You couldn't blame the folks at Idaho State for thinking the
letter was a joke. The author wrote that he was interested in
applying for the athletic director's job, and it was signed by
Irv Cross--the same Irv Cross who was a mainstay on CBS's
popular The NFL Today after spending nine seasons as a defensive
back in the NFL. Idaho State officials passed the letter around,
and each had the same reaction: Why would he want to come to
Cross had asked himself the same question when he saw Idaho
State's help-wanted ad in The NCAA News last January. Sure, he
had wanted to get into sports management for a long time. But
Pocatello? Isn't that rather small potatoes for a guy who used
to exchange quips on Sundays with Phyllis George, Brent
Musburger and Jimmy the Greek? "I looked at my wife," says
Cross, "and I said, 'Pocatello, Idaho? Where in the world is
So Cross did his homework, just as he had when he was playing
for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams in the
1960s. In those days he kept index cards on every receiver he
faced. By the time he wrote to Idaho State, Cross knew a lot
about the job. He knew that the Bengals' athletic department
needed to find new sources of income. He also knew that the two
main revenue-producing sports--football and men's
basketball--had been tarnished by low graduation rates and high
crime rates. Still, he wrote. "I like the challenge of going
into a program where they need some help," he says. "They've had
disciplinary problems and trouble with their image. Besides
that, being in a university environment excites me. I'm one of
those guys who is always looking for a way to improve himself."
Cross's background with the NFL and CBS and his strong belief in
the value of education impressed the Idaho State search
committee. "He's just so full of ideas and has contacts that no
one else has," says Diane Bilyeu, the Bannock County assessor
who chaired the committee. "Only once in a lifetime do you have
an opportunity to hire an Irv Cross. This will help not only the
university but the whole state."
August 25, 1996
On March 1, Idaho State hired Cross for $89,900 a year, even
though he had no experience in athletics administration. And
Cross took the job, even though he is black and Pocatello,
Idaho, is almost completely white. Only 356 blacks--more than
half connected to the university--live in the town of 53,903.
But Cross, who grew up in the segregated America of the 1950s,
is prepared for whatever awaits him. "My parents always told me
that when you go someplace, act like you belong and people will
accept you," says Cross, still optimistic at age 57.
Cross, who was one of 15 children, grew up in Hammond, Ind., and
earned a football scholarship to Northwestern. He played wideout
under coach Ara Parseghian and in 1959 caught the winning
touchdown pass in a 30-24 upset of Notre Dame. He was already
preparing for life after football by then: As a senior he
supplemented his degree in education with public-speaking courses.
In the NFL, Cross let his play speak for him, and he more than
held his own against top receivers such as Bob Hayes, Homer
Jones and Del Shofner. After being hit by Cross several times
during a game in 1965, Jim Brown said, "No one in the league
tackles harder than that Cross." Cross's mentor, both in
football and broadcasting, was Eagles defensive back Tom
Brookshier, who went on to a long career as a CBS commentator.
In 1965 Brookshier said of Cross, "He's the best one around at
his position. He has wonderful football sense."
While with the Eagles, Cross worked as a drive-time radio sports
commentator and a weekend TV anchor during the off-season. After
a three-year stint with the Rams, Cross returned to the Eagles,
in 1969, as a player-coach. He retired from playing after one
season, but he stayed on as a coach. In 1971 he faced a tough
decision: Should he accept Dallas Cowboys president Tex
Schramm's invitation to join the Cowboys' front office or say
yes to CBS's offer to become the first black sports analyst on
national television? "At that time there wasn't that much black
influence in the front offices of the NFL," says Cross. "I would
have been an experiment. It was a pretty daring thing for the
Cowboys to do. But I took a shot at TV--how smart was that? My
excuse was that I had been a defensive back, and I'd been hit in
the head a lot."
During his years with CBS--he worked in the broadcast booth for
four seasons before joining The NFL Today team in 1975--Cross
paved the way for other African-American sportscasters. He was
always true to himself. In his first season on The NFL Today,
CBS wanted him to dress for the show in a leisure suit with his
shirt open halfway down his chest and a gold chain around his
neck. "I was supposed to be the sex symbol," says Cross. "I
refused. Vigorously. Finally [CBS sports chief Bob] Wussler
said, 'Aah, just dress the way you feel comfortable.' I wore a
coat and tie. That was me."
When CBS fired Musburger during the 1990 NCAA Final Four, Cross
figured that his days with the network were numbered, too. Sure
enough, that fall the network moved Terry Bradshaw and Greg
Gumbel into the studio and demoted Cross to game analyst. In the
spring of '92, CBS Sports president Neal Pilson informed Cross
that he wasn't going to renew his contract. Cross offered to
take a pay cut, but the network wasn't interested.
Cross didn't immediately pursue another network job, nor did any
of the other networks pursue him. "I didn't have an agent, and I
didn't search for a TV position as aggressively as I should
have," he says. "I just quietly faded away. I finally got around
to calling the guys at Fox and Turner, but they didn't seem to
have any need for my services." For the four years between
leaving CBS and accepting the Idaho State job, Cross was a
consultant in the Leesburg, Va., office of Smith Barney, Inc.,
where he dealt primarily with cities and individuals interested
in financing new stadiums and arenas. He stayed involved with
football as a part owner of the CFL Baltimore Stallions.
Cross and his wife, Liz, and their two children, Matthew, now 7,
and Sarah, now 5, lived on a farm in Markham, Va., about 50
miles from Washington, D.C. It was an idyllic existence in many
ways, and Cross understands that he's taking a risk by leaving
it. Liz is white, and some might wonder how an interracial
couple will be received in Pocatello.
"My wife is the one who encouraged me to take the job," says
Cross. "She said, 'You've always dreamed of being in sports
management--let's do it.' All my life I've been the only black
in my classrooms or the first black to do this or that. I am
concerned a little about how my kids will be accepted. But our
kids always have had a different take on the world. We treat
people fairly, and we expect to be treated fairly."
In Pocatello, Cross takes over an athletic program with 14
varsity teams, seven for men and seven for women, and a budget
of $4 million. The Bengals compete in Division I in every sport
but football, in which they're in Division I-AA. They are
members of the Big Sky conference, which recently lost Boise
State and Idaho to the Big West. "We plan to be the anchor of
the Big Sky," Cross says. "I'm excited about it. We have to
build up morale, we have to have winning teams, and we have to
make sure our kids get their educations."
And that is the answer to Why Pocatello? The need for good
leaders and good work is at least as great at Idaho State as it
is at Penn State or Florida State or any other school.
Last October five football players pleaded guilty to misdemeanor
battery. At one point during the basketball season five of Idaho
State's 12 scholarship players were ineligible for disciplinary
reasons. Cross, a man of such decency and courage that he once,
along with fellow broadcaster James Brown, apprehended two
teenage muggers in New York City's Central Park, promises to be
firm in dealing with those transgressing the rules and the law.
Behind the easygoing demeanor and megawatt smile that became
familiar to millions of television viewers, Cross is as tough as
"When Cross says something, it will mean something to our
athletes," Bilyeu says. "His belief that education is the most
important thing--that's what really sold the committee. Our
expectations were high before he got here for his interview, but
when we interviewed him, he was even better than we anticipated."
Cross's arrival at Idaho State coincides with what could be a
breakthrough season for the Bengals. Coach Brian McNeely, who is
starting his fifth year in Pocatello, has slowly built Idaho
State into a contender for the Big Sky title. Cross's first
order of business will be to help generate enthusiasm for the
team and fill the stands. He also hopes to boost donations to
the school's athletic-scholarship fund from $400,000 per year to
$1 million. "People in the community have to know that we want
them and need them," he says. "I want to tell people why it's a
good investment to support Idaho State athletics."
Cross is trying to lure George, his former colleague, to Idaho
State to tape some TV spots for the Bengals. Irv and Phyllis
together again. In Pocatello.