Jim Nantz first met Billy Packer in 1979, two months after Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game that was watched by an estimated 40 million Americans. The NCAA golf tournament that year was at Bermuda Run Golf Club in North Carolina, and the Packer family lived off the eighth green.
“It happened the night before the golf tournament, and I was completely in awe that I was in the same room as Billy,” Nantz said Saturday afternoon from Kansas City, where he will call the AFC Championship game Sunday for CBS. “With my roots in North Carolina, I’ve always seen Billy as the voice of the ACC. I’d climb into the attic in central (New) Jersey and turn the antenna to pick up a station in Philadelphia running a bundled package of ACC games. I’ve faithfully watched Jim Thacker and Billy Packer call the name ACC game of the week. That night in North Carolina, I was a sophomore at the University in Houston, and I heard Billy speak. Naturally, I went up at the end of the banquet, shook his hand, and told him I was a huge fan. At that point, I could never have imagined that on a day of The days I would have the knack of being Billy’s partner longer than anyone else—18 out of 34 in Final Fours—and he would become so central in my life that one day he gave an eulogy at my father’s funeral.”
Packer died Thursday in Charlotte at the age of 82. His influence on the sport of college basketball in America has been enormous. NBC hired Packer to work full-time with Dick Enberg in 1975. Two years later, the company added former Marquette coach Al McGuire to the mix. As Sports Illustrated once described“It was the best TV basketball team ever—two knowledgeable, dissimilar guys separated by a straight umpire.”
If you want to watch three sports broadcasts in perfect harmony, find a comfortable chair and watch the full broadcast of that 1979 title game featuring birds and magic. You can’t help but become a fan of college basketball — and Packer turns off letting the crowd know why things happen.
Packer moved to CBS after the 1980-1981 season, when CBS acquired the rights to the NCAA tournament. At CBS, Packer wasn’t just an announcer. He played a large role in selling, promoting, scheduling, and marketing college hoops. It’s a fun sentence to write today: CBS took over the NCAA tournament for $48 million in 1981. The last contract extension (which runs through 2032) was for $8.8 billion.
Packer’s broadcast resume concluded with 34 consecutive Final Fours calling him to NBC and CBS, the first being John Wooden’s final game as coach in 1975 and the last being Kansas over Memphis in 2008. His legacy includes sons Mark and Brandt, both of whom went into the sports broadcasting business. (Mark is an anchor for ESPN’s ACC Network; Brandt is a producer for The Golf Channel and NBC.) Nice greeting about them Father as a family a leg.
We spoke on Wednesday night; he died on Thursday. And on Wednesday, I said to his son Brandt, ‘If you get the chance, would you put the phone to Dad’s ear?’ Because I like to say hello. I tried to regale him with a few stories of past shenanigans, and Brandt later said that Billy was smiling the whole time. In the end, I told him that I loved him.
There was no doubt that the Packer was good at sports television. I was curious why from those who hired him.
“He had no fear of saying what his mind told him,” said CBS Sports President Sean McManus. “He didn’t pull any punches. He had a really good basic understanding of the game of basketball and a very good understanding of all the players involved at the time. When it came time to analyze the game of basketball, it just flowed. It was pretty unfiltered, which I think is mostly good.” But it was distinct. Think of some announcers directly related to sports so that when you say that sport and ask who the announcer is, you get a fairly consistent answer. I think in the NFL it would be John Madden. In baseball, I think it’s probably It’s Vin Scully. At the Olympics, I think you’d say Jim McKay (McManus’ father). For college basketball, I think Billy Packer comes to mind.”
Last year’s Final Four marked the last CBS sports stint for director Bob Fishman, a popular sports production personality who joined CBS News in 1972 and moved to CBS Sports in 1975. Among Fishman’s famous college basketball moments for CBS Sports was Michael Jordan’s title-winning shot in 1982; North Carolina’s coup in Houston the following year; The title game was won by Keith Smart in 1987 and Chris Jenkins’ championship-winning shot at Villanova in 2016. He was the Packer’s manager for 27 years, including every Final Four call the Packer has had at CBS.
“He wasn’t interested in the mechanics of how TV events are done or how they are produced or directed,” Fishman said. “He was just in the game, the two teams on the ground, educating the crowd. We had to learn his speed, and he had to learn ours. He understood how I was a very aggressive camera cutter, showing the emotion of the game. I told him early on, ‘It’s not always about With X’s and O’s, which you’re very good at. There are other things. I tried to be a director who captured the emotion in every game, and those are the times when you want to let the visuals do the talking. He totally understood and appreciated that. We did a great job together.”
Fishman told a Friday night story about how Packer’s relationship with the coaches really helped CBS broadcasts, especially his relationship with then-Indiana coach Bobby Knight.
“Billy and Bobby’s relationship was great, but Billy never took any crap out of Bobby Knight,” Fishman said. “A lot of guys on our crew and other TV crews were intimidated by Knight for getting no use for the media. But Billy wouldn’t take any crap. Billy makes lunches for Knight to join our crew, and Bobby makes some excuses that he doesn’t want to go And talking to these guys. Billy would go after him and say things to Knight that no other human would have the courage to do. Knight might be sitting with us without saying anything and Billy would say, ‘Bob, we didn’t invite you here so you wouldn’t talk.’ Stop this nonsense. Get your head out of your ass and talk to us. That’s how he was talking to Knight, and that was cool.”
Packer was not without controversy — a lot of it. In the 1980s, he campaigned against teams with foreign athletes, believing that it was unfair for those born abroad to take scholarships from American athletes. This xenophobic attitude in the global marketplace seems absurd in hindsight. During a game between Georgetown and Villanova in 1996, the term “tough monkey” was used to describe then-Georgetown star Allen Iverson. CBS’s Washington and Georgetown affiliate received numerous complaints, and Packer said on air that he meant no offense.
“I just apologized to those people who had those feelings,” Packer said For The Washington Post in time. “But I also feel sorry for people like that because I don’t see things in black and white terms.”
Packer met with Iverson and then-Georgetown coach John Thompson, and Thompson said neither he nor Iverson were offended. “One of the things I do know about Billy … is that he’s not a racist,” Thompson told the paper.
In 2006, Packer apologized to two Duke University students for sexual remarks he made to them while they were checking press passes at the entrance to Cameron Indoor Stadium. The notes, as one student recalled at the time, read: “You need to have a life. Since when do we allow women to control who gets into a men’s basketball game? Why not look for a women’s game to let people in?”
His criticism of the tournament committee became a running part of that particular Sunday, often pitting him against someone, including annoying fans and coaches. Famously, in 2004, after Packer broke St. Joseph’s credentials as the #1 seed on CBS, St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli told the audience at the school’s Sunday gala: “Billy Packer can kiss my ass.”
It was Very different from ESPN’s Dick Vitale, a contemporary who excelled at college basketball while Packer had a more sedate voice. Packer’s personal motto, as stated in several articles, was “Often Wrong but Never Undoubted”. My colleague Seth Davis, who worked with Packer at CBS, has a worthwhile tribute article here.
Packer’s run at CBS ended in 2008 after 27 years as the network’s lead college basketball analyst. He was replaced by Clark Kellogg. McManus said Packer was respected as an employee, even when he fell out with his boss.
“He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind if it differed from his,” McManus said. “But in the end, he understood that he was an employee and that he had a boss. I remember when I told him we were going to move forward (with a new Final Four analyst and National Championship game analyst), he was incredibly gracious. We talked about him having two more years of games and he said, ‘I think the It was time for the younger generation to come in. He was not bitter in any way. He had a great appreciation for the opportunities he had at CBS, and remained friends long after he was no longer working at CBS.”
Fishman said Packer distanced himself from college basketball during his later years in favor of the NBA and other sports.
“He could be a hustler and an angry guy, but I think he basically said, ‘This isn’t the sport I loved and grew up with,'” Fishman said. “He said, ‘I’d rather watch the great players in the NBA or I’d rather watch other sports.'”
The college basketball announcer as a radio deity is a relic of the past. Vitaly is 83 and has a limited schedule. (He tweeted his condolences.) The greatest sports talents only stay a year in schools now – and even that has changed with the international superstars Go straight to the NBA and the emergence of the G-League. No college basketball game, including last year’s national championship between Kansas and North Carolina or the semifinals between Duke and North Carolina, was on the list of the 50 most-watched sports broadcasts in 2022.
A man of his time, Packer was an award-winning broadcaster who made a huge impact on his sport. For college basketball, this type of impact is not likely to be repeated anytime soon if it does happen again. We live in a different world now. But how college basketball got here, and how the sport grew, owes a lot to Billy Packer.
“I told you how giddy I was when we first met in 1979,” Nantz said. Fast forward to his fourth Final of 2008. Kansas jumped out to a huge first-half lead over North Carolina in the semifinals. Bailey was always working through the Manila folder—and with 7:38 on the clock before halftime, he He folded it together and said, “Jim, this game is over.” I said, “Him?” And he said, “Him. He got a lot of pressure on the early call but guess what? He was right.”
So now we quickly move on to (the championship game). Kansas v Memphis. Mario Chalmers, just as time runs out in regulation, hits this rainbow 3 off the top of the key to send the game into overtime. And when the shot fell, the only thing I could think of was, “Oh my God, how lucky am I? I get five more minutes with Billy. I’d give anything for five more.”
(Photo by Billy Packer and Jim Nantz, 1999: Bob Stowell/Getty Images)