So long, Billy Packer

After three decades calling the Final Four, he's out at CBS. Has anyone in sports TV lasted so long while being loved so little?


King Kaufman
July 15, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)

Billy Packer, who was let go by CBS Monday as its lead college basketball analyst, is an institution behind the microphone, but it's hard to think of another sports broadcasting figure of Packer's stature and tenure who's inspired as little affection as he has.

Packer called 34 straight Final Fours, the last 28 of them for CBS. Various people in the TV and college basketball industries have what often sounds like a kind of grudging respect for Packer's basketball knowledge and all the years he's put in. Even Jim Nantz, his longtime CBS partner, nodded toward Packer's lack of popularity as he praised him.

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"He protects the heart and soul of the sport," Nantz told the Miami Herald, which broke the story Monday. "Fans don't realize they owe Billy a thank-you."

CBS announced that Packer, 68, would be replaced as Nantz's color analyst by Clark Kellogg, who has worked as a studio and game announcer for the network for 16 years.

You can talk to a lot of college basketball fans about Billy Packer before you find one who enjoys his work. He's a sharp analyst, but he's also grouchy, imperious and overly fond of his native Atlantic Coast Conference, where Packer was a point guard for Wake Forest in the early '60s. It's a great basketball conference, but Packer's job was color commentator, not ACC public relations man.

In three of the last five NCAA Tournaments, Packer has put his foot in his mouth in spectacular fashion. This year he declared, "This game is ovah!" when Kansas took a 38-12 lead over North Carolina in the first half. Nantz gave him a chance to back off, saying, "Is it?" and Packer said, "It is."

Of course it wasn't. Carolina roared back to make it a game before Kansas survived. Packer, in typical fashion, refused to really acknowledge his mistake afterward. "My job is to say what I see," he said, "not have some kind of subconscious feelings about offending anybody."

The problem wasn't that he "offended anybody," as if the only people who might have had an issue with what he said would have been hopelessly p.c. whiners. The problem was that Packer just flat-out got it wrong. His analysis was bad. And his job was to provide good analysis.

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Everybody blows 'em now and again, but it's nice to be a human being about it and say, "Well, I screwed that one up," instead of blaming the audience for being "offended." The audience wasn't offended, Billy. It just thought you sucked at your job that day.

In 2006 Packer ripped into the Tournament Selection Committee for including too many teams from so-called mid-major conferences, arguing that the big-conference bubble teams that got left out were superior to the various Missouri Valley Conference squads that made it.

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Not only did the smaller-conference teams acquit themselves well in that Tournament, but George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association electrified the nation with its run to the Final Four. But even if that year's mid-majors had all gone down in flames, Packer's comments would have been remarkably tin-eared. What Packer was doing was criticizing one of the very building blocks of the Tournament's success, one of the things that makes it so exciting.

It's simply more fun to have smaller teams from smaller conferences filling out the middle and lower parts of the brackets than to have underachieving big-conference teams there. Nobody cares if North Carolina State, seeded 11th in a down year, beats some solid big-conference No. 6. But make that 11th seed a team like George Mason or Wisconsin-Green Bay and you've got yourself a memorable Tournament moment. I wasn't the only one who called 2006, with all its mid-major overachievers, the best Tournament ever.

Packer never understood that dynamic, and it left him out of touch with the people watching.

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He had made a similar mistake in 2004, when he got into an on-air fight with Phil Martelli, the engaging coach at St. Joseph's, arguing that St. Joe's had no business as a No. 1 seed.

This was a team that had captured the public imagination that year, a small school that, led by the dynamic backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, had gone undefeated until the conference tournament and entered March Madness at 27-1.

So maybe they were legitimately a No. 2, not a No. 1. Same difference. St. Joe's ended up losing the regional final in a nail-biter to No. 1 Oklahoma State, so it turned out to be a coin-flip which team should have been the top seed. But in any case, here was a great story, and all Packer could do was spit all over it.

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Packer won't be widely missed in TV land because of that aspect of his personality. Kellogg, 47, is bland enough that we might end up missing Packer's gruffness and willingness to shoot from the hip, even if he was often shooting up the wrong tree. But there won't be any great outpouring of sadness over Packer's departure.

That's apparently fine with Packer, who told the Associated Press that the decision to replace him was mutual. "This decision was made with myself and CBS over a year ago," he said. "Their timing to announce it is their business." Packer said he's also leaving his gig doing ACC games for Raycom and that he's working on a college basketball project he's not ready to discuss yet. He had nothing but good things to say about Kellogg.

Whether the decision was mutual or not, it's an odd way for an institution to go out. Usually when someone leaves a post after three decades, even when there's a little shove involved, there's some tribute paid and gratitude shown. But all of CBS's comments Monday were about Kellogg's promotion, as if he were moving into a newly created position. Packer was an afterthought.

CBS, seeming to have aligned its thoughts with those of its college basketball viewers at long last, all but invited Packer not to let the door hit him on the way out.

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King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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