Ryan Miller hears the whispers each weekend on college campuses across the country.
Is it Ben?
Miller is usually behind the scenes, handling logistics and working with ESPN talent as a production coordinator on “College GameDay,” but Ben the golden retriever draws attention when they go for walks every Saturday.
“He’s kind of become a national phenomenon at this point,” Miller said.
Ben is Ben Herbstreit, the furry companion of Kirk Herbstreit, the ESPN and Amazon Prime analyst. To those outside of college football fandom, Ben may look like your average golden retriever, one of the most popular breeds of family pets in the United States. He turns 10 on Friday and is well-groomed, with floppy ears, a perpetual smile and a wagging tail that sweeps back and forth like a lazy but reliable sprinkler.
But since Ben started regularly showing up in Herbstreit’s social media posts as he tagged along on trips over the past two months for the weekly college football pregame show or games Herbstreit is calling, he’s become a budding star with enthusiastic fans. During a recent trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, Ben had a high-profile meet-up with University of Georgia mascot Uga, perhaps the most famous bulldog in the country, and dropped by the Atlanta convention center to take part in the “GameDay” festivities.
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) December 2, 2023
“He’ll stop by a tailgate, and people are like, ‘Oh, my God, look! It’s Ben! Ben’s here!’ It’s the funniest thing to see the reaction from people,” Herbstreit said.
Ben first joined Herbstreit at “College GameDay” in November 2021, when the show traveled to the University of Cincinnati for the Bearcats’ game against Tulsa. The Herbstreits live in Cincinnati, so Ben went to work with Dad that day. He first hit the road for a work trip in October, when Herbstreit took him to Seattle. Herbstreit said his family had been going through some difficult times, including the hospitalization of his 20-year-old son, Zak, due to a heart condition. Zak, a tight end at Ohio State, has rejoined the team but is not practicing and has said he continues to receive treatment.
Ben provided Herbstreit comfort while he was away. The family’s other two goldens, Theo and Mitch, from the same breeder in New Jersey, stayed home.
“We happily accommodate our lives around Ben and whatever it is he needs,” Herbstreit said. “I report to Ben, is kind of how it works. Everyone else reports to my wife and I, and we report to Ben.”
At home, that means waking up at 6:30 a.m. to serve Ben and his four-legged brothers breakfast and take them for a walk. The trio then lounges in Herbstreit’s home office while he works until 2 p.m. “on the dot,” when Ben leaves to make sure lunch is ready.
“It’s hard not to give in to him with his eyes and how cute he is,” Herbstreit said. “And how demanding he is.”
On the road, Ben is a certified emotional support animal for Herbstreit. He got his ESA license and official red vest in early November, which allows him to join Herbstreit in more places, including hotels that may not typically permit pets.
“What I do, people just think, ‘Well, you fly private, no problem!’ But you’re away from your family, and you’re working and you’re loving what you do, but it’s tough. So to be able to bring him was huge for me,” Herbstreit said. “People say man’s best friend, but truly — it sounds weird — he is. He’s my guy.”
Now Ben goes everywhere. And “Where’s Ben?” is something Herbstreit hears often.
He gets it from his ESPN co-workers. He sees strangers asking about Ben on social media. Some of the college students who flock to the set on Saturdays hold up signs like, “We love you Kirk, but we love Ben more!” or, “Kirk, can I pet Ben?”
Ask and you shall recieve pic.twitter.com/uRODfU1Flj
— Jake Herbstreit (@jake_herbstreit) December 2, 2023
An endorsement even came in an unexpected way from legendary sports broadcaster Al Michaels, Herbstreit’s partner on NFL games for Amazon Prime, after Ben attended a production meeting with 35 people in a large hotel boardroom.
“He wasn’t on a leash,” Herbstreit said. “We’re talking serious business, and he’s kind of working his way around the room saying hi to people. When he got near Al, I could kind of tell Al wasn’t really keen on that. So I snapped my fingers to get Ben over towards me, and I was like, ‘I better not do that anymore.’”
The next week, Michaels questioned Ben’s absence in a similar setting.
“I said: ‘I left him up in the room. I just thought it was maybe better. I didn’t want him to interrupt or get in anyone’s way,’” Herbstreit said. “He goes: ‘No, nonsense! You gotta bring Ben down here!’”
It was evident Ben had fully won over Michaels when late one night, after returning to their hotel following a game, Michaels wanted to check in on Ben. Herbstreit assumed his dog would be waiting for him at the door, but when he walked into his room, Ben wasn’t there.
“He had gotten up on the couch in the hotel room, and he was sound asleep. I’m talking like deep sleep,” Herbstreit said. “So I go back out into the hallway and I go, ‘Al, you gotta come in here and see this.’ He came into the room and looked around the corner and saw Ben on the couch sound asleep. He pulls his phone out, and he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I gotta videotape this!’
“I get a video of Al videotaping Ben. He thought it was the funniest thing.”
Herbstreit’s other colleagues are drawn to Ben, too, and they say Ben gives a lift all over the set.
“The general aura is much more positive when Ben’s there,” Miller said. “He keeps all of our personalities fresh. When we’re all missing home, it’s kind of impossible to not smile when he’s around.”
Darren Gaul, a production and talent coordinator who works with Herbstreit, said: “He lets everyone pet him. He’s not aggressive in any way. He welcomes everyone.”
Gaul added that Ben’s coat is “very soft.”
This is what my life has become the last few weeks traveling with Ben. Here we are pregame on the field at The Swamp-I’m talkin with @GatorsFB Head Coach Billy Napier about the game and there’s Benny taking photos with his fans! 🤣🤣🤣 pic.twitter.com/y2RkadxScL
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) November 26, 2023
Getting Ben from place to place doesn’t require much effort, according to the members of his travel squad. He loves popcorn, long walks and watching a bit of TV, but Miller says he’s “really a low-maintenance dog.”
Ben usually walks freely without a leash around stadiums, football fields and sets unless other dogs are near. He’s mastered air travel and navigates hotels with ease once he’s been shown the path from the elevator to Herbstreit’s room.
“He’s become such a traveler that as soon as we get out of a car, he sprints to the plane,” Herbstreit said. “I’m still grabbing my bags, and he’s already on the plane.”
The main thing he needs on each trip is his bed. Miller bought one at a pet store in Athens, Ga., when “College GameDay” visited for an Ole Miss-Georgia game last month. It’s a memory foam square that’s so large it could accommodate a napping toddler or two, and it travels from campus to campus on the show’s bus. “It’s just part of the show at this point,” Miller said.
We had a great time in Dallas calling a very competitive game with the @dallascowboys & the @Seahawks
Flew after the game to Las Vegas & now getting locked in for tonight’s @pac12 championship game w/ @oregonfootball & @UW_Football #BigBen pic.twitter.com/xTLsq5TG0G
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 1, 2023
During games, Ben usually hangs out with Miller or Gaul on one of the luxe buses or in the makeshift offices the production crew sets up on site. Sometimes, Gaul will take Ben up to the booth, like during the Washington-Oregon State game, when Ben made a TV cameo while hanging out at the feet of Herbstreit and Chris Fowler.
Once the show is over, Ben and Herbstreit catch a plane to their next destination, sometimes another game, sometimes back home. With the college football season winding down, Ben’s schedule should ease, but fans can rest assured they’ll likely see him on the road, including the Patriots-Steelers game Thursday in Pittsburgh and the Army–Navy game Saturday in Foxboro, Mass.
And when they’re at home, Herbstreit and Ben will soon have someone new to keep them busy. They’ll make a stop on the way back from the Army-Navy game to pick up a puppy. A rival for Herbstreit’s affection? Never.
“Ben’s going to be like: ‘What? I’ve already raised two and you’re asking me at my age to raise another one? You did not run this by me! What’re you doing to me?’ I think that might be our conversation as the puppy’s jumping on top of him on the plane,” Herbstreit said.
“He’s going to look at me like, ‘I thought we were boys?’”
(Top photo courtesy of Jackson Collier/ University of Florida)