Ryan Miller listens to the whispers every weekend on college campuses across the country.
Is it Ben?
Miller is usually behind the scenes, managing logistics and working with ESPN talent as a production coordinator on “College GameDay,” but Ben, the golden retriever, draws attention when they go for a walk every Saturday.
“It’s becoming a national phenomenon at this point,” Miller said.
Ben is Ben Herbstreit, the furry companion of ESPN and Amazon Prime analyst Kirk Herbstreit. To those outside the college football fandom, Ben may seem like your average golden retriever, one of the most popular pet breeds in the United States. He turns 10 on Friday and is well-groomed, with floppy ears, a perpetual smile and a wagging tail that moves back and forth like a lazy but reliable sprinkler.
But since Ben began appearing regularly in Herbstreit’s social media posts while accompanying him on trips over the past couple of months to the weekly college football pre-game show or games that Herbstreit calls, he’s become a budding star with enthusiastic fans. On a recent trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, Ben had a high-profile encounter with University of Georgia mascot Ugaperhaps the most famous bulldog in the country, and headed to the Atlanta convention center to take part in the “GameDay” festivities.
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) December 2, 2023
“He stops at a tailgate and people say, ‘Oh my God, look! It’s Ben! Ben is here!’ It’s the funniest thing to see people’s reaction,” Herbstreit said.
Ben joined Herbstreit for the first time on “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 on a business trip in October, when Herbstreit took him to Seattle. Herbstreit said his family has been through difficult times, including the hospitalization of his 20-year-old son, Zak, due to a heart condition. Zak, a struggling member of Ohio State, has rejoined the team but is not practicing and said he continues to receive treatment.
Ben provided comfort to Herbstreit while he was away. The family’s other two golden horses, Theo and Mitch, from the same New Jersey breeder, remained at home.
“We happily settle our lives around Ben and whatever he needs,” Herbstreit said. “Reporting to Ben, it works more or less like this. “Everyone else reports to me and my wife, 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 relax in Herbstreit’s office while he works until 2pm “sharp”, 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 might not typically welcome pets.
“What I do, people just think, ‘Well, you fly private, no problem!’ But you’re away from your family, you work and you love what you do, but it’s tough. “So being able to bring that was huge for me,” Herbstreit said. “People say it’s man’s best friend, but really – It seems strange – it is. “He’s my boyfriend.”
Now Ben goes everywhere. and “Where’s Ben?” It’s something Herbstreit hears often.
He gets it from his ESPN colleagues. He sees strangers asking about Ben on social media. Some of the college students who flock to the set on Saturday hold signs like: “We love you Kirk, but we love Ben more!” or “Kirk, can I pet Ben?”
Ask and you shall receive pic.twitter.com/uRODfU1Flj
—Jake Herbstreit (@jake_herbstreit) December 2, 2023
Support also unexpectedly came from legendary sportscaster Al Michaels, Herbstreit’s partner for NFL games for Amazon Prime, after Ben attended a production meeting with 35 people in a large hotel conference room.
“He wasn’t on a leash,” Herbstreit said. “We’re talking about serious things and he moves around the room greeting people. When he approached Al, I could tell that Al wasn’t very keen on it. So I snapped my fingers to bring Ben towards me, and I thought, ‘He better not do this again.'”
The following week, Michaels questioned Ben’s absence in a similar context.
“I said, ‘I left it in the room. I just thought maybe it was better. I didn’t want him to interrupt or get in anyone’s way,’” Herbstreit said. “He says: ‘No, nonsense! You have to get Ben down here!’”
It was evident that Ben had completely won over Michaels when late one night, after returning to their hotel after a game, Michaels wanted to check on Ben. Herbstreit thought his dog was waiting for him at the door, but when he entered his room, Ben wasn’t there.
“He was up on the sofa in the hotel room and was sleeping soundly. I’m talking like deep sleep,” Herbstreit said. “So I go back into the hallway and say, ‘Al, you need to come here and see this.’ He walked into the room, looked around the corner and saw Ben on the couch fast asleep. He takes out his phone and says, ‘Oh my God, I have to film this!’
“I get a video of Al filming Ben. “He thought it was the funniest thing.”
Herbstreit’s other colleagues are also attracted to Ben and say that Ben gives a lift throughout the set.
“The overall aura is a lot more positive when Ben is there,” Miller said. “It keeps all of our personalities fresh. When we all miss home, it’s almost impossible not to smile when he’s around.”
Darren Gaul, a production and talent coordinator who works with Herbstreit, said: “He lets everyone pet him. It is not aggressive in any way. “We welcome everyone.”
Gaul added that Ben’s coat is “look and soft.”
This is what my life has become over the past few weeks traveling with Ben. Here we are pre-game on the field at the Swamp, talking to @GatorsFB Coach Billy Napier talks 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 take much effort, according to members of his travel team. He loves popcorn, long walks and watching a little TV, but Miller says he’s “really a low-maintenance dog.”
Ben usually walks freely off-leash in stadiums, football pitches and on sets, unless other dogs are nearby. He has learned to travel by plane and navigates hotels with ease once he has been shown the route from the elevator to Herbstreit’s room.
“He has become such a traveler that as soon as we get out of the car, he runs towards the plane,” Herbstreit said. “I’m still getting my bags and he’s already on the plane.”
The main thing he needs on any trip is his bed. Miller bought one at a pet store in Athens, Georgia, when “College GameDay” visited him for an Ole Miss-Georgia game last month. It’s a memory foam square so large it could accommodate a sleeping child or two and travels from campus to campus on the show bus. “It’s part of the show at this point,” Miller said.
We had a great time in Dallas, putting on a very competitive game with the@dallascowboys& THE@Seahawks
After the game I flew to Las Vegas and now they’ve got me locked up for tonight’s game@pac12championship match with@oregonfootball&@UW_Football #Big Ben pic.twitter.com/xTLsq5TG0G
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 1, 2023
During the games, Ben usually hangs out with Miller or Gaul on one of the luxury buses or in the makeshift offices that the production crew has set up on site. Sometimes, Gaul brings Ben to the booth, like during the Washington-Oregon State game, when Ben made a televised cameo while at the feet of Herbstreit and Chris Fowler.
Once the show is over, Ben and Herbstreit get on a plane to their next destination, sometimes to another game, sometimes to go home. With the end of the college football season, Ben’s schedule is expected to loosen up, but fans can rest assured that they will likely see him on the road, including the Patriots-Steelers game on Thursday in Pittsburgh and the Army-Navy game on Saturday in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
And when they get home, Herbstreit and Ben will soon have someone to keep them busy. They will stop on the way back from the Army-Navy game to pick up a puppy. A rival for Herbstreit’s affections? Never.
“Ben will say, ‘What? I’ve already raised two and you ask me at my age to raise another one? You didn’t run it by me! What are you doing to me?’ I think our conversation might be like the puppy jumping on him on the plane,” Herbstreit said.
“He’ll look at me like, ‘I thought we were guys?'”
(Top photo courtesy of Jackson Collier/University of Florida)