In the college town of Missoula, Mont., Brent Musburger is greeted like a prodigal son. He’s here to accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana, and the local press stays at his heels, sensing an even bigger story than the new and controversial ordinance that levies a $500 fine on homeowners if they don’t tidy up their yards. Such are the issues that dominate the headlines in Musburger country.
Born in Portland, Ore., and raised in Big Timber, Mont., near Billings, the 50-year-old Musburger long ago achieved big-city fame as the cornerstone of CBS Sports, but he’s still regarded as a Montanan. Strangers tell him tales of knowing his father when the older Musburger was a scholarship basketball player at U of M; others pump him for predictions on when the Denver Broncos, Missoula’s ”home team,” might win the Super Bowl. In response, Musburger tells of Bronco quarterback John Elway’s first game in a kids’ league: how John’s dad said to be sure to tell the coach he was a quarterback but how young John played to his own defiant streak and said he was a running back. ”So maybe if Elway would go back to being a halfback,” Musburger says, ”the Broncos would finally win it all.” That kind of story gets a belly laugh in Missoula.
Musburger is here on leave from the humiliation of being the most publicly fired public figure of the year; for the moment, he’s being down-home with the locals. Maybe it’s quirky timing, or maybe it’s just that his karma is off, but on this sunny day in May, a column in the Missoulian lists the most overhyped stories in sports, and there, behind subjects like Bo Jackson and the sorry plight of being a Chicago Cubs fan, is Brent Musburger.
The column pales in comparison with the banner headlines in New York tabloids a month before. That was when, on the eve of the NCAA basketball championship game, one of Musburger’s showcase assignments, CBS Sports flat-out fired him. For the first time in his life, he was front-page news.
Musburger made news again two weeks later when he signed with ABC Sports — not for the $2 million a year CBS was paying him but for a mere $11 million for six years.
”I have been emotionally battered,” Musburger says, ”but intellectually I’m fine. I knew I’d work again. But it was ridiculous that I had become a bigger story than the game itself.”
His dismissal was shocking. ”There was no warning whatsoever,” says Musburger, who had thought he was renegotiating his contract with CBS. ”The people in charge must have thought as long ago as last fall that they wanted to make a change. There were never any real negotiations.”
The night after he was dismissed, Musburger called the championship game and waited until the end to say good-bye to the audience. It was a classy performance. But press speculation about the firing left Musburger feeling as if he had to ”compete with the powerful public-relations arm of a major corporation.” He struck back with appearances on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman and ABC’s PrimeTime Live. On the ABC show, he accused CBS executives of a ”vendetta” and called his contract talks a ”sham.”
Though as well-known as any sports announcer in the country, Musburger is unimposing, more nebbish than notable, more nasal than forceful. His face is so long from pate to chin that viewers could be excused if they tried to adjust the vertical controls on their sets. He also talks too much, and admits it. ”When I’m watching tapes of a game I did, there are many times when I get tired of the sound of my own voice,” he says. ”I turn the sound off or just shut the damn thing off and walk away.”
He also concedes that ”hype is a term often associated with me.” But he counters: ”If I’m not enthusiastic about it, who’s going to be?” He does not quarrel with the observation that he is more a shill than a journalist, acknowledging that ”it would be virtually impossible for someone who shares the responsibility for making an event a success to be a pure journalist.”
People tend to love him or hate him. And so it was at CBS Sports, where Musburger had reigned for two decades. He was the enthusiastic play-by-play man when the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns went to triple overtime in the fifth game of the 1976 NBA championship series. He was still on his game when he described Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary touchdown pass in the closing seconds of the 1984 Boston College-University of Miami game. That event sealed both Flutie’s Heisman Trophy selection and Musburger’s credentials as the announcer best equipped to call the play of the year.
And then there was the anchor post on the top-rated NFL Today show, where Musburger became more than just a play-by-play man.
But with success came frequent reports that he was a tyrant in the studio. His image was bruised in 1980, when Musburger and fellow NFL Today commentator Jimmy ”The Greek” Snyder had a one-punch scuffle in a Manhattan restaurant. The stories intensified in 1985, when he negotiated his $2 million-a-year contract and usurped the role, if not the title, of managing editor of NFL Today. And in 1989 former CBS Sports producer Terry O’Neil criticized Musburger in his book The Game Behind the Game.
Yet Musburger remained the anchor of every important CBS sportscast — until last year, when he began losing showcase assignments: the Masters golf and U.S. Open tennis tournaments, college football games. Even with those setbacks, though, his prominent role at the network seemed secure: He got top billing for CBS Sports’ new billion-dollar events, Major League baseball (including the World Series) and the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics.
Then, early on April 1, CBS Sports executives, fearing that word was getting out, formally announced that their biggest star had been let go.
”I was staying at the Hyatt in Denver,” Musburger says, ”and I went up to the front desk to get my messages when I ran into Steve Solomon (the No. 2 man at ABC Sports). Solomon stopped me and said he had just spoken to (ABC Sports president) Dennis Swanson, and Dennis would like to talk to me. And I said, ‘Steve, you tell Dennis I’ll ride with him anytime he wants.”’
While Musburger was at the game, Solomon already was meeting with Musburger’s brother and agent, Todd, back at the hotel. Within a few weeks, Musburger was under contract to ABC Sports.
”ABC had me at a tremendous negotiating disadvantage,” Musburger says. ”They could have negotiated from a very strong position, but they did not. They chose to come in and make me as happy to be with the network as possible.”
There wasn’t much of a bidding war for Musburger. He had held talks with Ted Turner about joining Turner Network Television. ”Those talks were very real,” he says. ”Turner and I had lunch together; we met in his office. He’s quite a charmer. I could have easily worked for him, but ABC offered six years and I felt I had to stay in the network mainstream.”
But life will be different at ABC Sports. The consummate studio tactician is now at a network where he’ll do almost no studio work. Musburger will return to the play-by-play ranks, beginning with the Little League World Series in August.
”I don’t care what you put me on,” he says. ”Hell, I’ve done more schlock sports than anybody. I’ve done the Human Fly, a guy walking on airplanes.”
It won’t all be Little League assignments, however. Musburger will announce college football games and cover the international football league that starts next spring. He’ll also be the studio host in January for the Super Bowl, with Al Michaels calling play-by-play.
And there lies what could become Musburger’s next controversy. His arrival at ABC has made him the network’s Deborah Norville to Michaels’ Jane Pauley. (Michaels reportedly would like to be freed from his ABC contract to move to CBS to handle baseball.)
”My doing Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl came up obviously because ABC is having problems with Al Michaels and his contract,” Musburger says. ”But I’d be happy if Al stays at ABC as long as I do.”
Musburger says he is not bitter about his years at CBS. He’s sorry he won’t be able to do the World Series, he says, ”because there are people out there who say I can’t do baseball.”
Still, there is much to do at ABC, new shows and new people to work with. ”They’ve got some great broadcasters,” he says. ”Jim McKay set the standards for everyone. Keith Jackson. Frank Gifford. Dan Dierdorf, a friend I worked with at CBS. I probably added 10 years to my life by getting a new set of letters to work for.”