a Buccaneers game, they always asked to speak to Lynch. “There’s certain guys that when you go into a meeting and you say, ‘Hey, when his career’s up, we should give this guy a call …’” said Pete Macheska, a member of the Summerall-Madden crew who became Lynch’s producer. “John was always that type of guy.”

In November 2008, Fox hired Lynch a few months after he retired from football. With his widow’s peak and craggy smile, Lynch immediately became one of the most well-liked guys at the network—someone who seemed to float above the usual intrigues. “He’s polished and he’s careful, but he is authentic,” said Chris Myers, the Fox play-by-play announcer who will work the sidelines at the Super Bowl.

Inside Fox, part of Lynch’s appeal was his willingness to be coached. This isn’t totally unusual—ex-players have spent their lives being yelled at by coaches. But for a nine-time Pro Bowler, Lynch arrived without an air of regality. “You don’t serve at John’s pleasure,” said Artie Kempner, who was the director of Lynch’s crew.

Lynch turned into a good, nuts-and-bolts color man. As a player, he had been a safety who lived in the “box,” so he had an ability to describe line play that eludes some ex-quarterbacks. Lynch had a mildly Romo-esque ability to predict plays. Even if he sometimes butchered a prepared anecdote, leaving his partner to beg for pieces of information, he impressed his crew by grinding tape and tapping players like Vikings safety Harrison Smith for stardom.

By 2013, Fox paired Lynch with Burkhardt, who’d been plucked from New York Mets telecasts on SNY. Burkhardt was a sunny, Jim Halpert–like presence; Lynch was a guy you thought might secretly like to take your head off. They had a little of the Mike Tirico–Jon Gruden vibe, without Spider 2 Y Banana.

“I think it was Philly-Atlanta,” said Burkhardt. “[Falcons linebacker] Keanu Neal just destroyed somebody over the middle. I’m looking at John, and he’s going into his defensive mode like he’s hitting somebody. He was so fired up for the big hit. I was like, ‘Johnny, you’re not playing. It’s OK.’”

During their first year together, Burkhardt and Lynch were promoted to Fox’s no. 2 crew behind Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. In sports television, the no. 2 crew is the rough equivalent of the backup quarterback. The no. 2 crew gets viewers’ uncomplicated love, and the kiss of potential greatness, without anywhere near as much Twitter scrutiny.

“I think he was a no. 1 in a no. 2 role,” Burkhardt said of Lynch. For his part, Lynch was the kind of ambitious guy who might have sought out a no. 1 job at Fox or elsewhere. “At some point, Troy Aikman was gonna leave and I was gonna be the lead guy,” he said after the 49ers won the NFC championship game. “But something was pulling at me.”

For years, Lynch told his broadcasting friends that he might like to run a team like John Elway. With the benefit of hindsight, Lynch’s colleagues can now see how he put himself in position to do it.

The first thing Lynch did was take an inside view of how the NFL works. Though Lynch later claimed he wasn’t on a fact-finding mission per se, his final season at Fox now looks like legal corporate espionage. The Seahawks’ Pete Carroll remembered Lynch asking unusually detailed questions about their defense.

Lynch’s friendship with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who recommended his hire, was formed in pregame meetings. In December 2014, when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator of the Browns, Lynch and Burkhardt got sent to cover Johnny Manziel’s first start. According to ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, Shanahan later fed information to Lynch in pregame calls that lasted an hour or more. (Lynch had played for Shanahan’s dad, Mike, in Denver.) After Shanahan got hired by the Niners, Lynch argued they could work together like Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke never did.

A TV analyst’s ability to leap to the front office is usually tied to their ability to judge talent. Millen, one of the so-called “baby Maddens,” was an excellent analyst. But in an organization where Shanahan had a huge hand in personnel, being GM also involved a measure of stagecraft. An announcer has to sound like someone who could stride around a building and exude authority.

This was Lynch’s lingua franca. As an announcer, he was a self-styled man of the people. As Macheska told me, “If you were the secretary in the office when we were going to see the Vikings or something, he’d say hello and pay attention to you. ‘How’s your day?’”

One year, as he and Burkhardt were getting ready to call their last game of the season, Lynch took the occasion to address the Fox crew. Lynch began by ladling out praise. Then, said Burkhardt, “It’s like, ‘But, hey, we haven’t done anything yet! We still got a game to play today, so let’s go out there, and let’s play this game and let’s kick some ass! Otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything!’ I swear to God, I got done, and I wanted to fucking play the game. … The room is cheering.”

More than anything, Lynch cultivated the aura of a CEO. “We get a Christmas card from him and his family, and it looks like the cover of a Gap catalog,” said Burkhardt. When Fox’s tape guys saw a shot of Lynch standing on the field before a game, they’d joke, “Oh, there’s Lynch. He looks like he’s running for office.” Indeed, when Lynch lived in Colorado, he was sized-up as a potential political candidate, according to one pal. “God Bless America” could have been part of his stump speech and the name of his super PAC.

According to Kempner, who was also director of Millen’s Fox crew in the ’90s, the Lions spent two years trying to lure Millen out of the booth. “With John, I think something came together with him and Kyle later in the season, when Kyle was with the Falcons,” said Kempner. “It just kind of happened.”

Lynch revealed as much when he was hired by San Francisco. He had called Shanahan and asked, “What about me?” After a few interviews with team CEO Jed York, Lynch vaulted over several candidates despite having no experience in the front office.

Burkhardt was on his way home from calling a basketball game when Lynch called to tell him there would be no more late-night displays of patriotism.

“That flight home, I had a couple of drinks,” said Burkhardt. “Because I was like, ‘Man, it’s amazing and it sucks at the same time.’”