The new president of CBS Sports, Freeman Van Gordon Sauter, has impeccable credentials as a journalist, but his closest brush with organized sports came some 25 years ago when he refereed Ohio University freshman basketball games. He says that if he had it to do all over again, he might have become the world's foremost authority on the Crusades. He recently spent his first day at Saratoga sitting under a tree reading books, one of which was a biography of Henry VIII, a man to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance. On the face of it, Sauter, 44, is an odd man to be leading the people who brought us fat men racing each other with refrigerators on their backs.
When Sauter was appointed president on July 11, CBS Sports was in a state of suspended animation. Sauter's predecessor, Frank Smith, was a sales guy who in two years did little more than help people forget the "winner-take-all" tennis scandals that preceded him. Unfortunately, along with the low profile came low ratings and even lower morale. The situation clearly called for a new approach, and CBS decided it was time to try journalistic competence. For that reason, Sauter, the vice-president and general manager of KNXT, the CBS-owned Los Angeles station, was a natural.
He started his career in 1959 as a reporter for the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times, where he dropped the Freeman to shorten his byline. Later he worked for the Detroit News (as Vietnam correspondent) and the Chicago Daily News. In 1968 he became news and program director of the CBS radio station in Chicago, WBBM-AM, and in 1970 moved to New York to head public-affairs programming for CBS radio.
In 1972 Sauter switched to TV and became news director of WBBM in Chicago. While there, he decided to put himself on camera as an anchorman. "I was just awful," he says. He was fired by the man he had hired to replace him as news director.
September 7, 1980
In 1975 Sauter landed what he still considers his best job, bureau chief of CBS News in Paris. But that lasted only a little more than a year before CBS brought him back to be its chief censor. "That was a little like being a medieval theologian," he says. "The job also entailed a lot of yelling at Norman Lear and being yelled at by Norman Lear." KNXT in Los Angeles beckoned next, and in 2½ years Sauter brought the station from a distant third in the ratings to a virtual tie for second. A casual remark he made to his superiors that he wouldn't mind taking over the network's sports department led to his new job. Still, Sauter was slightly taken aback when he got the news, which came almost on the eve of his marriage to Kathleen Brown, sister of the California governor.
"I was absolutely delighted when I heard Van would head up CBS," says Brent Musburger, a friend of Sauter's as well as one of the network's leading sports announcers and the anchorman at KNXT; it was Sauter who persuaded Musburger to leave the newspaper business for TV in Chicago in 1969. "Since I came to CBS in 1975, we've had five different presidents, and everybody left friends behind. So there are a lot of different factions. Van is the kind of guy who can bring us back together. When he came to KNXT, the place was in even worse shape than CBS Sports is now. He got us shaped up and got people smiling again."
One of the first things Sauter did as president of CBS Sports was reunite the NFL Today team of Musburger, Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder (page 98), Irv Cross and Phyllis George Brown. Cross had wanted to leave the studio to do game telecasts; the first lady of Kentucky was talked into coming back after Jayne Kennedy left to work at NBC.
One thing is clear: Sauter isn't going to be the caretaker Smith was; in fact, he has started to clean house in the executive suite, too.
CBS Sports, by Sauter's own admission, has bottomed out. The division is long on taped trashsports, like the strong-man competition, and woefully short on journalism. Although Sauter says there is a place for entertainment, he does remember an outraged memo decrying the waste of Musburger's talent on something called the Human Fly as "the best thing I ever wrote."
Sauter would like CBS Sports to have some of the esteem enjoyed by CBS News; all of the esteem would be asking too much. And he would like his department to develop a so-called "magazine" format, although right now CBS Sports doesn't have many people with journalistic enterprise.
"One Sunday I was sitting 24 floors above the street in my office, watching the Tour de France on our Sports Spectacular," says Sauter. "Now this was a great event to have on, but I was yelling at the TV because, one, we've failed to capture the beauty of the French countryside; two, we've failed to explain to the guy in Middletown, Ohio [Sauter's hometown] why this race captures the hearts and mind of Western Europe; three, we haven't told him what wonderful athletes these bicyclists are; and four, we haven't explained why their bikes are different from the Schwinn sitting in the garage. We failed to build the bridge between France and Middletown, which is something we will do next year."
The feeling around the halls at CBS headquarters in New York is that the Sports division is finally in good hands. "Van is the ideal man for the job," says Musburger. In time, though, sports may prove to be too small a world for Sauter. Already there are strong rumors that he'll leave Sports to become president of CBS News next year.