Continuing along with the legendary Billy Packer who holds the record for network coverage of a team championship event. He served as color commentator for 34 consecutive national telecasts of the Final Four (1975-2008). Earlier article was posted on Monday March 11th.
You were an assistant coach yourself at your alma mater, Wake Forest and applied for the top job at Memphis. When you didn’t get it and Gene Bartow did, you moved on. You started working ACC regional broadcasts in the South. How did coaching come into play when you called games?
I loved to study coaches. I projected the game from a coach’s perspective. Before each broadcast, I would play the game out through their minds. I pretended to be both coaches. I would keep a report card on my own performance after every game based on the accuracy of my coaching projections. The endgame for my own satisfaction was not who won or lost, rather how the strategic flow played out.
You talk about how you got ready for broadcasts. It almost sounds like you were writing game plans for each team. How did you verify whether you were right or wrong?
I can’t remember missing post-game coaches’ press conference. The moment we signed off, I rushed to the area where the coaches were interviewed. That’s where I learned whether I analyzed things accurately. I loved the preparation; fully understanding the strengths of each team and what both needed to do to win. After the broadcasts, I would find out whether my analysis was spot-in.
The rhyming duo, Jim Thacker and Billy Packer. You were well known in the south. Thacker was a fine play-by-play announcer.
Thacker was a good man, a real pro. He was a TV anchor in Charlotte. He died a young man in his 60s.
So here you are, it’s 1975. You’re well respected as a color commentator on ACC telecasts. You’re known in the south, but not really known across the country. NBC is covering basketball and you’re assigned to work with arguably the biggest play-by-play name at the time, Curt Gowdy?
Curt was an exceptional gentleman. I was asked to do an Alabama basketball game with him. We had never met. As I checked into a Holiday Inn in Tuscaloosa, the desk agent hands me a sheet of paper from a message pad, notifying me that Curt Gowdy was looking for me. Before I even try to reach him, Curt comes into the lobby and is as warm as can be. He asks me to join him for lunch. We jump into his rental car and drive to somewhere in the outskirts of town. It’s a hunting lodge and I see that Bear Bryant was dining there. I’m thinking what are my doing in a place with these two icons. After we’re seated, Gowdy excuses himself and wanders toward the back of the dining room where he sees a painting that he liked. He buys it on the spot.
Afterward, Curt advises me to buy things I like, will enjoy and will appreciate. It was after those words that I started collecting Picasso ceramics. Gowdy was a good business man too so we bonded. Curt owned radio stations. Big name broadcasters weren’t paid then what they are today. We were both entrepreneurial - He took a liking to me and kept telling (producer) Scotty Connell to give me more work. The next thing you know, I find myself at the Final 4, doing color on the broadcasts, replacing the late Tommy Hawkins.
You were in an awkward position at the next Final Four in 1976. It was a transitional year for NBC, Curt Gowdy’s last on the NCAA and Dick Enberg’s first. So, NBC had them work one game together for the title game. Where were you?
Here I am still relatively new to the network stage, working with two of the biggest sports broadcasting names ever. NBC’s Chet Simmons asks me to hold the mike at the open and stand between the two heavyweights, Gowdy and Enberg. Chet was worried that if either Enberg or Gowdy would hold the mike they would hog it. I’m thinking these are great pros. They would never do so. It was all good.
So Bryant Gumbel and I were off the court, adding analysis while Enberg and Gowdy sat courtside. NBC wanted to please everyone.
So, you’re working for NBC and CBS gets the rights after the 1981 title game. Now what?
I went up to see NBC Sports’ president Art Watson and presented him with a grand plan. Let’s get the NBA rights. After CBS won the NCAA deal, I thought NBC could pluck it from them. I also suggested we buy the NIT rights at an attractive price and collectively, between the two, make tons of money. I remember putting this presentation together for Art. He liked it. Several weeks later, I hear from Don Ohlymeyer, one of his top lieutenants and Executive Producer. We sit down at 30 Rock and he says, “You’re talent. Let the network people run the business side." He then physically tosses my presentation. That was the end of my NBC career.
At that point, I had less interest in remaining on-air as I did in growing a television NCAA business plan. I sat down with CBS Sports and we focused on how to grow sales, build marketing support and expand relationships with the NCAA and the schools. I presented a corporate partnership program that essentially was followed in various forms in the years that followed.
At some point during those talks in 1981, CBS asked me to also remain on-air. But it wasn’t my original intention. So, in summary my responsibilities at CBS most of those years (1981-2008) extended beyond just on-air responsibilities. Len Deluca at CBS was a big help growing the visibility of the March Madness telecasts.