Al McGuire is the tall, dark and handsome Irishman from New York. Billy Packer is the short, balding Pole from Pennsylvania. They are as different in style and approach as any two men sharing the same job could be. Despite their differences—or perhaps because of them—NBC's two college basketball analysts are the best team in the business. In less than two full seasons together they have proved themselves to be engaging, entertaining and instructive—and have done all this without trampling over their play-by-play partner or irritating their viewers.
Given its brisk pace and rah-rah excitement, college basketball would seem to be the last sport to require three men talking into live microphones. ABC introduced the three-man format in its Monday-night broadcasts of pro football and baseball, but the pace is much slower in those sports. If college basketball on NBC has succeeded where other network attempts at the three-man approach have sputtered, the reason is McGuire and Packer, particularly when they are teamed with play-by-play man Dick Enberg.
Packer, a former player and assistant coach at Wake Forest, began his broadcasting career seven years ago, working Atlantic Coast Conference games. By hustling to make airplane connections (and once even chartering a jet) he has managed to fulfill his continuing commitment to the ACC during his four years with NBC. McGuire came to broadcasting and NBC only last year, following an eminently successful and colorful coaching career at Marquette. The differences in their broadcasting experience are sometimes painfully obvious, as when McGuire once hastily—and incorrectly—diagnosed a player's injury and was chastised by Enberg. But the contrast also serves to emphasize Packer's air of expertise and McGuire's street-wise charm.
Although Packer and McGuire have the same basic job, they go about it in very different ways. Packer comes across as the teacher, constantly describing and explaining what is happening on the court, in live action and in replays alike. McGuire is judgmental, letting everyone know what should be happening. Packer will tell you if the defense has changed, if the guard is posting up, if the center is blocking out. McGuire will tell you when a time-out is needed, or who is likely to take the next shot (in last January's Notre Dame-Maryland game, his prescience was uncanny). Together, they leave very little unnoticed, unsaid and undecided.
The two styles are also accurate reflections of their diverse interests. Packer is a basketball junkie, a man who snorts Xs and pops Os. McGuire was never a heavy user as a coach, and he has no intention of becoming one now. Off the air, while Packer is constantly in need of yet another basketball fix, McGuire would rather be off somewhere on his motorcycle. Come show time, Al will talk the way he coached: reading the flow, feeling the pace, reacting to the situation. Where Packer sees the players as pieces in a chess game, McGuire considers them actors in a psychodrama.
"I think Billy would love to be a coach," says McGuire. "I know he is more technical than I am. I couldn't explain a shuffle offense to anybody unless I faked it or prepared it in advance. What I say on the air is what I would do or think about as a coach. Sometimes, though, my mind will wander a little. I'm strongest when the game is close and the clock is running down."
"Al looks at the game only through his own eyes," says Packer. "I'm trying to show a total perspective of both coaches. I'm concerned with who's winning and why. Al might make a call on instinct, and I might make the same one because I know what the team is trying to do on offense."
One of the qualities that make them so attractive is their willingness to disagree—with coaches, with officials and, most refreshingly, with each other. Let McGuire praise non-league teams, and Packer will speak up for conference members. If Packer likes to have three referees working a game, McGuire prefers two. When McGuire argued that unbeaten Indiana State should be No. 1 in the polls, Packer derided the Sycamores' schedule. "I admire Al, but I'm not intimidated by him," Packer says. "Some guy at home may say, 'Who the bleep is Billy Packer?' but I feel I have a valid point to make. If I were Al's assistant coach, he would probably fire me."
Fortunately, the two colleagues are able to be complementary even when they are not always complimentary. They love to poke fun at each other, as in February's UCLA-Notre Dame game when Packer hoped aloud that McGuire, a poor shooter as a player, was not going to attempt to advise the Bruins' Roy Hamilton how to sink one from the free-throw line. Later, in the course of another bit of byplay, McGuire grudgingly conceded that Packer had said "something absolutely right for a change."
NBC was absolutely right when it decided to bring the two together. But it was Packer who made the union work by recommending that McGuire sit with him at center court. For the first few games last year, NBC was spooked by the idea of three men on a mike and worried that Packer might be thrown off stride by a newcomer. They therefore installed McGuire in a separate booth, far removed from the action, watching the game on a monitor and pressing a button whenever he thought he had something to say. That, of course, was the worst possible place for a man who works by the seat of his pants. And Packer, ever the watchful analyst, realized this better than anyone.