A Monday afternoon in Lawrence, Kan., hours before the tip-off between Oklahoma and the top-ranked Jayhawks. The most versatile voice in American sports broadcasting slides into a booth at Joe Schmo's, a burger joint on Massachusetts Street, the main drag.
The lunch rush, if there had been one, is past. Only a few regulars haunt the space now. One of them, seated at the counter with his back to us, is Walter Aldrich, father of Kansas All-American center Cole Aldrich. When Brent Musburger is apprised of this he rises, strides over and introduces himself.
Walter Aldrich is a mud-caked-boots sort but Musburger, who hails originally from Big Timber, Mont., speaks regular-guy fluently. Before long Aldrich is at the booth, sharing stories that Musburger will use that night once Kansas, "a three-touchdown favorite" (he does love to season his calls with wagering colloquialisms), has the game well out of reach.
"All these coaches BS me, told me what they thought I wanted to hear," Aldrich tells Musburger, recounting his All-American son's recruiting. "(Kansas coach) Bill Self said, 'If he can play, he'll play. If he can't, he won't.' "
Most public figures do not like to be accosted by strangers while dining out. Then there's the Big Dog -- that's what Musburger's ESPN colleagues call him, the Big Dog -- who will accost strangers himself if it will improve the broadcast.
He is bigger than this, no? Over four decades in broadcasting: Super Bowls, NBA Finals, NCAA championship games (it was Musburger who introduced the term "March Madness" to the cathode ray masses), BCS Championship games, World Series, Little League World Series ("There used to be a place in Williamsport where you could place a bet on a horse race," he says with a wistful smile), Jenn Sterger hysteria ...
This was Musburger's sixth game in 14 nights, all in Big 12 or Big Ten country and Brent operating out of a home base in south Florida ("I'm on a first-name basis with all the TSA guys," he says). He must be tired. He could be retired. Did he really need to go out of his way to spend 10 minutes with the doting dad of, admittedly, the most intriguing player in the contest?
Brent Musburger is 70 years old. He is hardly the only septuagenarian broadcaster still working (he is exactly two weeks older than Dick Vitale; Dick Enberg is 75). The Methuselahean Vin Scully is 82. None of them criss-cross the country the way he does, though. None have to learn so many different teams and players, and none appear to be quite so much in their prime as he is.
Musburger has never sounded more enthused. Seemed more invested. You are looking lively, Brent. He can, to paraphrase a line from a show that was popular when he first burst onto the national scene in the mid '70s, take a nothing game and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
"We were at Williams Arena (University of Minnesota), the old barn, earlier this season," says Steve Lavin, the former UCLA coach who has worked alongside Musburger the past seven years. "I looked around and said, 'There's some old pipes in this building, Brent, but they're built to last. A little bit like yours."
Norman, Ann Arbor, Lawrence, College Station ... The cities, towns most of them, roll by quickly ... Stillwater, Manhattan, Madison, Minnesota ... like the lyrics to that old Johnny Cash tune ... Bloomington, Austin, East Lansing, West Lafayette... "I've been everywhere, man/I've been everywhere".
Those are Musburger's ports of call in just the past two months. And that's just college basketball. That excludes the autumnal gridiron odyssey where, along with Kirk Herbstreit, Musburger was the primetime voice of ABC's Saturday Night Football telecast for 14 consecutive weekends.
And that is just this academic year (not since Thornton Melon has an old-timer been this rejuvenated by going back to school). Musburger has worked more than four decades of kickoffs, tip-offs, first pitches, starter's pistols, green flags and opening bells. Here he is in 1969 (that's him in the short-sleeved black shirt), in the iconic photograph of Joe Namath poolside just days before Super Bowl III. And there he was last week, working the Oklahoma-Kansas game in Lawrence on Monday night, then rising early to catch a flight to Detroit in order to call the Illinois-Michigan game the following night.
"I'm a sports fanatic," says Musburger, who has been married 47 years to Arlene. "If I were retired, I'd still be watching everything anyway. I'd watch a rodeo."
He was last here in Lawrence three days before Christmas. Kansas was hosting Cal. At the Jayhawk shootaround -- Musburger and his loyal stat man of 20 years, George Hill, always attend both teams' shootarounds -- Bill Self pointed to Musburger and asked his players, "Do you know who that broadcaster is?"
"Yeah," one of them replied. "He was in 'The Waterboy'."
So long has the Big Dog been around that he's brand new again. Your dad will tell you that Musburger rose to supernova status in the 1970s as the host of "NFL Today," the progenitor of every football pre-game show currently in existence. He called NBA Finals when they still aired on tape-delay, the Flutie game and N.C. State's miraculous upset of Houston in the NCAA tourney in the early '80s. He was seemingly ubiquitous on CBS for 15 years, one of sport's designated narrators.
"Malcolm Gladwell, in 'Outliers', discusses the idea of the '10,000 Hour Rule'," says Lavin. "The concept that you need to spend that many hours at your craft before you can have mastery over it. I'm sure that Brent has tripled that."
Back at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Musberger and Bob Knight pre-tape a segment for "SportsCenter" -- seamlessly, in one take. A few locals, all of them resembling extras from the town-meeting scene in "Hoosiers," look on and applaud once Musburger signs off.
Knight turns on them, facetiously. "Don't pat him on the ass," he growls.
Then, to make sure he is understood: "I tell [Brent] all the time, you are the best," the winningest coach in big-time college basketball history testifies. "The only guy who compares to you is Curt Gowdy.
"Let me tell you something," Knight continues, well aware that he is still mic'd up. "Great talent makes great producers. These sons of b****** think it's the other way around."
It sounded like an April Fool's Day joke. First, because it seemed so ridiculous. Second, because it happened on April 1, 1990. On that Sunday, one day before Musburger was to call the NCAA Championship Game on CBS, they fired him. Maybe the money wasn't right. Maybe the Big Dog from Big Timber had gotten too big.
"I don't know if it was the lowest moment," says Musburger. "It was a surprising moment. I was like a guy who had gotten bucked off a horse."
He went ahead and did the broadcast. At the end of it, after UNLV had crushed the Blue Devils by a 103-73 score, Musburger graciously 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."
Unemployment was a matter of days (it helps when your agent, Todd Musburger, also happens to be your brother). "I was fortunate late in my career to fall into the arms of ESPN," says Musburger. "They said, 'You want to stay busy? We'll keep you busy.' "
And so he has been -- while never once sounding like a has-been. College basketball. College football. The Little Leaguers. The World Cup. The PGA Tour (ABC let him go from that gig in 1996; he learned of his dismissal by reading about it in USA Today). If Musburger had ever worried whether he or Bob Costas were about to inherit Jim McKay's/Howard Cosell's throne, he no longer did. It was not about the size of the audience; it was about the gig.
"Joe Pa (Penn State's 82 year-old football coach, Joe Paterno, of course) and I talk a lot," Musburger says later as we head back to campus along snow banked-lined roads. "I always tell him, 'Joe, don't ever quit' and he replies, 'And you, don't ever quit.'"
"When I was still at UCLA, we were struggling and reports came about that they were going to replace me with Rick Pitino," says Lavin. "We had a game that weekend at Stanford, and I was seriously considering whether I should resign."
UCLA had met with Pitino. Brent and Vitale were calling the game. During the pre-game shootaround, Musburger took Lavin aside and led him up to a bench high above the court at Maples Pavilion. The two barely knew one another.
"Hey, look, I know this is a tough situation," Musburger said. "But whatever you do, you just have to see it through. For all the right reasons. You can't quit."
UCLA won 20 of its last 23 games that season. How many broadcasters give unsolicited advice to head coaches?
Back at Phog Allen, the broadcast has begun disastrously for viewers who enjoy drama. Kansas races out to a 22-7 lead in the first 10 minutes. During a commercial break, stats man Hill points out a curious line in the box score to Musburger. "Look at this," Musburger tells Knight. "Eight different Jayhawks have scored already. You can use that when we come back."
When the telecast resumes, Musburger lobs a pass Knight's way. "A variety of weapons for the Jayhawks tonight ..."
"As you noted before," Knight interrupts, "eight different players have scored. He told me to say that, folks. I'm just his pupil."
That's Bob Knight, who won 902 games. Three national championships. Coached the last undefeated team (the '76 Hoosiers) to win a national championship. Just his pupil.
The two have known one another for 35 years. While Knight as an analyst is not about to make anyone forget Al McGuire, he is best partnered with Musburger: the Big Dog is not at all intimidated by Knight's presence.
"The best time to see a freshman play is when he's a junior," Knight says after an errant pass by Oklahoma frosh Tommy Mason-Griffin.
"Spoken like a true curmudgeon," says Musburger.
Back at Joe Schmo's, Musburger's willingness to engage Walter Aldrich has emboldened others to approach the booth. He poses for a photo or two. The owner, cellphone in hand, arrives and asks the Big Dog if he would say hello to his mom in Alabama.
"Rembering to call his mom."
"How could I not?" the owner, young and scruffy, says loud enough to be heard in Olathe. "She floated me the 30 grand to keep this place afloat."
"Roll Tide," Musburger greets his listener. "You have quite a son here, here."
Musburger smiles. He's got all kinds of time. He could be anyplace else. There's no place he'd rather be.
"Brent and I were having a glass of wine after a game at Michigan, back at the Westin in Detroit," recalls Lavin. "This was in my first or second year at ESPN. I asked him, 'If you could give me one piece of advice for how to survive so long in this business, what would it be?"
The Big Dog leaned back. Swirled the Merlot in his glass. "Only one, huh?"
There was a long pause. "Stay interested, kid," he said. "Stay interested."