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Greg Gumbel’s Gold-Medal Moment : PLUMB WINTER OLYMPIC ASSIGNMENT GIVES CBS SPORTS ANCHOR PRIME-TIME EXPOSURE

Jack Mathews is film critic for New York Newsday

By now, two decades after following his kid brother Bryant into television broadcasting, you might expect Greg Gumbel to show a little pique when asked to compare himself to the host of “Today.”

After all, Greg’s career hasn’t exactly been conducted in private. He was a star at ESPN for more than five years. For the last four, he has been a favorite of top brass at CBS Sports, who picked him first to replace Brent Musburger as host of “The NFL Today,” then named the prime-time host of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

The Olympic assignment is a huge boost to the 47-year-old Gumbel’s career, putting him in a job held at other networks by ABC’s venerable Jim McKay and by his own brother, who was NBC’s host of the 1988 Summer Olympics. Still, there is a different level of celebrity for anchors of network news and network sports shows, and the fact is Greg is just now emerging from the shadows.

“There isn’t any question that I have been in Bryant’s shadow,” Gumbel says. “It would have been tougher to take if he hadn’t been as good as he was. I don’t think I’m a bad broadcaster, but he’s always been terrific.”

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Gumbel is quick to credit Bryant with getting him into the business. Greg was 26 and selling medical supplies for a company in Detroit when Bryant, then a weekend sports anchor for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, urged him to audition for an opening at the NBC affiliate in their home town of Chicago. Greg says it was the last time he ever looked for a job.

“I was very happy in Chicago when ESPN came along and offered me a chance to do more things,” he says. “I was happy at ESPN when Madison Square Garden (now USA Network) came along and offered me more and different things. And I was happy there when CBS came along. The truth is I would have been happy to have stayed at any of those places. It’s just that all of a sudden, somebody offers you a bigger ice cream cone, and you take it.”

The ice cream cones don’t come any bigger than the Winter Olympics, an event Gumbel admits he paid little attention to until he went to work for CBS. Now, after a stint as a week-day anchor at the Winter Games in Albertville, France two years ago, and spending the last 13 months cramming with CBS’ research staff for Lillehammer, he’s ready to take a bite out of it.

“I think I was ready for it two months ago,” he says. “It’s scary, but it’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

On the air, Greg exudes a more accessible personality than Bryant, a quality that Sports Illustrated described as “amiable ease.” Few people dislike him, many seem not to notice him, and that may be just what CBS needs to make critics and viewers forget its unfortunate pairing of Tim McCarver and Paula Zahn as studio hosts at Albertville.

Over the next two weeks, Gumbel will be host of nearly 50 hours of prime-time coverage, and, yes, he says, the pressure is greater than at any other event he’s covered. His greatest fear: that he will make a fool of himself by asking a stupid question in a key interview, or by misspeaking in some memorable way, as he once did in reporting that tennis player Jimmy Connors had defeated Harold Solomon in “straight sex.”

But Gumbel has enough ego to relish the size of the viewing audience, particularly the one of Feb. 25, when the figure skating finals will be held.

“I felt real guilty saying the (Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story) is terrific for us, because that’s kind of like news mavens drooling over a plane crash,” he says. “But the fact is it helps us tremendously. ... Can you imagine anyone not tuning in the night Nancy Kerrigan takes the ice? I’m going to wear my best tie that night.”

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Gumbel may not get as much of the harsh media criticism accorded some of his colleagues, but what little comes his way pierces his thin skin, and that, he says, is probably the biggest difference between the Gumbel brothers.

“Bryant doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks about him, he couldn’t care less,” Gumbel says. “If I heard that somebody said I wasn’t a very nice person, I’d spend half the day wondering how that came about. That’s paranoia at a dangerous level, but the fact is, I am concerned about it.”

The one rap on the older Gumbel is that his amiability makes him too soft an interviewer. He agrees that he is non-confrontational, saying “I don’t believe you have to conduct an interview by constantly interrupting someone and challenging them.”

That is not to say he doesn’t enjoy that quality in others.

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“Someone asked me if I watch Bryant in the morning,” Gumbel says. “I said: ‘No, I listen to Howard Stern.’ I love that guy.”


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