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Sitting Mighty Pretty

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On a late summer afternoon in Manhattan, two principal CBS-TV sports commentators sat down in a studio to shoot a promo for their upcoming coverage of the 1976-77 National Football League season. Sportscaster A straightened his tie. Sportscaster B tucked in her blouse. “Hello, I’m Brent Musburger,” said the ex-reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “Hello, I’m Phyllis George,” said the ex-Miss America. Added Musburger, unnecessarily, “The lovely Phyllis George…”

Yes, there she is, Miss America, six years after her coronation in Atlantic City, sitting mighty pretty in the lion’s den of TV sports. Though former Miss Americas tend to be about as notable in their second careers as deposed generalissimos, Phyllis has determinedly emerged, at 27, as the most successful woman sportscaster in the land. As the stadium banners (shamelessly planted by CBS) say, she probably is prettier than Frank Gifford, but more than that, George is a born-for-TV presence.

Phyllis manages a dedication to her new trade without repudiating her own history. Indeed, last weekend she was booked once again to co-host the 56th Miss America Pageant with the eternal Bert Parks. But the second the final credits rolled, Phyllis was ticketed back to New York to prepare for the first of 19 grueling Sundays of pre-game, halftime and post-game airings of NFL Today with Musburger and former Philadelphia Eagle Irv Cross. As usual, she packed her homework. “I knew more about sports than some people gave me credit for when I started,” she says. “Especially football. I was a cheerleader for six years. Anyway, I’m from Texas,” she points out, “and down there you follow the Texas Longhorns and the Dallas Cowboys or you don’t belong. So, when I pick up the morning paper, the sports pages come first and the fashion pages come last.”

That background has paid off particularly well with her one-on-one interviews, now a staple of NFL Today. At her first assignment, the 1974 Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, Phyllis found she had nothing to do but “stand around and look terrific” in a Western outfit. “I went back to New York and told the producers, ‘We have to sit down and define my role.’ They said, ‘Okay, go up to Boston and interview Dave Cowens.’ ” Her talk with the thoughtful, laconic Boston Celtic star upgraded her job description and she clinched it tackling O.J. Simpson, Jimmy Connors and Muhammad AM. Perhaps the most famous was with Roger Staubach, the stolid-citizen quarterback of the Cowboys, whom she cajoled into declaring, “I like sex as much as Joe Namath. I just like it with one person, my wife.” But George’s greatest day in sport came with coach Bill Fitch of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. She wanted to close the sequence by sinking a foul shot. “Several of the players tried to show me how,” she recalls, “but each of them missed his shot. Guess what? I hit it! Bill Russell,” she whoops, “eat your heart out!”

Not all of her shtiks have panned out as happily. She looked rather silly in a slap-and-tickle scrimmage on the beach with Los Angeles defensive end Fred Dryer last month. There also was the time Joe Namath, in a black funk during a losing streak, simply walked out in the middle of an interview. (It still turned out to be one of her most revealing.) Then there was the tragic equine battle of the sexes between the filly Ruffian and the colt Foolish Pleasure. “I cried for two days after they had to destroy Ruffian,” she says. “That’s where a woman’s sensitivity comes in.” Expanding on this touchy point, she says: “Women are inquisitive as well as sensitive—they like to find out about people. I’d like to see more women get involved, as long as they retain their femininity.”

Remarks about “retaining femininity” do not endear Phyllis to feminists, most of whom would rather have seen the ill-fated Jane Chastain become the first female sports-media star. But Chastain was as miscast as Gertrude Stein might have been in the NFL broadcast booth, and her contract was not renewed. So why did Phyllis score where others failed? Here is a stunning revelation: Athletes like to talk to gorgeous girls with eyes of onyx and a smile like a flash of summer lightning on a hot Texas night.

Phyllis is also as bright, warm and friendly as a June picnic on Lake Texoma, an impulsive kisser and compulsive talker in the classic tradition of Southwestern girls. She is the daughter of a small businessman in the indolent college town of Denton, Texas. Her swift rise from North Texas State cheerleader to Miss America of 1971 tracks like a reel from an old Jane Powell musical. “We were sitting around the Zeta Tau Alpha house on Friday night before the Miss Dallas pageant,” she remembers, “and my sorority sisters thought it would be fun if I went down to Dallas the next morning to enter…”

She had the requisites: the height (5’8″), the measurements (36-23-36) and appropriately modest talent (14 years at the piano). By the time she became queen of the realm, the institution was becoming unpopular, but Phyllis showed unprecedented spirit in dealing with protesters. “You’re being exploited!” they shouted. She would calmly reply: “I got a $10,000 scholarship and am well paid for my work. Who’s exploiting me?” After that, New York was almost a breeze. “I did commercials, game shows, co-hosted Candid Camera, anything that came along,” she recounts, “and I took acting and dancing lessons on the side.” Meanwhile, the networks were searching for a woman sportscaster whom men would look at and listen to. Bob Wussler, president then of CBS Sports (and now of the whole shebang), spotted Phyllis in the 1974 Miss America telecast and signed her that autumn. “It was a terrible decision for me,” she says. “I woke up one night crying and said to myself, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”

Currently, she is negotiating a new four-year contract that should round out to about $500,000. Beyond NFL and NBA color, it calls for her to take over Challenge of the Sexes (from snow-flaky Suzy Chaffee) and may include TV series cameos and even a featured role in a made-for-TV movie. “I can’t stay in sports forever,” she notes. Her dress nowadays is Manhattan chic, and most echoes of Texas have been expunged from her voice.

Still, enough of her small-town Methodist upbringing remains to make Phyllis an engaging hybrid, an authentic country slicker. She attends church and keeps her private life as private as possible. She dated former New York Giant football star Tucker Frederickson for a time, now goes out with a real estate broker and a lawyer for the U.S. Olympic Committee. As she puts it, “The problem with show business is that you’re out there naked all the time. Still,” she adds, “I like to entertain, to flash the teeth and turn people on, or I wouldn’t be here. Fortunately I have a clean slate. Nobody can ever discover that I did this or that with a director, or made a porno flick, or had an abortion.” Then comes her light, trilling laugh. “Why, I’ve never even lived with anybody!”

The future? “Marriage and a family are very important to me,” she says, “but it wouldn’t be fair for me to get married and have children now, not with my schedule. I traveled more than 300,000 miles last year, and I’ll travel even more this year. First,” she continues, “I’d like to establish myself as a TV personality so I can pick and choose just what I want to do. Right now, though, I’m a pioneer in sports, and I want to set an example for those high school girls who may do play-by-play someday. You see, I’m really a small-town girl who was raised to sit and chat in people’s living rooms. And that’s what I do on Sunday afternoons.” She puts down her wine glass and signs off with a line only Phyllis George could get away with. “People say I’m refreshing. Well, you know something, it’s true. I am refreshing.”