This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pinned to the wall of Tom Hackett's cubicle is a check from the New York Jets, made out to him, for a total of $83.87.

"Do you think I can cash it?" Hackett asks, as he whips out his phone, trying to digitally deposit the check and ignoring the small type that renders it void after 180 days, which has well passed. "It's not going to clear, is it?"

That's a relic of Hackett's last job as a professional punter, which lasted a day and a half into training camp. His new job — professional sports radio host — is one he hopes has more legs.

"Sport has been the largest part of my life forever, and I like to entertain," he says. "I wanted to get into sport, ideally as a player, but as my chances to do that grew slimmer and slimmer, I got more into radio. Radio was perfect for everything I wanted to do."

It's been a month and a half since Hackett, the Utes' Australian special teams ace who twice was named the best punter in college football, took on hosting duties with Sean O'Connell for the ESPN 700AM drive-time radio programming. At 24, he's conspicuously young for the job, and he self-admittedly has no vast background or experience in radio — a good chunk of it is learning on the fly.

Some of that learning takes place on air. One afternoon, O'Connell asks Hackett what he thinks of a show sponsor's menu. Hackett says he can't stand it before he realizes O'Connell didn't mean for him to be that blunt.

"Do you sometimes worry what comes out of my mouth?" Hackett says. "I won't change."

"Well that might be a problem," O'Connell says. "For you and for me."

As any good radio hosts should, O'Connell and Hackett ham up this dynamic — Hackett as a bit of a loose cannon and O'Connell as more of a grounded, thought-out counterbalance. But within the play-acting is an underlying truth: In the topsy-turvy world of radio, a big mouth can be a host's best weapon or his downfall.

Starting in his second career, Hackett still is trying to find that balance.

Natural flair

"Kicking bacon," Hackett admits, was a line he put some thought into.

It's perhaps the most famous of his many media-friendly quotes throughout his career, when he wasn't only the nation's best punter but Utah football's media darling. He was unpredictable in front of a microphone, as ESPN's Chris Fowler learned after Hackett won his second Ray Guy Award and said on the national broadcast: "Deep down, I'm fat."

He also was characteristically breezy after his car, a 1999 Subaru Outback nicknamed "Basil," was stolen one week. He said at the time, "I hope wherever they went, they have a good trip." The car was found a day later and returned to its rightful owner. Hackett still drives it.

Hackett says he was never very fond of the media in his playing days, but it was clear to those who covered him that he had a sense for crafting a quote that would spread quickly.

"He has that 'Aw shucks' Australian way about him, but he's a smart guy," says Bill Riley, ESPN 700's program director and voice of the Utes. "I think he knew exactly what he was saying. He likes to play easygoing, but he knows when things he says will play."

The NFL was Hackett's goal after he left Utah, and he was signed by the Jets as an undrafted free agent. But he quickly was waived as the team signed a quarterback that summer. He had a tryout for the Detroit Lions that went nowhere. Meanwhile, he hadn't earned his degree in sports management — he needed a for-credit internship.

He contacted Riley and asked, "Hey, do you need an intern?" ESPN 700 made space for him, and Riley almost immediately saw that it had been a savvy move.

"There's two kinds of interns: Kids who are go-getters and ones who kind of sit there and wait for you to tell them to do something," Riley said. "Tom got after it. He would go do things on his own like his podcast. He asked a lot of questions about the business. We would have him on a segment from time to time, and he was a natural."

Hackett hung around after getting his college credit, sensing that his NFL door was closing. In February, the station dismissed O'Connell's then co-host Brian Swinney, looking for a ratings boost after the show had been on air for only about a year. Riley called Hackett and told him there might be an opportunity.

Hackett was shocked. He had prepared to look at smaller markets out West for his first hosting job — he didn't think it would come in Salt Lake City. But he wasn't about to pass on it, either. Riley had only one piece of advice for him.

"He said it wasn't going to work if I wasn't going to be myself," Hackett says. "People get carried away when they try to be someone else, and that's how you get to no-man's land."

Finding balance

Hackett, of course, has an insider edge. He was a star for the Utes only a year and a half ago. Kyle Whittingham still beams when talking to him. He still occasionally gives rides to his successor, Mitch Wishnowsky, after practice.

That adds up to insight no one else can offer on the radio. But it also can be a little sticky.

The former punter makes pointed observations about former teammates as he and O'Connell discuss Utah spring football on a recent show. He says he's "awfully skeptical" of junior offensive lineman Jackson Barton, and that he likes senior receiver Kenric Young, but says "he's got hands like bricks."

Criticism is the job of a sports talk radio host. And Hackett won't shy from lighting into people. That's one of the reasons he got the job.

"I told him, 'I don't expect you to permanently damage any relationships,' and this market isn't a 'rip-and-destroy people' market," Riley said. "You may know some of the guys in the program, but you've got to be honest and true to the listeners now. Be honest. Don't make it personal."

Hackett already has felt where the line is drawn. On an episode of "4th and Long" podcast with former teammate Andy Phillips, the special teams duo criticized both how long they had to be at the football facility as well as workouts that they complained burned them out.

Not long after, Hackett heard from Utah's director of football operations, Jeff Rudy. Hackett wishes he could take back that one.

"People around the football facility weren't too happy with that," he says. "But this is how I learn what I should and should not say."

Wishnowsky says he has listened now and then. His biggest criticism has been to tell Hackett to "spice things up a bit."

It's probably not surprising that Whittingham hasn't much listened at all. Negative comments about the Utes haven't gotten back to the coach either. Whittingham, who has coached several players who now work in the media, says he chooses not to worry about what criticisms a former player might have.

"I imagine," Whittingham says about Hackett, "he's pretty darn entertaining."

Always on

Hackett pulls a stick of deodorant out of his bag and holds it up for dramatic effect. It's become one of his necessary pieces of equipment in his new job.

"I was always a bit of a forehead sweater," he says. "Those first two weeks, I became an armpit sweater, too."

Hackett has discovered other essentials while on the air for four hours every afternoon: Beside his laptop is a bottle of water and a box of Cheez-Its, which are depleted gradually throughout the show. Less necessary are shoes — Hackett discards his Birkenstock sandals before he gets on air, recording the show barefoot.

While he looks like he might be more at home at Bonnaroo than a sporting venue, his co-workers say he's taken a straightforward approach to the business. O'Connell will get texts both first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night from Hackett, detailing something he saw on television or read online.

"He's never turned off in the business," O'Connell says. "He's always looking at something and asking, 'How does that apply to the show? What can we say about this?' It's been good. He has a unique perspective."

Aside from his background with Utah football, Hackett also is solidly versed in the NFL and pro soccer. He admits he's still catching up on other sports, particularly baseball (even though his brother plays baseball in Australia). He hopes to ground himself enough so "I'm not saying things out of my a—."

He's worked on phrasing questions smoothly and begun to anticipate when producer Jon La Follette is about to play trumpet music in his headphones, indicating that he needs to move on. He's a part of regular breakfasts with Riley and O'Connell, brainstorming segments and conversation topics.

Says Riley: "He absolutely had an in, but that's not going to keep him employed if he doesn't work hard, and so far, he's doing the right things."

It's a particularly fraught time in the sports radio business locally. O'Connell is still on edge after the failure of his show with Swinney, with whom he had a good working relationship. On the same day OC and Hackett made its radio debut, one of ESPN 700's competitors, 1320 KFAN, shut down.

"The job security is pretty weak for guys that talented to be in the wind," O'Connell says. "I feel a lot of pressure to do the work to make sure our show continues to sound different than all the other shows."

It may not last forever, but it's already lasted longer than his last job. And Hackett is determined to enjoy every bit of the ride.

"I can't be anyone but myself, and I know you can't please everyone," he says. "But hopefully people like it."

Twitter: @kylegoon —

A look at Tom Hackett

• Two-time Ray Guy Award winner for college football's best punter

• Pac-12 All-Century team punter

• Only two-time consensus All-American in school history

• Hails from Melbourne, Australia, and a Prokick Australia alum

• Lived in Japan from ages 6 to 12

• Also played rugby, soccer, Australian rules football and cricket growing up

comments powered by Disqus