December 22, 1997 12:00 PM

MY DAD GOT VERY SICK WITH lung cancer just as I took this job,” says Matt Lauer about the one storm cloud over his first year as Katie Couric’s coanchor on NBC’s Today. His father, Robert Lauer, a bike-company executive who had retired to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., “was fine when I started, January 6,” recalls Lauer, discussing a subject he kept private even from his NBC colleagues. But by February it was clear that the disease was terminal. “So here I am coming into work every day, the biggest opportunity in my life,” Lauer says. “After work I’m calling Florida and getting horrible reports. Then, starting in March, I’m leaving on Friday mornings at 9:00 and flying down to be with him for the weekend.” Right up until the senior Lauer died last spring at age 74, says Lauer’s sister April Stone, 44, a human resources manager in New York City, “Dad watched the show every day. He was so proud.” It still consoles Lauer that his father lived long enough to see his first broadcast. “I can’t tell you,” Lauer says, “how important that was to me.”

Robert Lauer’s pride no doubt would remain undiminished. As his 39-year-old son approaches his first anniversary in the seat vacated by Bryant Gumbel, ratings are up 12 percent. And if one critic is less than impressed—”Lauer,” says the Washington Post’s Tom Shales, “seems like a male model with a gift for the glib”—the 46-year-old show is at an all-time high and is the undisputed ratings winner in its morning time slot. “Anyone who had doubts that Matt could sit in Bryant’s chair has been answered loud and clear,” says Today executive producer Jeff Zucker.

Lauer credits Gumbel, now host of CBS’s Public Eye, for some particularly helpful advice: “You’re going to be in that chair for years,” said Gumbel, who occupied it for a record decade-and-a-half. “So just go out there and be yourself.” Unlike Gumbel, who bristled with confidence (and occasionally just bristled), Lauer is more affable, more relaxed. “Matt doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Couric, whose relations with Gumbel were sometimes tense. She likens her chemistry with Lauer, who might fill an off-camera moment by speaking in a silly accent, to “two kids in high school who are buddies but a little competitive.” His ease, says Zucker, is no act. “Matt is on TV what he is off the air. He’s very genuine. Guys want to be his bud-&y. Women want to date him.”

Do they ever. Married from 1981 to 1988 to TV producer Nancy Alspaugh, the pleasantly handsome, impeccably groomed divorce has more smitten fans than any newscaster since NBC Gulf War correspondent Arthur (“the Scud Stud”) Kent. Weekday mornings, women standing outside Today’s glass-fronted Manhattan studio wave signs. (One, recalls Couric, read, “I’m a Southern belle here to ring Matt’s chimes.”) The ups and downs of his love life—such as his broken engagement last year to TV reporter Kristen Gesswein—keep headline writers busy. Lauer has been linked to actresses Tiffany Elliot and Molly Culver, as well as rocker Sheryl Crow (“I’ve never even met her,” he says). His sister says she gets “at least 10 inquiries a month as to whether Matt’s available.”

He’s not. “I’m dating one person,” says Lauer. “It’s a woman.”

Besides, Lauer doesn’t buy the hunk-at-sunrise image. “I’m a guy,” he says, “who is about to turn 40 [on Dec. 30], who has a large nose and an overbite, whose hairline in the front is receding, whose hair in the back is disappearing, who’s losing his butt.” He even admits to a few on-air lows (including October’s chat with a mumbly Prince Albert). But just arriving at work at 5 a.m. is a high. “This is the best job in television,” he says. “I grew up watching the Today show.”

That morning ritual was part of what the Manhattan-born Lauer describes as an “almost boringly Norman Rockwell childhood.” Although his parents divorced when he was 8, “they both remarried in two or three years,” he says. “So there was no emotional void.” Lauer eventually lived with his mother, Marilyn, a homemaker, and her husband, a fashion-industry vice president, in a modest three-bedroom garden apartment in affluent Greenwich, Conn. “I would go to friends’ parties,” he says. “They were in mansions.” But the likable Lauer “was accepted by all,” says his longtime pal John Horan, a media consultant. “He was able to be a part of any crowd.”

The beauty part. “Matt always paid attention to his clothing,” says his sister, “even as a child of 7 or 8.” In his senior year at Greenwich High, where he was an average student, Lauer went to work part-time at Richard’s, a local men’s store where to this day he buys his Armani and Zegna suits. His affair with broadcasting began about the same time, when he and some friends, sons of NBC Sports executives, worked as golf-tournament gofers. “It was glamorous,” he says, “mingling with sports stars and being paid to do it. That’s why I went off and studied communications.”

A quick study he was. In 1979, during his senior year at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, he landed an internship at a TV station in Huntington, W.Va. Hired as a noontime producer before graduating (the school presented him with a diploma in June), by 1985 Lauer was hosting the Manhattan edition of PM Magazine, a syndicated light-news show. But after PM folded in 1986, he endured four successive on-air flops. “I began to panic,” says Lauer, who spent 16 months brooding in a North Salem, N.Y., cottage with his golden retriever Walden (whose ashes now repose in a wooden box in Lauer’s office). “I was thinking I wasn’t cut out to be a host.”

Wrong. In 1992, Lauer was tapped to host New York City’s early-morning show Today in New York. By the time then-executive producer Steve Friedman brought him onboard Today to read the news in 1994, Lauer was anchoring two local broadcasts daily. Named “the undisputed prince” of New York TV by one magazine, he became the Today heir apparent after Gumbel, in January 1996, announced his intention to leave by year’s end. When Lauer got the nod that fall, “I dialed my dad,” he says. “There was the initial ‘yes!’ Then we both cried.”

These days, Lauer, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment he recently bought on Manhattan’s East Side, gets up at 4:15 a.m., is done with dinner by 8 p.m. and, after reading for the next day’s show, is tucked in by 10. A good golfer who regularly plays in celebrity tournaments, he often hits the links with Gumbel, his close friend for years. “We may be the only men in the world,” says Gumbel, Lauer’s equal in sartorial savvy, “who would ask each other to go shoe shopping.”

Lauer’s vision of the future? “Great kids, great wife, own a bed-and-break-fast,” he says. “Fish in the morning, golf in the afternoon.” But given his Today success, he won’t likely be taking B&B reservations anytime soon.

TOM GLIATTO

SUE MILLER in New York City

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