"I'm not a whiz at play-by-play announcing," says Bryant Gumbel. "I don't like the sound of my voice. And I was never a professional athlete. My ability is to digest a lot of information, which I dispense calmly and articulately while everyone around me is going bananas."
Indeed, Gumbel's ability to keep his cool has helped make him, at the age of 31, NBC Sports' main man on camera. Gumbel was scheduled to co-anchor NBC's Olympic coverage, playing the Jim McKay role. He anchors the baseball, football and NCAA basketball tournament coverage for the network. Starting next week Gumbel will host an NBC prime-time series called Games People Play, a trash-sport production featuring beer-guzzling, car-crashing and barroom-bouncing contests. And starting Sept. 8 he will do three features a week for the Today show.
For all his video success, though, Gumbel has occasionally been criticized by blacks for, as he puts it, "not being black enough." He rejects the charge. "I've been told that I don't convey a black image," Gumbel says. "I've been told that my manner of speaking doesn't set me off as black. People say I changed my voice to get ahead. Well, this is the way I've always spoken. People say I got my first TV job [at KNBC, the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles] because I'm black. They're right. There is no reason in the world to cart someone with no experience in TV across the country and put him on the air in the nation's second major market. They did it because I'm black. Period. Since then, nothing has come to me because I'm black. I offer myself as a positive black image in a passive way. If you want to accept my image, fine. If not, that's fine, too. I'm a broadcaster who happens to be black. Not a black broadcaster. And that's more than a lesson in semantics."
On camera, Gumbel is glib, earnest and low-key. He never draws a blank, or panics or gets thrown by a dead microphone or by having too little or too much time in which to discuss the event at hand. ("I sometimes wish I could get nervous," he says.) He also refuses to superhype games, plays or players, à la Brent Musburger of CBS. "Brent tends to be a little more gosh, golly, gee whiz than I am," Gumbel says. "He'll say, 'Hey, look at that great catch,' whereas I'm more, 'This Bradshaw-to-Swann pass set up a game-tying field goal.' It's tough for me to get genuinely excited about every catch. There are only so many ways you can catch a football."
The son of a probate judge, Gumbel grew up on Chicago's South Side and went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he majored in Russian history. After graduating in 1970, he took a job as a sales representative for a New York firm that manufactured folding cartons. Six months later he quit and subsequently started submitting articles to Black Sports magazine, now defunct. Within eight months Gumbel was editor of the magazine. One day in 1972 he received a call from KNBC, asking if he'd be interested in auditioning for the job of weekend sportscaster. He was flown to the West Coast for a taping session, and he remembers that a young newscaster named Tom Snyder tried to break him up while he was on camera.
On July 21, 1972, KNBC called Gumbel in New York and told him the job was his if he wanted it. Gumbel will never forget that date; in fact, he keeps a small brown appointment book from 1972 on the nightstand by his bed, and printed in a large, neat hand across the page for July 21 is: SUCCESS!! When Gumbel reported for work, a KNBC executive suggested that he change his name. Gumbel, he was told, was too close to Mumble and Bumble. But Gumbel said no, his name was Bryant Gumbel and so it would remain. Four years later he was sports director of KNBC.
His next career break came in 1975, when NBC suddenly needed a co-host for its new Grandstand show, which combined live events, features and sports news. The network flew Gumbel from L.A. to New York for live tests for Grandstand, and soon the job was his. For the last five years he has divided his time between coasts; he would finish his KNBC sports report on Friday night, catch the red-eye to New York, sit through all-day staff meetings at NBC on Saturday, do the network show Sunday afternoon, then jet back to L.A. in time for work on Monday. That schedule will soon be revised. NBC recently signed Gumbel to a three-year contract for a rumored $1.5 million, and all the Gumbels—Bryant, his wife June and their 19-month-old son Bradley—will be moving to New York this fall. "But we're not going to sell our home in L.A.," Gumbel says.
Gumbel is at his professional best during the NFL season, when he hosts an extraordinary number of pregame, halftime and post-game shows each Sunday. At halftime he provides an eight-minute package of highlights and scores, and when the games are over he gives more highlights, more scores and a wrap-up. On a typical Sunday, NBC telecasts seven games. Gumbel will recapitulate New England's first half, say, then Cleveland's, then Baltimore's, or Buffalo's, or Miami's. Then, if he's lucky, Pittsburgh-Cincinnati or New York-San Diego will come in at the same time, and he'll knock them off together. By that time the first game of the day may have ended, and Gumbel will make a mad dash into the postgame show. It really gets hectic when you go from the postgame of New England-Seattle, say, to the pregame of Denver-Oakland, to halftime of Pittsburgh-Cincinnati.
"The trick," Gumbel says, "is not to give one audience the same information twice." It's a trick Gumbel performs with style.