Greg Gumbel carries with him none of the baggage of celebrity. Ever so slightly late for a luncheon meeting, he enters a midtown Manhattan restaurant brimming with apology.
Gumbel has arrived at last. For 17 years now, his round, friendly face has been beaming out of television sets. He has covered local sports for WMAQ-TV in his hometown of Chicago, hosted ESPN's SportsCenter, done play-by-play for Madison Square Garden Network and handled a slew of assignments in the past two years for CBS. Along the way, Gumbel has somehow found the time to moonlight as the host of a morning show on WFAN, New York City's all-sports radio station, and as a co-host of the nationally syndicated Ebony/Jet Showcase. When Gumbel was named to replace Brent Musburger as the anchor of CBS's The NFL Today, it seemed the logical culmination of his peripatetic career.
"I'd been watching him since ESPN," says Ted Shaker, the executive producer of CBS Sports, who hired Gumbel in the fall of 1988 to do NFL play-by-play. "I drive in to work, and I would listen to WFAN while he was hosting the morning show. For five minutes he'd talk with Hubie Brown about the NBA, then he'd talk to Sal Messina about the Rangers, then he'd talk to Billy Packer about North Carolina basketball. He would effortlessly take me from one sport to the next, asking the questions I'd have asked. And I thought, Wow!"
With Gumbel as centerpiece, Shaker decided to overhaul The NFL Today. The wholesale change took some pressure off the versatile Gumbel by not simply plugging him into Musburger's old role, thereby avoiding a straight-up comparison. Not that comparisons are anything new to Gumbel, who has been dogged by them throughout his career. The first yardstick was familiar enough, his own precocious brother, Bryant, who is two years Greg's junior. Now it's Musburger. Says Greg, "I don't see it as replacing Brent, though in the technical sense I suppose it is. I'm not going out there trying to be Brent."
November 19, 1990
Musburger was more than just the anchor on The NFL Today; he was also the show's managing editor. On air, he was smooth and professional—an "anchor monster," according to Terry O'Neil, who used to be an executive producer for CBS Sports and is now the executive producer for NBC Sports. But Musburger also has a certain edge to him. So does Gumbel's equivalent on the rival NFL Live on NBC, Bob Costas. And so, for that matter, does Bryant Gumbel. Call it what you will: confidence, professional distance, attitude.
Greg Gumbel, on the other hand, radiates amiable ease. "I feel a certain comfort level when I watch him work," says Shaker. "He gives me information without asserting himself unnecessarily."
"Greg doesn't want to hog the camera," says Terry Bradshaw, his studio partner. "He feels uncomfortable if he does."
Shaker's decision to overhaul The NFL Today was spurred by a drop in the show's ratings advantage over NFL Live. In 1986, The NFL Today was watched by 44% more households than NFL Live; by '89 the margin had dwindled to 14%. Some of CBS's ratings advantage is explained by the fact that it broadcasts NFC games, for which it pays $265 million annually, $77 million per year more than NBC pays for AFC games, which are broadcast in smaller markets.
Shaker also shifted the show's emphasis. "We had become too much of a studio show," he says. "We're concentrating more on the games coming up. We want to tell people what's going on out at the stadium right before kickoff."
"We're getting away from being 30 minutes of hard news," says Eric Mann, the show's producer. "Away from urinalysis and more towards play analysis." That definitely sets The NFL Today apart from NFL Live, which aims for a "harder" show based on "news and information."
Of course, there are stories that demand a harder, more confrontational approach. It was no surprise that NFL Live did the better job of handling the story of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson's harassment in the New England Patriots' locker room. Patriots owner Victor Kiam was interviewed on both pregame shows and came armed with a predictably self-serving speech, which Gumbel and reporter Lesley Visser allowed him far too much latitude in delivering. Costas not only kept the Patriots' rambling owner to the subject but also raised obvious questions of his sincerity and motive. Gumbel fell short in his closing remarks, as well, characterizing the incident as a case of "immaturity in the locker room."
On the whole, though, Shaker's soft-news strategy appears to be working in the ratings department. Midway through the season, The NFL Today had recouped some of the viewer margin it had lost, earning a 5.1 rating compared with NFL Live's 3.8, a 34% differential. Not that the show can't improve: Shaker hopes that Gumbel, as he grows accustomed to his role, will allow more of his personality and sense of humor to come through.
Gumbel, 44, is very much a product of the '60s. He shares his generation's suspicion of power without accountability. "I've had a problem, down through the years, with authority figures," admits Gumbel, who demonstrated against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic Convention, in Chicago. "People ask me if I'd like to do what Bryant does. I don't know. The idea of interviewing politicians, a great majority of whom I despise, doesn't thrill me." Last summer, as a guest on The Midnight Hour, Gumbel was asked what he thought of Pete Rose's sentence. "You've got to understand," he answered, "that I've got a thing about anybody who has to do more time than Nixon did." The audience applauded.
What makes Gumbel refreshing is that he includes himself in his campaign against pomposity and bombast. He means it when he says, "There are a lot of people who could do this job very well but who just don't get the chance. Being able to do it doesn't do you a damn bit of good, unless you can show people that you can do it." If Gumbel sounds relieved to have gotten the chance, keep in mind that in 1973, when Bryant called his older brother to tell him that WMAQ was auditioning for a sports announcer, Greg was peddling bandages and bedpans for American Hospital Supply in Detroit.
About the only good thing to come out of Gumbel's stint in Detroit was that it was there that he met his wife, Marcy, and her daughter, Michelle, whom he has adopted. "Neither of them are sports fans," says Greg, noting that Marcy once asked him, "Which one is Stanley Cup?"
Football is not Gumbel's first love. That's baseball. At Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa, where he majored in English, Gumbel played rightfield for the varsity, batting .378 and winning team MVP honors in his senior year. He talks happily about the joys of baseball in his youth. "Bryant hated the White Sox, and I hated the Cubs," he says, "but we loved baseball so much it didn't matter."
The Gumbels lived in Hyde Park, the racially mixed, middle-class neighborhood adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. Unlike Bryant, whose beloved Cubs played on the other side of town, Greg was able to breathe the same air as his White Sox heroes. Minnie Minoso frequented the neighborhood, driving around in his Cadillac. "A lot of the White Sox stayed in the Del Prado Hotel, which was on Lake Shore Drive in Hyde Park," Greg recalls. "My brother and I used to serve the nine o'clock family mass in our parish, and it was not unusual to see Al Lopez, Dick Donovan, Minnie Minoso or Bill Veeck in church."
Greg's hero was White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio; Bryant's was Cub shortstop Ernie Banks. "The greatest moment for me," says Greg, "was sitting at home the night in 1959 when Gerry Staley came in for the White Sox and threw one pitch. Cleveland's Vic Power hit into a double play—Aparicio stepped on second and threw to first—and the White Sox won the pennant for the first time in, what...40 years? They set off the air raid sirens in Chicago, which disturbed a lot of people who didn't happen to be baseball fans."
These days the brothers are busy but they make time to chat on the phone fairly regularly. "What amazes me," says Greg, "is that people want to know whether or not I agree with the many things that are written about Bryant. I don't know what they expect me to say, other than the fact that he's my brother, and I care about him and love him and couldn't care less what other people think.
"Probably the biggest difference between Bryant and me is our admitted self-confidence," he says. "Bryant tends to admit it a lot more than I do. He is extremely self-confident and self-assured and doesn't fail to let that be known. I'm confident I can do whatever assignment I'm given, but I certainly admit to having occasional butterflies."
Expect to see a lot more of Greg Gumbel over the next few years. He figures in CBS's baseball plans and, according to Shaker, is a candidate to host the network's Winter Olympics coverage. Surely Gumbel won't mind proving an old Cub wrong: Nice guys don't finish last. They just take a little longer getting to first.