NEW YORK — Brent Musburger is calling it a career at ESPN after being the play-by-play man in the booth at sporting events enjoyed by millions of Americans, most prominently when he was the lead voice for CBS Sports in the 1980s.
Musburger, 77, said Wednesday he's leaving active sports casting to help his family get a sports handicapping business started and to use some of the millions of airline miles he has earned for some fun travel.
His last game will be the Kentucky-Georgia men's basketball game Tuesday. That will take him back to Rupp Arena, where he called Villanova's historic NCAA championship upset of Georgetown in 1985.
Musburger and ESPN said that his comments about Oklahoma football player Joe Mixon that were criticized as insensitive during the Sugar Bowl this month had nothing to do with his exit. During the game, Musburger said he hoped Mixon, who had been suspended for a year after punching a woman and breaking her jaw, would make the most of his second chance and did not initially talk about his victim.
A former sports writer, Musburger's broadcast fame took off through his work on the NFL Today pregame show. He broadcast the NBA, college basketball, the Masters and tennis — most of CBS's marquee events.
He was behind the mic for one of college football's most memorable plays, Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" pass that beat Miami for Boston College in 1984. He confessed to Flutie later that it took him awhile to identify Gerard Phelan, Flutie's roommate, as the receiver for that pass — and Flutie told him that he didn't know, either, until he had run off the field.
Musburger was abruptly dropped by CBS in 1990 in what was perceived as a salary dump, then went to work for ABC and ESPN.
"Brent made every event feel larger," said Stephanie Druley, ESPN senior vice president for events and studio production. "To me, there is probably not a greater storyteller as a play-by-play person. He can spin a yarn like nobody else, and it made games definitely more enjoyable to watch."
Musburger's opportunities for national exposure grew more limited in recent years when ESPN assigned him to its SEC network for college football. But he still called college basketball regularly, and though ESPN has been trying to save money lately by cutting higher-cost talent, Druley said the network had no interest in seeing him leave.
Sports casting today "has become more and more numbers-driven, advanced statistics and everything," Musburger said. "That's fine. I was never going to change because I'm a people guy. I like pulling up a chair in a saloon with a cold beer and telling stories."
Musburger took heat in 2013 when during a college football game he extolled the attractiveness of then-Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's girlfriend, a controversy he finds silly. "I called a beauty queen beautiful," he said of Katherine Webb, now McCarron's wife. "Are you kidding me?"
He said he hoped people felt comfortable listening to him.
"Not everyone approved of everything I said," he said. "I understand that. I come from a sports writing background, and I'm not afraid to take a position on certain things from time to time. But for the most part, I thought people should be coming to a game to escape for three hours and forget about what their individual problems are."
Musburger said he's not ready to fully retire ("I don't do shuffleboard well," he said), but his decision lets ESPN escape from an uncomfortable decision. Having a broadcaster of college games publicly identified with a sports handicapping business wouldn't fly.