Jim O'Donnell: The way it was -- fresh insights into 'The NFL Today' recall a golden era at CBS

  • Rich Podolsky hits all the high notes in his look back at "The NFL Today" on CBS in his new book, "You Are Looking Live!"

    Rich Podolsky hits all the high notes in his look back at "The NFL Today" on CBS in his new book, "You Are Looking Live!" Courtesy of Lyons Press

Posted12/4/2021 8:00 AM

AS THE SOUND OF MASKED SLEIGH BELLS grows louder, the roughest part of being invited to a "Bears Watch Party" is the possibility that an invitee may actually be expected to watch a Bears game.

Some people still take the team's 2021 season seriously.


That's folly. The only really bad possibility is that The Muffins could somehow skulk into the NFL postseason.

That ragged outcome could induce all of the success haters to come together again about retaining Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy and their "Groundhog's Day" ways.

BUT FOR FRESHENED HOLIDAY gift o' gab, a sure fireplace anecdote starter is a crisply engaging book titled, "You Are Looking Live!"

Written by former CBS Sports staffer Rich Podolsky, it is an informed, well-paced history of "The NFL Today" on The Fisheye Network (Lyons Press, $29.95).

With football studio shows and other empty-calorie TV sports talk blather now a dime a gross, Podolsky takes a reverent, chatty look at the talent, executives and key support personnel who made the landmark game-day show go.

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"THE NFL TODAY" ON CBS debuted in 1975 and 46 years later still has some degree of heft and brawn.

Its original crew was its heftiest and that quartet provides a marvelous spine to Podolsky's book: Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder and Irv Cross.

Musburger -- the lone survivor of the four -- still chatters on as both the 82-year-old play-by-play voice of the Las Vegas Raiders and the marquee name fronting the Vegas Stats and Info outfit (vsin.com) in Tin Sin City.

It's his talent, ego and ambition that provide much of the narrative tension in "You Are Looking Live!"

Musburger has had all three in abundance since his debut as a 22-year-old beat reporter at The Chicago American (he covered the 1963 championship Bears) on through his flash-up days at WBBM-AM (780) and WBBM-Channel 2

PODOLSKY SAYS IT WAS Musburger's remarkable flair for managing TV-on-the-fly that got the motor of the pioneering CBS/NFL show running.

By NCAA men's Final Four weekend in 1990, it was, again according to Podolsky, Musburger's unquestioned dominance of so many prime events at the network that prompted a new regime of CBS executives to allow his contract to lapse.


All the indomitable Musburger did after that was pick up and craft a 27-year run at ESPN/ABC that ended in 2017.

He comes across as driven, self-confident beyond any expectation and compliantly hardworking.

In the end, Jim Nantz calls him, "The greatest studio host in the history of network TV sports."

GEORGE IS A MAJOR PLAYER in the book. The former Miss America was all of 26 years old when the classic era of "The NFL Today" began.

Podolsky portrays her as a homespun Texas sweetheart who was the first woman to manage a major role on a live, glory-bound network sports program.

That she could make major players swoon is unquestioned. A tremendous tale involves her first meeting of John Y. Brown, the future governor of Kentucky and fried-chicken scion who would become her second husband.

She was attending a party with movie mogul Robert Evans when Brown first saw her. They had a very brief conversation and she soon after married Evans. Fours years later, he was out of the picture and she was Gov. Brown's First Lady of Kentucky.

CROSS, ACCORDING TO PODOLSKY, was so straightforward, professional and amiable that his status as the first Black to provide a regular presence on a live, weekly network sports show almost became incidental.

The former Northwestern DB -- and longtime Philadelphia Eagle -- died at age 81 earlier this year from an assortment of ills, including CTE.

As an exemplar of class, talent and consistency, according to associates, Cross was never singed.

AS FOR "THE GREEK," Podolsky's admirable knack for the compellingly revelatory makes Snyder a prime candidate for some sort of biopic.

CBS essentially paid him to be "a wise guy with an opinion." He filled that role with Academy Award-level élan.

It is impossible to note that no one -- absolutely no one -- on the current national sports gaming landscape comes near having the theatricality and post-time allure of Snyder.

Even if he picked NFL winners with all the deftness of a hearing-challenged man programming a new-wave music audio outlet.

HIS SUDDEN FALL FROM GRACE and firing over race-oriented remarks made on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1988 are also detailed with fresh insight in "You Are Looking Live!"

The book's single most droppin' 'em moment comes when Podolsky cites a 1971 Sports Illustrated article -- "An Assessment of Why Black Is Best" -- as source fodder for much of what got "The Greek" cooked.

In that landmark feature, writer Martin Kane quotes Lee Evans -- a Black man and then world record holder in the 400 meters -- putting forth all of the core historical elements that waylaid Snyder 17 years later.

"YOU ARE LOOKING LIVE!" IS a work of both passion and authority by Podolsky.

It has a currency that resonates. It tells the story of a mythic and evolving time in network sports and an iconic TV franchise that engendered so much of what was to come in Sports Mass America.

The book sparks the feeling that somewhere down the line -- say around 2053 or so -- a bullet-headed insouciant will be writing a similar work about the years of ascension of such modern-day mojos rising as Adam Amin and Jason Benetti.

And isn't that thought heartening?

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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