Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2020-21: Phyllis George, Trailblazing Sportscaster

In a ceremony postponed by the pandemic, the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will be inducted on Dec. 14 at the New York Hilton. SVG is profiling the nine inductees in the weeks prior. For more information, CLICK HERE.

She was Miss America. She was a co-host on Candid Camera. But it wasn’t until Phyllis George made the move to The NFL Today in 1975 that her popularity became apparent: her presence on the show made it appointment viewing,

“In the East and Midwest,” says Rich Podolsky in his book You Are Looking Live: The Story of The NFL Today, “churchgoers rushed home in time to see it, and more attention meant more eyeballs watching and higher ratings.”

The road to The NFL Today began in Denton, TX, a small town 42 miles north of Dallas. George’s parents were hardworking Methodist people, and, as a young girl, she watched the Miss America pageant with her mom every year.

“Back in the day, it was the biggest thing on television,” George told the University of Texas in 2018.

She rose to fame as Miss America, winning the crown in 1970. But, the year before, she placed second in the Miss Texas pageant and almost swore off competing the following year. “I came in second to a drummer from Longview,” she told Texas Monthly. “The local papers had to retrieve their original headline of ‘Miss Denton Becomes Miss Texas.’”

The Miss Dallas organization kept asking her to run for their title. She kept saying no but relented with the possibility of scholarship money as the carrot. Little did she know she would be named not only Miss Texas but also Miss America and be destined for a career in sports TV that ultimately would give her a chance to change the industry forever.

Being Miss America gave her a chance to be on arguably TV’s biggest stage: The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. When she told Carson, “You’ll remember me. I’m the klutzy Miss America” (she dropped her crown while walking down the runway), viewers and the press were smitten, even though the concept of Miss America had its critics.

“The ‘women’s libbers’— we didn’t call them ‘feminists’—would follow me around,” she said. “I was in DeKalb, IL. I kept saying, ‘They’re not picketing me; they’re picketing what they think this program stands for.’ So I went outside and said, ‘It’s really cold out here. Why don’t you guys come in, and let’s have some coffee and talk about this?’

“They all came in,” she continued. “And I said, ‘Look, I don’t feel like I’m exploited. I’m from a small town in Texas. This is great for me. I won scholarship money. I’ve done something with my life, and I can show my talent. I want to be in broadcasting. This is going to help me, so I want you to look at it that way.’ Did I like being in a swimsuit? Absolutely not. I hated it.”

Phyllis George: “I accepted [the NFL Today offer] partly because I needed a job and partly because something inside told me I could do it.”

When she arrived in New York after her year as Miss America, she hoped to land a job in broadcasting. Making the rounds, she ran into two young producers from CBS Sports, Tommy O’Neill and Bob Stenner, and that meeting would soon prove important.

When the Miss America pageant invited her back to cohost with Bert Parks, it gave her a chance to be seen on TV, and, in 1974, Allen Funt hired her as a cohost for his Candid Camera show in New York. But working as the second banana to Funt wasn’t exactly what George had in mind when she sought a job in broadcasting.

Changes at CBS Sports at the end of the year offered an opportunity. President Bill MacPhail was quietly retired. and 38-year-old Bob Wussler was brought in.

“Casually, Bob Stenner and I went to Wussler,” O’Neill said, “and we told him about Phyllis. Wussler liked her right away.”

A 13-week contract was drawn up with the promise that, if things worked out, it would become permanent.

“I accepted Bob Wussler’s offer,” George said, “partly because I needed a job — always a good incentive — and partly because something inside told me I could do it.”

For one of her first assignments, she was sent to Boston to interview Celtics star Dave Cowens, who was never known for being glib. Cowens, who cherished his privacy and disliked interviews, had reluctantly agreed to the CBS request because the team management insisted it was good public relations. He also had no idea they were sending a woman. He took one look at her when she and her camera crew arrived at practice, according to George, and rolled his eyes.

“Hey, Dave, how are you?” she called out to him, but he didn’t respond. She tried again, and again he ignored her.

“As soon as practice was over, Cowens made a beeline for his Jeep,” George wrote in her memoir, Never Say Never. “I followed, and my producer urged me to hop in. I did.

Phyllis George’s tenure at The NFL Today is chronicled in Rich Podolsky’s book.

“My career was on the line, and I had no intention of going back to New York without talking with him. I’m not going away, I thought to myself. I am getting this interview! So off we went to his log cabin on the outskirts of Boston.”

She kept peppering him with questions on the 45-minute drive to his cabin, getting very few answers. When they got there, he took a beer out of the fridge, offered her one, which she declined, and they settled into a couple of rocking chairs on the porch. By the time the CBS crew arrived, she had slowly started to draw him out, and the interview turned into more of a conversation.

“He rocked back and forth in his old chair,” she wrote. “And he talked and talked. As the camera rolled, I instinctively tossed aside my formal questions and talked to him like a regular human being, not like a superstar. Mostly, I asked him what I was interested to know as a curious fan, questions like What would you do if it were all over tomorrow? Are there some days you just don’t want to suit up? What if you had an injury? Where would you go, what would you do? Do you ever want to settle down and get married?”

These weren’t typical questions guys like Cowens were accustomed to hearing. Asking a player about his feelings was almost unheard of. When the piece got edited, it was obvious that George had captured a side of Dave Cowens that few people had ever seen. As she introduced the interview on the air, she said that Cowens had “a little bit of Huck Finn lingering inside him.”

George said of the interview, “I was astounded by the overwhelmingly positive response.”

Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and sportscaster Lesley Visser notes that Cowen didn’t warm up to that many people and that was part of George’s gift. “She was persistent and she was kind, so people wanted to embrace her and they rooted for her. She was someone that I think all of America fell in love with.”

Sports Illustrated’s Melissa Ludtke called it “probably the best national television piece ever done on [Cowen].” Ludtke should know: she was one of the very first women permitted to report from a pro locker room.

“Phyllis didn’t do stories about the game,” says Visser. “She did stories about the people, and she was as good as anybody who has ever done it. Players warmed up to her.”

George had a straightforward philosophy for an interview: “I went for the heart, and the athletes gave heart back.”

Wussler later told USA Today that he knew all along she’d be great. “In my gut, I thought Phyllis was pretty special. I thought there was a role for her, as somebody who could talk to guys who knew something about sports.”

Her 13-week tryout quickly turned into a three-year deal, and George was on her way. A month later, she was starring on the hottest sports show on TV and, within a year, adorned the cover of People magazine.

As the first season wore on, she became more and more confident in her role on the show, and the producers became more and more confident in her.

“We all realized what we had [in Phyllis],” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Mike Pearl, who produced the show. “When we took the show on the road for the playoffs and Super Bowl, Phyllis was the main attraction. When we all walked through an airport or down a street together, the public would go to Phyllis. And when we went out for dinner, Phyllis was the one being asked for autographs.”

 

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