The first thing one noticed on hearing the selections for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was that Billy Packer had nothing to complain about, because the so-called “mid major” conferences received only two at-large bids. But the second thing one noticed was that Packer wasn’t there to complain.
Packer left CBS quietly last July for reasons that have never been fully disclosed, though it certainly goes to an accumulation of small incidents, such as a poorly chosen word or an announcement that some game is over before halftime, which is just what the network doesn’t want viewers thinking. The party line said it was time for a change.
And a good bit changed in college basketball during Packer’s 34 years as the game’s lead television commentator. Still, it wasn’t time for him to go, even if he is a cranky 68 years old. Especially if he’s a cranky 68 years old.
Just when you’re thinking you’d enjoy televised sports so much more if you could mute the announcers and keep the crowd noise, there went one of the few good color commentators in any sport. Even when Packer was wrong, he was wrong for the right reasons, which is still better than being right for the wrong reasons.
Packer was wrong because he respected the game, knew it inside-out and freely gave his considered opinion, which was always worth a chew even when he was wrong. He once described himself on air as “often wrong but never in doubt.”
Packer was a know-it-all, a blow-hard and a grouch. He might have said something really nasty about your favorite team. He might have forgotten the niceties of tact for long enough to say what he truly believed.
All of which is to praise him in the most sincere possible terms, so seldom do we hear the true voices of sports in today’s sterilized presentations. We can’t even get a grumpy word out of Bob Knight now that he’s on television.
An early NBC broadcast team consisting of Packer, Al McGuire and Dick Enberg stoked a certain magic because, even then, Packer was a bit of a sour apple, playing off Enberg’s savory play-by-play and McGuire’s salty street shtick. McGuire and Packer would get into it on the air with honest exchanges about which part of the country played the best basketball or which strategy was best for a given moment — real differences of opinion.
NBC really knew how to televise a game in those days, even if the network didn’t generally draw high marks for entertainment. The lead NFL commentator, Al DeRogatis, might have been the first broadcaster to make football seem complex. Many viewers were bored by the details, but he respected the game.
The lead baseball commentator, Tony Kubek, seemed uncomfortable with any aspect of his job that didn’t force him deep into the game. Packer was cut from that same cloth, always sticking to the game in front of him.
The game was all that mattered back before networks started bidding rights fees so high that the winners were forced to expand the broadcast’s appeal beyond sports fans and then jazz up the production so the game almost couldn’t reveal itself through all the graphics, camera cuts and back stories. Packer is the last guy on network television to keep those days alive, which means they really are gone without him.
It wasn’t Billy Packer’s job to make you feel good, warm your innards with a sweet story, make you smile with a well-turned phrase or confer the dignity of royalty on persons within the game. Too many broadcasters think that’s their job and, worse, they’re usually bad at it.
Packer didn’t drift away from the game with the viewer. He usually kept the viewer from drifting and, if the viewer got away, could bring him back.
Like few other sports commentators, Packer’s expertise rose to the force of prediction. The viewer didn’t need to be an expert, because he supplied the tools. If he said some kid was coming off the bench to shoot over a junk defense, you knew where to look.
Marty Brennaman once said that Vin Scully advised him to call every game as if it were a 162-game season in itself. It’s all about staying in the game.
The great Cawood Ledford never met a back story worthy of creeping into his UK basketball broadcasts. He always said the audience tuned in for the game. The rest was for the newspapers and the talk shows.
Billy Packer supplied plenty else for the newspapers and the talk shows just by being real. But when the ball went up, he supplied the game.
As for the tournament, the selection committee has clearly anointed the Big East as the state of play, granting top seeds to Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh, with the last top spot going to North Carolina of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The three Big East teams each split their games against the other two. So the top seeds are very evenly matched.
We’d like to say UC missed the tournament because it couldn’t weather such fierce competition, except the Bearcats couldn’t weather South Florida, Seton Hall or DePaul either. When it all ended, the Bearcats couldn’t even draw an NIT bid — so their season ends in a mercy killing.
Meanwhile, Xavier rode a hard-won reputation through the years to its second highest seed ever, a No. 4. The Musketeers will play Portland State Friday night. If all goes well this weekend, they’ll take a crack at Pitt next weekend.
The way the Muskies fiddled through February, losing road games to the league’s lesser lights, it’s hard to feel inspired. One figures they’ve got a better chance against Pitt than against Portland State.
Five Ohio teams are in the tournament, plus three from Kentucky, but none of them is UC or UK. Xavier enters the tournament playing its flattest basketball of the season and Packer isn’t around to talk about it, except for his own Fox Sports Net show, Survive and Advance, emanating from a Las Vegas sports book.
Nothing seems quite right. Sometimes, though, the tournament has a way of making it right.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]