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Out of the Spotlight Since '92, Former NFL and TV Star Irv Cross is tackling Sports Again as Athletic Director at Idaho State
By William F. Reed
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 Pocatello?
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 that?'"
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."
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 withfootball 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 hickory.
"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.
Issue date: August 26, 1996