Not Just A Pretty Face

Jan. 16, 1984
Jan. 16, 1984

Table of Contents
Jan. 16, 1984

NFL Playoffs
Pro Basketball

Not Just A Pretty Face

Brent Musburger, television sports' most visible talking head, may be Mr. Goodperson to viewers but he can be Mr. Nasty to CBS colleagues

By William Taaffe

Go with Brent Musburger almost anywhere outside Billings, Mont., where he grew up, and Big Timber, Mont., the piece of high plains sheepland where he has built a log cabin, and the reaction is often the same. Musburger is buying gas or standing at the drugstore checkout counter or ordering his eggs over easy when the person waiting on him goes quiet and starts pointing.

This is an article from the Jan. 16, 1984 issue Original Layout

"Hey, aren't you the guy...? You know, the guy who, uh...."

Right on the tip of the tongue. As the attendant tries to place the face, he keeps wagging his finger at Musburger. "I know you. You're the guy who, uh...."

Musburger won't always tell them his name right off. Sometimes you can see their minds working overtime. They're pointing at him, and they're getting close.

"Hey, I know, you're that Mushburger fellow who gives the scores."

For someone who's on national TV some 275 hours a year, more than twice as much as Dan Rather and five times as much as Mr. T, Musburger's recognition factor in relative terms is zip. Puzzling, isn't it? He's been at CBS Sports now for 11 years, nine of them as host of The NFL Today, the granddaddy of pregame, halftime and highlight shows. He makes $750,000 a year. He's bright and nice looking. He's as enthusiastic as all get-out, always cheerful, just a real upright fellow. And he's a survivor. He's endured five presidents of CBS Sports, more than a few air-headed remarks by Phyllis George, the wooden pulchritude of Jayne Kennedy and a celebrated punch to the jaw by Jimmy the Greek. He became a shill for the NBA while working play-by-play some years back, and he even survived that.

He's on TV so often that CBS Sports sometimes seems like The Brent Musburger Show. The more he's on, the more he's on. NFL playoffs, NCAA basketball, NBA playoffs, NCAA football, U.S. Open tennis, the Masters, the Belmont Stakes—you name it. There he is in the studio giving you hard news, doing play-by-play highlights, doing lead-ins, doing promos, doing interviews. The engine always running. Hobnobbing with the winners on the locker-room platform, grinning, feeling the beat, telling you what you need to know. He has become a signature for CBS Sports. If you tune in and find John Tesh relieving Musburger for a day, you think you stumbled onto PBS.

Still, scads of viewers don't recognize Musburger—or, if they do, they aren't terribly fascinated. Several years ago the NFL Today crew was in Tampa for a playoff game. Musburger, the Greek and Phyllis all went out to Bern's Steak House to see and be seen. There must have been 200 people who came over for Jimmy's and Phyllis' autographs. How many asked Brent for his? You've got it—zero. Oh, he's signed a few since then, but he's still not a big celebrity.

Here's a true statement: On the air, Brent Musburger, TV's quickest, most nimble host, is white bread. It's near impossible to find any singular characteristic in his face, his speech or his personality. He's almost an evanescent person, here for the update and back to the action. To viewers, there's a Mr. Good-person aura about him, an earnestness that is fundamentally middle American. And that's just the way he wants it. "As a host, I'm a guest in your living room," he says. "You invite me in and I sit there with you. I'm an old shoe. I'm an old friend. I prefer it that way."

Off camera, however, Musburger has sharp edges. He's a bit of a hell raiser, in fact, who when driving home from the New York studio to Weston, Conn. each Sunday night, runs the toll booth on the Merritt Parkway. Earlier in his variegated past he was tossed out of Northwestern University for a year for owning and operating a car without a license. He has also been a ticket seller at the gates of the Daytona 500, in 1959, a Midwest League umpire who heaved 26 players and managers in a single season, a big-city sports-writer, an impostor at the Olympic Games and a TV news anchorman in Los Angeles.

More on Musburger's meanderings later. For the moment let's consider a few theories about why he doesn't seem to register the way you might expect.

THE WRONG NAME THEORY. Also known as The Bob Wussler Assumption, after the former head of CBS Sports who now is executive vice-president of the Turner Broadcasting System. Wussler, who was Musburger's boss from 1974 to '78, thought that Musburger was a bad name for a studio host because people either mispronounced it or couldn't remember it. Brent also was too long and too metallic a name to go with Musburger, Wussler felt. Maybe something dashing like Jody Briscoe or even Woody Brent (Musburger's two given names), but not Brent Musburger. If nothing else, he said to Musburger, change your first name to Bud. Musburger refused and according to the theory was doomed.

THE HUMAN COMPUTER THEORY. Ever notice how machine-perfect Musburger seems? He's like an IBM card sorter, picking up one fact here, three more there, and depositing them in our memory banks. Everything in order: interviews, promos, facts and updates, not to mention who plays whom in the wild card game next week if the whozits beat the whatzits on the road. Musburger is the quintessential talking head. He'll take you from point A to point B to point C without missing a beat. He's so smooth and seamless it's amazing. But the problem is, nobody relates to a machine.

The nature of the job is partly to blame. Viewers don't appreciate all he does. Put almost any other announcer in Musburger's NFL Today chair, when the games are coming in for his halftime stuff, and the plan might be out of control. Also, Musburger must concentrate on setting up Jimmy or Phyllis for a home run whenever they come up to hit. They love big fat gopher pitches. Musburger to the Greek last month, when the Cowboys prepared to take on the Redskins: "Jimmy, get set for the two best teams in the NFL...." Jimmy, now laughing: "Yeah, and the Raiders will beat either of 'em in the Super Bowl."

THE PRIVACY THEORY. Intense, competitive and painfully exacting, Musburger, 44, also is very private. He's a family man who spends almost all of his off-camera time with his wife and two sons. His brother Todd, a Chicago lawyer, is his agent. He used to coach the Little League team of his eldest son, Blake. He was a boyhood friend of Dave McNally. None of this ever comes through.

Considering all his hours on the air over the years, you'd think that maybe once he'd let a detail slip: that he was from the Big Sky country, say, or that he used to be a newspaper columnist for the now-defunct Chicago American, covering the White Sox and Bears. Or that Blake, now 14, was born with spina bifida, a congenital separation of the vertebrae, which can result in paralysis or death shortly after birth. You might think that he would have had a special hello for Blake on one of his shows a few years ago after Blake, who is still handicapped, won a Little League all-star game with a grand slam homer.

But no. Musburger refuses to open a window onto his personal life. Howard Cosell will talk ad nauseam about his dinner companions, Jim McKay occasionally about his horses. Dick Enberg has talked about his divorce. But Musburger pulls the shade. Not that he's especially humble; it's just not in his master plan to talk about himself.

The truth is, everything he says on the air, and everything he doesn't say, is calculated for its effect. His remarks for the most part are not scripted, but neither are they off the cuff, having been mulled over sometimes hours in advance. "Not for one moment do I think I'm what's important," Musburger says. "I'm the messenger. The games are what count. Without them there wouldn't be a Brent Musburger. If I started to pontificate they'd get tired of me in a hurry. I end up on that screen so much it'd drive them crazy if I started to do that. They'd start throwing their empty beer cans at me."

An executive at a rival network has his own private theory about Musburger's lack of star appeal. "Brent's interests are totally his work," he says. "Brent is unfortunately an extremely self-centered individual who really isn't a lot of fun to be around as a person. Most of his associates consider him a bore. He's well-meaning; he's not an evil person, he's just very dedicated to his work. He has no interest in politics, he's not even very interested in chasing women. He's just a guy who's dedicated to a collection of current facts." This assessment seems harsh, but it does capture a sense of Musburger's enormous self-discipline and intensity.

Musburger has always had two distinct faces: the first, "a bit crazy," as he puts it, and even prankishly wild; the second, rigidly self-controlled. His parents, Cec and Beryl, two rugged individualists who would have fitted well in a Zane Grey novel, sent Brent away to the Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minn. when he was 13. Part of the reason was he hadn't yet learned to behave. When he was 12 and Todd was seven, the two brothers stole a car belonging to their mother's cleaning lady and took it for a 30-minute joy ride around the neighborhood. Another time, the dog warden came and impounded Brent's mutt, Flicka, for not wearing a proper tag. Musburger and his friends broke into the pound under cover of darkness and carried not only Flicka but also the 35 other pooches in the pen over an outside wall. Cec and Beryl hadn't raised a dummy. Musburger wasn't that interested in the other dogs' freedom. He simply knew the warden couldn't deduce from his records who the culprit was if all the dogs were gone.

Then there was the John Dillinger caper. One summer Musburger came home from Shattuck and helped his pals stage a gangland "slaying" in front of the Fox Theater on a Saturday night. It was similar to the shoot-out in the movie Dillinger, complete with military-issue guns, barricaded streets, hit men in gray fedoras and a getaway car, which Musburger drove. The "victims" used catsup to simulate wounds. They were hurriedly thrown into the trunk by the hit men after they fell to the sidewalk, and dozens of horrified moviegoers scrambled for cover as Musburger screeched away. Even today Musburger finds outrageous stunts almost irresistible. Take every Sunday night when he and the executive producer of The NFL Today, Ted Shaker, drive home to Connecticut. They invariably bring a cooler of beer with them—two cans of Moosehead for Musburger, three Bud Lights for Shaker. By the time they reach the 35-cent toll plaza near Greenwich, the car lines can be 10 deep. WHAAA-HOO! They floor it through a vacant toll booth on the right shoulder while the other poor saps queue up. Jes' lettin' off some steam, yer Honor.

Since the 1980 Jimmy the Greek punch, Musburger has stayed away from all bars, brawls, wine and hard stuff. He quit smoking several years ago after being a pack-a-day man since high school. And last September he broke his coffee habit literally overnight. It used to give you acid stomach just watching how much coffee he would put away on the set. Sixteen cups a day, an addict almost, his mood growing edgier by the hour. Then he read about caffeine and heart palpitations. Presto, no more coffee.

According to Musburger's longtime angel, CBS executive vice-president Van Gordon Sauter, "Brent calibrates." That is, he assesses and adjusts and reassesses, forever fine-tuning his cadence, his tone, his hand motions and his work habits. Everything is purposeful. For example, late each Sunday night Musburger goes into the darkness of his den at home and punches up a videotape of the day's NFL Today segments. It's 9 p.m.—time to critique every minute he spent on the air, save for midgame updates. In the corner are a UPI ticker, microphone and time clock. This is where he does his four-minute-a-day commentary and Monday night football halftime show for CBS Radio. Years ago Cosell told him the best way to make sure of doing your homework in sports is to keep doing radio, even after you've made it in TV. The kid listened.

Musburger was a natural from the moment he started in radio. That was in 1968 at WBBM, Chicago. He became the TV sports anchor at the station the following year. Sauter, who was Musburger's news director in those days, later became general manager of KNXT, the CBS-owned TV station in Los Angeles, and made Musburger his news anchor there in 1979-80. "He went from being a sports person to being an evening news anchor person in the second-largest market in the United States, and he did it in about 36 minutes," Sauter says. Musburger would do The NFL Today in New York on weekends, then hop the red-eye back to L.A. for the weeklong anchor grind. Only when Sauter became president of CBS Sports for a time in '81 and expanded Musburger's signature role with studio gigs on Saturdays did Musburger take off his L.A. news hat.

Musburger is a Type A perfectionist, even though everything comes to him in a snap. Says Sauter, "If Brent didn't have a 'Western' personality—embracing those with whom he works, motivating those people around him—he probably would be a totally oppressive human being. He is determined to prevail by a standard that he sets. I've never understood what the standard is, except I think he's never fully satisfied he's met it."

There's no question, however, that Musburger is trying to meet it. "In this business," he says, "they don't write down beside your name on those checks, 'He tried hard. He was a nice guy. He gave it all he had.' That doesn't work. It's a business. Anytime you put your ass on the line, you better be damn sure you're going to win."

One way Musburger tries to win is by parceling out airtime on The NFL Today. Musburger is a quasi-producer as well as quarterback of the show, handing off now to the Greek, now to Phyllis and now to the ever-smiling Irv Cross. He'll do 12 to 15 live shows a day for various sections of the country when all the pre-games, halftimes and regional linkups are accounted for. Because the show is assembled on the run, he has maybe two minutes of "free time" each half hour that he can bestow on whomever he wishes. It's like feeding the sparrows. "I'll go to whoever's had a good day or whoever's got a fact left," Musburger says. "If the Greek is really warm and up to speed, then you keep running him in. But if he's off the wall and not prepared, then to hell with him. Go someplace else. They [Jimmy, Phyllis, Irv] compete for whatever time's available. And that's the way it should be."

Pity poor Phyllis if she puts her brain in neutral or the Greek if he's asleep at the switch. "It drives you up a wall. You become unglued," Musburger says. "If you want to deal with me directly when you're in that studio, you better be ready. If they say something that's really stupid, yeah, I come unglued on 'em. I get very rude. I can become very nasty."

Case-study time. Let's say Phyllis is just not with it on a particular Sunday. A big game's approaching and she's talking about mint juleps in Kentucky or Tom Landry's hat or something. Musburger might stick her with a question a lot of fans would know the answer to but she doesn't. "Phyllis, give us a rundown on the Cowboys' defensive line.... " Now it's the Greek's turn. Let's say he has been watching the studio monitor carrying the Raiders, his favorite team, while he should have been watching the Cardinals, who are coming up on halftime. "Jimmy," Brent might say, "how about Neil Lomax in that first half...?"

And what do Musburger's cohorts think of this? "I don't like it when it happens," says the Greek. "I don't like it one bit. But you get over it. It's for the good of the show. He's the quarterback. What else can I say?"

If Musburger seems to be a tough quarterback, just understand the pressure he's under. Every show is virtually a two-minute drill. He has to know when St. Louis is coming in for halftime, who made the touchdown catch in New Orleans, the latest score in Chicago and what Shaker in the control room wants to do 2½ minutes from now after the commercial is over. All the while he's watching eight monitors for big plays. And Shaker is talking into his earpiece, and somebody is scoring again in Dallas, and New York needs an update from Washington, and yet another voice on the earpiece is counting him down to the commercial. You think he should act like St. Francis of Assisi when the Greek and Phyllis start acting up?

"It's a never-ending push," Shaker says of Musburger. "Sometimes it gets difficult to deal with. You come in here and get up on the high wire; it's live television and there's so much room for error. Sometimes that zealousness to change things, to always make the show better, takes us to the brink where you're afraid something might break."

The closest they ever came was one Sunday in 1980. Musburger had curtailed the Greek's air time to allow, among other things, a live interview by Phyllis to run long. Brent and Jimmy had words that afternoon. That night they ran into each other at Peartrees, a New York saloon, and the Greek landed a glancing punch to Musburger's jaw. Sauter, who was the president of CBS Sports, heard an account of the fight at four the following morning. Sauter says, "I thought the next line was gonna be that Brent picked up Jimmy the Greek and slammed his head down a toilet and went flush." Musburger was livid, no question, but he was even more upset over the effect the brawl might have on the chemistry of the show. "My first reaction was I'm not going to work with this guy again as long as I live," says Musburger, "but then I cooled off." The next week, he and the Greek wore boxing gloves on camera. They had a big laugh and remain outwardly cordial today.

The final qualities Musburger possesses in superabundance are a) competitiveness and b) enthusiasm. "He's a fierce competitor, a fierce competitor," Sauter says. "God forbid that he'd ever get beaten on a story. God forbid that anyone working around him ever allowed him to get beaten on a story."

Musburger always was a striver, ever since McNally kept striking him out on the sandlots with Cec, who coached the boys, standing by. Cec and Beryl ran an appliance store and then got into sheep ranching, but the boy was going places. He plugged his way through the Al Somers School for Umpires in Daytona, selling tickets at the 500 and working Cleveland Indian exhibition games in Florida. "Class D Midwest League, here I come," he recalls. He was behind the plate at Keokuk, Iowa when Tim McCarver made his pro debut. He saw the hop on Juan Marichal's first pro fast-balls at Michigan City, Ind. Then, typically, after returning to study journalism at Northwestern and working on the American, he set his broadcasting career in motion by outhustling—some would say outfinagling—the competition.

It happened like this. Musburger was stringing for WBBM radio when it decided it wanted a man at the Mexico City Olympics. It was too late to obtain credentials, so Musburger passed himself off as Al Silverman, then the editor of Sport, who hadn't gone to the Games. Gliding around with his tape recorder, Musburger cornered John Carlos and Tommie Smith minutes after their famous black-power salute in an area off-limits to the press. Rules, schmules. The 12-minute tape made airwaves across the country, and WBBM wanted to hire him full-time the minute he got home.

As for Musburger's enthusiasm, it borders on hucksterism. Shortly after he came to CBS in '73, Wussler made him the host of a live Sports Spectacular segment. They should have used sticky paper on this one, for it was the ultimate in trash sports, a daredevil exhibition featuring a Canadian who stood on the wing of a DC-8 as it did loops. Musburger loved it. When the plane landed, he went up to the wing in a cherry picker, mike in hand, and said, "Nice run, Fly." That was the first of many nicknames he has come up with. When Musburger was the No. 1 play-by-play man for the NBA from 1975 to '81, he came up with Mountain Man, Big Red, D.J., C.J., B.J., and Chocolate Thunder, among others.

Musburger has never been much of an interviewer—instead of blunt questions, he'll ask those that will help improve the climate—but he's kept his nose for a story. Who broke the news of the U.S. athletes' walkout from the Pan American Games last summer? Musburger. Who was the first to suggest other athletes might be performing poorly in order to avoid testing for steroids? Old Hildy Musburger himself. Front Page. Get it and go with it. Put it up on the air. "I like to tell people things," Musburger says. Does he ever.

For years a lot of folks who know him have suspected that the thing Musburger most wants to be is the next Cosell. Not true. Musburger is the conveyor of information, the classic interlocutor, hardly the show itself. If anything, he wants to be the next McKay, the latter having become Mr. Olympics at ABC. Musburger has never been the host of an Olympics, nor has he broadcast baseball regularly, CBS having carried neither since the mid-'60s. When his contract is up next January he may well follow the five-ring sign. "We'll see what the other networks have got going," he says. "The Summer Olympics have always been an enormous lure."

Musburger recently had a spacious four-room cabin built for his wife, Arlene, himself and the boys (their son Scott is 11), hard by Otter Creek on Cec's Crazy M Ranch in Big Timber. You can herd the sheep or listen to the wind blow at the Crazy M. It's a contemplative place, one that Musburger says he'd like to move to after the boys get through college. Until then, he'll just keep performing brilliantly and running that toll gate on the way home. No use publishing his mug shot. Half the cops wouldn't recognize him anyway, (ATTENTION ALL POINTS: CAUCASIAN MALE, EARLY 40S, LAST SEEN HEADED NORTH IN MAROON CHEVY CAPRICE. MONTANA TAGS NO. 40-3147.)

PHOTOThe Greek and Brent made up, publicly at least, after Jimmy popped him in a bar.TWO PHOTOSMusburger takes a deserved breather in Big Timber with Scott, Arlene, Blake (left) and his 72-year-old father, Cec (below).PHOTOMusburger rehearses a pregame NFL Today show with Dick Vermeil and the Greek.PHOTOBack home in Weston, Musburger meticulously examines his work on videotape.PHOTOMilitary school didn't tame young Brent.PHOTOValentine shares this five-acre Connecticut spread with Musburger and his family.