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Volume 21 No. 30
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At Final Four 25 years ago, Musburger provided drama

On April Fools’ Day in 1990, Brent Musburger and Neal Pilson wanted to get away from everyone, especially each other. Turns out they both sought refuge in the same place: the Rocky Mountains.

At the time, Musburger, play-by-play man for that weekend’s NCAA Final Four, earned $2 million a year and had established himself as the face of CBS Sports. Pilson, the president of CBS Sports since 1981 (save a three-year hiatus leading the network’s broadcast group), was Musburger’s boss. They were both in Denver that weekend for the Final Four, one of CBS Sports’ signature events.

Musburger’s time with CBS grew short as Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV celebrated the 1990 title.
Photo by: SPORTS ILLUSTRATED / GETTY IMAGES
But the day before Musburger and Pilson wandered the Rockies in search of peace, quiet and anonymity, their professional relationship unraveled. On that Saturday, March 31, Musburger called the national semifinals at McNichols Sports Arena with analyst Billy Packer. After the games, at the Hyatt in Denver, where the CBS Sports executives were staying, the network hosted a cocktail party to celebrate the Final Four.

Before he arrived in Denver that weekend, agent Todd Musburger had been negotiating with CBS about a new contract for his brother for several months. Talks had, to that point, gone smoothly, in Todd Musburger’s view and he believed he would be wrapping up the remaining loose ends in Denver and sign an extension to replace the $2 million annual contract expiring that summer.

CBS had already named Brent play-by-play announcer for the network’s four-year Major League Baseball contract, including the World Series, starting later that spring. He was to have a prominent role on the Olympics (CBS and Pilson had landed the 1992 and 1994 Games) while maintaining his studio host duties on “The NFL Today” and calling games during March Madness.

And yet Todd Musburger had an odd feeling as soon as the Final Four weekend started. Pilson and others at CBS were standoffish at first in Colorado. The more people avoided him, the more Todd Musburger wondered what was going on.

PILSON
SHAKER
By Saturday night, after the two semifinal games ended, he decided to force the issue. At the postgame cocktail party at the Hyatt, he approached Ted Shaker, executive producer of CBS Sports, and, later, Pilson. Neither executive would discuss Brent Musburger’s future.

Todd Musburger recalled Shaker insisting the agent speak to Pilson. Pilson, Todd Musburger said, refused to talk about the contract negotiations, saying it wasn’t the time. In looking back, Pilson tells SportsBusiness Journal that Shaker made it clear Musburger’s contract would expire and not be renewed; Shaker said he doesn’t “remember the progression” of events, but called the 1990 Final Four “a traumatic weekend.”

Twenty-five years later, memories differ on the details, but principals on both sides agree on the larger points. (Brent Musburger, through his brother, declined an interview request.) Those include the fact that late Saturday night and into Sunday morning, Todd Musburger and Neal Pilson, perched on loveseats located in the elevator lobby of one of the Hyatt’s upper-level floors, argued over Brent Musburger’s role, his contract and his future with CBS.

“We had a knock-down, drag-out verbal battle that was as fierce as anything I’ve ever done as a lawyer,” Todd Musburger told SportsBusiness Journal. “And I used to do murder cases.”

Looking back, Pilson believes the biggest mistake he and Shaker made was reaching their decision — privately and unbeknownst to the Musburgers — before the Final Four. Instead, he told SportsBusiness Journal, they should have waited until after the tournament ended.

In the elevator lobby, Pilson said Todd Musburger told him CBS was making a mistake letting his brother leave. Todd Musburger remembers Pilson pleading with him to get through the weekend without letting the contract impasse become public until after the Final Four was over.

“I said, ‘Bullshit,’” Todd Musburger said.

Pilson and Todd Musburger agree that, if the agent hadn’t been so persistent, the network would have waited at least several more days before telling Musburger his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

When the story broke on Sunday morning that Brent Musburger wouldn’t be staying at CBS, reporters had to be convinced it wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke. Once they were, the breakup became a cause célèbre on a very slow news day, crossing over from sports into the mainstream newscasts.

Hundreds of reporters were in Denver and all of them were looking for something to talk about on the day between games. The demise of one of the biggest brand names in sports TV fit the bill. Word spread quickly, even in the pre-Internet, pre-Twitter days of 1990.

By 11 a.m., Pilson had done 30 or 40 interviews. Sleep-deprived and talked out, he called Susan Kerr, the CBS Sports spokeswoman who was also in Denver. Pilson told Kerr to handle subsequent questions, then went to his rental car, turned off the radio and spent three or four hours driving in the mountains.

“I later learned Todd and Brent did the same thing,” Pilson said.

In Colorado Springs, the Musburgers, Brent and Todd, their wives and Brent’s son, Brian, pulled their rented van into a Chili’s for burgers.

When the check arrived, Brent Musburger paid with his corporate credit card. The waitress walked away with the check and card, returning moments later to tell Musburger the card had been declined.

Moments later, the restaurant manager came to the table and told the Musburgers he had put the waitress up to the prank after hearing reports about the sportscaster’s departure from CBS. Everyone laughed.

In Denver, Todd Musburger had left Jimmy Tubbs, Brent Musburger’s personal assistant, to field the endless calls regarding what everyone reported as Brent Musburger’s firing by CBS. Tubbs remembers spending seven or eight hours of that Sunday, other than a quick shower and a room-service lunch, on the phone doing interviews.

“I actually lost my voice,” Tubbs said, recalling a series of far-flung radio and print interviews.

Despite hard feelings on both sides, CBS and Todd Musburger agreed Brent Musburger would call the UNLV-Duke championship game on Monday night.

Shaker said he never had concerns about Brent Musburger having a live microphone in front of millions of viewers to air his frustrations. Others recall tension.

Musburger’s departure created more
interest than the championship game rout.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“We get to game day and Ted Shaker and a couple of CBS people say, ‘If [Brent] won’t end the game in the right way, we want you to grab the microphone,’” said Packer, CBS college basketball analyst. “I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Brent will work the game and be a professional.’”

Musburger and Packer worked the NCAA final without incident. And they were saddled with a clunker of a game as UNLV hammered Duke, 103-73.

The announcers laughed off-air about what an awful championship they had watched. Musburger finally addressed his hasty unwanted exit while speaking on-camera next to Packer after UNLV finished its rout.

“Folks, I’ve had the best seat in the house,” Musburger said. “Thanks for sharing it. I’ll see you down the road. Now, let’s send you to Jim Nantz.”

Years later, Nantz, in his autobiography, described the unusual Final Four. “My initial reaction was that this had to be a really lame, tasteless April Fools’ Day stunt. … As expected, UNLV beating Duke for the national title was overshadowed by the Brent situation.” After Musburger went to Nantz to end the broadcast, “it seemed surreal that it was now my responsibility to bring down the curtain on his CBS career,” Nantz wrote years later.

As for the firing, Pilson and Todd Musburger still take issue with that description. Todd Musburger claims neither the CBS board of directors nor the CBS shareholders forced out his brother. Instead, he said, Pilson and Shaker fired Brent Musburger. Pilson, 25 years later, pointed out that while Brent Musburger’s contract wasn’t renewed, he wasn’t fired. CBS paid him through the remaining months of his contract even though he never went back on the network after the UNLV-Duke game.

Recollections come packaged with the no-hard-feelings disclaimers, but a few jabs surface anyway.

Pilson said he never wished Musburger anything but success and that he avoided public criticism. Moments later, Pilson allowed that he was unhappy when Musburger granted a prime-time interview to ABC’s Sam Donaldson in which he blamed Pilson and Shaker for “a vendetta” against him. Donaldson interviewed Musburger on April 6, the Friday of the Masters, another longtime CBS property. Pilson and his CBS Sports team, in Augusta, Ga., for the golf tournament, watched the interview together.

Within a month, ABC signed Musburger as play-by-play man for college football and basketball, among other assignments. Now 75, Musburger, who eventually transitioned to ABC sister network ESPN, remains a familiar voice, though he no longer covers the college football national championship.

Shaker and Musburger haven’t spoken since that Final Four, though Shaker called him a brilliant, hardworking broadcaster. “It was really, really sad, the end of a major era for us,” Shaker said. “[Brent] had an insatiable appetite for work and he had the most nimble mind.” The problem, in Shaker’s opinion, was Musburger refused to give up any of CBS Sports’ marquee events. A previous regime set out to make Musburger a star and they did, but Musburger refused to relinquish any of his plum assignments.

Pilson and Shaker said that became problematic because too much of CBS Sports was identified with one person, especially considering the roster of talent CBS had in the sports division, including Nantz, Lesley Visser, Greg Gumbel, Mary Carillo, James Brown, Andrea Joyce and Pat O’Brien, among others. Musburger was on so many events CBS struggled to put those hosts, reporters and announcers on major events, Shaker said.

“We were going to be year-round Brent Musburger,” Pilson said. “We got to the point where we made an important decision [to let Musburger leave].”

Todd Musburger claims his brother’s heavy workload stemmed from CBS requesting Brent, not the other way around.

“They have difficulty with the truth,” he said. “Their behavior was classic deceptive broadcast behavior.”

Brent Musburger keeps calling games on ESPN. Pilson resigned from CBS Sports in 1994, but has been a successful TV sports consultant. Shaker left CBS in December 1992 and today teaches at NYU and serves as a director of the school’s Sports and Society program.

None of the principals has had much to say to one another since Brent Musburger left CBS, but there is at least one notable exception.

A decade after the Final Four in Denver, Pilson, part of an NCAA group rafting the Grand Canyon, ran into Todd Musburger, who was on a family vacation and part of a nearby hiking party. The two men shook hands, said hello and went their separate ways. Really, no fooling.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.