Left to right: Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, Jimmy ” Greek” Snyder and Irv Cross. Courtesy CBS Photo Archive

The NFL Today has been one of the constants in sports programming. The present incarnation, a live pregame before the 1 p.m. ET kickoffs dates back to 1974. To honor its history, CBS will air a documentary on the show, You Are Looking Live! The Show That Changed Sports Television Forever, on Super Bowl Sunday.

To promote the documentary, CBS brought the four men who have hosted the program, Brent Musburger, Greg Gumbel, Jim Nantz and James Brown, for a media call Monday to talk about their experiences and memories about hosting the show.

The NFL Today has had various incarnations, first being a 15-minute program that was mostly a pre-taped program in the late 1960s through 1973. In 1974, CBS decided to have a live pregame show, halftime highlights and a postgame wrap up show with Jack Whitaker and Lee Leonard. But it was in 1975, when Brent Musburger was named host and traffic cop, that the show began to hit its stride and become part of the sports media landscape.

Current host Brown said, “Brent Musburger clearly is the one who laid the foundation for all of us. He was the standard bearer, and still is.”

Musburger credited the late Robert Wussler, a vice president for CBS Sports for creating The NFL Today as we currently know it. “What Bob wanted to do was have a live pregame, halftime, postgame show,” Musburger said.

Musburger said it was Wussler who brought him together with Irv Cross who was a coach and player and wanted to get into television and then hire Phyllis George, a former Miss America. Brent said he knew Cross who attended Northwestern from his days from his days in Chicago as a newspaper reporter and sports TV anchor and used to meet with him every week. And he said George was so gracious and added so much to the show.

Gumbel replaced Musburger on the NFL Today set in 1990 after CBS unceremoniously fired Musburger during the NCAA Men’s Final Four. He said about taking over the show, “It was frightening. When (CBS Sports) said, ‘Hey, we want you to do this and all you have to do is step into the shoes that Brent Musburger filled.’ …It was intimidating. It was daunting because Brent wrote the book on it. I don’t think that anybody has done it better.”

Gumbel called hosting The NFL Today, which he did from 1990 through 1993 and again in 2004 though 2005, “an incredible honor.” He compared Musburger to Mickey Mantle as a television host.

On Jim Nantz, Brown said they’ve known each other for almost 40 years. They both auditioned for the same job in 1985. “Just like athletes can look at each other and tell who the superstar was, there was no question that Jim Nantz was the superstar,” Brown said. “Thirty-nine years speaks to it in terms of him being the face and voice of CBS Sports, and I’m proud not only to call him a colleague, but a friend.”

Nantz hosted The NFL Today after CBS regained the rights to the NFL in 1998 and remained in the studio until 2004. He had a couple of casts of analysts, including Mike Ditka, Craig James, Jerry Glanville and Deion Sanders. “The NFL Today with Brent was my favorite television show of all-time just edging out ‘The Andy Griffith Show,‘” Nantz said. He thanked Musburger “for being Sheriff Andy Taylor in my life.”

Nantz said he’s still intimidated by Brent having so much respect and admiration for him. He recalled the aforementioned audition for CBS in 1985, going onto the NFL Today set, where he was the fifth of five people who would audition and he got to sit in Brent’s chair. He knew it was Musburger’s chair, as it had a little thin steel rod on the back with a piece of masking tape that said “Brent” written in a Sharpie.

“To this day, I still can’t believe I was sitting in your chair,” Nantz said. “I’m so excited this show is going to be on, that Brent is going to get his due. …I think that everyone who has hosted a studio show since Brent set the standard owes a great deal of gratitude to him.”

Musburger noted that when Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder was hired as a prognosticator in 1977, there was a meeting with then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. At the time, talk of the point spread was frowned upon. Musburger said the NFL did not want point spreads to be mentioned on the show. To get around that, Musburger said a special board was developed to point out strengths and weaknesses of each game.

The Jimmy “The Greek” “Strengths and Weaknesses” board. Courtesy CBS Sports

Musburger explained, “Let’s say a spread that people knew was double digits, 10 or 13. If the Greek had all the checks on one side of the board, you knew he was going for the cover on that particular game.”

On how he developed the now-famous “You are looking live” that began every show, Musburger said it came from the friend of the father of NFL Today director Bob Fishman. “He liked to get totals, over/unders,” Musburger said.

“And in the pregame, he said, ‘I’d really like to see the weather.’ So (Fishman) and I got together and I asked him, I said ‘Fish, can you give me live shots of the stadiums, I know we go to the different talent and we tape certain things, but could we go live?’

“And I think it was in November, the first one was probably Soldier Field with the Bears. And it was not a good day and, so we shot it. We just have the one stadium and then it went from there. And the only thing that we insisted on is that they had to be live shots and that’s how we came up with ‘You are looking live.’ It’s all because somebody wanted to bet the over/under back in the day.”

When asked about some of their favorite games or moments from the show during their tenures as host, Gumbel noted that most of his memorable moments came off the air when he co-hosted with Terry Bradshaw.

Nantz said he would go out with Mike Ditka, and he noticed that the former Chicago Bears tight end and coach would always tip everyone the same amount.

“He was always tipping everybody a hundred dollars, not twenty, not fifty, a hundred. Coat check, grab a coat, 100 bucks. Grab a beer at the bar before we go out to dinner. Here’s a hundred, keep the change. Walk out the door. Somebody on the street comes up and ask Mike for some money, 100 bucks.”

Nantz said he asked Ditka why he only gave out $100 bills and he replied, “This is supposed to be fun for me… We’re gonna have 20 weeks a year and I don’t want to think about money so I’ve allocated $5,000 a week. When I come to New York to do The NFL Today, I bring fifty hundred-dollar bills.”

It’s stories like these that will be part of You Are Looking Live! The Show That Changed Sports Television, which will air on CBS at 1 p.m. ET on February 11. That will be just before the The Super Bowl Today pregame show.

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013.

He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television.

Fang celebrates the four Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.