On Sunday night Brent Musburger took his family to dinner at a restaurant outside Denver, the site of the Final Four. When it came time to pay the check, Musburger gave the waiter his CBS corporate American Express card. The waiter soon returned and said, "Sorry, Mr. Musburger, but the card didn't clear." Surprised, Musburger said, "They sure move fast, don't they?" To which the waiter replied, "April Fools'."
It was, indeed, the traditional day for practical jokes, which is why the media gathered for the Final Four had such a difficult time believing that Musburger and CBS had parted company after 22 years in which Musburger had become the face and voice of CBS Sports. He was everywhere, or so it seemed, talking, interviewing and interpreting, shifting sports and topics as smoothly as Mario Andretti shifts gears. When the shocking news leaked that CBS had declined to renew his contract, the Associated Press sat on the story for two hours, fearing a prank, and many of those calling Jimmy Tubbs, Musburger's personal assistant, insisted that he swear on tape that the split had, in fact, taken place.
The two sides differed in their versions of what had happened. CBS maintained that money wasn't a factor, even though The New York Times reported last Friday that Laurence Tisch, the company's chief executive officer, projects business to be so dreadful this year that for the second time in five years, he has ordered a round of cutbacks in staff and salaries. In 1985, Musburger signed a five-year, $10 million contract that, reportedly, made him second to Dan Rather on the CBS payroll. In view of the latest reductions, Tisch could hardly have improved on that deal without risking a palace revolt. According to CBS, the crucial stumbling block was Musburger's unwillingness to accept what amounted to a diminished role. Simply put, the network wanted less of Musburger and more of rising young broadcasters like Greg Gumbel and Jim Nantz (page 16).
"He was making a lot of money and wanted more," said CBS spokesperson Susan Kerr, "but that wasn't the issue. It was more the amount of responsibility and the number of major events. I'm not saying he was making any demands that were more than what his role had been. But we just didn't want to go in that direction in the 1990s, having one person carry the flag. It's nice to see a different face on the air every week."
Which is a radical departure from the philosophy that prevailed at CBS Sports in the 1980s. Musburger became a victim of the unprecedented opportunity the network afforded him, and CBS has to take the blame for creating the role that Musburger filled so obsessively. He was so slick and competent at what he did—sifting through mountains of information, passing it on in a crisp, clear, concise way and doing play-by-play—that it became more convenient for CBS just to let Musburger do it instead of spreading around the exposure and the responsibility. Musburger, whose appetite for work is insatiable, loved having a finger in just about everything CBS Sports did. As Kerr put it, "Nobody ever looked at CBS without thinking of Brent Musburger, including the people who work here."
Todd Musburger, Brent's brother and agent, began negotiating a new contract for Brent in November, and everything went fairly smoothly until the week before the Final Four. After all, sports at the network have been on the rise under Tisch, who became CEO in 1986, and Neal Pilson, who took over as president of the sports division in '81. Since 1988 the network has tried to corner the market on major sports events. CBS wrested major league baseball from NBC, won the rights to the next two Winter Olympics, retained the rights to the NCAA basketball tournament and maintained its position with the NFL, all at a cost of $3.5 billion.
However, as the baseball season approached, critics began taking shots at the network for having named Musburger as its main man on the sport. They contended that Musburger didn't know baseball and was overexposed. Nevertheless, the Musburger camp didn't get its first crisis signal until the Wednesday before the Final Four, when a CBS business exec from New York abruptly canceled a Chicago meeting with Todd to iron out the final details of Brent's contract. Alarmed, Todd told Pilson that Brent would fulfill only his contractual commitments—canceling some extra baseball promotional assignments that had been scheduled—until the new contract was signed.
When all the major players gathered in Denver, the mood was so tense that according to Tubbs, "We sensed that people were nervous, trying to avoid us." After last Saturday night's semifinal games, the Musburger camp learned that CBS had decided to end negotiations and not to renew Brent's contract. At a cocktail party that night Todd confronted Pilson, who tried to put him off. Todd then gave Pilson what amounted to an ultimatum (We have to know now!) before going to dinner with his brother and others. By then, the Musburger camp knew Brent was finished at CBS, even though Pilson didn't officially confirm this until a second meeting with Todd later that night at the Hyatt Regency.
Pilson gave Brent the option of doing the final game of the tournament, and Musburger handled the broadcast with professional restraint. Only in the closing moments of the telecast, after the championship trophy had been presented and the celebratory speeches made, did he pay tribute to the CBS colleagues with whom he had worked. He put his arm around his broadcast partner, Billy Packer, in a rare display of affection. "Folks, I've had the best seat in the house," he said. "Thanks for sharing it. I'll see you down the road."
Amazingly, on Sunday morning, Musburger taped a promo with Greg Gumbel for use on the CBS Morning News the following day without giving Gumbel an inkling of the stunning announcement that would be made a few hours later. After the taping, Musburger took his wife, Arlene, and their two boys, Blake and Scott, on a prearranged trip outside the city. Pilson also dropped out of sight, giving Kerr the job of dealing with the incredulous media. She conducted a conference call late on Sunday afternoon with representatives of many of the nation's major publications.