As the NCAA championship progressed Monday night, it struck me that the scene at two Wheaton pubs in which I watched portions of the game was being played out at countless saloons between here and Durham, N.C.: many bar patrons with affiliations or affections for Duke vocalizing that the Blue Devils were destined to win, if only because they were the smarter, classier group of student-athletes.
Well, smugness seldom counts for much on the scoreboard, and Duke lost, 72-69. But the game revealed a lot more than the Duke fans' attitudes and Louisville's superiority -- it spoke definitively and eloquently for the efforts of CBS Sports.
For the second straight year, Brent Musburger and Billy Packer called an NCAA championship game about as well as it could be called. Brent & Billy have reached such a state of precision, they're probably 100 percent IBM compatible. They did not step all over each other, nor did they come charging out of your television set at home, clutch you by the throat and shout: "Listen up!! This is a great game!! Watch this!! Unbelievable!!"
For sure, as Musburger pointed out in an interview last month, "more than the announcer being great; you need the game to be great." In this regard, CBS Sports has had uncommon good fortune; the network has televised the last five NCAA championship games, and four have been decided by three points or fewer.
A great game, however, simply provides the framework for a good telecast; it does not guarantee one. And CBS again demonstrated an ability to draw the viewer in unobtrusively with clean, crisp camera shots and understated production.
In Saturday's Final Four semifinals, CBS erred a bit, often cutting to sideline shots of the coaches after baskets. It was irritating -- coaches calling out defenses or bickering with referees grows old in a hurry, and besides, there's plenty of time to show bench antics when the clock is stopped. CBS avoided that pitfall Monday. The cameras seldom strayed from the court. An end-zone shot was used sparingly for a fresh angle. Replays never overlapped live action. The game clock was shown frequently, and there were no irrelevant or extraneous graphics. In short, while Duke and Louisville played a taut, tense contest, CBS gave us a lean, trim telecast with a minimum of hype from pregame to postgame.
The biggest disappointment was halftime. We got the obligatory salute to the host city of Dallas, a piece notable only because it had no narration. And we got a weak-kneed, 100-second essay from Musburger on the state of college athletics in which he concluded lamely that universities must regulate themselves. The commentary lacked punch, typical of CBS' soft approach to NCAA problems during the entire season. When Howard Cosell said "there exists an unholy alliance between big-time college sports and the networks," this is what he had in mind. Is CBS going to damage its chances of renewing its contract with the NCAA by harshly criticizing the organization or its member schools?
Other than at halftime, Musburger excelled. Once the excitable boy of play-by-play, he has become quietly effective. Still, many folks refuse to like Musburger -- just something about him they don't care for.
If you watched Musburger's work Monday, you must ask yourself fairly: Was he intrusive? Was he overbearing? Was he domineering? No, no and no; simply put, he let the pictures and graphics carry most of the burden, and he concentrated on drawing analysis out of Packer.
Packer, meanwhile, completed his 11th straight championship- game broadcast for NBC or CBS in typical fashion: He analyzed a lot, usually very well. Sometimes he overanalyzes -- as when Musburger innocuously pointed out that Louisville Coach Denny Crum's 8-year-old son Scott was taking a nap in the stands, Packer insisted that the boy could be having a "problem with the noise. A lot of kids have a problem with that when they come to a game."
Then again, it looked to me as if Scott Crum were having a nightmare -- he was stranded on a desert island with two Duke students . . .