I first ran into him while covering one of the significant sporting events of the time.
It wasn’t held in a huge stadium or arena, and it didn’t draw a huge crowd.
I don’t even remember if it was televised since it didn’t happen on a weekend and the TV sports landscape of nightly coverage of games didn’t exist then.
The date was October 26, 1970. The event was held in a relatively small dimly-lit arena called City Auditorium in Atlanta.
It was a boxing match and no world championship was at stake.
It was scheduled as a 15-round bout only because it was in recognition of one of the fighter’s status befitting a title he had held.
The title was World Heavyweight Champion and the fighter was Muhammad Ali.
It was Ali’s return to the ring following a 43-month suspension by the World Boxing Association.
Ali had refused induction into the United States Army, was indicted by a grand jury in Houston and eventually convicted of draft evasion which carried a five year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. He claimed his Muslim beliefs made it impossible for him to become a soldier, and as it turned out, he never spent a day in prison for charges against him.
Ultimately, because his title was taken from him without due process under the Constitution, he was absolved. The Supreme Court voted 9-0 in his favor.
So now he returned to his profession. His first bout would be in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry, a Californian who ordinarily would be no match for Ali, but considering his long layoff you really didn’t know.
The return of The Greatest drew a throng of the the top-of-the-line celebrities of that era, dressed to the nines in the fanciest, gaudiest, most spectacular outfits imaginable.
I was working at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh at the time and drew the plum assignment covering the spectacle for all of the radio stations owned by the Group W network.
That included the stations in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, and yes, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, that made up the Group W lineup.
My job was to send in reports leading up to the fight itself, and then, of course, provide a report of the fight itself as soon as it was over. The sooner, the better. Being first or close to it, was always the goal in radio coverage. There was no blow-by-blow, just a resume of event itself.
There was another young reporter who had the same assignment. Brent Musburger.
Brent, a former sportswriter for a Chicago newspaper was there to file reports for the CBS Radio Network. Like myself, Musburger was working as the Sports Director for WBBM-TV the local CBS affiliate in Chicago on the nightly newscasts.
So here we were, two young reporters having the time of our lives, covering return of Muhammad Ali to the boxing wars.
We plotted how we would beat the immense field of reporters to the phones to file our report as soon as soon as the fight was over.
Imagine, in this day of cellphones, the idea of sending in stories was by telephone.
There were ten of them, and you had to press buttons to get through to where you wanted the report to go.
Thinking back, it’s really hilarious to think about how things worked, even back to 1970.
Brent and I devised a neat strategy. We would get as close to the pay phones as possible and stand on our chairs to watch the fight. Virtually all of the reports in attendance wanted to get as close to ringside as possible. That’s the natural instinct.
We decided to stand and watch from afar. Then race for the phones.
Ali scored a third-round TKO over Quarry, and when it was over, first two correspondents to call in the result were named Musburger and Stockton.
Hundreds of others had to wait their turn.
I bring up this story because this past weekend Brent and I relived that night 48 years ago in the football press box in Oakland. Brent was there broadcasting the Chargers-Raiders game on the Raiders radio network. I was there with Mark Schlereth for Fox.
I hadn’t seen Bent Musburger for ages. He is one of the legendary television sports figures of all time. The term legend is over-used. Musburger is the real deal.
He joined CBS Sports in the early 70’s and is best known as the host of the NFL Today, probably the foremost pro football pre-game show ever.
His famous phrase, “you are looking live…….” has been stolen by news networks covering important stories.
At one time or other, Brent was the lead play-by-play announcer for CBS’ coverage of the
NBA, the NCAA Final Four, and the network’s weekly sports magazine show.
He was the host, as well , for all the sports CBS covered.
When I had the honor of calling the NBA on CBS in the 80’s. Including the Finals, Brent was the host who brought us on the air.
Oddly enough, when Villanova stunned Georgetown in the memorable 1985 NCAA Championship Game, Brent was calling the action, and yours truly served as the host.
A reversal of roles.
Musburger was the kingpin of CBS Sports. Our star player. He brought a big-game feel to everything he covered.
Ultimately, there was a rupture in his relationship with the network and he left after the NCAA Championship in 1990, which he called with Billy Packer.
He re-surfaced at ESPN where he called college basketball, NBA games on radio and rose to the number one play-by-play role on its premier prime-time college football broadcast with Kirk Herbstreit.
He was replaced after several years by Chris Fowler, and sometime after that left ESPN.
Many of us don’t last forever for the very top assignments. There always has to be a way for the younger voices to get their opportunity. But we can and do last.
There was a time we got our chance, replacing veterans in the job.
As long as we understand the way of the world and how it works in every walk of life,
we are not only content, but immensely satisfied.
Brent Musburger lives in Las Vegas now, and conducts a radio show dealing with point-spreads in sports gambling. That side of sports prism always appealed to him.
That, plus a plan to stay as the voice of the Raiders through their first year in Las Vegas in two years, makes Brent a contented fellow.
I know how he feels. Doing what I do, working on the Fox NFL telecasts, is a fantastic reward for someone who feels he’s never truly worked for a living.
Catching up with Brent Musburger in the Oakland press box brought so many memories to life once again, starting with the night we stood on chairs and raced to the pay phones in Atlanta.
Brent Musburger and Dick Stockton