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Then there was the John Dillinger caper. One summer Musburger came home from Shattuck and helped his pals stage a gangland "slaying" in front of the Fox Theater on a Saturday night. It was similar to the shoot-out in the movie Dillinger, complete with military-issue guns, barricaded streets, hit men in gray fedoras and a getaway car, which Musburger drove. The "victims" used catsup to simulate wounds. They were hurriedly thrown into the trunk by the hit men after they fell to the sidewalk, and dozens of horrified moviegoers scrambled for cover as Musburger screeched away. Even today Musburger finds outrageous stunts almost irresistible. Take every Sunday night when he and the executive producer of The NFL Today, Ted Shaker, drive home to Connecticut. They invariably bring a cooler of beer with them—two cans of Moosehead for Musburger, three Bud Lights for Shaker. By the time they reach the 35-cent toll plaza near Greenwich, the car lines can be 10 deep. WHAAA-HOO! They floor it through a vacant toll booth on the right shoulder while the other poor saps queue up. Jes' lettin' off some steam, yer Honor.
Since the 1980 Jimmy the Greek punch, Musburger has stayed away from all bars, brawls, wine and hard stuff. He quit smoking several years ago after being a pack-a-day man since high school. And last September he broke his coffee habit literally overnight. It used to give you acid stomach just watching how much coffee he would put away on the set. Sixteen cups a day, an addict almost, his mood growing edgier by the hour. Then he read about caffeine and heart palpitations. Presto, no more coffee.
According to Musburger's longtime angel, CBS executive vice-president Van Gordon Sauter, "Brent calibrates." That is, he assesses and adjusts and reassesses, forever fine-tuning his cadence, his tone, his hand motions and his work habits. Everything is purposeful. For example, late each Sunday night Musburger goes into the darkness of his den at home and punches up a videotape of the day's NFL Today segments. It's 9 p.m.—time to critique every minute he spent on the air, save for midgame updates. In the corner are a UPI ticker, microphone and time clock. This is where he does his four-minute-a-day commentary and Monday night football halftime show for CBS Radio. Years ago Cosell told him the best way to make sure of doing your homework in sports is to keep doing radio, even after you've made it in TV. The kid listened.
Musburger was a natural from the moment he started in radio. That was in 1968 at WBBM, Chicago. He became the TV sports anchor at the station the following year. Sauter, who was Musburger's news director in those days, later became general manager of KNXT, the CBS-owned TV station in Los Angeles, and made Musburger his news anchor there in 1979-80. "He went from being a sports person to being an evening news anchor person in the second-largest market in the United States, and he did it in about 36 minutes," Sauter says. Musburger would do The NFL Today in New York on weekends, then hop the red-eye back to L.A. for the weeklong anchor grind. Only when Sauter became president of CBS Sports for a time in '81 and expanded Musburger's signature role with studio gigs on Saturdays did Musburger take off his L.A. news hat.
Musburger is a Type A perfectionist, even though everything comes to him in a snap. Says Sauter, "If Brent didn't have a 'Western' personality—embracing those with whom he works, motivating those people around him—he probably would be a totally oppressive human being. He is determined to prevail by a standard that he sets. I've never understood what the standard is, except I think he's never fully satisfied he's met it."
There's no question, however, that Musburger is trying to meet it. "In this business," he says, "they don't write down beside your name on those checks, 'He tried hard. He was a nice guy. He gave it all he had.' That doesn't work. It's a business. Anytime you put your ass on the line, you better be damn sure you're going to win."
One way Musburger tries to win is by parceling out airtime on The NFL Today. Musburger is a quasi-producer as well as quarterback of the show, handing off now to the Greek, now to Phyllis and now to the ever-smiling Irv Cross. He'll do 12 to 15 live shows a day for various sections of the country when all the pre-games, halftimes and regional linkups are accounted for. Because the show is assembled on the run, he has maybe two minutes of "free time" each half hour that he can bestow on whomever he wishes. It's like feeding the sparrows. "I'll go to whoever's had a good day or whoever's got a fact left," Musburger says. "If the Greek is really warm and up to speed, then you keep running him in. But if he's off the wall and not prepared, then to hell with him. Go someplace else. They [Jimmy, Phyllis, Irv] compete for whatever time's available. And that's the way it should be."
Pity poor Phyllis if she puts her brain in neutral or the Greek if he's asleep at the switch. "It drives you up a wall. You become unglued," Musburger says. "If you want to deal with me directly when you're in that studio, you better be ready. If they say something that's really stupid, yeah, I come unglued on 'em. I get very rude. I can become very nasty."
Case-study time. Let's say Phyllis is just not with it on a particular Sunday. A big game's approaching and she's talking about mint juleps in Kentucky or Tom Landry's hat or something. Musburger might stick her with a question a lot of fans would know the answer to but she doesn't. "Phyllis, give us a rundown on the Cowboys' defensive line.... " Now it's the Greek's turn. Let's say he has been watching the studio monitor carrying the Raiders, his favorite team, while he should have been watching the Cardinals, who are coming up on halftime. "Jimmy," Brent might say, "how about Neil Lomax in that first half...?"
And what do Musburger's cohorts think of this? "I don't like it when it happens," says the Greek. "I don't like it one bit. But you get over it. It's for the good of the show. He's the quarterback. What else can I say?"