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Not Just A Pretty Face
William Taaffe
January 16, 1984
Brent Musburger, television sports' most visible talking head, may be Mr. Goodperson to viewers but he can be Mr. Nasty to CBS colleagues
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January 16, 1984

Not Just A Pretty Face

Brent Musburger, television sports' most visible talking head, may be Mr. Goodperson to viewers but he can be Mr. Nasty to CBS colleagues

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If Musburger seems to be a tough quarterback, just understand the pressure he's under. Every show is virtually a two-minute drill. He has to know when St. Louis is coming in for halftime, who made the touchdown catch in New Orleans, the latest score in Chicago and what Shaker in the control room wants to do 2½ minutes from now after the commercial is over. All the while he's watching eight monitors for big plays. And Shaker is talking into his earpiece, and somebody is scoring again in Dallas, and New York needs an update from Washington, and yet another voice on the earpiece is counting him down to the commercial. You think he should act like St. Francis of Assisi when the Greek and Phyllis start acting up?

"It's a never-ending push," Shaker says of Musburger. "Sometimes it gets difficult to deal with. You come in here and get up on the high wire; it's live television and there's so much room for error. Sometimes that zealousness to change things, to always make the show better, takes us to the brink where you're afraid something might break."

The closest they ever came was one Sunday in 1980. Musburger had curtailed the Greek's air time to allow, among other things, a live interview by Phyllis to run long. Brent and Jimmy had words that afternoon. That night they ran into each other at Peartrees, a New York saloon, and the Greek landed a glancing punch to Musburger's jaw. Sauter, who was the president of CBS Sports, heard an account of the fight at four the following morning. Sauter says, "I thought the next line was gonna be that Brent picked up Jimmy the Greek and slammed his head down a toilet and went flush." Musburger was livid, no question, but he was even more upset over the effect the brawl might have on the chemistry of the show. "My first reaction was I'm not going to work with this guy again as long as I live," says Musburger, "but then I cooled off." The next week, he and the Greek wore boxing gloves on camera. They had a big laugh and remain outwardly cordial today.

The final qualities Musburger possesses in superabundance are a) competitiveness and b) enthusiasm. "He's a fierce competitor, a fierce competitor," Sauter says. "God forbid that he'd ever get beaten on a story. God forbid that anyone working around him ever allowed him to get beaten on a story."

Musburger always was a striver, ever since McNally kept striking him out on the sandlots with Cec, who coached the boys, standing by. Cec and Beryl ran an appliance store and then got into sheep ranching, but the boy was going places. He plugged his way through the Al Somers School for Umpires in Daytona, selling tickets at the 500 and working Cleveland Indian exhibition games in Florida. "Class D Midwest League, here I come," he recalls. He was behind the plate at Keokuk, Iowa when Tim McCarver made his pro debut. He saw the hop on Juan Marichal's first pro fast-balls at Michigan City, Ind. Then, typically, after returning to study journalism at Northwestern and working on the American, he set his broadcasting career in motion by outhustling—some would say outfinagling—the competition.

It happened like this. Musburger was stringing for WBBM radio when it decided it wanted a man at the Mexico City Olympics. It was too late to obtain credentials, so Musburger passed himself off as Al Silverman, then the editor of Sport, who hadn't gone to the Games. Gliding around with his tape recorder, Musburger cornered John Carlos and Tommie Smith minutes after their famous black-power salute in an area off-limits to the press. Rules, schmules. The 12-minute tape made airwaves across the country, and WBBM wanted to hire him full-time the minute he got home.

As for Musburger's enthusiasm, it borders on hucksterism. Shortly after he came to CBS in '73, Wussler made him the host of a live Sports Spectacular segment. They should have used sticky paper on this one, for it was the ultimate in trash sports, a daredevil exhibition featuring a Canadian who stood on the wing of a DC-8 as it did loops. Musburger loved it. When the plane landed, he went up to the wing in a cherry picker, mike in hand, and said, "Nice run, Fly." That was the first of many nicknames he has come up with. When Musburger was the No. 1 play-by-play man for the NBA from 1975 to '81, he came up with Mountain Man, Big Red, D.J., C.J., B.J., and Chocolate Thunder, among others.

Musburger has never been much of an interviewer—instead of blunt questions, he'll ask those that will help improve the climate—but he's kept his nose for a story. Who broke the news of the U.S. athletes' walkout from the Pan American Games last summer? Musburger. Who was the first to suggest other athletes might be performing poorly in order to avoid testing for steroids? Old Hildy Musburger himself. Front Page. Get it and go with it. Put it up on the air. "I like to tell people things," Musburger says. Does he ever.

For years a lot of folks who know him have suspected that the thing Musburger most wants to be is the next Cosell. Not true. Musburger is the conveyor of information, the classic interlocutor, hardly the show itself. If anything, he wants to be the next McKay, the latter having become Mr. Olympics at ABC. Musburger has never been the host of an Olympics, nor has he broadcast baseball regularly, CBS having carried neither since the mid-'60s. When his contract is up next January he may well follow the five-ring sign. "We'll see what the other networks have got going," he says. "The Summer Olympics have always been an enormous lure."

Musburger recently had a spacious four-room cabin built for his wife, Arlene, himself and the boys (their son Scott is 11), hard by Otter Creek on Cec's Crazy M Ranch in Big Timber. You can herd the sheep or listen to the wind blow at the Crazy M. It's a contemplative place, one that Musburger says he'd like to move to after the boys get through college. Until then, he'll just keep performing brilliantly and running that toll gate on the way home. No use publishing his mug shot. Half the cops wouldn't recognize him anyway, (ATTENTION ALL POINTS: CAUCASIAN MALE, EARLY 40S, LAST SEEN HEADED NORTH IN MAROON CHEVY CAPRICE. MONTANA TAGS NO. 40-3147.)

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