Each week SI.com's Richard Deitsch will report on newsmakers from the world of TV, radio and the Web.
There are few things that are likely to survive a nuclear war but I'm convinced Brent Musburger is one of them ("They're going to have to carry Brent out in a pine box," his brother Todd, who doubles as his agent, once told me). At the age 70, in the middle of a fifth or six American act (take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Musburger will be the lead play by play announcer for top-ranked Alabama against No. 2 Texas in the BCS championship on Thursday. Presuming there are no stumbles, he now sets himself up to handle the job when ESPN takes over the Bowl Championship Series package next year.
Such a high-profile gig would come 20 years after CBS announced on the eve of the 1990 NCAA title game between Duke and UNLV that it would not renew Musburger's contact. As he enters his fifth decade on the air, the broadcaster remains a polarizing figure, revered by supporters and jeered by others. SI.com caught up to Musburger this week as he prepared for the Alabama-Texas broadcast:
SI.com: Why are you still getting high-profile gigs at an age when most of your contemporaries are no longer broadcasting?
Musburger: I think as you get older, you either get better or ride off into the sunset. You try very hard to be informed on what is going on. I enjoy the homework and preparation just as much as I always did. I enjoy going to practices, the tidbits about coaches and players, and the gossip around the various games. But I think that I've learned over the years that it is not about the announcer. You go in as a group and everybody, from the cameraman to the tape operators to the producers and directors, are just as important.
I kind of liken it to being a pilot. I get to fly the plane and that's great, but if the guy watching the radar goes to sleep on me, we are going to crash the plane. It's a team effort and when that plane is on the ground, someone has to fuel it up and get it ready and those people are just as important as the pilot who takes it up and down. That is the best comparison I can make about a sportscaster.
SI.com: Are you getting better?
Musburger: Absolutely. I don't think there is any question about it. You either improve or you ride off into the sunset to enjoy your family.
SI.com: You last called a BCS Championship game on television in 2004. Where will Texas-Alabama rank for you as an assignment in recent years?
Musburger: People have asked me often what's the best game I've ever done. They expect me to say "The Flutie Game," but I always say whatever is next. I think more in terms of Texas and Alabama. I'm a sidelight. It's a pleasure to be in the booth doing the game but I'm thinking more than I have such a great seat than as part of Brent being involved in a game. I hope that makes sense. I could be just as happy doing the Orange Bowl
SI.com: But you must concede that this a very high-profile assignment for you, right?
Musburger: No question about that, and let's face it, those two teams were two of the three franchises all year that attracted championship potential. I suppose what you want to do in that situation is not intrude. It'll be great to be there so don't misunderstand me. But I don't do this in terms of what I've done or have not done through the years.
SI.com:New York Post sports media critic PhilMushnick has long attacked you for overhyping an event in a fake manner. What is your response to that criticism, and how do you reconcile promoting a game for your network with the responsibility of being accurate about the matchup?
Musburger: First of all, it has never been fake. Let me just tell you that simply, because that is part of my job responsibility. And I have long felt that newspapers let that get away from them. But let's talk about The New York Post: What they are selling is that front page headline and that back page headline, and that also is wrapped in hype. If you are walking down the street in Manhattan and you see a catchy Post headline and many of them have been great through the years, you are going to buy that paper. I'm always kind of amused because I never saw much difference in my reminding somebody there was a doubleheader game or a Monday night game or even a network promo. That's just part of our job description and that should never get in our way.
So that stuff (criticism) just rolled off my back. I thought it was somebody who did not understand my job and should take deep pause as to what his own media does -- and they do a very good job of it I might add. I have frequently through the years picked up the Post because of the headline. To me, there is not much difference.
SI.com: Is ageism a problem in sports broadcasting and should age be a factor in getting assignments?
Musburger: I will tell you in my private moments I have thought about it and I think what it requires on my part -- and I can only speak for myself -- is to work a little harder and be a little more careful. Believe me, I have made the kind of mistakes that you are referring to. There was a running back for Alabama (Roy Upchurch) earlier this year and I misidentified him referring to another Upchurch who had played years earlier because I go back with all of these guys. Certain names stick with me, so I think you have to be a little more careful and I am mindful of that. The one thing that you have to do is stay enthusiastic about the business.
Travel is certainly a little more difficult and a little more rigorous than it was, not just because of my age but the age we live in. You have to have a great deal of patience when you travel and you have to be aware that there are a lot of things that are out of the airlines' and hotels' control. With a little bit of a sugar, you can things switched in your favor. So that becomes a factor, but I am just as interested in everything now as much as ever.
I've been blessed. I came around at the right time and got to be around all these sporting events and enjoy every minute of it. It's a life I have lived and love. People ask me all the time: Why don't you write a book? I said, I don't need a book. I'll tell you anecdotes about the people I work with over a beer and share some laughs.
SI.com: There are a lot of 20-somethings who have rediscovered you on college football. Why do you appeal to young people?
Musburger: I try to be honest and try to have fun, and the best at embracing the youngsters is DickVitale. He's like the Pied Piper and I suppose being with Dick rubbed off a bit. I think the kids are great. I'll go out the night before in a town and listen to the kids and learn stuff about the team I don't even know. They are the fans that drive the engine. At the end of a Kansas practice recently, I was off to the side and coach BillSelf brought his team together and later relayed this story to me. He pointed to me and said, "That's Brent Musburger over there. Do you know he is, guys?" One player shot back: "Yeah, Coach. He was in The Waterboy." I love things like that. There's a whole generation that has no idea I was involved with The NFL Today and had a life before this one.
SI.com: You are now working with BobKnight on college basketball. Have you found him to be a softer presence as a broadcaster?
Musburger: That's a very good question. I'm going to make a couple of strong statements about Bobby Knight. When I first covered him, he was at the peak of his powers at Indiana and you walked on eggshells with Bob. I wasn't too sure if we would ever get too close and we did for whatever reason -- probably because I did his last championship. Bob is one of those guys if he likes and trusts you, he embraces you, so I was one who was invited to practice and I watched him prepare. It became obvious that this was the best game preparation coach I had ever been around. Could he be offensive? Absolutely.
I was in practice one day and LandonTurner, who had been paralyzed in a car accident, was there. Bob stopped practice and just tore into him. He ripped him up and I was like, "Whoa." I guess Landon missed an English class if I recall, and that was the result of the tirade. So that night Bob and I went out to dinner and I said, "Coach, sitting there I winced and I was little uncomfortable when you turned your fire on Landon. Tell me about that?" He said, "Brent, I promised his mother that he would get his degree when he came back after he was paralyzed and I'm going make sure he goes to class and get his degree. But by doing that, he feels that he is still a little part of the team because he knows direct fire at players in practice." It was a moment of honesty.
That brings us to our pairing now. He doesn't intimidate me. I know his bluster. I also know sometimes people take him too seriously. He's trying to be funny and when he's not, he fails. Having worked games with him, I find him to be the most perceptive basketball analyst that I have been around. Obviously, he looks at things from Bob Knight's point of view. There is a way that Bob thinks a game should be played, so you will get that bit but I really enjoy working games with him. I'll tease him about the chair and I'm not afraid to tease him about things in his past. I think he enjoys it and so we have been getting along fine. I also notice he's getting a lot of respect from young kids when he goes into the buildings. They are respectful and Bob will sign autographs.
SI.com: Do you expect to be calling next year's championship game on ABC?
Musburger: Once you become involved in this and do these games, you want to stay a part of it. But I don't presume anything. You never want to do that. That will be up to the bosses and whatever they decide next year.
• A larger-than-life Chicago sportswriter, Bill Gleason will be missed. Here's a tribute from Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, his friend and "Sportswriters on TV" colleague.
• As he began his 18-month term as ESPN's ombudsman last July, I asked Don Ohlmeyer if his son Christopher's involvement with ESPN (Christopher Ohlmeyer is a freelance producer and director who has worked for ESPN in the past) affected his ombudsman job, and if not, why not?
"The things that he does I would have to keep off limits in terms of what I was writing about," Ohlmeyer said. "There can only be a conflict of interest if it's not disclosed."
I've thought often about that interview this week after the news came down that Texas Tech coach Mike Leach had been fired in the wake of receiver Adam James and his family filing a complaint about Adam's treatment after an injury. ESPN has become part of the story because Adam's father, Craig, is a college football analyst for the network, and was scheduled to call the Alamo Bowl game in San Antonio between Texas Tech and Michigan State until the network announced on Dec. 28 that he would be removed from the broadcast. In light of the news that has flowed out of Lubbock over the past seven days, James should never have been within 1,000 miles of that broadcasting booth.
At the very least -- and this is the very least -- Craig James should have publicly removed himself from the braodcast on Dec. 17, the day Leach is alleged to have confined Adam James in a equipment shed after being diagnosed with a concussion.There is also the charge from Leach that Craig James meddled "more than any parent I've dealt with my entire career," a charge James called "absurd" through an ESPN spokesperson. Texas Tech receivers coach Lincoln Reilly also publicly stated that he had issues with Adam James, calling him "unusually lazy and entitled." No matter where the veracity of the accusations stand, it's impossible to believe Craig James could call the game with impartially.
Ultimately, the public will make a decision on which side they feel is being honest after the facts are exhausted. But what should bother television viewers is this: Either James was not forthright with his employers about the extent of his conflict with Leach and the coaching staff, or those who assigned James the game disregarded a major appearance of impropriety (On this subject worth reading is this piece in The Huffington Post by University of British Columbia journalism professor Joe Cutbirth.
Networks over the years have assigned fathers to cover their son's games including Bob Griese (who called son's Brian's games at Michigan), Lou Holtz (who called son's Skip's games when he coached at East Carolina) and Bill Walton (who called son's Luke's games at Arizona and for the Lakers) and Westwood One's John Thompson (who called NCAA tournament that involved his son John III, who coaches Georgetown). The rational is often that the human interest story and access to the player/coach will make for a better broadcast (and could juice the ratings). If nothing else, the James situation should finally make networks think twice about such assignments. Given the public interest and the passion on all sides, I imagine Ohlmeyer will weigh in soon, a column that promises to be must reading.
• "You have to go to ESPN's pregame show for news of Cowher coaching. Mort: Bills had "stealth meeting" with Cowher that was "very productive."--Sport Business Journal reporter John Ourand, reinforcing how ridiculous it looks for CBS's The NFL Today when BillCowher news comes from other sources. Jan. 3, 4:49 p.m.
• "If Nick Saban wants to know how to beat Texas, he should call Mike Leach, who has free time and is the only coach to do it recently."-- Houston Chronicle sports columnist Richard Justice, Jan. 2. 11:47 a.m.
• "Next time someone resigns/retires to spend time w/ family, would it be rude to walk out of press conf? MJ, Favre, Urban. Anyone mean it?" --ESPN college basketball writer Dana O'Neil, Dec. 27, 10:14 p.m.
From a transcript sent out Sunday from CBS on reports of Cowher being mentioned for coaching jobs:
James Brown: Let me turn my attention to Coach Cowher because there have been an awful lot of reports about you and various coaching jobs. What is your response to these stories?
Bill Cowher: As I referenced to before, I am not going to talk about any jobs during the regular-season. I've got my own issues up here. I'm trying to catch this guy (pointing to ShannonSharpe) in the picks segment. It's taking all my attention to do that.
Joe Gibbs has won Super Bowls and constructed championship racing teams but, on Jan. 6, he'll face perhaps his toughest challenge yet:
Finding airtime in the same booth as JoeTheismann
The former Redskin coach and the loquacious quarterback-turned-analyst will serve as analysts for NBC's coverage of Jets-Bengals wildcard game Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Cincinnati.(Tom Hammond will call the game.) "I told Joe I would try to keep him from getting fired," Gibbs told SI.com this week. "Three hours may be hard, but I think I spent half of my career saying, "Joe, shut up."
Last month Gibbs sat in on NBC's broadcast of the Panthers --Vikings at his home in Charlotte. N.C., to reacquaint himself with the booth after receiving a call out of the blue from NBC Sports president KenSchanzer (a huge Redskin fan) with the one-game offer.
"In Gibbs and Theismann we have a former coach and quarterback who obviously have a long relationship and will be looking at a football game from different points of view," TommyRoy, who will co-produce the game, told The Washington Times. "There could be some disagreements between the two during the game, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing and could make for an entertaining broadcast."
Gibbs said that because of his schedule, the AFC wildcard game will likely be a one-off assignment, though he did work as an NFL broadcaster for NBC from 1994 to 1997. "When I was redoing my contract in 1997, Schanzer was pounding me in the contract renegotiations. I said, "Ken, don't I have any leverage? He said, absolutely not. I said, "Well, in that case, I better take what you are offering me." Later on that year [his wife] Pat and I were lying in bed one when I got a call from [NBC Sports chairman] Dick [Ebersol]. He said, "Joe, we lost football." l I said, "Dick, nobody loses football." He said, "We did. " I said, "Well, I guess I don't have a job." He said, "You got that right."
If the Redskins coaching situation comes up during the broadcast -- Jim Zorn was fired on Monday -- Gibbs said he is more than comfortable to address it. "I talk to DanSnyder as a friend and if he wants to ask me something, I'll do whatever to try and help the Redskins," Gibbs said. "But I am not in the decision-making process, so I can give my opinion."