The Days Of The Seventies Are Fleeting
This past Wednesday was a tough day for those of us that grew up in the sixties and seventies. Two of the icons of my youth disappeared – one through natural causes, the other through retirement (or pushed out the door).
It was disturbing enough to learn that Mary Tyler Moore had passed away. Not only was I upset that she had died, but it was almost as bothersome to learn that she had reached the age of eighty. As a kid, I remembered her as Laurie Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Then her role as Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show spanned my adolescent and teen years and even into legal adulthood. The last episode aired in the spring of my freshman year in college. I grew up with Mary Tyler Moore and to think of her as an eighty year-old is beyond my comprehension. I have to admit that her death reminded me of my own mortality and that I may not be as young as I like to still think I am.
If that wasn’t enough to remind me of how old I’m getting, we also learned that Brent Musburger will hang up his microphone for the last time next Tuesday night when he will broadcast the Georgia-Kentucky game from Lexington next Tuesday night.
I will admit, I had grown to not be a fan of Musburger’s in recent years. That probably stemmed from his first year to host the Indianapolis 500 in 2005. If you’ll recall, that was also the first year at the “500” for Danica Patrick. When Todd Harris would mercifully cut away to Musburger a few times throughout the race – Brent would be foaming at the mouth over Danica, almost to the point of creepiness. The creepiness factor carried over into subsequent years when Danica was driving. No matter how mediocre of a day she was having, Danica was the main focus of Musburger.
His creepiness wasn’t limited to Danica Patrick, however. In the 2013 BCS National Championship Game between Alabama and Notre Dame, it was awkward at best to hear Musburger trip over himself as he fawned all over Katherine Webb, the then-girlfriend (and now wife) of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. I enjoy looking at beautiful women as much as anyone, but I try not to publicly drool when I do. As Musburger went on and on about how smoking hot she was, it became increasingly embarrassing.
But my biggest complaint about Musburger as host of the Indianapolis 500 telecast was that he seemed completely out of his element. Auto racing in general is not a plug & play sport when it comes to broadcasters. That may apply even more to IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500. Most casual sport fans know who Babe Ruth was. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a mainstream fan who has a clue who Wilbur Shaw was. Sometimes you can take a football or baseball announcer and place them on a golf telecast and they fit right in. That logic does not transfer to racing. Announcers cannot fake their way through a racing telecast like they can while covering tennis or the Little League World Series.
Musburger would mispronounce the names of Vitor Meira, Bruno Junqueira and just about anyone else whose name had a spelling a little more difficult than Scott Dixon. It just came across as someone who had not done their homework; or worse yet – someone who just didn’t care.
By now you’re probably thinking that I’m dancing on the grave of Brent Musburger. I’m not. Far from it.
For decades, there was no one better in sports than Brent Musburger. In the seventies, The NFL Today was a groundbreaking concept – a live studio show that previewed the upcoming games and actually ran featured stories. While that is the basic format for every sports pre-game show today, The NFL Today on CBS was the pioneer for what we see today. Not only was Brent Musburger the studio anchor of the show, he was the driving force behind the scenes. He, along with Irv Cross, Phyllis George and Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder formed a studio cast that had one of the best chemistry I’ve seen in television.
By the eighties, Musburger had expanded his duties to have something to do with every major sports broadcast – whether it was the Super Bowl, the Final Four, The Masters, College Football or whatever. If you ever tuned in to an event and heard Musburger’s trademark “You are looking live…”; you knew this was a big event.
But as Musburger’s power at CBS increased, so did the level of discomfort for the suits at CBS. He was unceremoniously fired, literally on the eve of the NCAA Basketball Championship game in April of 1990. He was allowed to do the game and said a classy goodbye following the game. Shortly thereafter, he began his twenty-seven year career at ABC/ESPN.
As much I decried Musburger’s lack of preparedness for the Indianapolis 500, you could not say the same for his delivery on football or basketball broadcasts. There, in his comfort zone of sports, he developed a well-earned reputation for doing his homework. Even up until the end of his career, his performance in college football and basketball stayed at a very high level. It only dipped when he would go off on a tangent about a pretty woman or his thoughts on Joe Mixon of Oklahoma, that you wondered how he kept his job. My personal opinion is that he felt he had reached a point in his life and career that he really didn’t care who he offended or what anyone thought. I’m not sure he really cared if he was fired or not.
Some have speculated that Musburger may have been pushed out the door. It’s possible, but I’m not sure it really matters. His legacy is intact regardless.
Personally, I had one encounter with Brent Musburger that I wish I had done differently. It was early race morning at Indianapolis in 2010. I was in the Media Center cafeteria, eating breakfast at a table alone. I glanced over and saw Brent Musburger eating alone at the table right next to me. My thoughts were in full race mode and all I could think of was how he might come off as a non-racing buffoon in the telecast later today. I looked over at him with disdain as an intruder to our sport.
Had I been thinking more rationally and beyond that day’s race, I would have realized how big of an icon was sitting just a matter of inches from me. The man who anchored those classic NFL Today shows I watched as a young teenager, was within an arm’s reach. He had been the voice of countless sporting events I had watched for almost forty years. He was on a first-name basis with every big-time name in sports. Imagine the stories he could tell if you could just sit down with him over a beer, or in this case – breakfast.
I’m not one to go up and harass celebrities in public. I tend to respect their privacy and leave them alone. Besides, it’s just not in my nature to go up and strike up a conversation with strangers. Susan? Yes. Me? No.
But looking back at this situation, Musburger almost looked like he was wanting someone to talk to. The racing media types were all gathered around each other, sharing war stories; while Musburger sat alone eating his eggs, without even reading a paper. By that night I had already realized what an opportunity I had let slip by. I was kicking myself for not striking up a conversation with him, whether it was about racing, football, his on-set fight with Jimmy the Greek or his curious firing from CBS. I could have just been mesmerized by listening to his golden voice talk about the weather. Instead, I sat there. Alone. Eating my breakfast, while he did the same; and neither of us saying a word.
I’ll admit, I was happy when Brent Musburger was removed from his host role for the Indianapolis 500 before the 2013 race, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I thought that Lindsay Czarniak was a better choice at the time, because she had actually covered racing as a pit reporter and as a studio host for TNT’s coverage of NASCAR. Over the past four years, I’ve sort of cooled on her and would actually lobby for ESPN’s Sara Walsh to get the gig. But that’s another post for another day.
Brent Musburger is now seventy-seven. Although I had used him as a punchline over the past few years, I now know that I’ll miss his voice on the airwaves. He had a great career and his voice was probably most associated with the biggest sporting events in my lifetime.
With the retirement of the distinctive voices of Vin Scully, Verne Lundquist and now Brent Musburger over the past few months; we are seeing the passing of an era. While many of today’s sportscasters are solid and smooth, they are all interchangeable. What really separates Chris Fowler from Jim Nance, Greg Gumbel, Brad Nessler or Mike Tirico? Not much. They are all good, but none of them great or legendary. Whenever Al Michaels calls it quits, that’ll bring down the curtain on a great age of broadcasters.
Not that Brent Musburger will ever read these words, but I would like to wish him great happiness in his retirement to Las Vegas. And while he irritated me a few times late in his career, I’m sorry I focused on that instead of the great moments he brought me as a teenager, a young adult and up through the aging adult I’ve morphed into. And if I had that moment on race morning of 2010 to do all over again, I’d do it much differently.
I became a legal adult in the mid-seventies. Somehow, I never thought that the giants of that era would ever get old. Wednesday, we saw how wrong I was with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore and the announced retirement of Brent Musburger. It’s a bitter reminder of how those days are fleeting.
Thanks for all of the memorable moments you brought us, Mr. Musburger.