LEXINGTON — Minutes before his microphone is live across the country, Tom Hart just can’t help himself.

The dress rehearsal for “SEC Saturday Night” high above Kroger Field is in the books. After the SEC Network play-by-play announcer finishes practicing his scene-setting introduction for LSU-Kentucky, color analyst Jordan Rodgers chimes in. “Wow, are we live? That was good.”

Before they are actually live, field analyst Cole Cubelic speaks to his broadcast partners in the booth and producer Bill Palladino in SEC Network’s production trucks in the Kroger Field parking lot. Cubelic informs them that he’s stepping away to use the restroom before the 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff. Rodgers quips, “nope, you can’t do that.”

What Cubelic can do is analyze the game without needing to tell a producer whenever he wants to speak because his mic is always open. That’s rare in the industry because it risks announcers talking over each other. He and Rodgers are both analysts, albeit with different vantage points and areas of expertise. Cubelic is the former Auburn center who diagnoses protections and run-blocking schemes while Rodgers is the former Vanderbilt quarterback who breaks down reads and coverages. That allows them to work cohesively and not be insecure of each other’s presence, which Rodgers admittedly was when they started in 2017.

After Cubelic returns, Palladino speaks into the earpieces of his on-air trio.

“Alright, about 3 minutes to air.”

“Then what?” Hart says.

“Then we’re off and running.” 

It’s a Saturday night ritual that’s 5 years in the making — prep, bust chops, hammer out the key points of the broadcast, bust some more chops and take to the airwaves to announce the SEC Network’s premier matchup.

Hart, Rodgers and Cubelic are in Year 5 working alongside one another. No broadcasting trio in college football has been doing it longer than them (FOX’s Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt and Jenny Taft also started working together in 2017). Spend enough time listening to Hart, Rodgers and Cubelic — or just listen in on a quick dress rehearsal — and one can see why they’ve had such continuity.

As he prepares to deliver his scene-setting opener to highlight the magnitude of the sellout crowd for unbeaten Kentucky and the importance of the game for Ed Orgeron’s future, Hart has a final message for his producer.

“Hey Bill?” Hart says calmly.

“What’s up?”

“The teleprompter just went down.”

It didn’t. Having worked with Hart during various SEC basketball and baseball productions for several years, Palladino knows that Hart is just trying to loosen things up. Rodgers and Cubelic know that, too. Their collective silence says more than either a frantic response or a belly laugh. Minutes later, they’re off and running.

“The most anticipated home game in Kroger Field history … this is SEC Saturday Night.”

* * * * *

On a sun-soaked Friday afternoon in Lexington, Cubelic sits a few rows above field level at Kroger Field. As he watches Kentucky put the finishing touches on its preparation for LSU, Cubelic makes himself comfortable in the seats that he’s looked up at countless times from his main spot in the south end zone.

Whether Cubelic envisioned he’d be this comfortable in his field analyst role is one thing. He certainly didn’t think he’d still be with his trio in Year 5.

“The main reason I never thought that’d be possible is because I think Tom is the best play-by-play guy in the business,” Cubelic told SDS. “It’s nothing against Al Michaels or Joe Buck or Dave Pasch, but I’ll put my guy up against anybody. I think he’s that good.

“And after the first year, I would’ve told you the same thing about Jordan. He’s got real star power. It’s not because he’s got a million Instagram followers. It’s because of his personality, it’s because of how he knows ball. It’s unfortunate the fact that people look at his Instagram followers, they look at the fact that he was on a reality show, and it immediately puts blinders on them paying attention to his football acumen, which, I’ll put him up against anybody. Including myself.”

Credit: Cole Cubelic

Hart is the pass-first point guard in the booth and out of it. Cubelic calls him “the concierge.” When the trio goes out to dinner, Hart picks the place, and he orders the bottle of wine for the table even though Rodgers isn’t exactly a sommelier and Cubelic doesn’t drink.

They no longer have their pre-2020 Thursday night ritual of going out to dinner together because of their other commitments. Cubelic now has his morning radio show “McElroy & Cubelic in the Morning” on WJOX-FM in Birmingham weekdays from 7-10 a.m. — he still will sometimes record his show from a hotel room at their site on Friday morning — while Rodgers often doesn’t fly into SEC Saturday Night’s site until game day because he’s a co-host on “SEC Nation” every Saturday morning.

What hasn’t changed is that by the time the lights turn on for a fall Saturday, they’re all together. They opened the 2021 season on a Thursday night, ironically enough, for Bowling Green vs. Tennessee. One of their bosses, ESPN senior coordinating producer Ed Placey, was at the Tennessee game. He asked Cubelic “what have you guys been doing this for? Three years? Four years?”

Nope. Five years. Even the trio can’t believe it.

“This is really Year 5?” Hart told SDS. “Ideally, this is how it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to find a group where everybody is stronger based on the people they’re with, and build on it. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. Contracts change, assignments change, bosses change. Our bosses giving us a chance to sit in this role is very much appreciated.”

“If we started a pay-per view service for us in between commercials or us in rehearsals … we’re just idiots,” Rodgers told SDS. “We have fun together, we enjoy it, we love the game, we take our jobs very seriously, but we balance that with having a lot of fun. Maybe that’s why we haven’t worn on each other.”

When they started, Hart and Cubelic had a head start having called games together with Andre Ware in 2016. Rodgers was the new guy when he was put in Ware’s spot in 2017, though it was decided that the new trio would take over the SEC Saturday Night crew of Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer.

Before Rodgers got the SEC Saturday Night gig in 2017, he had only called a few games for SEC Network in 2016. At that time, he wasn’t exactly known for his role as an SEC analyst. Even in Year 5 in his current role (and Year 2 on SEC Nation), he estimates that roughly 80% of the people who approach him do so because he was on Season 12 of “The Bachelorette,” where he met his fiancée Joelle Fletcher. In case that wasn’t enough, it was also well documented that Rodgers’ older brother was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Naturally, his arrival on SEC Saturday Night was met with some skepticism.

“It was like, ‘This dude’s done half a year of games. Is he gonna be good? Does he study ball?’” Cubelic said of Rodgers. “I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t think that he was partially there because of what he had previously done, but he’s blown that perception out of the water 15, 20 times over.

“And Jordan was probably like, ‘Who the f— is Cole Cubelic?’”

* * * * *

It’s a fair question. That is, who the you-know-what is Cole Cubelic? 

Cubelic is just your standard, sneaker-loving, Brussels Sprouts-devouring, former offensive lineman who spent the past 2 decades grinding on various daily radio shows in Alabama. It’s not uncommon for Cubelic to be FaceTiming with his wife and 3 kids as he heads into a Friday night production meeting. It’s also not uncommon for him to blind Hart with his lit up iPad on their 6 a.m. Sunday morning flights home because he’s breaking down the all-22 of the left tackle from Fordham.

There’s a Busta Rhymes line from The Hamilton Mixtape that Hart uses to describe Cubelic.

“Hustle hella hard. Never celebrate a holiday, cause that might be the day I could finally hit the lottery. That’s what fits Cole,” Hart said. “He’s never gonna stop working.”

Credit: Cole Cubelic

In the summer of 2015, Cubelic drove 100 miles up I-65N from Birmingham to be with his wife and daughter in Huntsville, Ala. He had just found out at SEC Media Days that he wasn’t going to get the in-studio position with SEC Network that he auditioned for. An opportunity he felt was 15 years in the making was gone.

“I was pretty bummed that first year because I had been doing (Comcast Sports Southeast), some stuff with AL.com and I had been doing radio, so I was like, man, I feel like I’m really poised to be able to do this. I know I’m good enough or at least I think I’m good enough to do it,” Cubelic said. “And then Booger McFarland, Marcus Spears, all these people who hadn’t been doing it (got SEC Network opportunities) … and I’m just like, ‘S—. This was the perfect fit for me and I didn’t get it.’”

But Cubelic did get a call the following day from a Connecticut number. It was Placey. He told Cubelic that SEC Network liked his work and that they’d find a home for him.

True to their word, Cubelic worked roughly 15 SEC Network games in 2015. It was at the 2015 Mississippi State spring game where he realized he could be a field analyst. That’s also when Cubelic believed the higher-ups at ESPN recognized that.

It took time to figure out the little things associated with the unique role. For example, Bryant-Denny Stadium isn’t quick with video replays on the big board, but places like Kentucky and Ole Miss are excellent with that, so he can turn around if he misses something. He still will occasionally work an ESPN game as a color analyst in the booth.

In 2020, Cubelic even got to try his hand at play-by-play, though not by design.

The trio called games during the pandemic, and Cubelic was in his normal spot at field level. The only minor tweak? Rodgers called games from his living room in the Puerto Rico house that he and Fletcher moved to early in the pandemic while Hart did so from his home in Atlanta. Rodgers’ power once went out 3 times during the first quarter of a game, and even though he had a generator, his Wifi would go down and take 4 minutes to reboot during a broadcast.

“There were moments when it was a s— show,” Rodgers said.

One time during a Kentucky broadcast last season, Hart’s house lost power. For roughly 3 series, Cubelic transitioned to that of a play-by-play announcer from field level. Rodgers was on a slight delay, but Cubelic set him up as best he could. Cubelic enjoyed it so much he even pitched some higher-ups to let him do a Megacast doing play-by-play as a field analyst.

Hustle hella hard, indeed.

* * * * *

The only time in which the trio goes out to dinner and it isn’t handpicked by Hart is when they’re in Birmingham at Cubelic’s house and his wife cooks them dinner. If Hart is passing through Birmingham on his way to an SEC basketball or baseball game, that pitstop is a given. They all had dinner at the Cubelic household this summer when they were in town for SEC Media Days. The last night of the event, Rodgers asked Cubelic if he could come over again to hang with his family. Cubelic told him “well, we’ve got neighborhood soccer. I’m gonna warn you, the soccer moms are probably gonna be a little out of hand, so just be prepared for that.”

Cubelic did his best to tuck Rodgers around the corner to avoid any sort of hysteria. His wife did later say “if you had told us that Jordan Rodgers was coming, we would’ve changed outfits or something.”

Rodgers handles that type of non-football attention as well as one could. He laughs when a group of college-aged girls pass by him on the set of SEC Nation and yell “tell JoJo we say hi!” He’s always getting selfie requests. Cubelic said the only time he’s ever seen Rodgers turn someone down for a picture was one time when they were all out to dinner and Fletcher was with them. There was a fan who wouldn’t stop bothering them until Rodgers politely said “we’re having a meal with our friends. We’d love to do whatever you’d like afterwards. Just please let us enjoy this.”

In 2015, Rodgers was far from a celebrity. He was just like any other player trying to squeeze out whatever ounce of football he had left in him. There were the occasional practice squad stints with NFL teams, and it wasn’t until he got to Canada with the CFL’s BC Lions that he decided to pull a 180 on his career.

“I was like, ‘I’m not that good at football anymore. I could play up here for a couple more years, but it’s like, the more I get away from playing in the SEC, I get away from whatever notoriety I had,’” Rodgers said.

So Rodgers hired a non-football agent, he went back to Nashville and he started his new professional grind. He was partners in a nutrition company, MetPro, which he scaled Monday-Friday. Every Friday at 4 a.m., he’d be on calls doing consultations for his business during a 3-hour drive to Memphis, where he’d train quarterbacks from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. He’d do another 12-hour quarterback training session on Saturday and then drive back to Nashville on Sunday.

While Rodgers did that, he occasionally would do a call-in segment to talk Vanderbilt football on the ESPN Radio affiliate in Nashville. He asked the hosts for more regular segments and before long, he filled in for 1- or 2-hour shows. Rodgers realized he wanted to go all in as a football analyst, so auditioned for on-air roles at FOX, Bleacher Report and SEC Network. FOX didn’t offer and nothing at Bleacher Report materialized.

Then “The Bachelorette” opportunity came long.

“I was like, ‘Well, it’s not football season,’” Rodgers said. “I might be there for 3 days, I might be there for 3 months. Either way, I’ll be ready and back in case I pick up a full-time job.”

Rodgers was at “The Bachelorette” mansion when a producer allowed him to answer a phone call (they aren’t allowed to have their personal cell phones in the house). It was SEC Network. They wanted Rodgers back for another audition. They asked him the awkward question “what are you doing now?” He couldn’t explain where he was — “The Bachelorette” producer was in the room while Rodgers had the phone on speaker — but they set up a time for him to get another look from SEC Network.

That meant taking a direct flight from Thailand (where the show’s finalé was filmed) to Charlotte (where SEC Network’s studios are). He landed with lost bags, no tie, a crazy tan, hair that was “out of control” and fortunately, a blazer that he pulled out of his carry-on. Ultimately, though, ESPN’s Stephanie Druley hired Rodgers as an SEC Network analyst in 2016.

Rodgers got exactly what he wanted. The challenge? Proving that he was in his new role for his football acumen and not his newfound celebrity status.

“I’m a little brother. I’ve always got a chip on my shoulder. I was always getting beat up by both my older brothers, so I always kinda had some shit to me,” Rodgers said. “And then playing at Vandy is playing at Vandy. Nobody gives me a ton of respect, nor should they for playing at Vandy. Then you add the reality TV … people not knowing that I was doing ESPN Radio before I ever went on reality TV and I was starting to get into this realm.

“So yeah. F— yeah, I felt like I had to prove myself.”

Credit: Phil Ellsworth, ESPN Images

* * * * *

Hart and Rodgers were half-naked the first time they met each other.

Let’s back up for a second. It was for the sake of content.

It was the 2017 Mizzou spring game. In search of some storylines for the scrimmage they’d be calling, they decided to test out Mizzou’s new “cryosaunas,” to show the use of cryotherapy in recovery. After spending a few minutes in the cryosaunas, which dropped as low as -184 degrees Fahrenheit, they made the immediate transition in their bathing suits into the hot tubs. A fitting first impression, it was.

“I don’t know why more people don’t do that,” Hart said.

Hart was very much in his element that weekend in Columbia. Not because he was half-naked, but because he was back in both his hometown and at his alma mater. Mizzou was where Hart put the wheels in motion for a broadcasting career that took him all over the country. He worked on the Atlanta Braves games for 4 years, he called games for Big Ten Network, CBS College Sports, Fox Sports Radio and when he’s not on the call for SEC Saturday Night in the fall, Hart is the SEC Network’s lead announcer for basketball and baseball.

(Hence, why Hart knows all the best restaurants across the SEC.)

His experience allows him to serve as an extra producer for the crew. In a production meeting, Hart doesn’t hide if he thinks an idea won’t work on air, but the last thing you’ll see him do is talk down to someone. He weaves in the stories and sets up Rodgers and Cubelic to break down the Xs and Os. “I would be so much worse at my job without Tom,” Rodgers said.

On the Saturday of opening weekend of the 2021 season, Rodgers was without Hart in the booth for the first time since the 2017 Cactus Bowl. After calling the Bowling Green-Tennessee opener on that Thursday, Hart found out the next day that his dad, Lou, died from complications of a stroke and COVID-19. Plans for Hart to be on the call that Saturday night with Rodgers and Cubelic for Florida Atlantic-Florida were replaced with a weekend back home with his family in Columbia.

Palladino texted Hart that they wanted to pay tribute to his father during the broadcast and that he was hoping he could share a few pictures. Hart did just that. He sent several photos and told Palladino they were “my favorite photos of me and my dad when I was a kid.” That included one of Chevy Chase’s character from the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” chugging a beer alongside his son Rusty. Hart just couldn’t help himself.

“I was like, he can’t be joking at a time like this. This can’t be what’s going on,” Palladino said. 

In the 4th quarter of the FAU-Florida game, the crew paid tribute to Hart’s late father on the broadcast. Surrounded by his family, Hart watched as both Cubelic and Rodgers gave their well wishes on air. The room was quiet when they showed a picture of Hart with his mom, Suzy, and his dad at a Mizzou basketball game. But when they transitioned to a picture of a young Lou looking like Desi Arnaz from “I Love Lucy,” the silent room was filled with laughter. “It was perfect,” Hart said.

Little did he know at the time that Cubelic, upon seeing the National Lampoon’s Vacation suggestion, dug into the archives and found an old picture of Lou that Hart tweeted out months earlier. Cubelic’s behind-the-scenes move gave the Hart family a cathartic moment it won’t soon forget.

“To be with people where you have their back and you know they have your back,” Hart said, “that’s what trust is.”

* * * * *

Nobody knows who came up with it, but the “Three Amigos” nickname stuck.

In the 2021 season opener, the trio did a pregame segment for SEC Network on the field at Neyland Stadium. They decided to do a postgame hit for the SEC Network wrap-up show “SEC Final,” as well. The following week, the postgame segment showed up on the crew’s schedule as “Three Amigos on the field.”

“It is perfect for those guys. They are the Three Amigos,” Palladino said. “I’ll get in their ear, ‘Three Amigos, down on the field. Wrap your shit up and let’s go down there.’ But everyone has embraced it.”

What isn’t clear is what the future holds for the Three Amigos. Rodgers said if there’s any notion from his fellow Amigos that he’s gonna stop doing his football-related duties one day that “that’s not gonna happen.” Could they perhaps move into a bigger role within the ESPN/ABC college football network?

“We’re all goal-oriented, so we’ve all entertained the idea of what’s next,” Rodgers said. “What bodes well is the conference is expanding. The ESPN network is gonna have more opportunities for SEC-type games … I would hope that all 3 of us could absolutely grow into a big package.

“Tom is ready to skyrocket at any point. I just hope selfishly that I travel with him, and I hope me and Cole do, as well. Tom’s just so f—— good at what he does.”

Credit: Cole Cubelic

As the crowd thins out after Kentucky’s blowout victory against LSU, the Three Amigos make their way down to the West sideline of Kroger Field. The guys have already broken down everything from Kentucky’s rushing attack to what it’s like to have a sweaty butt as a center (Rodgers shared how he used to keep a towel for his center while Cubelic said he would just change pants at halftime if the situation called for it).

After putting the finishing touches on air for SEC Final, the Three Amigos pose with a couple of Kentucky fans who made their way down to the first row. The trio makes its way through the southeast tunnel where the UK faithful multiplies. If one didn’t know any better, one would’ve assumed that the hundreds of fans were waiting for the Three Amigos and not Kentucky players and coaches.

“What up?! How y’all doing?!” Hart says.

“Tom, he wants you in the picture!” Cubelic shouts to Hart.

“SEC Nation!” a fan shouts at Rodgers.

Cubelic pumps up the postgame crowd. Hart chats up fans. Rodgers gets whisked away for more selfies, though by Cubelic’s unofficial count, he was stopped for more pictures than Rodgers for the first time ever.

When the rockstar sendoff is complete, the guys will pile into their rented Chrysler 300 sedan and eventually, they’ll all watch the heavyweight fight between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. Cubelic and Rodgers are both into the fights. Hart isn’t, but that doesn’t deter him from winding down with his fellow Amigos.

Ideally, this is how it’s supposed to work.