Brent Musburger continues to get high-profile gigs at an age when most of his contemporaries have long since ridden off into the sports broadcasting sunset. At 72, in the middle of his sixth American act (take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Musburger will call top-ranked LSU against No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game on Monday night (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). As he enters his fifth decade on the air, Musburger remains a polarizing figure, revered by supporters and jeered by others. But he has never shunned questions about his work or style. SI.com caught up with him this week:
SI.com: Why should viewers outside of the Alabama and LSU fan bases care about a game they've already seen?
Musburger: I have said to everybody: I think the buildup and first quarter of our game would have been more interesting with Oklahoma State against LSU than having two teams that have already played. But I think our fourth quarter is going to be more interesting with Alabama, given a second chance here against LSU.
But we are going to do the game regardless of who was in it. It's like sitting at a poker table. I have to play with whatever is given to me and do the best I can. But I'm enthused about this game. I was recently telling my lifelong friend Drew Esocoff, who directs Sunday Night Football for NBC, how many guys are heading his way [to the NFL] from these two teams. The people who love the Southeastern Conference are going to be with us from the beginning, but I think there will be a curiosity about this game.
Now, listen, I understand anyone who wants to say: I saw that movie. It was the Field Goal Battle of the Century and I don't want to see it again. But I think it will be a little bit differently this time, and we will have some touchdowns scored. It's not going to be a wild, high-scoring affair. It's not going to be Wisconsin-Oregon. But the system says they identify the two best teams, and they'll compete for the BCS Championship. That is the system we have and we play it out.
SI.com: Your boss, Norby Williamson, told SI.com a year ago that he found your "This is for all the Tostitos" line at the end of last year's Auburn-Oregon BCS title game funny. He said it was no outright sales job for Tostitos. As you know, that line created a lot of debate, from people who thought it was funny to people who thought you were shilling for a sponsor. How did you see that line at the end of that game?
Musburger: I had used it before, but I just had not used it on as big a stage. I think the first time I used it was for a Notre Dame-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl. I'll go back to poker again because a Tostito to me was just a chip, and you would push them all in the middle of the table if you wanted to have a showdown. I have gone back and listened to it, and I cannot tell you how surprised I was by the Twitter revolution I set off that night. You go back and listen to the broadcast, I said it rather matter-of-fact. To me, I didn't think anything about it.
CNBC said I had given Frito Lay more than $2 million worth of advertising. I'm thinking, "Wow, I should have been paid for that spot." It came back to me from my brother Todd [who serves as Brent's agent] that a reporter had called Frito Lay to ask if I was paid to say that. I was like, "Do you think I am crazy?" I chuckled about that. I certainly did not think about shilling for the company. It was a line used so I drop it in. But it was amazing the firestorm that occurred (laughs).
SI.com: How would you characterize your relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban and LSU coach Les Miles, and how forthcoming are they with your broadcast group?
Musburger: Our relationship is excellent with both of them and I have enormous respect for both. I think in terms of preparation, Nick Saban is probably the best in the college game. However, I think once the ball is in the air, Les Miles had a little sandlot advantage and I mean that in a positive way. He is apt to do something quirky that a master preparer does not have in mind. I'm not so sure there is anything in the first game that I can point to but throughout his career, Miles is willing to go against the book. But when it comes time to setting up a game plan or putting a football team together, I would rate Saban number one in the college game.
Now how forthcoming are they? Very good question. If I was to walk up to Saban and Miles alone and ask them something about an injury, they would be honest with me. If we were sitting in a room with a lot of people, I think that Saban is a little more guarded than Les is. If he's not sure who he is talking to, he wants to be careful, as many football coaches are. But I look forward to them. Long before I worked with Kirk Herbstreit, Dick Vermeil and I did a whole bunch of Michigan State games. He enjoyed talking to Saban and that's how I got my education with Nick. Both are good guys but I run through my mind the differences and there is a little more sandlot with Les.
SI.com: You are an announcer who mentions the point spread more than most others. Why is that?
Musburger: Because it is an especially big part of football in this country, and I think there are a lot of people that are interested. For example, I was in Las Vegas recently and I made it a point to go to a sports book to ask about this game. They told me the first game had the most money wagered on it of any college football game this year, and they expected this one will exceed that but it would be late action....I think [sports betting] should have been legalized and taxed. One of the first things people ask about a football game is: Who's favored? And by how much? I know coaches who will look at the point spread and then in a staff meeting say, "What do these guys know that we don't?" It is a big part of the success of football in this society. I mean, the National Football League, some of the early founders were bookmakers, and horse betters. These were people I really appreciated and liked.
SI.com: Can network broadcasters and sideline reporters be truly objective in an age when that network is a financial partner with conferences?
Musburger: It's a very good question and it's more accurate to say no because we have a business relationship. Now let's go to the toughest story of the year: Penn State. Through the years, no one has been closer to the Big Ten than I have, but you quickly have to step aside from that when you encounter a story like this. You realize this goes way beyond just another football game. You have to be prepared to be critical of the administration. You have to be very mindful of what happened there and how horrible that whole story seems from the outside as we await the trials. The alleged cover-up leaves you shaking your head. At that point, you separate yourself immediately, and everyone at the network, all the way from [Disney CEO] Bob Iger, would expect you to. That's just being a grownup.
But in terms of talking just between the white lines and going forward, and the academic prowess of the institutions of the Big Ten, you are going to be on the positive side of that, and simply because you have a business relationship. You can never forget that. You have to be very mindful of that and don't pretend otherwise. I'm not going to be the investigative reporter that walks in and starts uncovering the misery of these institutions and what may or may not have gone down. I always thought at CBS it was great having 60 Minutes around. If you have a story that needs further investigation, you go to a unit like that. These people are trained and know how to find things. We have two or three reporters at ESPN that I would turn to in a situation if I uncovered something. I would go to them because they are better equipped to handle it than I am.
SI.com: During your career, you interacted with Jerry Sandusky at times. What were your reflections of him?
Musburger: I dealt with him a lot. He was very, very pleasant every time I was around him. The Penn State coaches always had meetings very early on Friday mornings, the earliest of any coaching staff. I suppose I should have asked because I don't know if that was Joe Paterno or the assistants who wanted that. So we would go in and Jerry would be there, and we would chat. I guess the only thing I ever thought coming away from that was I did not learn much inside football. He would talk about some of the players. He laughed a lot. He took things rather lightly. Those were the memories I have of him. I watched him in practice and he was a hands-on assistant, and it seemed likely that some day he would replace Joe Paterno.
Then he stepped aside and I figured his stepping aside was because he was not getting the job. The puzzling thing about Sandusky to me was that he was never hired somewhere else. I always wondered about that. Maybe I saw him once or twice after he left the staff and it was always just pleasantries. It wasn't anything about what he was doing. The lingering question for me is why did this guy not get a job some place? Of course, Joe I was very familiar with and I spent many hours with him. I could not feel any more badly about it. But we look back at the timeline, he should have pursued it harder and I think Joe agrees with that. He should have gone harder and that is the thing that causes you to shake your head at what transpired.
SI.com: Have you, or will you, watch Verne Lundquist's call of the first Alabama-LSU game for CBS, and if so, what will you be listening for?
Musburger: I have already done it on an airplane and I'll also go back and cherry-pick certain things I want to see. I'm looking for things that the teams might have exploited. I came away like you and everyone else that if the pass by [Alabama receiver] Marquis Maze had been held onto at the one-yard line, Alabama would have won the football game. I don't think they could have stopped [Alabama running back]Trent Richardson three times from the one. So [LSU safety] Eric Reid's interception in my mind was the play of the year in college football, and definitely the play of that football game. I ran it back over and over again to see where Reid came from. It was a tough call for instant replay because bodies were rolling and tumbling. I enjoyed that game very much and I also want to watch the SEC championship game between LSU and Georgia because there were a couple of injuries. During the broadcast I will definitely refer back to the first game. Obviously, I will refer to the Reid interception. That game helps in my preparation and Verne is a longtime friend of mine. I think he and Gary [Danielson] do a terrific job.
SI.com: How has your routine changed, whether that's preparation prior to the game or game day, with relationship to getting older?
Musburger: I don't think I have changed much as I have gotten older. People ask me about the travel because travel for everyone has gotten more difficult. I am not the most patient person and I have to remind myself to take it easy. The network treats us very good about how we travel -- first class flights and good hotels. I tell people not to bitch about something. If something bothers you, go change it. For example, if they give you a hotel you don't like, I just go get my own hotel in that particular town. As far as preparation, I still love going to the practices and the meetings. My father taught me a long time ago: It's what you learn after you thought you knew it all that matters.
SI.com: How do you look at broadcasting in terms of what you want to do heading forward? How do you evaluate your own future.
Musburger: My flippant answer would be they will carry me out in a pine box, but that's not the truth. I actually think about it. My spotter, traveling companion and driver is my youngest son, Scott. We talk openly about it. He says, "Dad, if you really feel you have done enough and want to step away, go do it." Then he'll say after a few more miles in the car, "But you know, there is nothing you love more than showing up on a Saturday for college football and basketball." I tell him, "You know, you are right."
But we do discuss it. He had a little boy a couple of months ago so I am a grandfather and [my wife] Arlene and I are about to celebrate number 50 [anniversary]. I have a tremendous family unit and I get all their support that I want. But I think at the end of the day there is nothing I enjoy better than talking about sports. I love reading you guys. I check out ESPN and CBS Sports. I go to the Yardbarkers and Deadspins and try to keep current on what the hell is going on. I love sports and my family, and my family comes first always, but I can't tell you how much fun I have doing this. The other thing I am blessed with is having Kirk Herbstreit, who really does some heavy lifting for me. And I 've encountered at ESPN a wonderful group of researchers, including the best I have ever been around, [ESPN news editor] Sandy Rosenbush. It's just amazing the support you get.
SI.com: You told me two years ago that you were getting better as a broadcaster? Do you still believe that to be true?
Musburger: Absolutely. The best game I've ever done was the Rose Bowl this year. And I expect to do a better job Monday night. It's the old cliche that you have to get better or you fail.
SI.com: Your brother Todd once said of you: "He's been idolized, villainized and now immunized." What do you think of that description?
Musburger: I think that's pretty accurate (laughs).The waves get high, they get low. It's been a wonderful journey, every bit of it, and that's from every praise to every criticism. ...To be able to able to hang around athletics for a lifetime and to meet all these wonderful people I've come in contact with, to have been around as many big events as I have, I can't imagine a day when I did not have something to make me happy about sports.