Sunday, August 6, 2023

Books: "You Are Looking Live!" By Rich Podolsky On The Legacy Of "The NFL Today"

You Are Looking Live! How The NFL Today Revolutionized Sports Broadcasting

By Rich Podolsky

Lyons Press; 240 pages; paperback, $19.95, available this August; hardcover, $29.95; eBook, $19.00

Rich Podolsky has been a reporter since the 1970s, covering the Miami Dolphins and writing for The NFL Today. He has also written for CBS Sports, The Philadelphia Daily News, The Palm Beach Post, The Wilmington News-Journal, TV Guide, and ESPN. He has written about the business of television sports for years and is a columnist for David Halberstam's Sports Business Journal. He also has a passion for music of the 1960s and '70s, and is the author of Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear (foreword by Tony Orlando), and Neil Sedaka, Rock 'n' Roll Survivor (foreword by Elton John).

The latest, incisive book from Podolski, You Are Looking Live! How The NFL Today Revolutionized Sports Broadcasting, not out in paperback focuses on the genius, success, and magic that in 1975 was truly revolutionary and has spawned many shows today.

The NFL Today on CBS was the first NFL studio show to air live before the games, at 12:30 p.m., and it starred Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, Irv Cross, and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder. It was also the first to have Black and female co-hosts, in Cross and George, and the four dynamic personalities battled each other and the competition, and the country was drawn to them.

Musberger was a sportswriter in Chicago before he became the sports anchor at local station WBBM-TV in 1969. Four years later, he was a rising star at CBS, and did play-by-play on a full slate of NFL games. His on-air partners included Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr. The following year, there was one weekend that The NFL Today host, Jack Whitaker, was scheduled to be in Ireland one week covering the Irish Derby for the CBS Sports Spectacular, and CBS Sports executive producer Bill Fitts chose Musberger to fill in and he was an instant hit, so much that they considered giving it to Musburger for the rest of the season, but didn't want to offend Whitaker, a CBS legend by that point who also did the Masters.

George was from Texas and won the Miss America pageant in September 1970, and was an instant sensation, telling Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, "You'll remember me. I'm the klutzy Miss America." After serving her duties in 1971, when the title was for, which included a US tour of Vietnam, she pursued a broadcasting career the following year. In 1972, one of her first assignments was the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona and she was tasked with interviewing Boston Celtics star Dave Cowens, who cherished his privacy and disliked interviews. Podolsky's account of what she did to get that interview was astonishing. By 1975, she was set for stardom, and her thirteen-week trial evolved into a three-year deal, and less than a year later, she would be on the cover of People magazine.

Cross was a receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he worked with NFL Films while he played, which eventually led to an offer to do analysis on regional NFL games. He also was offered a front-office job by Gil Brandt, the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. He decided to take the CBS job, and at first they wanted to dress him like Don Cornelius, the host of Soul Train, and Cross said that wasn't exactly his style. He was the first Black employed full-time as a sports analyst on national television. He did analysis for four seasons, and then he was chosen in 1975 to join Musberger and George on The NFL Today.

Jimmy "The Greek" gained fame in 1948 when he correctly bet that Harry Truman would beat Thomas Dewey in the presidential race, with odds ranging from 22-1 to 17-1 that Truman would win. It was such a lock that the next day's Chicago Daily Tribune had the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman." The Steubenville, Ohio, native previously won $250,000 on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's victory in 1940. By the late 1950s, he was in Las Vegas running one of the top sports books in the city the Hollywood Sports Service, which handles close to $2 million a week. 

Podolsky tells the story of how Brent, Phyllis, Irv, and Jimmy made it to the show, their drama and front-page headlines, and what happened to them after the magic faded. Some of the compelling tales include Brett and The Greek's famous fight at Peartress, Phyllis first marrying the man who produced The Godfather, then dropping him for the next governor of Kentucky; and the shocking firing of Musburger on April Fool's Day in 1990 amidst his coverage of the Final Four.

The evolution of the football pregame shows on CBS is documented, as if to illustrate they knew its potential relatively quickly. CBS broadcast the first-ever NFL pregame show in September 17, 1961, Pro Football Kickoff, and it was only fifteen minutes long and hosted by former Notre Dame quarterback Johnny Lujack. The next couple of seasons, '62 and '63, Kyle Rote hosted  what was now called NFL Kickoff. 

Frank Gifford, the former Giants star running back and wide receiver, became the host of the show in 1964, named NFL Report and was changed to The NFL Today halfway through the season. It was expanded to a half hour in 1967, and the following year, was produced on Thursday nights, with features taped and sent to the different remotes, and Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote some copy for it.  Gifford remained the host until 1970, when he moved on to what he is most likely known for now, his nearly three decades as an announcer on Monday Night Football on ABC, from 1971 through 1997.

The NFL Today, under its new format with "The Mod Squad," as Phyllis George called it, was so dominant it won the timeslot 18 years in a row, from 1975 to 1993, when CBS lost their NFL contract to Fox, which is a broadcast history story in itself. 

Jim Nantz, CBS' lead NFL play-by-play announcer, wrote the foreword, and in this excerpt, he details what made the show special: "The NFL Today began in 1974 with Jack Whitaker as the host. Jack was an idol and would later become a beloved friend and mentor, but after one season, CBS changed the cast. What came next was the best NFL studio show of all-time with stars like Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George, and Jimmy 'The Greek' Snyder. Together, there was news, laughter, and conviviality.

Brent was - and in my book remains - the greatest studio host of all time. Irv was a former star defensive back with the Eagles who brought warmth and insight to the desk. Phyllis was instantly recognized as "America's sweetheart" and would later be remembered for helping blaze a trail for women in sports television. Lastly, 'The Greek' was irascible, yet lovable at times, and brought an insider look at the league that helped spark a gambler's mindset to the show. It was in short, the perfect cast with an ideal blend of information and entertainment.

There was something about their chemistry that made the viewer feel like they had a personal relationship with everyone on the show. By some stroke of good fortune, that impressionable loyal viewer from back in the '70s would later get to know everyone from that show, even becoming the host of the show 23 years later and serving in that capacity for 6 years before transitioning to the game booth. I treasure these days with Tony Romo, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for having had the chance to sit in the chair once occupied by Brent and his remarkable running mates. Though our show never came close to reaching the popularity of the original, there remains a pride within CBS that the gigantic legacy created almost 50 years ago still lives every autumn Sunday."

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