Interviews

Billy Packer Reminisces: Reagan Shot Before ’81 Title Game; Vitale Spat, Musburger Fired Eve Of ’90 Title Game

"Brent worked title game, knowing it was his last CBS assignment. Packer said that he was told that if Musburger gets disruptive, it would cut his microphone and that I would take over the broadcast alone."

Brent Musburger Dick Vitale Ronald Reagan

What are your memories of the 1981 NCAA title game when President Ronald Reagan was shot hours before the game?

Al McGuire was with me and once we got to the arena we got wind of what happened. Al said, “Come on, let’s get a hotdog.” I said, “Come on, Al. We have to think about what we’re going to say on-air.”   Al looked at me and said, “Billy, you and I are  the last guys they’ll have talk about the president being shot. There’s NBC News and Bryant Gumbel, who’s here with us. Come on. Let’s get a hotdog.”

The 3d place game started (Virginia-LSU). Once word from Washington was that Regaan would survive, we were assured the title game would be played.

But I learned a lot that night. First, what a pro Gumbel was. NBC News kept changing how much time he would be allotted at the open. Yet he handled it so smoothly, like a solid pro. He mastered it. I always thought TV would make the decision. But Wayne Duke, commissioner of the Big Ten and a powerful member of the championship committee, was in firm control and NBC’s Don Ohlmeyer had to acquiesce to the NCAA’s decision.

Dick Enberg also admitted to us later that in the first half the Reagan shooting weighed on him and he told me, “I didn’t really hear a word you guys said.”

You worked with big name play-by-play announcers, first Ray Scott, then Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Gary Bender, Brent Musburger and Jim Nantz. Any issues with them?

Not those. But I remember one guy in the studio. It was around the academy awards. He turns to me and says “So, who’s your pick?” I said “for the game?” No, he says, for the awards. I’m thinking, we’re here to talk basketball. Let’s not drive away our basketball audience.

I don’t stay in touch much. We all have our separate lives. It reminds me of an Al McGuire line, “I don’t go to funerals. I bought the guy a beer when he was alive.”

You also worked with a real minimalist, Ray Scott.

When the ACC rightsholder, Chesley, syndicated a big NC State – Maryland game nationally, Scott was brought in to do play-by-play. Well known, of course, around the country, it helped Chesley get great station clearances for the game. It was my first time working with a big network name and was a little nervous. But I’m watching him before the game and it was he who was nervous. He kept telling me off-air that he’ll set me up. ‘You know this game. You’ll carry it.’ Took the same approach to basketball as he did to football.

How about Curt Gowdy?

I respected him a great deal. He loved the game. Curt worked hard when the Basketball Hall of Fame faced major financial challenges and saved it. I learned a great deal from him. Very helpful to a lot of broadcasters. He pushed me to Scotty Connal, Chet Simmons and  the NBC bosses.

You’re working the NBC games with Dick Enberg and NBC creates a three-man team with Al McGuire.

Initially, Al was asked to watch the game away from the playing court and to buzz us when he wanted to comment. But Dick and I are doing the game and we never hear from Al.  He might have been talking to the janitor, knowing him. So Al was then brought to the table to sit with Dick and me. He felt more engaged and began to contribute more. The three of us drew lots of attention. We were different but we developed a lifelong friendship.

Dick Enberg?

The best. Enberg had to be the bandleader and keep us (McGuire and me) on the same page. Dick captured the human interest magically. Won’t hear a bad word about him. He died suddenly in December. His wife invited me to a memorial for him last week. I spoke and my eyes welled up. He was a selfless man.

You worked with Gary Bender for three years.

Good guy. Underappreciated. He was eventually moved off the college game at CBS.

Then you and Brent worked for six years.

He had a special feel for capturing  the big the moment. He also set himself apart more and  more because he was not afraid to offer his opinions. In that sense, we might have had more interaction.

Jim Nantz. You and he were at courtside together for 27 years.

He’s a special guy. We stay in touch. His first NCAA Final 4 assignment was pre and post in the mid-1980s when the TV show Dallas was hot. It just so happened that CBS held its big dinner out at the ranch. Jim rode with my wife and me. Our families bonded and we’ve stayed in touch. He’s polished. He’s a class act.

What are your memories of the abrupt exit of Brent Musburger from CBS on the eve of the 1990 title game?

Brent was already the face of all the major events the network had including the NFL. CBS had just gotten baseball. He wanted to do everything. From what I remember, CBS wanted to pay him more but wanted him to do less. Brent’s brother Todd was his agent and he couldn’t come to terms with Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports. Neal didn’t want one man to be the face of everything prominent the network carried.

We were all stunned when news came down during the Final Four. When I was first told by Todd, I thought he was pulling my leg.  But once it became official and made headlines nationwide, CBS told me that it would allow Brent to work the championship game and it would be the last event he would cover on the network.

It was a pretty acrimonious breakup and management wanted to take precautions in the event Brent takes shots at CBS on-air. I was told by production that if Brent gets disruptive or insulting it would cut his microphone and that I would take over the broadcast alone. I knew that Brent was a great pro and wouldn’t do anything embarrassing. After the game, the media surrounded him but he bowed out gracefully. He then remarkably rekindled his career at ABC and ESPN.

You and Dick Vitale engaged in verbal spats. You’re irked when Dick digresses and talks about non-basketball related subjects. Dick says,  “We’re different—he’s vanilla and I’m 31 flavors”

Dick and I have no relationship, not in a bad way. I’ve never met with him. We’ve never had dinner. I don’t think I ever spoke with him on the phone. If I did, I don’t remember it. He style was different. I stuck to the game. He would go off. Yet Vitale deserves credit for what he did for ESPN in the years when it had no other programming. He was an important part of ESPN’s growth. The network has him to thanks

In the 80’s, CBS assigned you to NBA broadcasts too? What was it like? You were so associated with the college game.

The network asked me to do the NBA. I said only if I’m given a year to prepare. I did end up doing a couple of games one season. One highlight was when Mark Aguirre was a star with Dallas and was pulled out of a game and benched by Coach Dick Motta. Late in that tight game, there’s a timeout and the team is huddled around Motta who’s drawing up a play. Aguirre just sat on the bench and showed no interest in being a part of it. I was critical of Aguirre. A few days later, Motta called me, saying “your comments are killing us, we’re trying to trade Aguirre.”


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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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