armchairquarterblog

MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on February 21, 2011 at 8:59 pm

The last time I spoke with Frank Chirkinian was the week before Super Bowl XLIV when I asked him to reflect on CBS Sports celebrating its 50th year of televising NFL games.

Ckirkinian had been a young football television director in Philadelphia back in 1960, and he regaled me, as usual when we spoke, with several delightful anecdotes about his days in the early years of sports broadcasting. At one point, I also asked him what he thought about the current state of the business.

“The announcers all talk too much,” he grumped. “There are too many graphics cluttering up the screen. I always had one rule for every sports announcer: don’t be obtuse. Don’t insult the viewers’ intelligence. Don’t tell us what we can already see for ourselves on the screen. Stay away from the obvious. And it’s not just in football. It’s across the board, and sometimes it’s hard to watch.”

Those words ought to be burned into the memory banks of every long-winded, golden- throat broadcaster in the business. It surely would be a fitting tribute to Chirkinian, who died in early March at age 84 after a long battle with cancer.

Chrikinian best will be remembered as a pioneering, behind-the-camera genius. He’s the man who changed the face of golf on television with a wide variety of technical innovations ranging from blimp shots to microphones on tee boxes to painting the inside of cups white so they would show up better on the screen. He hired the talent and trained them in the classic less-is-more style he always preferred.

Chirkinian did as much for Augusta National and The Masters as anyone in the tournament’s history, constantly pushing for more cameras, more microphones, more scoreboards, more time on the air, the better to show off what he considered the crown jewel of golf’s major championships.

“Frank invented golf, the scoring system for golf and then golf on TV,” Davis Love III told the N.Y. Times this week. “That’s a pretty good resume. Knowing the CBS crew, they’re still trying to do whatever he taught them. I’m sure he’d be proud of how they have carried on the way he would have wanted them to.”

“Frank is universally regarded as the father of golf on television,” Jim Nantz, who joined the network’s golf coverage team at age 26, told the PGA Tour web site earlier this year. “He invented it. He took a sport that no one knew how to televise and he made it interesting. He brought the Masters tournament to life.”

Chirkinian was also a demanding taskmaster known for more than occasionally losing his temper with the people who worked on his telecasts. He was particularly profane with announcers who literally got an earful in their headsets if they didn’t stay on point. Pat Summerall, for many years the lead voice for CBS golf, once called him “The Ayatollah,” a moniker Ckirkinian cheerfully embraced.

“I admit, reluctantly, that I enjoyed the nickname,” he told Golf Digest in a 2003 interview. “If nothing else, it beat being called Adolf. In rehearsals, I was as profane as I could be. I ripped everybody. We had seven announcers all wanting air time and it was important they remembered I was the boss. I treated my crew like children, and let’s face it, sometimes children need to be spanked. It was a form of tough love.”

And yet, talk to virtually anyone who ever worked for Chirkinian, and their reverence and respect for the man is almost universal. That is particularly true in the case of Nantz, who still calls him a father figure, and current CBS executive producer Lance Barrow, who literally learned his craft at the feet of the master, sitting next to him in the production truck for many years.

“I never took anything personally that Frank said during a broadcast,” Barrow told the N.Y. Times on Sunday. “On this one day, I got called some names that I hadn’t heard before. So I went into Frank’s office and said to him ‘it takes real talent to be able to take those words and put them together like that in one sentence.’”

In a tribute to Chrikinian aired on CBS, Nantz said, “he was the quintessential leader and everyone who had the honor of working for Frank loved him, respected him. He was a father figure to so many of us. It could be said that golf was good to Frank Chirkinian, but Frank Chirkinian was great to the game of golf.”

Chirkinian will be honored on May 9 with induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, an honor that should have been accorded far sooner. Two weeks ago, on one of his good days, Chirkinian taped his acceptance speech, knowing he would not live long enough to attend the ceremony in St. Augustine, Fla.

Knowing Chirkinian, it will be a vintage performance, direct and to the point, sort of the way he once told Sports Illustrated how he’d like to be remembered.

“I showed lots and lots and lots of golf shots,” he told the magazine in 1995. “And I try never to subordinate the event to my ego. When I die, I want my epitaph to read ‘he stayed out of the way.’”

Len Shapiro can be reached at badgerlen@aol.com

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