Go with Brent Musburger almost anywhere outside Billings, Mont., where he grew up, and Big Timber, Mont., the piece of high plains sheepland where he has built a log cabin, and the reaction is often the same. Musburger is buying gas or standing at the drugstore checkout counter or ordering his eggs over easy when the person waiting on him goes quiet and starts pointing.
"Hey, aren't you the guy...? You know, the guy who, uh...."
Right on the tip of the tongue. As the attendant tries to place the face, he keeps wagging his finger at Musburger. "I know you. You're the guy who, uh...."
Musburger won't always tell them his name right off. Sometimes you can see their minds working overtime. They're pointing at him, and they're getting close.
"Hey, I know, you're that Mushburger fellow who gives the scores."
For someone who's on national TV some 275 hours a year, more than twice as much as Dan Rather and five times as much as Mr. T, Musburger's recognition factor in relative terms is zip. Puzzling, isn't it? He's been at CBS Sports now for 11 years, nine of them as host of The NFL Today, the granddaddy of pregame, halftime and highlight shows. He makes $750,000 a year. He's bright and nice looking. He's as enthusiastic as all get-out, always cheerful, just a real upright fellow. And he's a survivor. He's endured five presidents of CBS Sports, more than a few air-headed remarks by Phyllis George, the wooden pulchritude of Jayne Kennedy and a celebrated punch to the jaw by Jimmy the Greek. He became a shill for the NBA while working play-by-play some years back, and he even survived that.
He's on TV so often that CBS Sports sometimes seems like The Brent Musburger Show. The more he's on, the more he's on. NFL playoffs, NCAA basketball, NBA playoffs, NCAA football, U.S. Open tennis, the Masters, the Belmont Stakes—you name it. There he is in the studio giving you hard news, doing play-by-play highlights, doing lead-ins, doing promos, doing interviews. The engine always running. Hobnobbing with the winners on the locker-room platform, grinning, feeling the beat, telling you what you need to know. He has become a signature for CBS Sports. If you tune in and find John Tesh relieving Musburger for a day, you think you stumbled onto PBS.
Still, scads of viewers don't recognize Musburger—or, if they do, they aren't terribly fascinated. Several years ago the NFL Today crew was in Tampa for a playoff game. Musburger, the Greek and Phyllis all went out to Bern's Steak House to see and be seen. There must have been 200 people who came over for Jimmy's and Phyllis' autographs. How many asked Brent for his? You've got it—zero. Oh, he's signed a few since then, but he's still not a big celebrity.
Here's a true statement: On the air, Brent Musburger, TV's quickest, most nimble host, is white bread. It's near impossible to find any singular characteristic in his face, his speech or his personality. He's almost an evanescent person, here for the update and back to the action. To viewers, there's a Mr. Good-person aura about him, an earnestness that is fundamentally middle American. And that's just the way he wants it. "As a host, I'm a guest in your living room," he says. "You invite me in and I sit there with you. I'm an old shoe. I'm an old friend. I prefer it that way."
Off camera, however, Musburger has sharp edges. He's a bit of a hell raiser, in fact, who when driving home from the New York studio to Weston, Conn. each Sunday night, runs the toll booth on the Merritt Parkway. Earlier in his variegated past he was tossed out of Northwestern University for a year for owning and operating a car without a license. He has also been a ticket seller at the gates of the Daytona 500, in 1959, a Midwest League umpire who heaved 26 players and managers in a single season, a big-city sports-writer, an impostor at the Olympic Games and a TV news anchorman in Los Angeles.