After Nearly 50 Years in Sportscasting, Brent Musburger Announces Retirement

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Brent Musburger is recognized for receiving the Lindsey Nelson Award during Tennessee's spring game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee on April 16. Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire/AP

In 1990, when Brent Musburger was at the peak of his broadcasting career, a most wonderful thing happened to him: He got fired. There are indeed second acts in American life, and no one appreciated his more than Musburger, 77, who on Tuesday announced his retirement.

Musburger’s career spans six decades, from his start in print at the now-defunct Chicago American newspaper in the mid-1960s to calling Monday night’s college basketball upset of No. 2 Kentucky by Tennessee on ESPN. The Montana native has done play-by-play for the NBA Finals, for the NCAA Final Four—he is credited with introducing the term “March Madness” on TV—and for college football national championship games. He was the first host of the original NFL pregame show, The NFL Today, on CBS and he is seated at Joe Namath’s feet in the iconic photograph of the New York Jets quarterback relaxing poolside before Super Bowl III in Miami.

From the mid-'70s until 1990, in a sports television landscape that predated ESPN having much of a footprint, Musburger was as ubiquitous and versatile as any broadcaster. Only NBC’s Bob Costas and perhaps ABC’s Howard Cosell, then in his twilight, had their numbers called by their networks as often. Musburger’s signature salutation to viewers, “You are looking live,” was as familiar to sports fans as “Live from New York…” was to denizens of late-night comedy.

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Then, on April Fool’s Day 1990, in the midst of a Final Four that Musburger was calling, CBS fired him. It happened on the eve of the national championship game between Duke and UNLV, as CBS executives were eager to rid themselves of Musburger’s $2 million annual contract, which was expiring that summer, and create space for rising stars Greg Gumbel and Jim Nantz (both of whom still work for CBS). Musburger, who had been with the network for 22 years, called the Duke-UNLV contest, then signed off by saying, “Folks, I’ve had the best seat in the house. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll see you down the road.”

If Musburger, then 50, had never worn an earpiece again, he would be remembered as a supreme broadcasting talent. Seamless, professional and energetic, he improved any game he called. What he was not then, but became after his termination from CBS, was beloved.

One month after CBS canned Musburger, ABC hired him. Soon, ABC Sports was folded under the Disney tent and there were far more broadcasting opportunities, most of them less prestigious than Musburger was accustomed to calling. It mattered not at all to him. “What I told the guys at ESPN,” Musburger told me in January of 2012, when I spent a day shadowing him in Lawrence, Kansas, “is that I’ll call whatever you want me to. I’m just happy to be here.”

Much like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors character in Groundhog Day, Musburger seemed to undergo a catharsis following the trauma of being fired. His paradigm shifted. Instead of expecting to puddle-jump from the Final Four to the NBA Finals to the Belmont Stakes each spring, etc., he sounded thrilled to be calling the Iran-USA soccer match at the 1998 World Cup. Appreciative, even. The timbre and intensity of his voice had always been nonpareil, but now there was an ebullience to the Northwestern alum’s calls. It was undeniable: Brent Musburger sounded like someone who’d just been handed two free tickets to the game.

Having already summited Everest, Musburger spent the last quarter-century of his career savoring the vista no matter how modest the peak. In the '70s and '80s, he had provided the soundtrack to unforgettable contests, from the triple-overtime classic between the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns in the 1976 NBA Finals to the “Hail Flutie” pass in 1984 to the Miami-Notre Dame epic (“Catholics vs. Convicts”) in 1988. Now he was calling an Iowa State-Kansas basketball game on a Monday evening in January with all the fervor of Orson Welles narrating War of the Worlds.

“The trick is to stay interested,” Musburger told me in 2012, and there was a sense that he was talking about more than his broadcasting longevity. On that frigid Monday afternoon in Lawrence, a few fans approached Musburger to chat. He turned a perfunctory encounter into a 10-minute discussion, during which he unearthed an anecdote about Jayhawks center Cole Aldrich that he used on that night’s broadcast.

Musburger still called major events—he did seven college football national championship games for ABC/Disney—but the scale of the contest had no bearing on his enthusiasm. An avid albeit clandestine wagerer, he’d happily make an allusion to the point spread (“My friends in Nevada”) or to a beauty in the crowd upon whom ESPN’s cameras had alighted (“Fifteen-hundred red-blooded Americans just decided to apply to Florida State”), knowing exactly where the precipice of decorum stood. During the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, as BYU fell behind 35-0 to archrival Utah in the first quarter, he said, “I feel sorry for my Mormon friends who are watching this: They can’t drink!”

Far from being the first loose-lipped septuagenarian to call a sporting event, Musburger was that rare one who was not a curmudgeon. Fully aware of his emeritus status, he reveled in a bit of good-natured mischief. Last September, during a game between Clemson and Auburn, Musburger opined about the great job coach Bobby Petrino was doing at Louisville. Four years earlier, Petrino had been fired from Arkansas following the discovery of an extramarital affair with a staffer after the two of them crashed on his motorcycle. “That man [Petrino] can flat-out coach,” Musburger said. “When he gets off his motorcycle, he’s good!”

Musburger’s last major event, and his final flirtation with controversy, occurred on January 2 at the Sugar Bowl. In a game involving Auburn and Oklahoma, he lauded Sooners tailback Joe Mixon, a supremely gifted running back who had been suspended the entire 2014 season for punching a woman in the face (tape of the assault had finally surfaced only weeks earlier). “Folks, [Mixon] is just one of the best,” Musburger said, ”and let’s hope, given a second chance by [Coach] Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, let’s hope that this young man makes the most of his chance and goes on to have a career in the National Football League.”

Sports Twitter was incensed after Musburger made that comment. Later in the broadcast, he addressed the social media conflagration with authenticity if not the degree of contrition his digital-age critics demanded. “Let me make something perfectly clear,” Musburger said, “What [Mixon] did with that young lady was brutal, uncalled-for. He’s apologized. He was tearful. He got a second chance. He got a second chance from Bob Stoops. I happen to pull for people with second chances, OK?”

In sports broadcasting, Brent Musburger was the patron saint of second chances. If he failed to satisfy the audience’s standard for sensitivity, it was a minor, regrettable moment in his nearly 50 years on air. Few have infused a sports event with as much adrenaline as Musburger, who joins three other legends—Vin Scully, Dick Enberg and Verne Lundquist—in retiring within the past four months.

His final game will be next Monday, when he calls the Georgia-Kentucky basketball game on ESPN. Then, in a final wink to his audience, Musburger plans to move to Las Vegas to help his family launch a sports-handicapping business. Brent Musburger, who was always the ideal companion for any sports broadcast, is about to become one of our “friends in Nevada.”