The next year that kid was hired as cohost of NBC's wraparound show, Grandstand, paired first with Jack Buck and then with Lee Leonard, both of whom were phased out over the next few years. It wasn't their fault. Next to Gumbel, everybody else clunked like a dryer full of tennis shoes. When the show folded, Gumbel joined the first wave of ubiquitous sports anchors.
Before long, Gumbel was the rock of 30 Rock. Once, he was supposed to do an opener from the floor at an NCAA title game. What the producers didn't know was that the empty seats behind Gumbel at rehearsal would be filled that night by a very loud band. When the show went on, there was a trombone threatening to turn Gumbel's tympanum to Malt-O-Meal. He not only couldn't hear what his producers were saying from the truck, but he also couldn't hear what he was saying. Unruffled, he spun through his segment as though he were chatting over a backyard fence, finishing at the correct second, cueless. "He saved the telecast for us," says Weisman.
Today called in 1980, and Gumbel began doing three sport slots a week for the morning show, a role that escalated sharply in '82 when he beat out Phil Donahue and various others for one of the cohost jobs. Today was another triple-host circus, Gumbel along with Jane Pauley and Chris Wallace, but before long, those two were playing the Supremes to Gumbel's Diana Ross. Later that year Wallace was reassigned to Washington, Pauley became host 1A, and that kid was suddenly The Man.
The early years on Today were dicey—the show was still running a distant second in the ratings in the summer of 1983—but by '85 it had tied Good Morning America in the Neilsens, and last winter it held a comfortable lead. One big reason, says Today writer Merle Rubine, is that "Bryant just improved every day, absorbed new material every day, got better, smarter, wiser and more sophisticated as he went along." Says rival Harry Smith, co-anchor of CBS This Morning, "As a sports guy and a black guy, he came into all this guilty until proven innocent. Yet he sits there and proves himself day after day."
Gumbel will turn 40 during the Olympics, the Carnegie Hall of his career. He will be dissected daily by every newspaper critic with a TV in his den. What, him worry? "Look, if Michael the Archangel hosted these games, he'd be lucky to satisfy 50 percent of the people," Gumbel says.
Anti-Gumbelers say his microchip perfection will wear out its welcome the first week. Hey Gladys, does this Gumbo guy ever screw up? Is he ever at a loss for words? Can a man who knows everything ever be surprised? Jim McKay, the perennial Olympic host for ABC, may have slipped a bit, but he at least seems human; he at least seems thrilled.
Gumbel-maniacs think he'll be golden. Bob Costas, who will follow Gumbel each night as NBC's late night Olympic anchor, says picking Gumbel was "a no-brainer. They needed somebody who had stature, who was tremendously facile and glib, who had supreme confidence in himself and wasn't likely to be rattled by anything. That's Gumbel."
What some people don't like about Gumbel is that he seems to know how good he is. Jim Lampley, the former ABC sportscaster now with KCBS in L.A., is impressed with Gumbel's ego, and Lampley is no wallflower himself. "Bryant makes me look humble," he says. "In Seoul, he'll make us all look humble."
Egocentric? O.K., so Gumbel once said that Pauley, Today movie critic Gene Shalit and weatherman Willard Scott "never looked better" than with him on the show. And, O.K., Gumbel doesn't read his mail or look at tapes of his performances or those of his competition. And, O.K., Gumbel always has to have the last line and the last laugh. Even he admits, "I've always got a comeback." But what's he supposed to do, take dull pills? Does Paulina Porizkova walk around without makeup?
Says Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, "To me, calling Gumbel 'cocky' sounds too much like 'uppity.' It sounds almost racist." And if there's one thing you can say about Gumbel, it's that he's so good, the question of race almost never comes up. In fact, the only racism he encounters comes from other blacks. "You're not black enough," they write. Gumbel doesn't listen. "It's like [Georgetown and Olympic basketball coach] John Thompson said to me once: He wanted to be free not only from what the whites expected of him but what the blacks expected of him as well."