February 01, 1993 12:00 PM

LET’S LET DAVID LETTERMAN, BOB COSTAS’S bête noire, explain why the popular sportscaster is stepping down after nine years as host of NBC’s football-Sunday extravaganza, NFL Live. In a lighthearted network farewell, The Costas Chronicles, aired last month, Letterman offered one of his celebrated Top 10 lists on the reasons for Costas’s departure. Among them: “Groin pull”; “Got a better deal at CBS” (Look who’s talking!); and “NBC won’t pay for high chair in studio.” For his part, Costas rejects all slurs on his stature (“I’m a gangling 5’6½” “) and says he was chagrined to see his favorite reason not make Letterman’s final cut: “Needs to spend more quality time with fiancée Marge Schott.”

It is a measure of Costas’s eminence that his announced departure has done a lot more than draw friendly fire from the likes of Letterman. It has also generated almost as much speculation as have the respective merits of the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, the gridiron combatants Costas will analyze one last time for NBC on NFL Live Sunday, Jan. 31, at Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, Calif.

Plying his well-modulated patter—smooth, steady, knowing and upbeat, with just a touch of flippancy—Costas, only 40, has already won three Emmys and has thrice been named Sportscaster of the Year by his peers. He has branched out from TV to broadcast a syndicated radio show, Costas Coast to Coast. And he has moved beyond sports to host Later with Bob Costas, the late-night post-Letterman talk show that has won plaudits for Costas’s in-depth discussions with such diverse figures as Mario Cuomo, Kirk Douglas, Billy Crystal and Roseanne Cash. He also hosts NBA Showtime and fills in now and again for Bryant Gumbel on Today. If all that hasn’t wound enough garlands in Costas’s designer hair. there was the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, where Costas anchored 86 hours of blue-chip coverage. His performance gained him as much press as any medalist and inspired his neighbors in St. Louis to put up a sign on his front lawn reading “Welcome Home, Bob, You Won the Gold!”

OF course, Costas is not, as he notes, “about to disappear.” Rather he’s like a ballplayer at the peak of his career who is about to become a free agent. Rival networks hover around. His contracts for both NBC Sports and Later expire this year, and Costas wants to weigh his options very carefully. Says Costas: “I’ll miss the people and the big names late in the year. But week to week, the NFL Live format is restrictive and repetitious. And unless what you’re doing is the greatest single passion of your life, you ought to move on before being asked to.”

There was a rumor that NBC, facing a black hole at 12:30 a.m. EST with Letterman’s defection to CBS, might want to move Costas and Later up an hour. “That’s all very flattering,” Costas says, “but my personal timetable may not coincide with TV’s timetable.” Translated: Costas not only wants to do different things he also wants to spend more time at home with his family. For six years he has shuttled between New York City and St. Louis, where he lives with his wife, Randy, 39, and their two children, Keith, 6, and Taylor, 3. “If I were single, or my kids were grown, that would be one thing,” he says. “But they’re only going to be this age once, and I just don’t want to continue to do as much professionally as I’ve been doing.”

Costas does want to keep an eye on negotiations between major league baseball and the TV networks next year, when CBS’s contract expires. Baseball, not football, is his greatest single passion—this is a grown man who still carries a laminated Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet—and he’s hoping that NBC will gel at least a piece of the action. In the meantime, he says, “NBC is being very understanding with me.” And Costas made sure he didn’t leave the network twisting in the wind: Two years ago he told Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, that he would be signing off on NFL Live. “We’ll miss him a lot,” Ebersol says. “With Costas, you have the absolute guarantee that you’ll always see, sitting in that seat, a calm, smiling, organized, intelligent person at the helm.”

Costas got the flair for showmanship from his father, John, an electrical engineer who moved his family from New York City to Commack, N.Y., when his wife, the former Jayne Quinlan, was pregnant with Bob’s sister. “My dad was a terrific guy,” Costas says. “Big, smart, great sense of humor. But he was also a big gambler. Watching his experience, those swings of highs and lows, probably steered me away from gambling. I’ve never bet anything more than five bucks on a golf game.”

A self-declared “goof-off with weird report cards,” Costas played baseball at Commack High School South and at home practiced announcing games by turning down the TV and doing the play-by-play. “That way,” he says, “I could pretend to be both Mickey Mantle and Red Barber.” Later he attended Syracuse University, majoring in broadcast journalism and covering Syracuse football and basketball games. In 1974 he left Syracuse to take a job doing play-by-play for the St. Louis Spirits of the old ABA.

He settled in St. Louis and became a local celebrity. One day in 1980, a third grader on his block asked Costas if he would come to school with him as the boy’s show-and-tell project. Costas agreed and so met the teacher, Randy Krummenacher. They started dating and in 1983 they married, with Costas hiring Chubby Checker to sing at the wedding. By that time Costas had been signed by NBC in New York City to broadcast NFL and college basketball games. His commute began—and his reputation took off. Costas was sharp, he did his homework, he loved the games but never lost his head. That made him a valuable commodity in a fast market—and also won him the respect of his peers. Says ESPN’s Chris Berman: “Hey, the guy’s handled everything they’ve thrown at him and never lost his enthusiasm—that’s what shines through.” Says his NFL Live sidekick, O.J. Simpson: “I’m amazed at him. He doesn’t always watch the game, but when we’re on, he’s so well prepared, he’s always embellishing, always adding something to the replay.”

One colleague to whom Costas owes a serious debt is Letterman. “The guy has been great to me,” says Costas. “After I got started in New York, he tapped me to do mock sportscasting on his show—elevator races, taxi races. Thai’s why I’m one of his biggest fans—and why I get my share of needling from Dave.”

Meanwhile, NBC wanted to find something, somebody, to follow Letter-man at night; Ebersol, the producer who saved Saturday Night Live from self-immolation in the early ’80s, suggested Costas. The idea that evolved was that Costas would do a nightly series of biographical sketches. Ebersol reckoned that Costas, who refused to move his family to New York City, could tape all four of the weekly shows in a day at NBC headquarters and continue to commute.

That finally persuaded Costas, and NBC bought the show in 1988. Now Later is a late-night favorite as Costas has built a solid audience with incisive interviews that avoid the usual talk show chitchat. Well, almost. He did get actress Marilu Henner to confess that she lost her virginity, in the shower, the night that man first set foot on the moon. Costas observed: “One thing we know for sure—the culprit wasn’t Neil Armstrong.”

It was also Ebersol who tapped Costas for the anchor post in Barcelona. “It was the most intense experience of my professional life,” says Costas. “I was running on pure adrenaline. When I got back, people said, ‘Aren’t you worn out?’ I took a hot shower, got a good night’s sleep and felt like a million dollars the next day. It wasn’t until a month later that it caught up with me and I said, ‘Hey, I need a vacation.’ ”

He’s got one coming, though he’ll still be doing NBA Showtime until the end of the basketball season and Later until at least July. “I plan to read a pile of books, play some golf and spend lime with my family,” he says. “Then I want to see how the picture develops.” His friend O.J. has some thoughts about that. “I’ll be real curious to see what happens,” he says. “I just don’t believe he’s going to sit at home for four or five months. I think he wants to be in on the action.” But let’s at least give Costas the last word on his own future. “I want my career to fit into my life,” he says, “not the other way around. If the decision is to have a bigger career or a better life, then it’s a better life for me.”

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