I’ve never met anyone who liked Billy Packer. I’ve never even met anyone who could muster even a half-hearted defense of Billy Packer. The New Republic‘s Jason Zengerle wrote a tentatively pro-Packer piece back in 2005 — it’s nowhere to be found on TNR’s website, but it’s summarized at another blog here — but since I don’t know Jason Zengerle, and since his defense of Packer basically amounted to “he’s not Dick Vitale, at least,” I’m not going to count it.
I also don’t believe that my inability to find Packer supporters is an example of how my living in New York makes me a cultural reverse-provincial without any sense of what The Real America is thinking. I run in the circles I run in, but I have a hard time imagining anyone in America who loves basketball even remotely liking Billy Packer’s wildly negative, get-off-my-porch shtick.
Maybe a hard core of grouchy Wake Forest fans and self-styled “disciplinarian” insurance salesmen that daydream about playing golf with Bobby Knight, then hitting the clubhouse for a few Coors Lights and a discussion of the flat tax. But the experience of listening to Packer call a game — even a classic like last night’s final — remains one of the most singularly unpleasant experiences in sports spectating. So: how did Packer wind up this way? USA Today‘s Michael Hiestand explains, kind of:
Billy Paczkowski, his birth name, knows his bio is bizarre: “It’s something I almost feel bad about, that for so many guys this is their given profession and they worked their tail off and it never paid off for them.”
To try to make sense of it, start with a team now in the Final Four: Memphis.
It was called Memphis State in 1970, when Packer figured he’d land its head coaching job. His father had coached at Lehigh, and Packer was a Wake Forest assistant after being an all-conference guard on the school’s 1962 Final Four team. But during a trip with other coaches, he happened to hear that Memphis picked someone else ” Gene Bartow ” in what was “a shot through the heart.” Since he’d given himself four years to get a head coaching job, he decided he was “finished. And I never looked back.” (Let’s look back: “I’d have been a winner there,” says Packer, who planned to run a “college basketball program like a business.”)
…He’ll tell you that Hillary Clinton’s support among women is overrated. He randomly approached 123 women recently ” without introducing himself ” to ask if they’d vote for her. “None of them knew who I was, or cared,” he says. He was surprised only three women blew him off ” “you’d think they’d say it was none of my business.” (FYI: Only six said they’d vote for Clinton.)
His survey wasn’t out of character. After the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing, he created the Richard Jewell Defense Foundation since he was sure police were focusing on the wrong suspect. He hired a psychic to find the murder weapon in the O.J. Simpson case. When he lived alongside a golf course, he played holes backward ” from green to tee. He once took the Picasso ceramics he collects, put them in plexiglass under a plywood board ” and used it as his work desk.
He famously dismisses TV ratings. After working CBS’ Texas-Memphis game Sunday, he was in the Houston airport and saw all sets were tuned to CBS’ Davidson-Kansas and “the bartender knew more about (Davidson standout) Stephen Curry than I did” ” so ratings must be underestimating audiences.
Hiestand’s article is almost a week old (Brendan Flynn sent it to me last week), but I was thinking about it last night as I listened to Packer joylessly rip 20-year olds instead of providing either color or analysis. While it’s not an especially probing piece, it does manage to distill Packer’s curdled essence fairly well. Somewhere along the line — and the guy’s been doing Final Fours for 34 years, so this maybe isn’t so surprising — something in Packer went sour. And now he’s a bitter, carping, half-crazy old grump who — instead of sharing what I can only assume is a rich knowledge of information about basketball strategy and execution (34 Final Fours is a not-inconsiderable number) — instead acts pissed-off about even having to be at the games he calls and seems forever a weak moment away from going off on some sort of rant about how “the hip hop kids” don’t respect the game. He hints in Hiestand’s piece that this may be his last Final Four. Speaking for everyone I know — and probably a lot of people I don’t — I say that CBS can’t get Bill Raftery into that chair soon enough.