Last week, Billy Packer died. Packer was CBS’s signature men’s college basketball analyst for more than 30 years, a period during which the NCAA Tournament grew from a local curiosity to one of the most massive (and massively profitable) behemoths in American sports. Save for an occasional interview in which he complained about “political correctness,” Packer mostly vanished from public life upon retiring, and I hadn’t thought about him much since his final broadcast in 2008. But I have to confess: Upon hearing his name again a few days ago, I had an immediate Pavlovian response. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, the vein in the middle of my forehead start to throb, my teeth beginning to grind on edge. Billy Packer … I hate that guy.
I’m pretty sure my reaction would have made Packer proud because the man was fueled by the enmity of his audience. In the New York Times obituary, Packer’s longtime partner, Jim Nantz, said Packer “wore the black hat better than anyone I’d ever seen.” Packer’s broadcast persona bore an obsessive’s inherent snideness along with a dismissive view of anyone who dared to disagree with him. In contrast to cheerleaders like Dick Vitale, Packer was relentlessly negative during a game, always emphasizing what players — teenagers, really — were doing wrong. Two of his favorite phrases about himself were “often wrong but never in doubt” and “I operate only on logic.” Does that seem like a warm and friendly guy to you? He sounded like a tech bro, actually; perhaps the culture has finally come around to him.
During his later broadcasting years, Packer was known for getting into all kinds of off-court trouble, like the time he accosted two women students who asked to see his press pass by saying, “Since when do we let women control who gets into a men’s basketball game? Packer has children who still work in the media industry, and by all accounts, he was a good father who is mourned by his loved ones. But he was much more hated than loved. Which is exactly what he was going for.
And yet hearing of his death made me a little nostalgic. Packer was an openly hostile presence on the microphone for decades, but he was never boring. He was a rusty nail hammered into the risk-averse world of sports broadcasting, an industry that has now mostly rid itself of rusty nails entirely. Like so many, I hated Packer. But when he was gone, I realized just how much I missed hating him. Because they don’t make them like Billy Packer anymore. Or, at the very least, they don’t put them on television.
Being the punching bag of frustrated fans is a major part of every broadcaster’s job description. You can’t really do anything to avoid it. Joe Buck is one of the most anodyne television personalities out there — take it from someone with the same affliction: The man is the very definition of a people-pleasing Midwesterner — but he also might be one of the most reviled simply because he has called so many big games. He’s been the lead broadcaster for both the World Series and the Super Bowl for three decades; of course fans are going to hate that guy. The broadcasters you probably dislike the most right now have the same problem: ubiquity. I’m sick of Tony Romo, too, but that’s because I’ve listened to him so many times that I’m familiar with all his quirks and hang-ups. There’s a difference between run-of-the-mill annoying, which is how we see Buck and Romo, and announcers who were truly hated by the audience like Packer. We don’t grouse about Romo (or Cris Collinsworth, or John Smoltz) because he’s offensive; we grouse about him because he’s so doofy. He’s milquetoast and familiar in a way you can’t help but mock (and because he sometimes simply cannot stop talking). But angry? Are you really angry at Romo?
Packer — now Packer made you angry. We were furious with him, and with fellow shit stirrers like the late Joe Morgan or even Howard Cosell, because they were actively antagonizing us. (Packer once referred, on air, to George Mason graduates, who were livid with him for claiming their team shouldn’t have made the tournament the year they improbably reached the Final Four, as “those with a 400 SAT.” That’s incredible!) “He had the ability to make every fan base feel he was against them, and he relished that role,” Nantz said. And it was genuine. The key to Packer’s success, just like Morgan’s and Cosell’s, was that he wasn’t even really trying to rile you up: He was just being his steadfastly, stubbornly “I am absolutely right about everything” self. This is why someone like Skip Bayless is boring rather than interesting: He’s too thirsty. He needs our hate too much. He’s playing a role rather than being any sort of authentic self; we can smell his desperation. There was nothing desperate about Packer: He didn’t want to please you or anyone. It made him infuriating. It also made him unmissable.
When Packer left in 2008, CBS replaced him with Clark Kellogg, a perfectly competent and respectable announcer who dutifully described the action of a basketball game with an intelligent but dispassionate remove. In other words, he was boring. None of the CBS announcers since Packer has been anywhere near as interesting. The closest is the great Bill Raftery, who currently does the telecast with Nantz (who’s retiring after this year) and the dull Grant Hill. Raftery is entertaining but more in the Vitale clown-prince vein than Packer’s ruthless truth-telling mode. The post-Packer world at CBS parallels ESPN’s baseball coverage. After the exit of Morgan — a broadcaster so actively hostile to his audience that there was a website dedicated to mocking him (which was staffed almost entirely by future Emmy winners) — we’ve been stuck with happy talkers and A-Rod. Packer and Morgan were obnoxious, self-righteous, and steadfastly certain of their correctness about everything, which was all more exasperating when they were obviously wrong. But they were also forever themselves in a way that television, an industry under massive pressure to broadcast positivity about the leagues it’s in billion-dollar partnerships with, now discourages: You can’t sell that many Chevys, or seamlessly throw it to a promo for the new Minions movie, when you’re as cranky as those guys were. But I find myself sort of missing when our broadcasters were smug and snide and prickly, when they didn’t just smile dumbly and spout gibberish in a soft-medium friendly tone.
Packer surely would have had a withering comeback to all my criticism. It would have made me so mad, and he would have loved that. Deep down, I suspect I would have as well. The only thing I hate more than Packer is not having anyone left to hate.
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