* “We all realized what we had [in Phyllis],” said Mike Pearl, “when we took the show on the road for the playoffs and Super Bowl. Phyllis was the main attraction. When we all walked through an airport or down a street together, the public would go to Phyllis. They pretty much ignored Brent. There may have been some resentment there. And when we were out for dinner, Phyllis was the one being asked for autographs.” 6
Yvonne Connors would travel with Phyllis on the road and remembers one particular playoff game.
“When The NFL Today traveled to San Francisco,” said Connors, “our set was out on the field. And when Phyllis walked out on the field, warm-ups stopped for a moment, all the players turned, and you should have heard the crowd! Talk about working a room—she knew how to work a stadium!”
* “Jayne [Kennedy] was something else. She was great,” Fishman said, “but Brent was really cruel to her on one particular show. For some reason he was ticked off at everybody on that particular day—maybe it was because of all the notoriety she was getting, I don’t know. We came up to halftime and I remember this clearly. Brent would do the score rundowns and then he and Irv would do the highlights. And this halftime Brent said something like, ‘We’re back live at The NFL Today studios in New York, and Jayne, why don’t you take us around the league [and report the scores of the games]?’ She looked like a deer in the headlights. It was awful. I remember hitting his headset and saying, ‘That was a real son-of-a-bitch move.’ But Brent just ignored the comment.
“He threw her a curve ball. She wasn’t prepared for it. She didn’t know what team was leading what, and it was just awful. She’d read the team that was losing first. Why would Brent do that? So cruel.” 8
As she attempted to read the scores, she was shaking. They were too scared of Brent at that point to reprimand him. Fishman’s comment in his earpiece was as tough as it got. They knew Brent controlled everything on the show, and they didn’t want to ruffle his feathers. Producer Mike Pearl did approach Brent about it, however.
“I told Brent that it was wrong,” said Pearl. “He said he was just trying to have fun with it. There were no repercussions. I apologized to Jayne, who as I remember, took it in stride. Second-guessing myself, if we were just doing a score segment, we should have had just Brent and Irv on the set.” 9
It turned out that Jayne was not fine with it and did not take it in stride.
Said Jayne of the incident: “I don’t know why Brent did it. And that was one of the reasons I asked CBS to give me studio [practice] time—to work with me so I wouldn’t have anything like that facing me. Brent didn’t tell me he was going to do that. It was completely unfair. It was a problem and continued to be a problem. People would say, ‘She’s a girl. She didn’t do it like guys do it.’ Probably every male reporter in the country that hated female sportscasters tried to make me look bad. There’s a tie to gambling, because if you read the score with losing score first, their ear is tuned to hear the winning score first, and they don’t actually listen to what you’re saying. Because all I did was to read the losing score before the winning score. Over the years I’ve seen guys doing the exact same thing, but because it was a woman doing it, they made a big to-do over it.”
* With Phyllis back, she demanded more attention than Jayne Kennedy had and definitely more airtime. With just twenty-two minutes available in the show, the one who was going to get squeezed for airtime was Jimmy The Greek. It seemed that more and more when Brent had an extra thirty seconds he’d go in Phyllis’s direction with a question rather than Irv Cross’s or The Greek’s.
* By October 26, 1980, it was Jimmy’s fifth season on the show, and it’s possible Brent was growing tired of Snyder’s so-called inside information that they discussed on the segment known as “The Greek’s Grapevine.” On this day, however, Snyder had a legitimate piece of news. He was about to report that Notre Dame was going to hire Gerry Faust, a high school football coach from Akron, Ohio, to replace its current coach, Dan Devine, at the season’s end.
This was huge news. The great, almighty Notre Dame hiring a high school football coach, no less! And nobody else had it. Remarkably, The Greek found out with still a month to go in the schedule. But as Brent led into the piece, instead of saying something like, “What have you got for us today, Greek?” Brent blurted out Jimmy’s exclusive news himself, leaving Snyder tongue-tied with nothing to say. What should have been Jimmy’s greatest moment in his five years with the show turned into one of his most embarrassing.
“Brent hung him out to dry,” said Mike Pearl, who was watching from home. 4 In fact, it was well accepted in the control room that Brent would often steal someone else’s headline. According to Pearl, Musburger sometimes listened in while Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier rehearsed their spot for the show’s opening in the whip-around, then Brent would mention their news as he threw it to them, live on the air. Summerall and Brookshier became infuriated with Musburger because it happened more than once.
“Before the playoffs our first year,” Pearl said, “we had a production meeting including the studio people and the game people together. Brent and Pat sort of stared each other down. You could tell it was boiling. I knew at that point we weren’t going to have dinner at the same restaurant.”
According to the New York Times , Phyllis also complained to her daughter Pamela that “during commercial breaks she’d have an idea and one of the guys would steal it as if it were his.
* Soon after Brent arrived, Jimmy came in and started complaining to Brent about what happened. Brent said, “Jimmy, I can kill you any time I feel like it.” And Jimmy leaned over and slapped him.
* Brent is a very smart guy, but he has an ego and he can suck the air out of the room. Brent could do the studio show with games from eight sites, and he’d always know where he was and he always knew whom he was talking to. He was an enormous asset. The Greek, another big ego, resented Brent’s dominance in decision-making. Brent was maybe five times as smart as him, but Brent resented it that night at Peartrees.
* Musburger knew he was an employee and he would go do what employees did, in spite of all his clout. Jimmy didn’t have any depth. Jimmy was a force of nature. There weren’t a lot of rational things you could say to Jimmy that were going to change his mind.
* This wasn’t the first time there was tension and shouting between Brent and Phyllis and The Greek. “One of the reasons for friction between Brent and The Greek,” said Mike Pearl, “was Jimmy’s close friendship with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. Jimmy used to openly root for the Raiders on the set while we were on the air, distracting Brent.”
* On this Friday before Martin Luther King Day, a crew from the local NBC affiliate was at the restaurant asking people, “What does Martin Luther King Day mean to you?” For The Greek it was the perfect storm. He needed both the 49ers and the Bears to lose at home and a camera to break to put him in that restaurant, at that exact moment in time.
WRC-TV’s Ed Hotaling, a Black producer-reporter, spotted The Greek having lunch and approached. Snyder may have had a glass of wine or two but he wasn’t drunk. Hotaling began by asking Snyder about civil rights in sports. The Greek started explaining how Black athletes became bigger and stronger than white athletes.
“The Black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way,” Jimmy told Hotaling with a microphone in front of him and a camera staring him in the face. “It’s because of his high thighs and big thighs that go up into his back. And they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs, you see.” He went on to say that “the Blacks are going to take over everything [in sports],” and that the only thing left for the whites is “a couple of coaching jobs.”
Hotaling was stunned, but he kept the camera rolling and allowed The Greek to continue a speech that would ultimately end his broadcasting career. “I’m telling you,” Snyder insisted, “that the Black is the better athlete and he practices to be the better athlete, and he’s bred to be the better athlete, because this goes all the way to the Civil War when, during the slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see. That’s where it all started.”
To most observers of sports, there was no doubt that on average the Black athlete was superior to the white. But where did The Greek get his theories about breeding? Perhaps it was from Sports Illustrated .
On January 18, 1971, S.I. published a lengthy article by Martin Kane titled “An Assessment of Why Black Is Best.” In the article Kane quoted several authorities on the subject. It starts off asking, “Is the black athlete a long stride better than his white counterpart? And if not, what accounts for the immense success of the black in American sport during the last two decades? Scientists are searching for the answers and as they probe for true racial distinctions, fascinating theories have evolved, may of them controversial.”
“There is an increasing body of scientific opinion,” Kane wrote, “which suggests that physical differences in the races might well have enhanced the athletic potential of the Negro in certain events.”
In the same Sports Illustrated article, the author quotes Lee Evans, Olympic and world 400-meter record holder. Asked why Black Americans have produced so extraordinarily disproportionate a number of the highest-class athletes in the world, Evans replied: “We were bred for it. Certainly the black people who survived in the slave ships must have contained a high proportion of the strongest. Then, on the plantations, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. We were simply bred for physical qualities.”
* Then Brent Musburger called Shaker. The fight between Brent and The Greek was nearly eight years earlier, but there was no love lost between them. Brent no longer had respect for what Jimmy did on the show and treated him as such. Some said there might have been some jealousy involved because The Greek was asked for autographs far more often than Brent when they were on the road. So when Brent called, “he was angry and fed up” according to Shaker, and he really unloaded on The Greek.
“I’ll tell you, I’m not gonna sit on that field sitting next to that guy,” Brent hollered to Shaker. “No chance I’m gonna be on the same show with that guy Sunday.”
“Brent panicked,” Jimmy told Peter Richmond of The National Sports Daily in 1990. “If he’d opened up his mouth that day for me, he could have saved my job. But he didn’t.”
Shortly after the incident, the Alabama A&M football coach Ray Greene told the Associated Press, “You can’t change history. He [Snyder] was accurate about the breeding process.”
The abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass is one former slave who wrote about these breeding practices, Rowe recalled. “In his autobiographical narrative, Douglass describes a young landowner who could only afford one slave. So he bought a woman named Caroline, a large able-bodied woman about twenty years old. ‘Shocking as is the fact,’ Douglass wrote, ‘he bought her, as he said, for a breeder.’ Then he went out and rented a married male slave. The result was that at the end of the year, the woman gave birth to twins.”
* Brent was happy. The producers were happy, and the show continued to win the ratings war in 1988 and ’89. But management also began to think that they had a problem. When Van Gordon Sauter was running the CBS Sports ship in the early ’80s, he signaled to Ted Shaker that he wanted one big star as the face of CBS Sports, and that star was to be Brent Musburger.
But as time wore on that became a slight problem, then a bigger one. “Once I became the overall guy [executive producer] in 1986,” Shaker said, “I talked to Brent about sharing [some of the plum assignments]. And he didn’t want to share. That’s where he and I went right down the tubes.” 1
Imagine you were the manager of the New York Yankees and you had terrific starting pitchers. But instead of rotating them every fourth day, you started the same guy every day, and the other three just sat in the bullpen.
As 1990 approached, that was the dilemma Neal Pilson and Ted Shaker had at CBS Sports. Their starting pitchers were Brent Musburger, Jim Nantz, Greg Gumbel, and James Brown, but only Brent was handed the ball.
“When it came to trying [to get Brent] to cut back some,” said Shaker, “he didn’t want to do it.”
Musburger was already making $2 million a year. It was a far cry from the $13,500 annual salary he received twenty-two years earlier as a columnist for the Chicago American . He was CBS’s lead broadcaster for the NBA, The NFL Today , NCAA football, U.S. Open tennis, the Belmont Stakes, and the Masters, and he had even been announced as the lead play-by-play voice for CBS’s upcoming contract with Major League Baseball. He was also set to be the face of the network at the 1992 and ’94 Olympic Games, to which CBS had acquired the rights. Quite a slate.
“We were going to be year-round Brent Musburger,” Pilson told the Sports Business Journal . 2 Ted Shaker, the network’s executive producer, felt they were left with no choice but to fire Brent since he wouldn’t give up any of his marquee events.
Plain and simply, they were too dependent on Brent.
* In the early ’80s, when Van Sauter was president of CBS Sports and was looking to add a journalistic touch, he brought Terry O’Neil over from ABC Sports to be his executive producer. O’Neil took one look around at all the things Brent had control over and declared him to be an “anchor-monster.”
* Word got out by Monday, April 1 , and most everyone thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Despite the decision being made, they all agreed that Brent would still call the NCAA final game Monday night, when UNLV ultimately defeated Duke, and at the conclusion he would say his goodbyes. They even told Billy Packer, Brent’s partner on the game, that if Brent didn’t end it in a professional manner that Packer was to pull the mic away from him.
“Are you out of your mind?” Packer told CBS. “Brent would never do that.”
At the game’s conclusion, Brent wrapped it up saying, “Folks, I’ve had the best seat in the house. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll see you down the road. Now, let’s send you to Jim Nantz.”
* At first it looked like Musburger was also going to take the high road. He released a statement that weekend through his assistant that said: “I was surprised, but it was a great run and I have a million fond memories, and I leave behind a lot of good friends at CBS. I’m going to take an extended vacation, and I’ll be working again some day, somewhere.”
But as the week wore on, Brent burned inside about the contentious ending. As far as he was concerned, he was fired for being too good. In an effort to negate the negative press, he decided to do a prime-time interview with Sam Donaldson from ABC News.
“Let me start out by saying the contract negotiations were a sham,” Musburger told Donaldson. “It was a setup all the way. It was unethical. They led us on all the way. Those two men [Pilson and Shaker] had decided I was too big for my britches and uncontrollable. With Shaker, he wants puppets for announcers. And I’m not a puppet.”
The clue in that last statement was Brent’s use of the word “uncontrollable.” Neither Pilson nor Shaker used that word, but in hindsight it seems obvious that Musburger had too much control of too many events and there wasn’t anyone brave enough at CBS to say no to him.
Within a month Brent signed on with ABC and ESPN. It was a marriage that lasted twenty-seven years before a hurried exit in 2017.
* The one thing ABC might have been leery about asking him to do was golf, but in 1992 they assigned him to cohost the U.S. Open with Jim McKay. At CBS Musburger had hosted the Masters broadcast in the late ’80s despite his limited knowledge of the game. Former British Open champion Tom Weiskopf was assigned to “babysit” Brent and help him when possible.
“Brent Musburger was not a golfer,” Weiskopf told the Chicago Tribune . “Brent did not know or understand the tradition and terminology, or jargon, of the game. I got along with him because I was the baby-sitter for him. I had to get along with him. I was told: ‘Your job is to baby-sit Brent and tell him everything you know about Augusta National, the golf course, golf in general, and help him with his terminology.’ It was not a pleasant situation.”
After Jim Nantz, who played golf for the University of Houston, replaced Musburger, Weiskopf’s attitude about his assignment brightened immensely. “Jim’s a golfer. Pat Summerall’s a golfer,” Weiskopf said. “They understand the traditions of the game, the history of the game. And they have the terminology that goes with the game. They know the difference between a chip and a putt. Bunkers are not called sand traps. I just did my job. It’s very difficult to be an analyst. When your answers are yes and no, you cease to be an analyst. It’s difficult when you’re trying to give some facts, and you’re trying to really help the telecast . . . and you’re sitting next to somebody who doesn’t understand what’s really going on.”
He picked up the nickname of “Big-Game Brent.” It turned out, however, that calling Major League Baseball wasn’t his forte either. In October of 1995 Musburger was calling the playoffs for ABC. Richard Sandomir, the former sports media critic for the New York Times , took exception.
“Dreadful news,” Sandomir wrote. “New York must listen to Brent Musburger of ABC call Games 1, 2 and possibly Game 7 of the Seat-tle-Cleveland American League Championship Series. Coming off his mistake-strewn work on the Yankees-Mariners divisional series, ABC saw no apparent problem in assigning the former ‘anchor monster’ of CBS to the ALCS [American League Championship Series]. ABC must be looking to amortize his hefty salary.”
“Musburger’s weekend in Seattle,” Sandomir’s article continued, “exposed him as an inattentive baseball naïf, who barely comprehends the game’s obvious and nuanced points or its strategy. He is frequently fatuous and noticeably unprepared. ‘Buckeye Brent’s’ digressions to college football reminded me that his overstated style is far better suited to being ABC’s No. 2 college football announcer.” 4
At ESPN Brent was the No. 1 college football play-by-play announcer, working alongside former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit. His folksy style led him to often call his analysts “pardners” and refer to Herbstreit as “Herbie.” In 2011 Musburger was assigned the BCS Championship game between Auburn and Oregon. Here’s what the Times ’ Sandomir wrote the next day:
“If Musburger’s performances at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, and the BCS title game Monday night, are exhibits of the State of the Brent, it is clear that he has veered from the factual precision needed to maintain his status as ESPN’s No. 1 college football announcer. Musburger is one of sports broadcasting’s great survivors and one of its most recognizable and excitable voices. Fired by CBS in 1990, he was soon picked up by ABC Sports. Being grateful for his second chance, he did virtually anything the network, and then ESPN, asked him.
“But the details add up to inattention to his job or an odd attempt to be the master of a new paradigm of announcing where emotion trumps fact. Musburger’s B.C.S. title game performance will be remembered most for his silly recasting of himself as a marketing man. It was probably a momentary lapse of judgment, a lost trip into humor or an absurd conflation of game and sponsor. But as Auburn lined up for the field goal that would win the game, Musburger said, ‘This is for all the Tostitos.’
“While viewers cringed or laughed nervously, [BCS game sponsor] Frito-Lay got a bonus for its tortilla chips brand that it could not have imagined or bargained for. ‘Big Game Brent’ delivered the snacks.” 5
A few years later in 2013, he was calling Alabama’s 42–14 blowout victory over Notre Dame when ESPN’s cameras focused in on Katherine Webb in the stands. Webb, a model and the 2012 Miss Alabama, was the girlfriend of ’Bama quarterback A. J. McCarron. “You see that lovely lady there, she does go to Auburn,” Musburger began. “But she’s also Miss Alabama and that’s A. J. McCarron’s girlfriend. You quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women. What a beautiful woman! Wow!” When Herbstreit agreed with him, Musburger said, “If you’re a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop.”
That credibility recalls what his first boss in television, Van Gordon Sauter, said about Musburger, going back thirty years. “Musburger would talk back to you,” Sauter said when interviewed for this book. “‘This is dumb, it’s a bad idea’ or ‘I don’t know why you want me to do this.’ At the end of it all, Musburger knew he was an employee and he would go do what employees did, in spite of all his clout.”
Yet, his peers have never named him National Sportscaster of the Year.
There’s no doubt that Brent Musburger made a tremendous impact on sports broadcasting. But it’s ironic that after leaving CBS thirty years ago, he never returned to the one thing that made him famous, the one thing that he did better than anyone else. In the foreword for this book, Jim Nantz wrote that Brent was “the greatest studio host of all time.”
* Van Gordon Sauter, who was president of CBS Sports when Phyllis returned to The NFL Today , had become the head of CBS News in 1982 and was instrumental in her joining The CBS Morning News.
“I was an admirer of Phyllis,” he said. “I thought when she was on the camera it brightened the set. I used her in News. The News people hated her [because she didn’t have a News background] and they did everything in their power to undermine her.”
* Bob Fishman was the only one from CBS who still talked to him.
“We stayed in touch,” Fishman said, “and four or five years later I was going to Vegas for a basketball game and I called him up. He asked if we could have dinner. ‘Great, I’d love to see you,’ I told him. He said to meet him at Michael’s, the steakhouse in the Barbary Coast Hotel. I got there first and here he comes. It made you want to cry. His hair was down to his shoulders, there were grease stains all over his jacket, he was still bitter, and he kept wanting to talk about what CBS did to him. I grabbed the check and he then said to me, ‘Could you do me a favor? Could you lend me a hundred dollars?’ I’m thinking, this guy is broken; his life is over. He and his wife have separated. He’s living by himself in Vegas and he’s broke. That stayed with me for a long time.”
“He passed away shortly after that [April 21, 1996, from a heart attack] and that was another sad moment,” Fishman continued. “Hank Goldberg and Mike [Pearl] and myself were at his funeral and hardly anyone came except for about four or five old bookmakers from Steubenville, Ohio.