Larry Cavolina and Mark Wolff heard the news that CBS had regained the rights to telecast the NFL just as everyone else did last winter.
But it wasn't until Wolff, the lead producer on CBS' telecasts, and Cavolina, the director, walked through the New York Giants' training camp in Albany, N.Y., with former Giants quarterback Phil Simms last month that the concept became reality.
CBS would be doing football again.
"We're walking on the field and Larry says to me, 'Man, isn't it great to be doing football again?' " Wolff said. "We stopped and we looked around and we thought, 'Yeah, we're really doing it.' "
When studio anchor Jim Nantz opens CBS' "The NFL Today" pre-game show Sunday, he'll preside over the completion of perhaps the most amazing comeback in sports broadcasting history -- the television equivalent of John Elway leading the Denver Broncos to victory from a two-touchdown deficit in the final two minutes.
With a $500 million annual commitment for the rights to carry AFC games for at least the next five years and one Super Bowl during that span, CBS mounted a successful two-minute drive.
"The energy that this place now has is tremendous," Wolff said. "You walk around here and you can tell. Everybody's champing at the bit to get it done. It's been a major undertaking, but once we get the ball rolling, we're going to get it done. It's electric."
After CBS lost NFC rights to Fox in 1994, the network's sports division went into a free fall, with few marquee events beyond college football and basketball, the PGA Tour and the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
CBS had been the NFL's network of record for almost 50 years, carrying its first televised game in 1946 and a regular-season package for 38 straight years, but when Fox offered $100 million more a year for rights, all that history went right out the window.
"CBS always did an extremely professional job. The reason that CBS lost football in the first place had nothing to do how they treated the game," said Greg Gumbel, the lead play-by-play voice this fall and a former host of "The NFL Today."
"The NFL left because there was $100 million a year on the table. You know, there's nothing wrong with doing it for the money. We all do what we do for the money and if they had left $100 million a year on the table, we all would have said, 'What? Are you nuts?' "
As a result, most of CBS Sports' big-name announcers and its prime production talent left the network, and the loss of football, directly or indirectly, depending on whom you talk to, led to the departure of two division presidents.
But behind Sean McManus, who took over the helm of CBS Sports in November 1996, the sports division began a slow but steady comeback, culminating with the wresting away of AFC rights from NBC.
Many of CBS' former NFL on-air and behind-the-scenes talent -- including announcers Pat Summerall, John Madden and Dick Stockton, producer Robert Stenner and director Sandy Grossman -- went to Fox and are staying.
But a good number of people like Gumbel, Wolff, Cavolina and announcers Verne Lundquist, Randy Cross and Don Criqui came back to CBS and are the core of the new effort, along with relative newcomers like announcers Gus Johnson and Kevin Harlan, analyst Steve Tasker and reporters Armen Keteyian and Bonnie Bernstein.
Beyond a new package of 3-D graphics, the network promises not to try to reinvent the wheel in its production. After all, football is football, and Fox has pretty much defined the state of football production with sharper, clearer sound than had ever been heard before and a constant on-screen score and clock.
Where CBS can make its mark is with the revival of "The NFL Today," once the industry standard. Host Nantz, one of the few major talents not to leave the network, said he grew up watching the show as a kid in the 1970s.
Nantz will be flanked by a trio of analysts -- ex-San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, former 49ers tight end Brent Jones and just-retired Kansas City Chiefs running back Marcus Allen -- none of whom has any network broadcast experience.
"The toughest thing for anybody -- I don't care who it is -- is getting a rhythm with three guys who have never been in that environment," said Fox executive producer Ed Goren, who hired Nantz at CBS in 1985.
Nantz, who drew considerable media fire for his role as host of CBS' Winter Olympics coverage this year, said he's not worried about brickbats he may face.
"I know it's going to be scrutinized. I know people are going to pick it apart," Nantz said. "But I'm a big boy. I realize that the media have a job to do. I respect that people have the right to an opinion. I'm not afraid of that. I expect it."
After four years away from the action, even the criticism may feel good.
The network announcing teams that will call NFL games this season:
Play-by-play .. .. .. .. ..Analyst(s) .. .. .. ..Sideline reporter
ABC: Monday night games
Al Michaels .. .. .. .. .. Dan Dierdorf, .. .. .. .Lesley Visser
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Boomer Esiason
CBS: AFC games
Greg Gumbel .. .. .. .. .. Phil Simms .. .. .. .. .Armen Keteyian
Verne Lundquist .. .. .. . Randy Cross .. .. .. .. Michele Tafoya
Gus Johnson .. .. .. .. .. Steve Tasker
Kevin Harlan .. .. .. .. . Sam Wyche
Ian Eagle .. .. .. .. .. . Mark May
Don Criqui .. .. .. .. ... Beasley Reece
ESPN: Sunday night games
Mike Patrick .. .. .. .. ..Joe Theismann, .. .. .. Solomon Wilcots
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Paul Maguire
Fox: NFC games
Pat Summerall .. .. .. ... John Madden
Dick Stockton .. .. .. ... Matt Millen
Tim Ryan .. .. .. .. .. .. Ronnie Lott, Bill Maas
Sam Rosen .. .. .. .. .. . Jerry Glanville
Ray Bentley .. .. .. .. .. Ron Pitts or Thom Brennaman
Kenny Albert .. .. .. .. . Tim Green
Curt Menafee .. .. .. .. . Brian Baldinger
Pub Date: 9/04/98