Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, didn't have any trouble naming his professional role model during a conversation last month with his boss.
The son of legendary sportscaster Jim McKay, McManus spent much of his childhood in control rooms with ABC sports impresario Roone Arledge, including during the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics. So he told CBS Chairman Les Moonves that Arledge was his idol.
And what, Moonves asked, had Arledge accomplished that McManus hadn't? The answer was obvious: Arledge went on to run ABC's news division at the same time as its sports empire. "Bingo," Moonves said.
McManus, 50, was "totally taken aback," Moonves recalled yesterday as the network announced that its top sports executive was also being put in charge of CBS News, replacing Andrew Heyward.
"Look, this guy is a phenomenal executive," Moonves said. "He took CBS Sports from being a doormat to being the dominant sports network. . . . This is not a schlockmeister. He's a great leader."
McManus said he would spend 95 percent of his time on the struggling news division for the next two years.
"I'm pretty good at doing Super Bowls and Final Fours," said McManus, whose father, Jim, changed his last name to McKay. "I understand those are different from elections or conventions, but there are more similarities than differences. I pride myself on really good storytelling. We do a lot of really good reporting, although the subject matter may be different, steroids or coaching changes."
The coaching change at CBS News ends the decade-long tenure of Heyward, a tenacious and thoughtful executive whose stock declined after last fall's botched "60 Minutes II" story about President Bush and Heyward's subsequent failure to sell a permanent plan for replacing anchor Dan Rather.
"Ten years in this job is a really long time," said Heyward, who plans to remain in the media business. "These are tough assignments. I'm pleased I'm leaving in an amicable, civilized, mutually respectful way. Leslie felt it was time for a change and so did I."
McManus clearly faces what Moonves calls "a learning curve" in taking over the news operation without a news background. But while Arledge's 1977 appointment to lead ABC News sparked considerable unease among journalists there, many CBS News staffers regard McManus as a proven winner.
"This is an excellent choice," said interim "Evening News" anchor and "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. "I've just always been impressed with the guy. He's got a very good record not only as an executive but as an innovator."
Tony Petitti, executive producer of CBS Sports, said "the place was a little bit down" before McManus arrived, but staffers noticed "he was so confident in the way he talked about how he was going to win." When McManus started calling in during games, or even to discuss two-week-old broadcasts he had watched on tape, "all of a sudden they realized, 'Hey, this guy's watching.' "
McManus served notice that he is "not happy" that CBS's morning and evening newscasts are languishing in the ratings. "I'm a very competitive person," he said. "Being No. 3 in any area is just not acceptable. I'm not going to sleep well until we're out of third place."
McManus said the sports division he has run since 1996 -- which includes college basketball, golf, tennis and, after he negotiated its return seven years ago, the National Football League -- will not suffer because long-term contracts are in place with the leagues and with such broadcast stars as Jim Nantz, Greg Gumbel, Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason. McManus is a hands-on manager who often calls with advice during games, "which producers hate," he said.
His most immediate challenge is to fix the "Evening News," which Schieffer has been anchoring since March, far longer than originally planned. "How do you make it more relevant to people sitting at home who have so many choices?" McManus asked.
Heyward has presented pilots to Moonves and pushed White House correspondent John Roberts as at least one of Rather's successors, given that Moonves favors a multi-anchor format, but never got the green light.
Moonves said he liked some of Heyward's elements and disliked others, but declined to say he will definitely use several anchors. "I want to let Sean see, think and come up with a game plan," Moonves said, breaking his vow to stay away from sports analogies.
Asked about a New York Times Magazine article that quoted him as saying he wanted "to bomb the whole building" at CBS News, Moonves said he was being tongue in cheek. "I'm really not looking for a revolution," he said. "I'm looking for an evolution. We need to do something different. I'm not talking about doing the news for my 18-year-old son. I'm talking about getting 40-year-olds to watch the news."
Heyward, a CBS producer and executive for a quarter-century, overcame a rocky start after his 1995 elevation. CBS took hours to cover the news of Princess Diana's death, Heyward's hiring of former GOP congresswoman Susan Molinari for a Saturday morning show flopped, and Bryant Gumbel failed to pull big ratings either as a prime-time host or co-anchor of "The Early Show." Heyward defused resistance from "60 Minutes" in creating a weekday spinoff, but that show was canceled this year, a victim of mediocre ratings and the fallout over Rather's reliance on unverified documents in reporting that Bush received favorable treatment from the National Guard.
Heyward approved the story hours before it aired and initially defended it. Moonves spared his job after an independent panel in January denounced CBS's handling of the piece, saying Heyward's instructions to his deputies weren't carried out.
The National Guard story had "nothing to do with this," Heyward said. He noted he had also been involved in creating the newsmagazine "48 Hours," adding: "Anyone who's out there taking risks is going to have successes and failures."
The CBS shakeup leaves ABC's David Westin, a company lawyer who succeeded the late Arledge nine years ago, as the dean of news division presidents. NBC is searching for a permanent news chief after Neal Shapiro's resignation last month.
McManus, who has worked at each of the Big Three networks, said the "out of the blue" offer from Moonves has made him think back to the many hours he spent watching Arledge in action. "I'd like to think some of his genius rubbed off on me," he said.