Greg Gumbel carries with him none of the baggage of celebrity. Ever so slightly late for a luncheon meeting, he enters a midtown Manhattan restaurant brimming with apology.
Gumbel has arrived at last. For 17 years now, his round, friendly face has been beaming out of television sets. He has covered local sports for WMAQ-TV in his hometown of Chicago, hosted ESPN's SportsCenter, done play-by-play for Madison Square Garden Network and handled a slew of assignments in the past two years for CBS. Along the way, Gumbel has somehow found the time to moonlight as the host of a morning show on WFAN, New York City's all-sports radio station, and as a co-host of the nationally syndicated Ebony/Jet Showcase. When Gumbel was named to replace Brent Musburger as the anchor of CBS's The NFL Today, it seemed the logical culmination of his peripatetic career.
"I'd been watching him since ESPN," says Ted Shaker, the executive producer of CBS Sports, who hired Gumbel in the fall of 1988 to do NFL play-by-play. "I drive in to work, and I would listen to WFAN while he was hosting the morning show. For five minutes he'd talk with Hubie Brown about the NBA, then he'd talk to Sal Messina about the Rangers, then he'd talk to Billy Packer about North Carolina basketball. He would effortlessly take me from one sport to the next, asking the questions I'd have asked. And I thought, Wow!"
With Gumbel as centerpiece, Shaker decided to overhaul The NFL Today. The wholesale change took some pressure off the versatile Gumbel by not simply plugging him into Musburger's old role, thereby avoiding a straight-up comparison. Not that comparisons are anything new to Gumbel, who has been dogged by them throughout his career. The first yardstick was familiar enough, his own precocious brother, Bryant, who is two years Greg's junior. Now it's Musburger. Says Greg, "I don't see it as replacing Brent, though in the technical sense I suppose it is. I'm not going out there trying to be Brent."
Musburger was more than just the anchor on The NFL Today; he was also the show's managing editor. On air, he was smooth and professional—an "anchor monster," according to Terry O'Neil, who used to be an executive producer for CBS Sports and is now the executive producer for NBC Sports. But Musburger also has a certain edge to him. So does Gumbel's equivalent on the rival NFL Live on NBC, Bob Costas. And so, for that matter, does Bryant Gumbel. Call it what you will: confidence, professional distance, attitude.
Greg Gumbel, on the other hand, radiates amiable ease. "I feel a certain comfort level when I watch him work," says Shaker. "He gives me information without asserting himself unnecessarily."
"Greg doesn't want to hog the camera," says Terry Bradshaw, his studio partner. "He feels uncomfortable if he does."
Shaker's decision to overhaul The NFL Today was spurred by a drop in the show's ratings advantage over NFL Live. In 1986, The NFL Today was watched by 44% more households than NFL Live; by '89 the margin had dwindled to 14%. Some of CBS's ratings advantage is explained by the fact that it broadcasts NFC games, for which it pays $265 million annually, $77 million per year more than NBC pays for AFC games, which are broadcast in smaller markets.
Shaker also shifted the show's emphasis. "We had become too much of a studio show," he says. "We're concentrating more on the games coming up. We want to tell people what's going on out at the stadium right before kickoff."
"We're getting away from being 30 minutes of hard news," says Eric Mann, the show's producer. "Away from urinalysis and more towards play analysis." That definitely sets The NFL Today apart from NFL Live, which aims for a "harder" show based on "news and information."