In 1973, Greg Gumbel was selling hospital supplies in Detroit when his brother, Bryant, then a sportscaster for a Los Angeles television station, told him that Chicago television station WMAQ-TV was looking for a sportscaster.
“I was really good at (sales). For about a year and a half, I not only met my goal that was given to me by the company but surpassed it — by a lot,” Gumbel recalled. “I just didn’t like it. Add that to the prospect that came along doing sports on television and it was a no-brainer, at least for me.”
Gumbel auditioned to replace Dennis Swanson, who later became the president of ABC Sports, and three weeks later WMAQ offered Gumbel the job. From there Gumbel embarked on a magical sports broadcasting career that has taken him from Chicago to ESPN, the Madison Square Garden Network, CBS Sports, NBC Sports and back to CBS Sports, with some play-by-play along the way for the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Gumbel has covered it all, from the Super Bowl to the Olympics, and he is perhaps best known for his NFL assignments and his work as host of Selection Sunday and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament since 1998. A three-time Emmy Award winner, Gumbel was the first network broadcaster to call play-by-play and host the Super Bowl. And in 2001 he became the first African-American (and Creole) announcer to call play-by-play of a U.S. major sports championship when he called the Super Bowl for CBS.
“It sometimes staggers me when I sit back and realize those things and think about the fact that whatever lofty goals I had as a kid, I certainly never considered those,” Gumbel said.
Setting goals and figuring out how to reach them will be a key part of Gumbel’s message on Wednesday, May 3, when he will be the keynote speaker at the 48th annual Boypower Dinner at the Nicholas J. Pirro Convention Center (it’s also Gumbel’s 71st birthday). Hosted by the Boy Scouts of America, the dinner is the largest fundraiser for the Longhouse Council, which includes thousands of Boy Scouts from Onondaga, Cayuga, Oswego, Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties. Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick will be honored at the event, which starts at 5 p.m., with a private VIP reception followed by the dinner at 6 p.m.
The son of former Cook County (Illinois) Judge Richard Gumbel, Greg Gumbel is known in broadcasting circles for his fairness, objectivity and candor. In advance of his appearance in Syracuse, Gumbel recently chatted with Syracuse New Times sports reporter Matt Michael about a plethora of topics, including when he knows what teams made the NCAA Tournament, why he’s not a big fan of boxers and legendary baseball announcer Harry Caray, and how he missed Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”
In Central New York, we wait anxiously every year for you to say that Syracuse is in the NCAA Tournament. That’s when we find out: When do you know who’s in and who’s out?
I remember one time, years ago, I was flying up to New York on selection weekend and I was sitting on the plane and the guy across the aisle from me says, “Who’s going to be in the tournament?” And I said, “No one, until I say so on Sunday evening.” (Laughs.)
I know as soon as the Selection Committee has completed the final bracket. They fax them over to CBS, and CBS makes copies and gives them to the need-to-know people: the executives, who will immediately start planning their programming as to who’s sitting where and who’s playing where and how to adjust for that; the people doing the show — producers, directors and graphics people so they can begin to put teams in where they’re supposed to go in the bracket; and, of course, to those of us doing the show.
But as far as advance knowledge, I’d say maybe the earliest we might get a completed bracket before the show begins is a half-hour, 40 minutes. Sometimes it has gone down to as little as 10 or 15 minutes prior to show time.
As you know, Syracuse has been on the bubble the last two years. Do you have an opinion on the Selection Committee’s decisions to include the Orange last year and leave them out this year?
I guarantee you I don’t have as much total information as these guys have who are making the decisions. They’ve seen a bunch of ballgames all season long, many, many more than we sitting there at the desk have, and they have more information at their disposal.
So I don’t presume to have more information, and certainly I don’t presume to have more knowledge, than the guys on the committee. Now, it’s fair game once it happens to ask them about it, and ask them why they made this decision or that decision. But as I recall, there was a lot of discussion with the committee about Syracuse, but no real objections to the fact that they were not included in the final 68 teams (this year).
Let’s switch gears to your youth. Growing up in the Chicago area, were you a Boy Scout?
Oh, I was a Boy Scout for about 20 minutes. (Laughs). I was in Panther Patrol, and I want to say Troop 503 or something like that. I was a Boy Scout long enough to get the uniform, learn the salute, learn a couple of the rules and the sayings and the stuff that goes with it. And I went on one camping trip, and when I say I’m not an outdoorsman, that’s putting it lightly. And I went home and went, “Yeah, that’s not for me. I’d rather be at baseball practice or throwing the football around.”
I think I remember I went camping once as a 23- or 24-year-old with a bunch of other friends and these two guys were hard at work cutting down trees and I said, “What are you doing?” They said, “Oh, that’s your lean-to.” I said, “What?” They said, “Your bathroom.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no, my bathroom is in the Shell station down the road.”
But I do want to make it clear: I admire and respect (the Boy Scouts) and I recognize the need for such things because it gives kids a sense of responsibility, it gives them a sense of discipline, and it gives them a feeling of community involvement and keeps them busy. There’s nothing worse than a kid, especially at that age, being idle. The fact that they are not only giving them something to do but teaching them things along the way, you just can’t say enough about that.
Do you have a favorite sport to broadcast or watch?
My goal was to be a Major League Baseball player. I even thought that halfway through college before I realized that I couldn’t hit a curveball. Then I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do that. That’s the great reality check.
I was a White Sox fan growing up, and I had an opportunity to be a White Sox broadcaster when I was in Chicago. Bill Veeck, the owner for a couple of terms in Chicago with the White Sox, called me one day and asked if I’d be interested. And I thought about it, and he said, “Just as a warning, once Harry (Caray) steps out of the spotlight, there isn’t much spotlight left.”
And I was pretty aware of that, and I also was not a huge fan of Harry Caray. I know that sounds blasphemous for someone who spent any time at all in Chicago, but I thought he leaned way over to the fans’ side, became a fan favorite, which of course makes you impossible to get rid of if you’re the owner of the team. And then, as dearly beloved to him as the Cardinals were, he was able to switch gears and suddenly the White Sox were dearly beloved and then he switched gears again and the Chicago Cubs were dearly beloved and close to his heart. So obviously that can change. But I did have that opportunity and I turned it down.
Do you have a favorite assignment?
Let me put it this way: I have an appreciation for everything I have been assigned to, because it means the people for whom you are working think enough of you to ask you to do this.
Having said that, I had to do CYO boxing once, and I’m not a big fan of the quote-unquote sport of boxing. There aren’t many sports whose objective is to hurt another person intentionally. So I am not big on it, I’m not big on most of the professional boxers that I’ve ever met. I can only think of two or three that I would even allow to walk my dog. And the rest of them I have no time for, no time to think about them, and certainly no desire to involve myself with them professionally.
How about a favorite moment in your broadcasting career?
Well, I do remember Adam Vinatieri kicking a game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Patriots beat Carolina down in Houston (in 2004). A game that was as notable for that as it was for the Janet Jackson halftime. (Jackson’s breast, covered with a nipple shield, was exposed by Justin Timberlake for about a half-second in what was later called a “wardrobe malfunction.”)
And the funny thing about that, (analyst) Phil Simms and I had no clue what had happened until we got to the hotel after the game. Everybody’s in an uproar and we’re going, “Yeah, great game,” and they’re saying, “No, Janet Jackson.” Halftime is the only time you have time to run to the men’s room, or grab a quick bite to eat or get something to drink, and by then it was all over and we didn’t know what happened. We were concentrating on the second half.
What’s your opinion about today’s sports broadcasters, who in some cases have become a bigger show than the game?
The over-the-top thing, I’m not convinced that everybody is genuine about that. I think that people may feel that, oh, now’s a good time to get excited about this. And I’ve never been that way. I give an honest reaction. If I see something on the field and go, “Oh, my God,” that means if I was sitting at home and saw it, I would have gone, “Oh, my God.”
I don’t ever feel that I put out there something that I’m not. People have said that I’m the same person off the air that I am on the air, and I kind of like that. And I know people who are not that, and while it may work for them, I don’t think it’ll ever work for me.
Of all your achievements, is there one you’re most proud of?
Certainly not awards. I think awards are pretty subjective. For instance, I’m not a big fan of subjective sports, where the winner is not determined by who crosses the line first or who scores the most points, but rather it depends on judge No. 1 says you won, judge No. 2 says he won, judge No. 3 says this guy won. I don’t like subjective sports and I don’t like things that would come down as nothing more than someone’s opinion.
So I would rule that out and I would say basically this: Longevity. Because in a business where you are subject to the whim of your boss, I am fortunate that the people at CBS like what I do and ask me to continue to do it. And I have been doing this in various places since 1973.
I remember when I was hosting NFL Today and people would say, that’s a really good job of doing that, and I would say, “You know, I’m just convinced there are a bunch of people who are working at local stations in Keokuk, Iowa, or Battle Creek, Mich., or Yuma, Ariz., who could do the job if they got the opportunity.” And that is a very big key: Do you get the chance to show what you can do? Some people don’t ever get that chance, and I’m very, very grateful that I have gotten the chance to do what I do, at the level that I’m doing it.
Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications has produced several notable sports broadcasters. What advice would you give to a current Newhouse student about the business?
Hold off until I retire, because they’re all coming out of school looking for my job. (Laughs.) First of all, opportunities have never been more plentiful. I remember a time, I’m sure you remember a time, when the only stations in town were 2, 5, 7, maybe 9, maybe channel 11 and that’s it. Now, there are how many cable channels — 500, 600, 800? — and at least half of them have some sort of sports broadcasting involved or are sports-oriented. And it doesn’t even have to be sports, it could be news. One thing I’ve always told people: However you can get into the business, jump at it.
And without giving away too much of your speech, what is your message to the Boy Scouts?
Live your life right, have a proper set of values; these are the things I learned from my dad. And learn how to do right by others and do right by yourself. I don’t think there’s a plainer message than that, and yet one that can always be put out there and put to good use.
Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap it up?
A lot of people, especially in airports, will come up and they think I have a very important job and I tell them it’s not necessarily more important than what you do. It’s certainly more visible. Sometimes people equate the two, visibility with importance, and that’s not necessarily the case.
But I just feel fortunate to be able to do what I do and to have done it for as long as I have. And I don’t hold a lot of respect for people in my position who think they got where they are because of their greatness. You don’t accomplish anything without the help of a whole lot of people who never get mentioned, and I would never, ever, ever deny that I had a whole lot of help getting to where I am today.