Come the second week of August 1980, after NBC has presented 150 hours of Olympic coverage from Moscow in 16 days, an ex-college professor named Richard Alan Enberg could be as familiar as Charlie Tuna. The network is already assembling its field-level specialists for the Games, ex-jocks such as Bruce Jenner for track and field, and John Naber, Donna de Varona and Micki King Hogue for swimming and diving. It also has lined up announcers Curt Gowdy and Jim Simpson, among others. Enberg, however, will be the most visible of all, for he will be the host of the shows during prime-time telecasts.
Dick Enberg, 43, who has a doctorate in health sciences, is in the first year of a new and expanded three-year contract with NBC. For more than a decade he has been the busiest sportscaster in the Los Angeles area, handling as many as 200 events a year. For 12 seasons Enberg did the play-by-play of Rams games over Gene Autry's KMPC radio and he is completing his 10th and last year as that station's voice of the California Angels. On Autry's TV station, KTLA, he called UCLA basketball games for six seasons, announced Olympic Auditorium fights for three years and was for a time the sports man on two evening news shows. What's more, he also covered minor league hockey, small-college football and hosted Sports Challenge for seven years. Since signing on at NBC in 1975, Enberg's assignments have included NCAA basketball, a few championship fights, segments for Sportsworld and baseball and pro football playoffs. His new duties will include regular-season pro football and pre-Olympic events.
"There were two big reasons for signing with NBC," Enberg says. "One, the mountain is there and here's the chance to climb it. Maybe I could become one of the best reporters in sports and be remembered as such. Two, here's a chance to do something that is going to be the most monumental event in the history of television, not just sports television: the 1980 Games."
As befits an honor student (Central Michigan, Indiana University) and teacher (Cal State at Northridge), Enberg approaches every event as if he were doing doctoral research. When he got the assignment to cover the WHA Los Angeles Blades, he shocked the team's management by offering to pay his own way to the training camp in Saskatchewan to study the sport. (The club paid.) For out-of-town Rams games, Enberg arranged to have the team's advance man save stacks of local newspapers so that he could pore over them when he got to town.
August 20, 1978
Enberg was still a full-time assistant professor of health sciences, with broadcasting as a sideline, when KTTV asked him if he could do water polo. He had never seen a match in his life and didn't know a feint shot from a knuckling. He watched five Northridge matches to figure out what was going on, memorized two books on the sport—and made it through the telecast. "I've never been prouder of anything I've ever done," he says.
Still, before he got good, Enberg got lucky. He was a junior at Central Michigan when he applied for a job as the custodian at the local radio station. The pay was $1 an hour. The sports director persuaded him to apply instead for the weekend morning disc jockey spot, which also paid $1 an hour. Enberg got the job, and a few weeks later, when the sports director left, he got that position, becoming a play-by-play man at 20.
But if the years since have led to professional success, they have also exacted a personal toll. Divorced in 1975, Enberg now lives alone in a house in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Universal Studios, the teetering "Hollywood" sign or his swimming pool, depending on which of his three sundecks he selects. He and a divorced friend, Stan Charnofsky, are collaborating on a book whose working title is It's Over, She Said: For Men in Divorce.
Then there was the day that Enberg realized too late that a game was over. KMPC planned to follow an Angels-at-Baltimore baseball game with a Rams-at-San Diego football game. While Enberg waited nervously in San Diego, the baseball game dragged on. And on and on. "First we dropped our scheduled coaches' show," Enberg says. "Then we cut the warmup show. I tossed out all my opening notes and then threw out everything else. Meanwhile, both teams were on the field below me; they had the ball teed up. And at that moment, finally, the game ended in Baltimore. The engineer flashed directly to San Diego and I had maybe five seconds before the opening kickoff. I just took a deep breath and said, 'Good evening, everyone, and welcome to San Diego Stadium. The Rams and the Chargers! Uh, the kick is in the air. It's high, end over end, and...this game is over!" The bewildered viewers may have had a little trouble figuring out that he meant the baseball game.
For his televised Angels postgame show, Enberg races around at the last minute getting scores and posting them on a big scoreboard for the viewers. Sure enough, one day he had just enough time to drop into his chair, smile into the camera and start talking. He sensed that something was wrong, but because he didn't know what it was he kept smiling and talking. Finally he realized why the crew was waving and pointing. Enberg said, "Excuse me, folks," raised up slightly in his chair and reached down and grabbed the lavaliere mike that he had been sitting on. He hooked it around his neck, grinning sheepishly. "People said I never sounded better," he says.