If you know Billy Packer from his work as a smart-guy analyst on college basketball telecasts for CBS, you might not be surprised to learn that he is also one of the world's great hustlers. In fact, his network colleagues call him Mr. Business Deal because Packer's first ambition is, and always will be, turning $1 into $2.
Packer is constantly looking for ways to supplement his estimated $350,000 CBS salary. As his wife of 24 years, Barbara, says: "His mind never stops. When he goes to bed, it's as though it has a ticker on it."
Packer, who graduated from Wake Forest in 1961 as an All-ACC guard, says: "Since I played my last basketball game in college, I've had no interest in competing in sports. But I love competing in a business deal. To me, it's the closest thing there is to sports. It's a game adults can play."
He finds time to play his games before, during and after the 17 regular-season and dozen or so tournament games he works for CBS, not to mention the handful of ACC games he does for the Jefferson-Pilot Broadcasting Company. On the air, he exhibits the very qualities that serve him so well in the hurly-burly of business—he's serious, intense, clearheaded and absolutely certain he has all the answers. Never mind that he's not always right. "Often wrong but never in doubt" is Packer's personal motto.
November 20, 1985
Packer, 45, was christened Anthony William Paczkowski and grew up in Bethlehem, Pa. His father, Tony, who changed the name to Packer, at one time was the basketball coach at Lehigh. After playing at Wake Forest, Billy served as an assistant there from 1965 to '70. But two years after Gene Bartow, and not Packer, got the Memphis State job in 1969, Packer turned to announcing. He still thinks like a coach. Although Packer has a thin voice and talks too much, he is a natural behind a TV mike.
NBC hired Packer to work with Dick Enberg in 1975. Two years later the network added former Marquette coach Al McGuire to the mix. It was the best TV basketball crew ever—two un-like-minded know-it-alls separated by a straight-man referee. (Until this season Packer and McGuire still did a syndicated weeknight radio show together, taping it on the fly in taxicabs, fast-food restaurants and even airport restrooms.) After the 1980-81 season, though, Packer got a leg up on McGuire by moving, along with the rights to the NCAA tournament, over to CBS. Unlike NBC, which believes that announcers should not be given keys to the countinghouse, CBS went along with Packer's request for a role on the business side. There he plays a substantial part in the sale, promotion, scheduling and merchandising of college hoops.
So, much of the time Packer is Billy the Matchmaker. Immediately after each season, he ranks the following year's Top 20, which becomes the basis for CBS's broadcast schedule. The network then fashions a wish list of matchups for the big-impact games it will carry nationally. Packer, who is well connected throughout college hoops, can often, by a suggestion, make games appear on the schedule that weren't there before. "His ability to pick up the phone and talk to a coach about a prospective matchup is certainly superior to mine," says CBS Sports executive producer Kevin O'Malley. This season's biggies will include Michigan-Georgia Tech on Nov. 30 and Kansas-N.C. State on Dec. 7. But Packer doesn't bat 1.000. Two wish-list contests that didn't materialize this year were Michigan at Duke (the Wolverines declined) and North Carolina hosting either LSU, Syracuse or Louisville.
As anyone who listens to him knows, Packer is as stubborn as an Appalachian mule. A few years ago he began a xenophobic crusade against colleges that packed their teams with foreign athletes. One target was the University of Washington, when it had both Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp, two West Germans.
By last season Packer had made his point a few times too many. "This is it, Billy," O'Malley said. "No more on foreign athletes."
"But I'm right!" Packer protested. "It's unfair to have foreigners taking scholarships from U.S. athletes."
One of the reasons Packer shines on the air is that he doesn't bother counting the cost of his comments. Take last spring's NCAA championship game between Villanova and Georgetown, which may have been Packer's finest hour as a broadcaster. In the last minute of the first half he criticized John Thompson for not pressing Villanova, which was holding the ball while Ed Pinckney was on the bench. In the second half he accused Georgetown's Horace Broadnax of "dirty play" for pulling down Harold Pressley on an inbounds pass in an attempt to draw a charging foul. Sometime later, Thompson half jokingly told Packer that he had made the coach's spit list.
McGuire says that "we're living in the Betamax era of coaches." Translation: Coaches need only go to the videotape to find out what broadcasters said about them. At last spring's meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, Packer found himself defending his outspokenness behind the mike. "Look, if I'm doing my job," he said, "there's always going to be resentment."
But neither praise nor criticism affects Packer. His next deal is the thing. He sometimes makes a buck by arranging the CBS basketball unit's travel plans through Time Out Airways, Inc., of which Packer is the sole officer. Once the CBS crew checked into a hotel in Champaign, Ill., only to discover it was partly owned by you-know-who.
He may have the mind of a coach. But he has the heart of a capitalist.