Gumbel, Greg 1946–
Greg Gumbel 1946–
An estimated 200 million people watched the 1994 Winter Olympics on television and thus became acquainted with Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) sports commentator Greg Gumbel. A veteran sports broadcaster who had done everything from play-by-play announcing for the Seattle Mariners to hosting CBS’s widely watched The NFL Today, Gumbel was chosen to anchor the Winter Games from Lillehammer, Norway. Gumbel’s easygoing on-air persona was a hit.
In fact it was Gumbel’s laid-back style that propelled him from a local station in Chicago to stardom on Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) and, more recently, CBS. People magazine correspondent Jack Friedman described his style as “cool, incisive, and seemingly effortless,” adding, “Watching him is like dropping in on a neighbor who is savvy and fanatical about sports.”
Greg Gumbel is the second member of his family to forge a career in television. His younger brother, Bryant, is co-anchor of The Today Show on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), another high-profile position. Comparisons are perhaps inevitable, even though the brothers work for rival networks and are clearly engaged in different broadcasting activities. For his part, Greg does not mind discussing the differences between him and his sibling, noting all the while that they do not let business interfere with their friendship. “Probably the biggest difference between Bryant and me is our admitted self-confidence,” Greg told Sports Illustrated. “Bryant tends to admit it a lot more than I do. He is extremely self-confident and self-assured and doesn’t fail to let that be known. I’m confident I can do whatever assignment I’m given, but I certainly admit to having occasional butterflies.”
Greg Gumbel was born in New Orleans, but his family moved to Chicago when he was very young. He grew up there, in the Hyde Park section of the city. He was a chubby child who liked to pretend he was a radio announcer calling baseball games. Gumbel told People that he and Bryant would “grab our gloves, stand in front of a full-length mirror, wind up, pitch, and announce entire imaginary games, taking turns every half inning.” Even then the two boys were different. Bryant loved the Cubs, and Greg loved the White Sox; the preferences continue to this day.
At a Glance…
Born May 3, 1946, in New Orleans, LA; son of Richard (a county probate judge) and Rhea Cumbel; married, wife’s name Marcy (a nurse); children: Michelle. Education: Loras College, 8A, 1967.
Sales representative for American Hospital Supply Co., Chicago, IL, c. 1968-73; WMAQ-TV, Chicago, IL, sports anchor, 1973-81; ESPN, Bristol, CT, co-anchor of SportsCenter and two National Basketball Association programs, 1981-89; WFAN Radio, New York, NY, host of morning drive program, 1987-88; CBS, New York, NY, play-by-play announcer, 1989—> co-host of The NFL Today, 1990-94, NFL Preview (radio show), 1990—, and prime time anchor of 1994 Olympic Winter Games. Play-by-play announcer of selected local television broadcasts of Philadelphia 76ers, 1991-92, and Cleveland Cavaliers, 1992-93.
Selected awards: Two local Emmy awards while with WMAQ in Chicago; named “outstanding sports personality” by On Cable Magazine, 1982 and 1983.
Addresses: Office —CBS Media Relations, 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019. Agent— international Management Group, 22 East 71st St., New York, NY 10021-4911.
Gumbel’s father was very successful, eventually becoming a Cook County probate judge. By example and suggestion, Richard Gumbel encouraged both of his sons to seek good educations and hone their communications techniques. Nobody in the family suspected that Greg and Bryant would become broadcasters, however. Greg told a TV Guide writer that his greatest regret is that his father died of heart failure before either Gumbel sibling had entered broadcasting. “Dad always stressed the value of education and speaking skills,” Greg acknowledged. “He died in 1972, when I was 25 and selling hospital supplies in Detroit. He never lived long enough to see either of us on the air.”
Slightly overweight as a youngster, Greg’s body became toned as he participated in high school varsity sports. He liked playing the outfield in baseball and Softball. After graduating from high school, he attended Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and there too he played baseball. In his senior year he batted .378 and won team most valuable player honors.
Having earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1967, Gumbel returned to Chicago in search of a job. He worked briefly in an advertising firm before winding up as a sales representative for American Hospital Supply. In that eminently forgettable position, he peddled hospital goods, including bandages and bedpans, principally in Detroit, Michigan. During his stay in Detroit, he met his future wife, Marcy, who was a nurse. They married in 1976, and Gumbel adopted his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage.
Meanwhile, brother Bryant was making a name for himself in the broadcasting business as a newscaster in Los Angeles. It was Bryant who heard that Chicago’s WMAQ-TV was seeking a new sports anchor for the nightly news; Bryant called his older brother and urged him to try for the job. Greg auditioned and—to his surprise—was hired. “I’m sure it didn’t hurt me that Bryant was just making inroads into network sports,” Greg told People. On the other hand, he quickly added: “Bryant didn’t hire me, and he never renewed my contract. The station did.”
Greg Gumbel seems like a “natural” on television, but his early years in the business were harrowing ones. At WMAQ he earned the nickname “Waterfall” because he would perspire so heavily before he went on the air. “I was just plain scared,” he told People. “The sweat would pour down my face.” As he gained experience—and two local Emmy awards—he gradually forgot his fright. Gumbel stayed at WMAQ for seven years, from 1973 until 1981. He then moved on to the national level by taking a job with ESPN, based in Connecticut.
ESPN had by that time established itself as the premier all-sports television station. Soon after he arrived in Connecticut, Gumbel was given the co-anchor spot on SportsCenter, a twice-nightly 30-minute update on the day’s sporting events. After just one year on the air with SportsCenter, Gumbel was named “outstanding sports personality” by On Cable Magazine. TV Guide reporter Jane Marion noted that while he was at ESPN, Gumbel established himself as “one of the keenest sportscasters in the business [with] a style as smooth and natural as his brother’s.”
In 1986, Gumbel moved to the Madison Square Garden Network. There he served as host for New York Knicks basketball games and Yankees baseball games. Concurrently, he worked as the “morning drive” show host on the popular WFAN Radio, an all-sports station. Affable and easygoing, Greg managed to avoid the sort of negative publicity that his brother incurred at his high-profile Today Show job. Still, Greg felt the fallout from his brother’s headlines. The sportscaster revealed in a TV Guide article, “People probably think they’re being kind or nice or complimentary when they say, ‘You’re a much nicer guy than your brother,’ but I want to say, ‘What’s wrong with my bother?‘ I just want to say, ‘Well, how would you know that?’ This business can be grossly unfair.”
The business can also be rewarding for those with talent and persistence. In October of 1989, Gumbel was hired at CBS and joined that network’s sportscasting team. He began his tenure there as a play-by-play announcer for college basketball, NBA basketball, and College World Series games. Then, in 1990, he was moved into the co-anchor spot on The NFL Today. His partner was the ebullient former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
At first it seemed like an odd pairing. Bradshaw cracked jokes and carried a rough-around-the-edges style; Gumbel exuded a sort of calm, if friendly, gentility. Somehow the chemistry worked, and The NFL Today, with a guaranteed viewership of fans waiting for their weekly pro football games, made Greg Gumbel a star. As Bob Raissman noted in the New York Daily News, Gumbel and Bradshaw “turned The NFL Today into a show for every fan. The duo had achieved the kind of chemistry sadly lacking in the world of sports TV.”
Early in 1994, Newsweek correspondent Mark Starr observed that Gumbel had assumed “the pinnacle of TV sports gigs” at CBS. “In the four years Gumbel … has been at CBS, he has ascended to, if not No. 1, a pretty clear 1-A status,” the reporter concluded. That assessment came in the wake of the announcement that Gumbel would serve as anchor at the 1994 Winter Olympics in lillehammer, Norway—certainly one of the most prestigious of sportscasting assignments.
Gumbel was honored by the choice, but he nevertheless had reservations about the job. First he had to learn a veritable encyclopedia of facts and figures about the Winter Olympics, so that he could converse intelligently about such sports as luge, bobsledding, and speed skating. Then he had to face the prospect of spending weeks in Norway in the wintertime—and he does not like cold weather.
Gumbel was a veteran of Olympic coverage, having served as a morning anchorman at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. Still, his profile on that occasion was not terribly high. Even his brother Bryant was better known for Olympics coverage, since Bryant served as host of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Knowing that some 200 million people might see him—many of them for the first time—on the Winter Games, Gumbel threw himself into preparations for the event. “I’m driven by a fear of making a fool of myself,” he admitted in Newsweek magazine. As the games approached, however, he adopted a more realistic outlook. “People are tuning in to see the Olympics, not to see me talk,” he told Newsweek. “My job is to get them there—kind of like a glorified air-traffic controller.”
Unfortunately for Gumbel, CBS suddenly had less “air traffic” to control on the sports front. In 1994 the network lost its broadcast rights to the National Football League and thus was forced to cancel The NFL Today. Previously, CBS had lost the NBA and Major League Baseball, all of which Gumbel had helped cover. Gumbel admitted in the New York Daily News that he would especially miss working with Bradshaw on The NFL Today, as the two had formed a close friendship and enjoyed the camaraderie they had established on the air. Asked to speculate about his future with CBS, Gumbel was more reserved. “All this comes at a time when I’m tremendously happy in my profession,” he said early in 1994. “My contract with CBS runs until next fall. We will be sitting down to discuss things. It’s premature to speculate on my future.”
Any speculation on a defection to another network aside, Gumbel has assured himself a comfortable berth in sportscasting for some time to come. As Richard Sandomir stated in the New York Times, Gumbel has qualified himself for top-level sports broadcasting because “he’s got the warmth, humor, and TV skills for the job.” Having spent more than two decades in the business, Gumbel still approaches each assignment as if it was a White Sox game and he was once again a Chicago youngster announcing to his reflection in the mirror. “The best thing I can bring to [my job] is my enthusiasm,” Gumbel told the New York Times. “I can sit around and watch a doubleheader between the worst teams in baseball.” Reflecting on the increased exposure he has gotten since completing the 1994 Olympics, Gumbel concluded: “There must be a saturation point, but I don’t know what it is.”
Ebony, June 1985, pp. 88-90.
Newsweek, February 21, 1994, p. 56.
New York Daily News, January 23, 1994, p. 64.
New York Times, December 18, 1993.
People, December 5, 1983, pp. 93-5.
Sports Illustrated, November 19, 1990, pp. 16-17.
TV Guide, July 14, 1990, pp. 22-3; March 20, 1993, pp. 41-2.