How did a man who started at ESPN in 1987 as a freelance researcher become a cult favorite and television star nearly 20 years later?
After working behind the scenes on the ESPN trivia show 2 Minute Drill in the early 2000s, Howie Schwab walked into Mark Shapiro's Bristol office and was told he was going to be the star of ESPN's next game show - Stump The Schwab.
"Are you [bleepin] serious?" was Schwab's first reaction to the ESPN Senior Vice President.
After a successful run of four seasons, 64 wins and 16 losses, Howie Schwab, ESPN researcher became known as The Schwab, sports trivia guru.
"I'm very happy that people respected the show and enjoyed the show. I never thought of myself as a cult hero or a TV person," Schwab said Tuesday. "I've worked behind the scenes for 26 years. My whole thing about doing TV is having fun, I just enjoy myself."
Several years after the initial run of Stump the Schwab, the game show has returned to ESPN airwaves for a 12 week tournament on ESPNU's late night show UNITE. Although Schwab isn't competing this time around, he's hosted each week of the competition that has featured college students from around the country competing for The Schwab championship.
The Schwab Finals take place tonight on UNITE at Midnight ET on ESPNU with the three finalists taking the trip to Bristol for the occasion. Utah's Michael Smith, Maryland's Taylor Smyth, and Michael Benson of Northern Illinois were the three contestants who made it through multiple rounds to reach the final. The three participants toured the ESPN studios and are also featured in this YouTube video for tonight's finale. Fans of the original Stump the Schwab will recognize the "Leading Off" format for the ESPNU version, where the contestants try to name as many correct entries as possible in a trivia list. Throughout the tournament, the students have been quizzed on categories including pro sports, college sports, pop culture, and social media. For the final, the famous Schwab Showdown will make its return as well.
Howie Schwab has maintained interest in bringing back Stump the Schwab, but it was the show's popularity with college students that led to the UNITE tournament. The format has been a welcome weekly addition to ESPNU's irreverent late night college sports and entertainment show. (UNITE has been under intense speculation as multiple outlets have reported the show's future is in doubt in light of ESPN's recent layoffs. When asked about UNITE's future, ESPN referred to their original statement on the company's actions this week.) In spite of his trademark competitiveness that was often displayed in his own Schwab Showdowns, The Schwab is enjoying his hosting role this time around and writing the sports questions for this edition.
"I'll be honest, I don't know if I'd want to keep competing like I used to," Schwab reflected. "I enjoyed doing it with the college kids because it gave an opportunity to give back."
Although he has made a name for himself in front of the camera, Schwab still continues his work as an ESPN researcher. Schwab works with Dick Vitale on his broadcasts and plays a substantial role in the formation of the ESPYs each year in addition to other projects. The researcher within Howie Schwab is always evident in conversation. Whether it be a note about one of the jerseys from his collection that nears triple digits, a factoid about one of his trivia questions, or a story about his experiences at ESPN, Schwab is never short of information.
As a onetime hopeful Stump the Schwab contestant, I had to take the chance to check off an item from my bucket list and attempt to stump Howie Schwab with a trivia question of my own* during our call. I felt some sense of regret as I could tell he's clearly had this happen to him hundreds of times more than even the most knowledgable of sports fan deserves. After successfully getting my question past The Schwab, I was gently put in place with two questions from tonight's show that I had no chance of coming close to guessing. So much for my dreams of becoming the sports version of Ken Jennings.
*For those of you wondering, the question I posed to Schwab was this - Name the only two golfers to lose all four major championships in a playoff. For his part, Schwab deemed this question the toughest question for tonight's finale - naming the only player to win a Heisman Trophy and play in a Final Four.
With the modified reincarnation of Stump the Schwab coming to its conclusion on tonight's UNITE tournament finale, Howie Schwab remains hopeful in being involved if ESPN ever decides to bring back a sports trivia game show on a full-time basis.
"I think a game show would have a future at ESPN and I'd be happy to be involved in generating another one if they want something different or if they want to bring back Stump the Schwab. It's up to programming. If programming wants me to do it I'd be interested. It was fun for me, I had a good time."