George Michael, circa 1984
When I was driving to Ashburn Thursday morning, I was trying to think of D.C. sports figures who were with us last year at this time that were more iconic than Abe Pollin and George Michael. The list can be counted on two hands, and the second hand might not be necessary. Theismann and Riggo. Sonny and Sam. Gibbs. Wes. Not sure of anyone else.
"George Michael was a giant in this community; he will always be a giant," Dexter Manley said on the Mike Wise Show a few minutes ago. "The fact that I made it on The Sports Machine, I knew I had arrived."
For Michael and Pollin both to pass away within a month of each other puts a sour note to the end of this decade. But once the sadness passes, it also lets you revel in the D.C. sports community. For all the moaning and complaining about the transplants and the bad-sports-town syndrome, there are thousands and thousands of people my age who grew up with D.C. sports, and whose memories are full of Michael and Pollin stories.
I'm not one of them, of course, but I love the stories just the same. Here's a massive Michael feature The Post Sports section ran on Michael 25 years ago. It makes for some great reading, wherever you grew up.
Barnum With a Mike
By Gary Pomerantz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Hey, don't knock George Michael! Big fella, hey, come on, you gotta love that tag-team match featuring the Samoans and that rodeo in Cheyenne! Hey, sports! Boomer, Patrick, big fellas, go for it! Joe T., you gotta do it! Hey, Vance, now hear this, love them Hogs, awwriight! Hey, let's go to RFK, let's go to East Rutherford and, hey, if we have time, let's go to Scott Clark, standing live with Riggo on the moon!
George Michael is the P.T. Barnum of Washington-area sportscasters, hip with the lip, the Daddyo of the video.
Like him or not, this is a fact: he is building his own hyper-daffy sports empire at WRC-TV-4. In four years there, he has helped the station's local 6 o'clock and 11 o'clock news shows ascend from last in the Nielsens to near equilibrium with WDVM-TV-9, which led in February's local news ratings.
Come September, Michael's Sunday night "Sports Final" show will be renamed "Sports Machine" and will be shown by NBC on more than 200 affiliates across the nation, according to WRC officials.
Now, Michael can look in the mirror and say, "Let's go to the megabucks." He received a multiyear extension of a contract that scales six figures. Though he won't pinpoint which six figures he scales, Michael says his salary is "nowhere near" the $350,000 salary Channel 9's Glenn Brenner reportedly is paid. "Truthfully," Michael says, "I'd rather take a little less money and more equipment."
No sooner said than done. With the creation of "Sports Machine," Michael will receive a larger sports budget, several more editors and two more earth satellite stations. And TV insiders say that Michael already has the most substantial collection of equipment and staff of any local sports show in the nation.
So now, Michael sits back in the WRC lunchroom, setting afire his seventh Marlboro in a two-hour interview. As WRC workers pass by, each saying hello, Michael admits, "My first week here four years ago, nobody said a word to me." He stroked his hand across a TV-pretty face, made tan by riding his tractor-mower around his Darnestown home and says, "Right now, I think I have the ideal situation."
Mind you, Michael hasn't forgotten his first show on WRC, back in 1980. "We got 52 phone calls and 48 of them were screaming 'Get that guy off the air.' A lot of people considered me abrasive. That always bothered me. Some people think you are abrasive when you are just a little crazy."
Ever wonder what makes George Michael tick?
Let's go to the background . . .
Times haven't always been easy in Michael's 41 years under life's Big Top. He's the son of a former Melville, Mo., butcher. He wasn't fond of his father ("He was a good man who lacked warmth," he says), but says he remains plenty proud of being able to cut a cow into filets all these years later.
He grew close to his mother, who died of emphysema when Michael was 18, and he grew even closer, he says, to her golden rule: "Whatever you do in life, strive to be the best."
His brethren took different forks in the road, Michael says. He has three sisters and a brother. "My brother works for a PR firm in San Diego; one sister works with the Jesuits in Kansas City; another sister owns a cigar store in Springfield, Ill.," Michael says. "And the other sister, I don't know where the hell she is."
Now, his coworkers say he is a workaholic, driven by who knows what, to who knows where. "I have an incredible desire to win," Michael says.
While he was at St. Louis University in the early 1960s, he developed a love for radio, back in a time when radio was fun. He became a record promoter, trying to get top 40 radio stations in the Midwest to play Berry Gordy's Motown sound. He was a white kid selling black music, somewhere around the Bible Belt. The money wasn't bad, either, especially when he got St. Louis' own top 40 to play Smokey Robinson's "Shop Around" in '64. Requests were made. Gordy was thrilled. George Michael was a 21-year-old tail gunner on the move.
Michael was developing then, flexing his work ethic. Most of his friends studied to become doctors and lawyers. "I wanted radio," he said. He was a reserve goalie on St. Louis University's soccer team. "I always attacked. I went head first," he says. He's got knots on his fingers today that prove his valor, if not his victories. But he didn't play much. Now, he says with a grin, "I know how Pete Holbert feels."
Then, Michael spent several years bebopping across the Midwest, a radio warhorse. He started in Hutchinson, Kan. "Those were the days when you couldn't drink unless you joined a club for $25 a month," he said. "You'd bring your liquor in a brown paper bag and the men standing around you would provide the water or soda. I lasted in Hutchinson for six weeks."
From there, it was on to radio stations in St. Joe's, then to Kansas City, then to Milwaukee, then back to St. Louis, then on to Denver. Came an offer from a 5,000-watt radio station in Philadelphia, who gave Michael an $11,500 salary, with the instruction to "Make 56 on your dial into something."
Of course, he did. That was in 1966. He stayed at Philly's WFIL Radio until 1974. It was during this time that Michael says he "broke in" Brenner. Now, Brenner says, "I worked in the station's promotions department and George was a disc jockey. I did some high school football reports and George put them on the air. George made about $60,000 a year. I made about $1.65 a game. As far as breaking me in, I don't think he did. Maybe George thinks so."
In 1974, Michael left to spin the top 40 wheel for New York's WABC-Radio, for $65,000 a year. Also at this time, his first wife left him and his three kids. They had married a decade earlier, in 1963.
"She ran away to Mexico with an 18-year-old," Michael says openly.
Not long thereafter, he says, his wife returned. "She wanted to get together again. I signed the down payment on this $110,000 house in New Jersey and I took a midnight flight up to Boston to do a Red Sox-Orioles game. (Michael broadcast Orioles games on WBAL-Radio in 1974. ("That's when I knew I wanted sports," he says.)
"I remember that it was a great game. It went extra innings and lasted 6 1/2 hours and Boog Powell comes up. I say the big fella is due and he does it. He hits a home run. I was so excited after the game, I called my wife at home. My son answered and said she wasn't there. He said 'She's at David's.' "
"Needless to say," he said of his first marriage, "that was the end of that." Michael said he wasn't able to sell the house for two years. Though he met his current wife, Pat Lackman (who is also his lead writer), in Philadelphia in 1974 and married her in 1978, Michael said those years were difficult, both financially and emotionally. At the time of the divorce, Michael's kids were 8, 7 and 3 years old.
He said he spent six to seven days a year in court each year from 1974-78. His legal fees ran high. At this point, he was working four jobs: besides spinning WABC's records, he became a play-by-play announcer for the New York Islanders, he worked for Howard Cosell's "Speaking of Sports" radio show, and he worked weekends on WABC-TV. Work. Hard. Fast.
"Here I was with four jobs, I was making $80,000 a year and I was still $84,000 in debt.
"But by May 10, 1978," said Michael, who has had custody of the three children over the years, "I put $32 in a savings account and I have never been prouder."
Howard Cosell was asked to comment on Michael's recent rise. Said Cosell, "I wouldn't know George Michael if I fell over him. This is in no way meant in any form of derogation. I simply don't know the man."
Pause. "Wait," Cosell said, "Dimly I remember a young deejay named George Michael . . . He may have along the way done a few spot shows in my absence. Other than that, though, I can't say."
Michael is put on the defensive often nowadays. What price, success? This is one such case. Michael says he filled in for Cosell, on his radio show, for a several-week period once. "When he came back, Howard's one major speech to me was, 'You did a good job.' He patted me on the back and kept walking," Michael remembered.
Michael also rebels when it's said he reports rumors on the air. Last summer, it is pointed out, he reported that the Redskins' line coach, Joe Bugel, turned down an offer to become head coach of the Pittsburgh Maulers of the U.S. Football League.
Ten minutes after Michael's late-night report, Bugel walked out of a Carlisle, Pa., coaches meeting and, with equal parts anger and bewilderment, said, "I don't know where he got that. It's not true. I'm still considering the offer."
In his own defense and with the knowledge that, several days after his report, Bugel announced that he had turned down the Maulers' offer that morning, Michael says, "I checked that story with my sources."
Michael also took criticism for his reporting of the University of Maryland's reprimand of Basketball Coach Lefty Driesell for his intervention in the disciplinary case of his player, Herman Veal, accused of trying to force sexual attentions on a female student. On his 5:30 and 6 o'clock news segments, Michael had a report on the situation, based on affidavits he said were signed by two Maryland students.
The story was killed on the 11 o'clock show that night and WRC News Director Jim Van Messel was quoted as saying at the time that Michael's sources weren't strong enough and "we weren't sure where we were going to go with (the story)."
It's now a year later and Michael says he still cannot discuss this story because the background is far too complicated and because he wants to protect his sources, who requested anonymity.
"I've been wrong only once since I've been here. And I'll never forgive myself. I said that (former Maryland basketball star) Albert King had (decided to go hardship) signed and would play with Chicago. That's the worst mistake I've made in this city."
He is angered when he is called a homer, more a fan of local teams than an objective reporter. "How can you say that?" Michael says. At the Super Bowl two years ago, it is pointed out, he wore a Redskins hat on the air, palling around with the players. In the Redskins' subsequent victory parade, there was Michael, sitting on a float, his 'No. 1!' index finger waving in the rain. "There's two sides to you, a reporter and a fan. I am a journalist first. Hey, putting on that Redskins hat was entertainment . . . "
Today, Michael still has little Redskins props and dolls on his desk.
In his defense, Michael says he often criticizes local athletes and owners. "How about the way I interviewed Joe Theismann after this Super Bowl? People called in saying I was cruel and inhuman. But, hey, I don't owe Joe Theismann anything. I owe the fan . . . I want to ask the question that the guy sitting around the bar asks. So I asked Joe 'Why in the hell did you throw that screen pass with 12 second left in the half?' Joe didn't get up and leave. He answered the question. Does that sound like a homer to you?"
He is criticized for spending too much time on fluff. The videotapes are pretty, but where's the beef, his critics say? Brenner notes, "I don't run wrestling highlights. I don't run rodeo highlights, yet I'm known as the court jester in this town."
Says Michael, "I think we have the most creative local sports show in the country."
Comes the criticism that Michael is a tanner copy of Warner Wolf, Washington's former Captain Videotape, who took his schtick to New York nearly a decade ago.
Says Wolf, "I guess working with me here in New York (1976-78, when Michael worked weekends, Wolf weekday nights), George did pick up some things from me. I guess his mannerisms are like mine. But please make it clear that I don't hold it against him."
Says Michael, "I don't think Warner and I are similar at all. The biggest difference is that Warner looks for plays that play into his act. He looks for five jump shots so he can say 'Swish!' He looks for five home runs so he can say 'Boom!' I let the videos do the talking."
In 1979, Wolf moved from WABC across town to WCBS. Michael said he began to search out new opportunities himself. Professionally, New York was becoming quicksand for him. He knew what he wanted and what he wanted wasn't New York. He turned down an offer made by the New York Mets' Frank Cashen to replace Lindsay Nelson as the team's play-by-play man.
"After six years of hell at (W)ABC, I wanted peace of mind," Michael said. He put out feelers in four cities. Came 1980 and John Rohrbeck, vice president and general manager of WRC, made an offer at a time when WRC was last in the ratings, seeking revival. Michael was ready for change.
"I thought to myself 'NBC? All they do is lose,' " Michael remembered, stuffing a cigarette butt into an ashtray. His look was purposeful, a modern-day P.T. Barnum with a top hat in one hand, a megaphone in the other. Work. Hard. Fast. Win.
"It was kind of scary," Michael recalled, "but I figured 'They are rated last. What do I have to lose?' "
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