It's time to turn the tables on Beano Cook, the rumpled cynic for ABC Sports who has spoken ex cathedra on college football throughout the fall. It is Cook's opinion that college football needs a postseason playoff to determine the best team in the nation. The two finalists in SI's playoff are ABC, which is finishing its 20th season of NCAA football telecasts, and CBS, which is completing its first. WTBS, Ted Turner's superstation, also has carried college football this year for the first time. But WTBS isn't as polished as ABC or CBS and never had a chance to make our TV Bowl. Comparisons will be made in three categories: game coverage, announcing and pregame and halftime shows.
No director calls shots better than CBS's Bob Fishman. His games have a distinctive appearance, with dozens of ground-level and close-up shots, especially on replays. Also, producer Ric La Civita's graphics and other visuals give CBS's broadcasts a more esthetic look than ABC's. On the other hand, CBS sometimes has missed plays while hurrying back from commercials or replays—a case of first-year jitters, no doubt correctable in time.
ABC's merits? Consistency, understandable diagrams of key plays (whoever is responsible for CBS's chalkboard could take lessons) and effective use of replays. One ABC practice that ought to be outlawed is the interrogation of coaches by sideline reporters. Viewer, coach and interviewer all feel awkward, and nothing of substance is ever learned. CBS by a field goal.
As for announcing, no one can compete with ABC's Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles. Once you get used to his Ozark twang, Broyles grows on you. Continually insightful, he can explain the game without resorting to jargon or footballese. A typical Broyles point made during last month's Illinois-Michigan game: Most college teams are strong in passing but relatively weak in defense. The imbalance is attributable to linemen not getting enough contact work in spring practice. Jackson, experienced and well-prepared, imparts just the right blend of knowledge and down-home folksiness.
Basic, dependable Lindsey Nelson is the class of the CBS speakers bureau. He has acquired a touch of Curt Gowdyitis (messing up players' and coaches' names and the like), but he makes this listener comfortable. Gary Bender also would if he didn't end each word with an exclamation point and treat every matchup as if it were the Game of the Century. Green as spring onions, few of CBS's analysts are worthy of the name. Although Pat Haden can be perceptive, he has a thin voice and tends to sound like the coordinator of a coaches' clinic. ABC by a touchdown.
Now into the studio. Cook got off to a shaky start, has trouble elucidating his points and still looks uncomfortable. But if anyone on television can be called the conscience of the college game, it's Beano. Earlier in the season, the NCAA criticized Cook after he mocked Vanderbilt and said the Big Ten no longer deserved an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl. The Establishment's ire merely proves his merit. To be sure, Cook isn't always right, but you do have to admire his independence. No longer can ABC be accused of shilling for the NCAA TV committee. In addition, Jim Lampley's halftime piece last week on the dearth of black head coaches proves that ABC now majors in journalism.
CBS's studio shows have specialized in features that lend depth and texture to college football. Host Brent Musburger's hidden jewel is Pat O'Brien, who has a feel for the scope of complex stories yet can report them clearly and concisely. Musburger has been disappointing as an interviewer, particularly in a cream-puff Q-and-A a few weeks ago with Clemson President Bill Atchley. Instead of pressing Atchley on reports of probable NCAA sanctions, Musburger asked him whether the Tigers could beat Maryland. A much larger problem for CBS is Ara Parseghian, who apparently loiters on the set merely to guffaw with Musburger, seem avuncular and tell us what we already know. In Parseghian's roseate world, no player can possibly err. Why is he sitting there? Evidently so he can dodge every question from Musburger on the questionable coaching decision we just saw. ABC by a touchdown.
Final score: ABC 14, CBS 3. CBS has put on a better show than expected, though, for its first time covering the sport. Before we schedule next year's playoff, we'd like to establish two rules: no more tilted camera shots of cheerleaders and no more speculation from the booth on players' injuries. Nowadays a lot of talkers are masquerading as general practitioners.