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Q&A

BILLY PACKER: Of Hoops, TV and the Final Four

March 24, 1991|STEVEN HERBERT

Billy Packer has been around college basketball most of his life. The CBS analyst's father Tony coached at Lehigh University from 1950 to '66. Packer played at Wake Forest 1960-62, and was an assistant coach there 1965-69.

Packer, 51, debuted as an announcer in a 1972 Atlantic Coast Conference regional telecast, joining NBC for the 1974-75 season. Packer switched to CBS for the 1981-82 season when the network outbid NBC for the rights to the NCAA Tournament. Packer discussed college basketball with Steven Herbert.

How has television changed college basketball?

It has had a dramatic impact, particularly when you got to the point where all three networks are involved in regular season basketball and you had ESPN and all the syndicators providing a tremendous volume of games.

That then accomplished a few things. It helped the skill level of the players. Kids even in the remotest areas were able to see quality players and teams play, and emulate the styles of the players. That's one reason we are seeing players today from non-big cities become major factors.

It also helped the coaching of the sport on all levels because a college coach who may have wanted to follow the techniques of a Jerry Tarkanian 20 years ago never would have had a chance to see his teams play. Now he gets to see him play on an almost weekly basis. It also helps young coaches in high schools develop their styles.

What are your earliest memories of the Final Four?

My memories started out in the context as a player. I never had any idea I would ever broadcast a Final Four because I never had any desire to be a broadcaster. When I played, the general public didn't think about the Final Four as being a big deal, but as a player that was the ultimate objective, to get there and win a national championship. I got part of the wish done in that I got there with a team, but we lost to Ohio State and beat UCLA in the consolation game.

How did the 1962 Final Four compare to today's?

There were a number of major differences. In those days, only one team from a given conference made it into the NCAA Tournament. It was strictly a regional sport at that time.

I had never heard of John Wooden. That would be hard to conceive of in this day and age. There was not the grass roots support on a national basis as it has become today. There was no television exposure, with the exception of some localized coverage for the teams leading up to the Final Four. I believe the championship game was nationally telecast on a syndicated basis.

What do you remember about the UCLA team you played?

We didn't think about them at all, because our objective was to play a team that had been a real nemesis of ours throughout our careers, Ohio State.

Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek were in the same class as the guys I had come into school with, Lenny Chappell and Dave Wiedeman. They had beaten us twice in our careers and our objective was to get to the Final Four and finally beat them.

When we lost to them, that was the first time I had thought about UCLA, because they were playing Cincinnati in the other opening-round game. I was really impressed with how well they played. They should have won the game. They lost on a last second shot by Tom Thacker. That put us against them.

To be quite honest, in a consolation game, you played primarily for your own pride, as opposed to having an objective being third place instead of fourth place. That game seemed more like we were playing someone in a scrimmage, rather than in an organized fashion. (Packer scored 22 points against the Bruins, second only to Chappell's 26.)

Is college basketball a better game today than it was 20 years ago?

The sport has taken advantage of the tremendous athleticism of the player of today, by implementing the three-point shot and the shot clock. What the players can do today far surpasses what guys could do when I was in school. They're bigger, much quicker, much stronger, much better athletes.

Are there more scandals in college basketball today, or is that just a matter of perception?

There are fewer scandals, and in my opinion, they are much more minor in scope than the true scandals, like the gambling scandals of the '50s and '60s, problems at Kentucky in the '50s. Those were true problems of magnitude.

We're getting to the point where the rules and regulations and interpretations thereof, have gotten to be totally ridiculous. When responded to by the press and released by those that are doing the investigations, they seem to be explosive in nature. When the final analysis comes down, you would wonder why it's a story in most cases.

One of, if not the major problem the NCAA has, is it has got to figure out a way to have an organized membership that operates within the framework of the rules, but they have to be realistic rules, properly interrupted. The public's reaction to all this can lead to nothing but a negative response.

The National Semifinal Double-header, popularly known as the Final Four, airs Saturday from 2 to 7 p.m. on CBS. The National Championship Game airs April 1 at 6 p.m.

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