Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Remembering George Michael

Because Urban Meyer’s resignation/non-resignation was the dominant story in sports over the weekend, I didn’t get the chance yesterday to write about the passing of George Michael.

I often joke about the fact that television makes people famous for being famous and they are thought of as stars because people recognize them regardless of the quality of their work. The list of people who fit in that category is a long one.

George wasn’t one of those people.

He was famous because he outworked his competition; because he did things differently and because he had the kind of personality that, even if you completely disagreed with him on something, you walked away from the argument admitting to yourself that the guy knew his stuff.

When he first came to Washington in 1980 I was skeptical about the notion of him doing sports. I didn’t know him, but knew of him—as a rock-and-roll disc jockey at WABC radio in New York where he replaced the legendary Cousin Bruce Morrow and as a hockey color man for the New York Islanders.

He had a big voice, I knew that. I didn’t know much else. But George rode into town with a commitment from the local NBC affiliate—WRC—to spend money to make a dent in the ratings and with a concept that no one had thought of in local TV before: use the new-fangled satellites that TV stations were acquiring to pull down highlights from all over the country.

Washington had a pretty good history when it came to local sports. Warner Wolf had become a local legend before leaving to go national with ABC. Frank Herzog, who had been Wolf’s backup, was a superb basketball play-by-play man on the Washington Wizards before moving to the Redskins in 1979 where he stayed 27 years before Dan Snyder pushed him out the door so he could put one of his see-no-evil house men behind the mike.

Michael took it to a new level—with the satellite highlights (that led to his national show, “The Sports Machine,” which was huge on Sunday nights until ESPN became dominant) and with an open checkbook. Backed by WRC’s money, Michael had weekly shows in which he “exclusively,” interviewed Joe Gibbs, whomever was quarterbacking the Redskins and anyone else who really mattered on the local sports scene.

Michael’s “checkbook journalism,” was mocked by many (me included) but it has now become the norm on both local TV and radio. WFAN in New York spends huge dollars every year ensuring that local football coaches and players; both baseball managers and selected stars in other sports show up on their air every week. Trust me, Joe Girardi and Jerry Manuel aren’t on WFAN every week because they’re so fond of Mike Francesca. Other local stations, including the ones here in DC, do the same thing.

I still remember being in the Redskins locker room in 1986 when Jay Schroeder, then Washington’s quarterback, had come out of the game with what appeared to be a minor injury. Those of us charged with finding out how Schroeder felt or what had happened on the play had little chance to do so because he was back in the training room and then went to an off-limits part of the locker room to dress.

Finally, my boss, George Solomon, who took an injury to a Redskins quarterback about as seriously as an injury to one of his children, demanded that Charley Taylor (not the wide receiver) who was the Redskins PR guy at the time, find out when Schroeder would be available to talk.

Taylor came back a couple minutes later. “Sorry George, he’s just not up to it,” he said.

“Not up to it?” Solomon screamed. “I’ll bet he’ll be up to it tomorrow for his paid appearance with George Michael!”

As it turned out Solomon was exactly right. Schroeder’s first interview that week was “exclusively,” with Michael.

By the late 1980s, Washington had a remarkable quartet of local TV broadcasters: Michael was at channel 4; Bernie Smilovitz, who would go on to New York and then Detroit was at channel 5; Herzog was at channel 7 and Glenn Brenner was at channel 9. Each was outstanding in his own way, though Brenner’s humor simply put him in a different class from anyone else. You literally couldn’t stop laughing when Brenner got on a roll. He reminded me of Jim Valvano.

And, tragically, exactly like Valvano, Brenner died at the age of 47 of cancer. The whole town essentially came to a halt when Brenner died and all four local stations went wall-to-wall that night with Brenner. The two most touching moments came when Gordon Peterson, then the anchor at channel 9 and probably Brenner’s best friend, talked about him and when Michael, his No. 1 competitor did the same.

I had my run-ins with George. Like most of us, he didn’t like being criticized and he HATED being called a homer—even though he very clearly was one. When I wrote a column prior to Super Bowl XVIII urging everyone in the local media—including my newspaper—to quit being such Redskins homers I singled out George for his repeated references to the team as, “we.”

The next week my phone rang and I heard the booming voice. “Feinstein, that was out of line! I ask tougher questions than anyone in town and you know it!”

“Questions like, what do WE have to do to win?” I answered.

“Okay, maybe I cross the line every once in a while but that’s what the viewers want! I give ‘em what they want and you know it!”

He did—but he was still a homer. A couple of weeks later George ripped me in an on-air essay for calling the Georgetown basketball program “secretive.”

I knew he was expecting a call from me in response but I didn’t give him the pleasure. A couple weeks later we ran into each other at a Maryland basketball game.

“Hey, you know I ripped you for that Georgetown piece,” George said as we shook hands.

“I heard something about that,” I said. “So I guess you get into practice over there every day, huh?”

He smiled. “You know you’re a pain-in-the-butt,” he said. “But I gotta admit you do what you do well.”

George did what he did very well, right until the end when cancer began to run him down. Even though I’d heard he was sick, I honestly didn’t know it was that bad until Tony Kornheiser called me Thursday morning to say he was on his way in to do his radio show—which wasn’t supposed to air on Christmas Eve—and could I come on and talk about George for a few minutes.

I did and I listened to the stories others told throughout the day and into the night. The overwhelming theme I heard was this: George loved what he did and people loved watching him do it. He had a unique personality—I said to Tony that George always came into a room doing George—and he changed local TV in Washington forever and also pushed the limits at the national level with The Sports Machine.

He was 70 when he died. Way too young. But no one can say he didn’t love just about every minute he had.

9 comments:

FOTB Staff said...

Anonymous - taken care of. Thanks.

FOTB Staff

Gordon said...

George Michael did what few could do. He transitioned from NYC DJ to a legit sports "reporter". For those of us who did not live in DC we had the Sunday night "Sports Machine" . It was to bad that ESPN killed it!

Sadly another sports reporting icon died yesterday. Dave Diles was a Detroit institution and the host of the ABC" Prudential College Scoreboard" He was the anti George Michael. Dave Diles was dignified and informative and never placed himself above the subject matter.

Perhaps it was/is the city of Detroit but there sports reporters, Dave Diles, Al Ackerman, Ray Lane, George Kell, Joe Falls and the dean of all Detroit sports Ernie Harwell were never the message they were the communicators of the message.

I highly recomend Bob Costas interview with Mr. Harwell running on the MLB Network. At 91 Ernie has been given a short time to live due to cancer and yet he deals with it as on Ernie Harwell Can!

Chris Wilson said...

Michael's death brings the end of an era. It also reminded me of the death of Brenner. Each were dominant personalities not just because they were talented, but because they represented the sole TV sources of sports news. Cable existed, but ESPN was far from what it is now. The Internet was practically non-existent. The fact is, no matter how talented the local TV sports reporter is now, he/she just is not seen much. Their impact on the city is far less than during Michael's and Brenner's heyday. I miss those men, but I miss the dominant local sports reporter personality as much.

Mr. X said...

I was vaguely aware of George growing up in the 1980s in the Midwest, but it wasn't until I moved here in the late 90s that I realized what a big deal George was.

Thursday's radio was captivating.

JJ said...

I agree with Mr. X. I remember how over the top he seemed at the time. But, it was great to have such a show on.

Gunnar said...

Living on the opposite coast, I thought Sports Machine was great. It was much better than ESPN, and for me George was better than any ESPN SC host other than Bob Ley, Dan Patrick and Scott Van Pelt. Stuart Boo-yah triggers my mute button every time, fingernails on a chalkboard. RIP George.

Anonymous said...

John,

You must be glad you did this memoriam on George Michael. The commenters have made some astute observations. For instance, he represented a high-water mark for a local TV personality: a guy who could shout back at a head football coach or GM...you know go toe-to-toe with a big personality (like only a very few local writers can.) The next logic(al) point is this: ESPN is Wal-Mart. It's great. It's got everything. But it kills the local specialty guy, the guy with quirky personality who is "your" guy in town. I don't see Chad's columns like I used to, but has anyone written this?

Ilene said...

I was never a Redskins fan or a fan of the NBA but I made sure to watch George's shows on Channel Four-Redskins Report and Full Court Press because I loved listening to him. He was one-a-kind and he will be missed !

John said...

My daughters grew to love sports through watching George Michael's sports reports and shows. For that I will always be greatful.