SMITH: Phyllis George set the standard for broadcasting

Published 4:14 pm Thursday, May 21, 2020

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News of the death of Phyllis George, the pioneering women’s sportscaster, was such a downer, cutting to the quick, and bringing about deep and abiding regret.   

She had lived in Athens for a few years, finding the Classic City “lively and charming.”

In the ‘70s, America was in love with football with such passion that we could not get enough of the game, which meant that the networks trended toward over-saturation of its programming — even in those pre-ESPN 24-hour talking head marathons. 

When CBS made the bold and audacious move to make Phyllis a regular with its pre-game show, “NFL Today,” it resonated across the landscape. She became America’s sweetheart again. The first time came when she was crowned Miss America, 1971. 

She enjoyed a number of highlights in her career but knew years ago, she had a troubling blood disease which could affect her life expectancy. Her doctors, one a renowned expert at Emory, found a medicine that worked for years, but unfortunately time ran out on her last weekend. Dying at age 70 with an unfulfilled agenda leaves her legion of friends and admirers downcast and hurting. She had more television specials left to do, more books to write and more speeches to make.

While she was not the first female sports network personality, she was the first one of note. She set the standard.  Before CBS Executive Bob Wussler, made his trailblazing decision with Phyllis, CBS gave Marjorie Margolies, who later became a U. S. Congresswoman, and actress Carole Howey the opportunity to see if they had the right stuff for the role.  They didn’t, but Phyllis did.

Phyllis had an evergreen smile, which was genuine and downright comforting. She had an upbeat, genial personality that made people reassured in her presence which, in part, made it easy for her to interview the titans of sports including those with reluctant and irascible personalities.   

Her conversational gifts, her skillful management of the context of the interview process, and her “friendly” intelligence made her a natural for being the first headlining female sports reporter. 

When she had turned 60, I interviewed her for an hour radio show one day, which was followed by lunch. I watched her dancing eyes and marveled at her vivacity, concluding that she had not lost any of her girl-next-door prettiness and allure. She was sincere. She was real. When she was First Lady of Kentucky, married to Kentucky Fried Chicken kingpin, John Y. Brown, the Derby’s appeal went up a notch when she appeared on television.

She appreciated what the title “Miss America” meant in her career. Another of her good qualities, was that she was never ungrateful.   

When she reflected back on her signature moment at Atlantic City, with Bert Parks singing, “Here she is, Miss America,” her untethered crown fell off. She was chagrined but also calm and collected. She reached down, picked it up and simply shrugged her shoulders. The show must go on.

What sports fans discovered early on, was that while her genuine good looks were an enhancement for the career she enjoyed, there was also substance.  She won over many doubters when she became a Sunday fixture with CBS football. 

There were antagonists, however, most notably her studio set mate, Jimmy the Greek Snyder who felt the locker room and sideline was no place for a woman. It almost came to a point of Phyllis telling CBS, “Jimmy or me.”  She managed to manage, however.  After she left the show for other reasons, the Greek crashed into oblivion, owing to a blatantly politically incorrect interview.

Football fans across the country reflected a different reaction. Early on in her career, she was able to get Dave Cowens the aloof, iconoclastic center of the Boston Celtics to open up. His insightful candor with Phyllis caused viewers to be taken aback. One week, she is interviewing Joe Namath, the flamboyant bachelor, and Roger Staubach the next. 

On the air, Staubach, the classic family man, blurted out that he enjoyed sex as much as the Namath, the rake, but “with one woman, my wife.” When recalling that interview, Phyllis blushed, confirmation that she still was in touch with her down-home Texas upbringing.

From the beginning, the CBS switchboard was lighting up with fan endorsement. 

“Hey, she is OK,” was the gushing refrain.  “She knows her stuff.  She is as good as the guys around her.”

“She affected so many lives in a positive way,” says her friend Marianne Rogers with whom she lived for three years in Athens. 

“She lived a blessed life,” Marianne said.  “It just ended too soon.” Archie Manning texted a tribute.   “Beautiful Texas lady.  I admired her very much.  Died much too young.”   

When Verne Lundquist came to Athens to host a Georgia-CBS game, we invited Marianne and Phyllis to join us and the CBS gang for dinner. Verne told the nation the next day that Phyllis lived in Athens.

Another of her Georgia connections was with Tom Johnson, former President of CNN and his wife, Edwina, a native of Athens. 

“This is so sad,” the Johnsons said on the phone.  “She remained upbeat right on up to the end,” Edwina said.  “She never had a better friend than Edwina,” Tom added.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, Phyllis George could “walk with queens and never lose the common touch.”