Lampley's long road to Olympic broadcasting history
Posted: Friday February 10, 2006 10:14PM; Updated: Monday February 13, 2006 3:51AM
Jim Lampley's Olympic career began 30 years ago at the Innsbruck Games.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
TURIN, Italy -- Jim Lampley stood at the base of a statue Thursday afternoon, preparing, researching and learning. "The Duke of Savoy," he said to one of NBC's interpreters who was taking him on a tour of city sights and event venues. "How long did the Savoy family's hegemony last?"
Only slightly longer, it seems, than Lampley's. Over the next two weeks, the veteran announcer will work his 13th Olympics, eclipsing the record of the legendary Jim McKay. Lampley is NBC's daytime and late-night host at these Olympic Games.
In his career that has spanned three decades, Lampley has broken ground as the first sideline reporter at college football games and the first host of a 24-hour sports talk radio station. Yet it began with modest ambitions.
In 1974, when Lampley was a graduate student at North Carolina with hopes of becoming an independent producer, Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, launched a nationwide search for a novel position, a sideline reporter at college football games, someone to be the face and voice of the American college student.
Lampley was among 432 applicants for the job, but figured he had eliminated himself with outspoken comments during an interview with Dick Ebersol, the current NBC Sports president who was then Arledge's assistant. Ebersol asked Lampley his opinion of the project. Lampley told him they couldn't possibly find the right person in a series of five-minute interviews. When Lampley later saw Ebersol's notes from that meeting, they read: "angry, alienated, disaffected."
But Arledge wanted someone with on-air experience. Lampley, who had covered sports locally in North Carolina, was among the few who had. Ebersol called him back at Arledge's urging and asked him to do an on-air audition. In a coincidence of serendipity, the topic was George Mira, a player with the World Football League whom Lampley happened to follow very closely during his days at Miami. The demo was a success and Lampley got the position.
"I guess the job found me," he says. At the time, Arledge had never met Lampley and had no idea that Lampley had worked as a golf caddy for Arledge's father in North Carolina. That changed when the men crossed paths in a bathroom. "How is your dad?" Lampley asked a bemused Arledge. "Ah, okay," he responded. "Why are you asking?" When Lampley told him the connection, Arledge froze in horror, fearing he'd be accused of fixing the search for a family friend. "Don't ever tell anyone about that," he insisted. Lampley kept the story private for 20 years.
Lampley almost didn't take the job because of a propensity for motion sickness, telling friends, "I can't fly. I'll throw up." In fact, Lampley often took long train rides to games and got queasy when he had to fly to several before he overcame the problem. He appeared for the first time patrolling the Tennessee sidelines for the Vols' opening game against UCLA. He recalls later asking Chuck Howard, the veteran producer, for his opinion of the telecast. "Kid," Howard told him, "great game, great telecast; bad game, bad telecast."
Lampley took the lesson to heart. "I never forgot those words," he says. "Or the fact that it wasn't my job to try to be bigger than the telecast."
Lampley made his Olympic debut with ABC at the 1976 Innsbruck Games and was swept away by the memorable and frenetic downhill run by Austrian ski star Franz Klammer.