By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 15, 2008 11:19 AM
Don't feel all that badly for Billy Packer, because it's the last thing the long-time CBS voice of college basketball would ever want.
The network's announcement that Packer's 27-year career at CBS ended with Kansas' victory over Memphis State in the championship game of the Final Four came as no surprise to Packer, who has been working on one-year deals for the last few seasons so that either side could cut the cord whenever they decided it was time.
"CBS has a relationship with the NCAA long beyond the number of years I want to do," Packer told the New York Times. "They have to have plans for the future and I'm not doing the tournament when I'm 75."
In fact, Packer knew all during the 2007-08 season that it would be his last year working with Jim Nantz, who also was fully aware his long-time partner would not be returning next season. But Nantz apparently was sworn to secrecy by Packer himself, who wanted nothing to do with any sort of emotional victory lap or rocking chair gifts for his so-called retirement.
There were some hints. At its annual seminar for its expanded crew of announcers hired on for the NCAA basketball tournament, Nantz reportedly spent a good bit of time talking about how much of an impact Packer had made on the ever-increasing popularity of college basketball and what he had brought to the table over so many years in the analyst seat.
It was quite a tribute, according to those who heard it, but to his credit, Nantz kept his word and never leaked. He also avoided what could have been a very emotional, schmaltzy long goodbye to his friend just before CBS signed off from that final game and rolled its traditional "one shining moment" mixture of music and tournament highlights.
"He just wanted to take the headset off after the final game just like he put the headset on for his first game," one long-time friend said. "He wanted to do the last game just like he did his first game."
What Packer did for a seeming lifetime of broadcasting basketball was to break down a game about as well as any analyst in any sport ever did. He also managed to do it without the histrionics and look-at-me catch phrases of a Dick Vitale, without the "kiss off the glass" silliness from a Bill Raftery or the outrageous hyperbole of a Bill Walton.
He simply told you who was playing well and who was not, commented good or bad on coaching strategy (much to the chagrin of some coaches, including John Thompson, among others), offered his own suggestions on how to handle late-game situations, second-guessed whenever necessary and almost always managed not to talk down to viewers.
He had a remarkable run of doing the color on 34 straight Final Fours, starting with an entertaining partnership with the late, great Al McGuire at NBC, followed by the last 27 years on CBS.
All of that being said, there often times when Packer took it upon himself to be the conscience of college basketball, an unofficial commissioner of the game who thought he absolutely knew what was best for the sport he once played so well as an all-American guard at Wake Forest.
And while he was constantly at odds, for example, with NBA Commissioner David Stern on the league's decisions involving the drafting of high school players, he also tended to glorify many of the college players who often were far more athlete than they were students.
He rarely spoke on the air about the slimy underbelly of college basketball, the cheaters among the coaching ranks, the kids on the court with questionable academic credentials and sham diplomas. All the while, he also profited greatly from his association with the sport, right down to becoming a shameless pitchman for countless companies and products over the years, just like Vitale, his even more shameless so-called counterpart at ESPN.
Packer has always had a reputation as being a shrewd and often opportunistic entrepreneur in every sense of the word. In Nantz's recent best-selling memoir, he described Packer as running his ever-expanding empire literally from the kitchen table in his North Carolina home.
He also offered up a marvelous anecdote on Packer's business acumen, recalling a scene at a pre-tournament practice when Oklahoma State was in the Final Four in 1995. The Cowboys' star at the time, Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, shattered a backboard during one of the workouts, and there was Packer scurrying out onto the court and collecting as many pieces of the broken glass that he could stuff into his pockets.
When Nantz asked him what he was doing, Packer told him that if Oklahoma State went on to win the title, imagine the demand back in Stillwater for rings, necklace and bracelets made out of the glass backboard Big Country had destroyed getting ready for his own shining moment. Packer had all the raw materials necessary to make a killing, at least until the Cowboys lost in the semifinals.
Packer, who did not return a telephone call, apparently still is working on a variety of basketball related projects, some of which he may not have been able to pursue if he was still associated with the network. Packer told the Times it had to do with web sites and interactive video games, but now that he's no longer under contract, he's free to do whatever he pleases without the CBS ethics police standing in his way.
As for his replacement, Clark Kellogg, CBS and Nantz, who has worked with him on games before, should be able to make a smooth and virtually seamless transition next season. In addition to being a fine player at Ohio State himself, Kellogg has always been a thoughtful, low-key presence whether he's handling the studio or a game telecast and seems the perfect choice as a rising star in the CBS galaxy.
Packer, meanwhile, is telling friends he's done his last college basketball telecast for CBS or anyone else, including Raycom, where he handled ACC games of the week for years. He's clearly got other things in mind, headset not included.
Watson Should Work From Rough
Tom Watson, a five-time winner of the event, has been added to the ABC/ESPN coverage team of this week's British Open, a nice move as long as Watson tells us what he really thinks. But if he ducks the tough questions, as he did in a pre-tournament press conference here at Royal Birkdale on Monday, why bother?
Watson was asked what he thought about Kenny Perry deciding not to play in the British this year, despite being the hottest player in golf, with three wins this season, including his victory Sunday at the John Deere Classic.
"Well he made the Ryder Cup team, that's the main thing," Watson said. "He wanted to play the Ryder Cup in his home state. He certainly made good on his plan to do that. To not play here is really just a choice. We all have choices."
Asked specifically if he was at all surprised Perry wouldn't play at Birkdale, Watson said, "I can't speak for him. I just can't do that."
Personally, I preferred Jim Furyk's response when he was asked about Perry's decision a few hours earlier.
"To the best of my knowledge," Furyk said, "you can't win if you never play. From a personal standpoint, I'd have a very difficult time staying home when I had the opportunity to play in any major championship. You can't win on the couch. That being said, that decision wouldn't be for me, but I'm not Kenny Perry."
Watson might want to read that Furyk interview transcript, including Furyk also saying that he "thinks the world of (Perry). When he's hot he's as good as anyone in the world¿The beauty of this game is we get to make our own schedule, and more power to him."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.