In May, Brent Musburger received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Sports Emmys in New York. It was a well-deserved honor given the scope of his career.
And to think, Musburger’s iconic broadcast career might not have happened if a Chicago American sports editor had been willing to give him a $10,000 raise.
I had a chance to talk to Musburger for a profile that appeared in the Sports Emmy program. As someone who grew up watching him deliver sports news on the local CBS affiliate in Chicago in the early ‘70s, I was aware his early work in the ‘60s actually was in newspapers. However, during the course of our conversation, I learned just how deep those prints roots went, and how that experience had a great impact on him as a broadcaster.
It’s a good story that includes Musburger being part of one of sports all-time iconic photos: Joe Namath talking to reporters at the pool prior to Super Bowl III. More on that later.
In the beginning, Musburger had an early brush with newspaper royalty as a young boy growing up in Montana. When he was in the first grade, he sat next to Arch Ward, the famed Chicago Tribune sports editor, at a Harlem Globetrotters game. Ward is credited for creating the baseball All-Star Game, among other things. Musburger was hooked.
“From that point on, my life’s ambition was to be a newspaper man,” Musburger said.
Musburger eventually went to Northwestern to study journalism. He then landed at the Chicago American, an afternoon newspaper that eventually folded in the ’70s. Initially, he covered high school sports. He recalled taking notes at a basketball tournament, “thinking I was the second coming of Arch Ward.”
The 22-year old must have had some talent, because the American assigned him to the White Sox beat in 1962. It was a plum assignment considering the Sox were battling the Yankees every season for the American League pennant.
It was the first time Musburger covered professional athletes. He says the dynamic was different, with the reporters and players forming a close bond.
“Dave DeBusschere (a one-time Sox pitcher who went on to a Hall of Fame NBA career) and I were young guys, and we hung out a lot together,” Musburger said. “We had some late nights. You learned about the pressures and insecurities of being an athlete, and what their families go through. I thought I knew it, but I didn’t. I don’t think those relationships happen today.”
Musburger had a memorable encounter on the weekend following the assassination of John Kennedy. He was livid that the NFL did not cancel its games that Sunday. His anger mounted while in an eerily silent press box in Pittsburgh prior to the Bears-Steelers game.
“I was really really going off. ‘Who in the world would think of playing football today?’” Musburger said. “An older man in a top coat heard me and reached for a bottle of Jack Daniels. He said, ‘Young man, maybe this will make you feel better.’ It did relax me.
“Later, I asked someone, ‘Who’s that old guy?’ He said, ‘Brent, that’s Art Rooney.’”
Musburger said that was the start of his friendship with the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers owner.
Musburger soon would get to know another NFL legend, George Halas, when he began to cover the Bears. He never will forget his first conversation with the Bears longtime owner and coach.
“We were in training camp, and he couldn’t have been nicer,” Musburger said. “Suddenly, I heard some shots. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He goes, ‘That’s Doug Atkins (an eventual Hall of Fame defensive lineman). He has a bad back. So instead of practicing he asked if it was OK if he went hunting for pigeons.’”
Yes, NFL training camps were different back then.
Musburger received football lessons from George Allen, who was a Bears defensive coach, and Hall of Fame linebacker Bill George. Again, he said, it involved a different kind of reporting compared to what occurs today.
“Now, it’s about talking to agents and getting inside information,” Musburger said. “And that’s fine. There are all sorts of different ways to approach things. For me, it was tremendous to learn about football. I had no idea how complex the game could be.”
Musburger said his work in covering the Bears laid the foundation for his signature role as the host of CBS’ “NFL Today” in the 70s.
“I never would have been as confident on TV had it not been for covering the Bears and the NFL,” Musburger said. “I wasn’t just a talking head when I went on TV. I was the around the players and coaches. There was that connection from learning the game.”
Musburger eventually became a columnist at the Chicago American. He wasn’t afraid to be controversial. He came down hard on John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Musburger thought his future was in newspapers. Then in 1969, he got offered a job to do sports for CBS’ radio station in Chicago.
“I was very happy with the newspaper,” Musburger said. “But I was only making $13,500, and they offered me $28,000. (His wife) Arlene and I were starting a family, and we had bills to pay. I thought the sports editor would offer me a raise. If he had offered more $10,000 more, I would have stayed.”
Instead, Musburger said, the sports editor lectured him about the audacity of giving up such a great newspaper gig. Back then, sports columnists had the biggest voices in media.
“I said, ‘Do the math.’ I would have been crazy to stay,” Musburger said.
So for a difference of $10,000, the course of sports broadcast history was altered. Musburger was soon on the fast track to becoming a superstar on CBS.
But before he left, Musburger still had one last indelible memory as a newspaperman. Things were about a million times more low-key during the early days of the Super Bowl. So when a bunch of reporters saw Namath in a recliner by the pool, they gathered around for an interview.
There’s a young Musburger in a black pullover and white gym shoes looking at the Jets quarterback as the famous picture was taken by Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated.
“I’ve only asked an athlete to autograph one picture,” Musburger said. “It was that one.”