The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Billy Packer, college basketball analyst who was March Madness staple, dies at 82

Billy Packer, left, with CBS announcer Jim Nantz in 2006. (Michael Conroy/AP)
5 min

Billy Packer, a longtime college basketball analyst who was a broadcast-booth fixture with the NCCA’s March Madness for more than 30 years as the championship tournament became one of the premier events in U.S. sports, died Jan. 26 at a hospital in Charlotte. He was 82.

Mr. Packer’s son, Mark, said his father had been hospitalized for the past three weeks and died of kidney failure.

Mr. Packer became part of the fabric of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 1975 to 2008 — first with NBC until 1981 and then with CBS. His instant insights, sharp-edged opinions and deep knowledge of basketball created a distinctive brand of commentary alongside broadcast partners including Dick Enberg and Jim Nantz.

Mr. Packer also could be a highly divisive figure with a reputation as being too brusque as a color commentator and stingy with praise to the players and coaches.

After Mr. Packer stepped down in 2008, many sportswriters noted his contributions to college basketball, helping boost the profile of the NCAA’s national championship tournament along with other well-known announcers such as Dick Vitale. The tributes, however, were tempered by reality checks about Mr. Packer’s perceived shortcomings in the booth.

Writing in Salon in 2008, sports journalist King Kaufman described Mr. Packer as “grumpy, imperious” and often seen as too much of a booster for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes Mr. Packer’s alma mater, Wake Forest University, where he played point guard in the 1960s.

As George Mason made a stunning run to the Final Four in 2006, Mr. Packer received backlash for having said the tournament should not have let in as many mid-major teams.

In 1996, after referring to Georgetown guard Allen Iverson as “a tough monkey” during a game broadcast, Packer said he “meant no offense” and “was not apologizing” because, he claimed, his remark was not related to Iverson being Black. But Mr. Packer sent an apology to a pair of female Duke students in 2000 after they accused him of making sexist comments when they were checking credentials before a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Mr. Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades” and “analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game.”

In response to detractors, Mr. Packer once replied that he was “often wrong, but never in doubt.”

Among his signature calls was “Simon says championship,” as Arizona’s Miles Simon clutched the ball while the seconds ticked off in his Wildcats’ overtime win over Kentucky in the 1997 national title game.

“When College Hoops meant much more than just March Madness to even casual fans,” Pac-12 Network announcer Brian Webber tweeted, “Billy Packer was synonymous with the sport on network TV.”

Mr. Packer was “a huge voice in college basketball as it gained national popularity,” tweeted Sports Illustrated columnist Pat Forde.

Anthony William Paczkowski was born Feb. 25, 1940, in Wellsville, N.Y., to a family deeply rooted in college sports. His father was a standout athlete in football, basketball and baseball at St. Lawrence University and was head basketball coach at Lehigh University from 1950 to 1966.

Mr. Packer, who changed his last name, attended Wake Forest from 1958 to 1962 and was part of two ACC titles and a Final Four appearance in his senior year. (Wake Forest lost to Ohio State 84-68 in the semifinals.)

Mr. Packer worked as an assistant coach at Wake Forest before beginning his broadcasting career in 1972 in Raleigh as a fill-in color analyst for a locally aired ACC game. Mr. Packer became a regular on the broadcast team the next season.

He joined NBC in 1974 and called his first Final Four in 1975 — with UCLA beating Kentucky 92-85.

Mr. Packer was also part of the broadcast team in 1979 when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the title game 75-64. The game remains the highest-rated game in college basketball history with an estimated 35.1 million viewers.

“And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness,” Mark Packer, a host of college sports-oriented TV and radio shows on the ACC Network, told the Associated Press.

In 1993, Mr. Packer received a Sports Emmy for outstanding sports personality, studio and sports event analyst. Other career honors include the Curt Gowdy Award from the National Basketball Hall of Fame and inductions into halls of fame relating to his connections with Wake Forest, North Carolina sports and the Polish American community.

Mr. Packer’s wife, the former Barbara Sucansky, died last year. Besides his son Mark, survivors include son Brandt and daughter Liz Kimberly; and four grandchildren.

Following his sports broadcasting career, Mr. Packer worked in real estate, started a vaping business and did tax advising. In a 2019 interview with the Athletic, Mr. Packer called broadcasting basketball “always a hobby, not a livelihood” and said he put down the mic on his own terms.

“There’s a point where you say, ‘Okay, I’ve enjoyed my run, and now it’s time to go back and do the other things I enjoy,’” he said. “The last game I’ve seen in person was the last game I broadcast.”

That was one full of material for a color commenter: Kansas coming back for a 75-68 overtime victory over Memphis in the March Madness final. After that, he said he didn’t watch too much basketball on TV.

“I like kickboxing and cage fighting,” he said.