All right, radio-TV fans, this one’s for you … direct from a failing octogenarian mind … memories are made of this … Volume 9: “When ‘The Refrigerator’ Was Like a Knight in Armor”
In 1978, we began writing a weekly — sometimes bi-weekly — column basically because nobody else wanted to do it, which is never a reason to do anything. That was a year before the arrival of ESPN, and we got off to a roaring stop. No way could a 24-hour all-sports network make it, we said. For a while the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network — as it was known at birth — did its best to prove us right. Originally, ESPN was the home of such memorable properties as Rodeo from Mesquite, Texas, and Australian Rules Football. Six years in, American Wrestling Association and Roller Derby were back-to-back in prime time Tuesdays.
“We’re not promoting this as sport but as light entertainment,” an ESPN spokesman told us. “We hope to attract a different kind of viewer.”
(Oh, by the way: For the first year, it was a 24-hour operation on weekends only, and we were not alone thinking the Good Ship ESPN would not sail for very long. Man the life boats. Torpedoes ahead. Wall Street wasn’t enthusiastic. Some big wheelers and dealers did not believe the new venture could turn a profit. “Viewers will grow tired of 24-hour sports,” was one quote. Also, cable was still in diapers. On Sept. 7, 1979, when Lee Leonard welcomed viewers, there were 20 million cable households, with only one million signed up by ESPN. Sports Illustrated was among the few who thought it would work. Leonard apparently didn’t. He left after seven months for CNN as host of “People Tonight.”)
In 1980, ESPN carried the NFL draft for the first time. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was dubious but accepted the network’s offer anyway. “It sounded like reading the phone book,” he was quoted as saying. “Who’s going to watch?” Among early NFL-draft-on-ESPN highlights were the “helmet phones” on each team’s desk and New York tabloid sportswriter, later SI expert, Paul Zimmerman serving as TV insider/commentator. Poor Paul. He just couldn’t get it right with his predictions. When the Chicago Bears took Clemson’s William “Refrigerator” Perry with their first-round choice in 1985, Zimmerman went bonkers. “The scouts all felt he was like a knight in armor. If he fell down, he would never get up again,” Poor Paul said.
We checked with Clemson sports information director Bob Bradley. “Scouts would lie to their own grandmothers,” Bradley said. “He doesn’t know William Perry from Adam’s house cat.”
Of course, the NFL draft has become must-see TV, and ESPN turned out to be the industry’s 600-pound gorilla despite a number of glitches too numerous to cover here. Suffice to say, it has overcome. Along the way it has pocketed more money from subscribers than any other cable system. It’s not even close. Also, it is Disney’s biggest moneymaker, although if recent layoffs, firings and defections are any indication, the cash flow has slowed dramatically.
ESPN, likewise, is no longer worthy of raves it received not that long ago. For example, it has become a mish-mush of on-air personalities, none close to being another Stuart Scott (Booyah!!), Dan Patrick, Bob Ley or Chris Berman — before he became a parody of himself.
Every time ESPN got another property I’d remind cable subscribers to grab their socks and hold on to their wallets. They would pay for it. That was guaranteed to illicit a response from PR person deluxe Dan Quinn. One time he persuaded a network vice-president to articulate their case. Quinn did it better.
Nobody has done it better than Bob Costas, who doesn’t mind climbing atop a soap box. Agreeing with him isn’t the point. Right or wrong (which is subjective, of course) the many-times Emmy Award winner always makes a strong argument. I once wrote he and Tony Kubek were best all-round duo calling baseball on TV. And he let me know how much he appreciated the kind words. Later, Costas, who always seems at home regardless of the assignment, dropped me a line about his love of old parks. He said he pulled off I-95 to check out Parker Field. It was early evening, and he found a hole in the fence to get in and walk the bases, Costas said.
Imagine being a sportscasting bigshot and caring what some punk no-nothing writes in Richmond, Va., which hovers in the mid-to-low 50s among Nielsen’s markets. Any time I needed a pick-me-up with kind words: compliment Lesley Visser’s work, and guaranteed to come within a few days was a thank-you note from the lady herself. The former Boston Globe writer has a number of firsts and was voted best female all-time by the American Sportscaster’s Association. Who else?
Al Michaels called to dispute something I wrote about him. I thought, ‘uh oh, here we go.’ Instead, he couldn’t have been nicer. After his precise, well-measured explanation, we spent about 15 minutes comparing childhoods. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., while my early years were spent on the lower east side of Manhattan. Class act, Michaels.
In direct contrast was Keith Olbermann. I was told by a former colleague of KO’s that he was, by far, the most disliked person in the newsroom. I wasn’t surprised, given his snarky, nobody-knows-as-much-as-I-do on-air personality. Nor was I shocked when Olbermann called to complain. He acted like a jerk then hung up.
Dick Enberg was another Hall of Famer who couldn’t have been more cordial. Like Costas and Michaels, he was comfortable calling just about anything — and did it well. Enberg, who died in 2017 at 82, threw me a curve one time when he started talking about horse racing. The nags? I didn’t know a thoroughbred from a trainer in those days (which was later corrected when I drew the Colonial Downs beat in 2000). Enberg, that day, was off and running with a brief monologue about a four-legged critter in which he had some ownership. Here was one of the best all-time calling baseball, basketball, football, tennis, etc., describing his feelings about a … horse. Know what? It was different, interesting, and proved downright enjoyable. There were a million baseball, basketball, football, tennis, etc, stories out there but only one Enberg on his horse.
Too bad John Filippelli didn’t earn his living in front of a camera. The producer of NBC’s NFL pregame show was a quote machine. In 1986, after three years of eating his CBS rival’s dust, he was primed and ready to take dead aim long distance from New York. “They call it The NFL Today. I call it The NFL Yesterday. It’s pretty lifeless, if you ask me,” Filippelli said. “I don’t like their production, or the attitude their show represents, It’s too self-serving. There’s no story depth, no substance,” Ouch! That wasn’t nearly all, but you get the idea. “It’s only a matter of time before we overtake them,” he said. Wrong!
In those days of long, long ago, networks happily made talent available for telephone interviews. Believe it or not, I once had John Madden’s home number. Usually, the PR people would let you know when to expect so-and-so’s call. As sports-on-TV grew, so did the demand which led to conference calls, which invariably served as a reminder how many people in the profession really don’t have a clue — or simply don’t care. Some of the questions were beyond dopey — and you longed for the good, old one-on-one times. Talking directly to someone, by yourself, requires homework but is nevertheless more satisfactory.
On Dec. 27, 1987, Gayle Sierens became the first female to do play-by-play of a National Football League game. Naturally, NBC had her on a (well-attended) conference call prior to this ground-breaking event, and she sounded up to the task, calling the Seattle-Kansas City game. So, what seemed like a throwaway question after the more obvious stuff had been asked, someone wondered what worried her, if anything, about the upcoming experience. The 33-year-old Sierens didn’t hesitate. “I’m concerned about my stamina,” she said. “I’m pregnant.” Not to worry, Gayle, You did just fine.
Now the question is … whatever became of …? That was Sierens’ first and only NFL play-by-play opportunity. She apparently was involved in a contract dispute with her regular employer in Tampa, and made only a brief appearance on the Peacock’s NFL pregame show the following year. Married to a former NFL linebacker, Sierens spent 38 years on Tampa TV before retiring in 2015.
Of course, the absolute best interviews — potentially, that is — are the one-on-one, face-to-face variety. When, in 47 years on the job, you’ve covered just about everything from east coast to west, north and south, you are bound to be around most of the better-known sportscasters, too. After a while, you get to know them and, equally if not more important, they get to know you — by sight, too. You shouldn’t be surprised how helpful that can be. It also can lead to some amusing reactions. Once during an NCAA tournament CBS flack Robin Brendle asked me, “Why don’t you like Billy [Packer]?”
Truth was, I’ve always liked “Billy,” on-air and off. To me Packer, who I got to know when I was given the Virginia/ACC beat in 1984, was numero uno at providing basketball analysis. There has been none better or close to being equal to the former player (Wake Forest) with an incredibly agile mind and unafraid to make a point no matter how potentially unpopular it might be. Packer never sought attention, but I talked to him quite a bit. In a telephone conversation about new allegations of point-shaving in college hoops, Packer said, “No one should be naive enough to think it doesn’t exist.” What prompted Robin to ask me that question I’ll never know.
Packer worked with Jim Nantz from 1991 through 2008 on CBS college basketball tournament coverage. In 1998, Nantz, who is up there with Enberg, Costas, Michaels and few others for All-Time Mr. Versatility Great, was CBS prime time host for the XVII Winter Olympic Games. And the national news media cut him a new ear hole. For reasons I didn’t understand, the big boys hated his work from Nagano, Japan. Nantz returned in time for the NCAA Final Four where I sat down with him and got an unexpected story. He was hurt, deeply, by the negative comments. Once again we were reminded how thin skinned even the greats can be. Jim Nantz, meet Dick Vitale.
Nobody has more reason, it says here, to ignore his naysayers than Vitale. OK, so he can be overbearing, and perhaps talks too much, and is enthusiastic beyond bounds known to mere mortals. It can come across as mere shtick. Nobody can be THAT upbeat all the time, can they? Well, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” That is Vitale. He really is appreciative of everything he’s achieved, and it’s doubtful anyone has given back more including large chunks of time and money for charity work. Dickie V is the real deal.
Yet say or write something critical about him and he folds up and dies a little. Just about everybody who knows — and likes — Vitale has tried to console him, pointing out he’s a ready-made target and so what if he takes it on the jaw now and then? Look around, Dick. Look what you have made for yourself. You should be laughing at your critics, not crying. And he will agree with you. “I know you’re right,” Dickie V. says. Then comes the next shot, and ...
Over breakfast in Chapel Hill, N.C., about to partake of a weekend full of Duke and North Carolina hoops, Brent Musburger was full of ... surprises. Maybe there was something extra in his orange juice or Rice Krispies when he said, “You cannot libel me.” Seriously? Seriously. Not even if I write — rattling off a list of stuff that would prompt just about anyone to reach for a phone to call his lawyer? No, no and more no, Musburger said. “There’s nothing you can say about me that I cannot find a platform to defend it.”
What set His Musness off was the ongoing saga of retired general William Westmoreland and his $120 million suit against CBS for what he alleged was misinformation about his role in Vietnam. “The Westmoreland trial is a sham,” Musburger continued. “There’s a bunch of people trying to intimidate the media by trying to get a lot of money out of us. Feeling that way I can hardly say, ‘How can you say nasty things about Brent Musburger?’ Of course you can. You can make it up — and I wouldn’t take you to court.”
He was 44 at the time, and we had sudden admiration for a man who has taken a lot of abuse over the years from critics who think … oh, never mind. In fact, Musburger, now 81 and running a betting operation in Las Vegas, should be laughing at them. He certainly isn’t thin skinned. “Not everybody is going to like you,” he said after devouring another mouthful of Snap, Crackle and Pop. “Millions of people don’t like me at all.”