Phyllis George: Rookie of the year (1976)

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Rookie of the year: Phyllis George

If Phyllis George had not managed to find her way from North Texas State University and the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City to the bustling CBS Broadcast Center on New York City’s West Side, CBS sports vice president Bob Wussler would probably have tried to dream her up.

Phyllis George-1976Disarming and thoroughly unpretentious about her limited sports expertise, Phyllis began her 1975 rookie year at CBS as a slickly-packaged answer to every network’s quest for a female sportscaster — appealing, unobtrusive, and hopefully palatable to the predominantly male audience that enjoys its football man to man.

But in her taped interviews with athletes and half-time banter with Brent Musberger and Irv Cross, Phyllis has emerged as quite a bit more than the “set decoration” she once felt herself to be. As she prepares for her role in this weekend’s coverage of the Super Bowl, she is unquestionably the most successful woman in sportscasting.

Respect: Part of the success story must be credited to shrewd planning and manipulative promotion by Wussler. A man who admits his mistakes, Wussler had made a bad one in his first choice of a woman reporter. Jane Chastain, an accomplished veteran of local sports coverage in Miami, proved nervous and out of her element on CBS football. But Wussler blamed himself for that debacle, because he had asked Chastain for more expertise than men were willing to accept from a woman.

Since hiring Phyllis, Wussler has wisely allowed her to show her naivete and to offer comments only when she feels relaxed about them. And as Phyllis has gained confidence, the network has inflated her image — even to the extent of planting a few neatly printed “We Love Phyllis” signs in stadiums.

Phyllis, 26, is earning considerable respect on her own. Male cynics and feminists alike were appalled when CBS chose the 1971 Miss America over less glamorous women who obviously knew more about the subject. But Phyllis has grown more poised and informed each weekend — and she does so much homework before interviews that her questions are often more pointed than those of less diligent ex-athletes.

Born in Denton, Texas, Phyllis was raised to be a perfect Southern lady; even some 250,000 miles of travel as Miss America didn’t really prepare her for the pace or competition of New York modeling and television.

“I spent three years asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?'” she says. “I wondered if I should have been back home thinking about marriage. And sometimes I felt like some kind of novelty. Even now, I cringe when a New Yorker tells me I’m ‘refreshing.’ But I think I’ve found a balance between my New York life and the Texas girl I still want to be.”

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