Earlier this week, broadcaster Bob Costas won his 21st Emmy Award and second consecutive as Outstanding Sports Personality.
Saturday, Costas will host NBC's coverage of the Kentucky Derby, along with Lexington's Tom Hammond and three-time Derby-winning jockey Gary Stevens.
Costas took time Thursday to travel from Louisville and deliver the inaugural Gidel/Lombardo Sports Communications Lecture at the University of Kentucky. Before making his remarks to and fielding questions from a Memorial Hall crowd of about 200, Costas spoke with the Herald-Leader.
Question: You've worked with so many great broadcasters over the years. At the Derby you'll again be teaming with one of Lexington's own, Tom Hammond. What makes Tom so special at what he does, particularly in working with you?
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Answer: Well, he's extremely versatile. He can do any sport, including sports where you don't have that many network announcers who have a background in it. He's really good on track and field in the Summer Olympics. Remarkably good. He's very good handling the figure skating at the Winter Olympics, which requires a different kind of touch, a different kind of approach, and he's able to adjust. I think the reason why he's so good on horse racing is because he has a genuine background. He has a degree in equine science and he grew up in horse country, so he's steeped in it. And then something that carries through with everything he does, including the basketball and football and whatever else, he has one of the best voices in the business. He has a voice that's simultaneously pleasing and authoritative.
Q: Tom has that lifelong connection that makes horse racing a pet sport of his. Of all the sports you cover, is there one that has that special connection?
A: Baseball. Baseball's always been my favorite sport. I like them all, but baseball's the one that I have the greatest feeling for."
Q: A few years ago, many people were hoping you would be the guy to take over as baseball commissioner. If you could step into that role today and have czar powers, what changes would be at the top of your list?
A: Well, if the wild card and expanded playoffs are here to stay, and they've proven to be popular, I think you've got to create a situation where it makes a more significant difference to finish first as opposed to being the wild card. There's almost no drama if the Yankees and Red Sox come to the last day of the season tied. There's almost no drama because they're both going to get in and there's not a significant difference. In the NFL, lots of teams make the playoffs but there's a big, big difference between being the No. 1 seed and being a wild-card team. Even if the No. 1 seed doesn't cash in on it, it has the bye, it has the home field throughout. Big difference. So I think that one of the things that I would do is that I would make the first round of the playoffs best-of-seven and shorten the regular season back to 154 games. ... The wild-card team and the division winner with the third-best record would get only two home games. I'd go 2-2-3. And then if the wild-card team survives to the LCS, same thing. Whereas, if it were two non-wild cards, I'd go back to the 2-3-2 situation. The same thing for the World Series.
I think they made a good change this week that I've been talking about for 25 years. Even if you don't like the DH, why would you not have a DH in the all-star game? They put that in. I'm good with that.
In September, when they expand the rosters to 40, there's a good reason for that because teams want to look at their prospects. But why would you play pennant-race games with 40 players in them that completely distort the strategy? The 20-inning game that the Cardinals played with the Mets the other day, that's an entirely different game if you've got 40 players. To me, the way you do that is you do it the way hockey does it. You have 40 players, but you designate. The same way that hockey designates who dresses for a given game. You just designate the 25.
And then the one thing, that I think I actually should have put first — by decree, they need to go back to the old strike zone. If you can call strikes from the letters to the knees, it's going to move games along. Baseball's supposed to have a leisurely pace. It's not supposed to have the same pace as basketball or football. A leisurely pace; but not a lethargic pace. And now you see so many teams that as a strategy — and it's a good strategy — they try to work deep in the counts because they know that very few guys throw complete games. If you can build a pitch count above 100, you're going to get into the middle of the bullpen before you get to the closer and you're going to do a lot of damage. That's a strategy coming in, especially in the American League. The only way to counteract that is you've got to give guys strikes where they used to be so that they can get ahead on counts where guys will swing at pitches earlier in counts."
Q: Is there any chance you might reconsider a run at the commissioner's office?
A: No. There's no chance. No chance. I'm just here to help. (He laughs.)
Q: Over nine Olympics, aside from the usual competition angles, you've dealt with doping and boycotts. In recent Olympics, there often have been unforeseen tragic issues that come up, from the Munich hostage killings to the Centennial Park bombing to, most recently, the death of a luge competitor. How do you prepare yourself to handle such spur-of-the-moment situations?
A: I don't think you can prepare yourself for something like what happened with the Georgian luger. Except the experience that you have through the years helps you to strike what you hope is the right tone and deliver the proper emphasis. What made that one kind of tricky was that the news broke virtually as the opening ceremony was about to begin. And they're still going to have the opening ceremony. It wouldn't be right to deprive Canada of that, or to cast a pall over it completely. So you have to figure out a way, A, to impart the news at the start, then B to properly acknowledge it — like when the Georgian delegation comes in or when any mention is made of a luger. How do you properly acknowledge this without completely deflating the ceremony that is going on, that is appropriately high spirited? I think the only way to know how to do that, if there is a way to know, is just from being around long enough that you get a sense of what the right tone is.
Q: There are so many questions that could be asked regarding your vast Olympic background. Rather than a question from me limiting you to a specific area, what is it about the Games that you would most like to discuss?
A: I'm often asked about a favorite moment, and it's almost impossible to pick out any one moment. But if I had to just go with one, I would go with Ali lighting the cauldron in '96 in Atlanta because it was simultaneously exciting and moving. And, in an age when almost everything seems to get out, no one knew. So when he stepped out of the shadows and took the torch from Janet Evans, you heard something. I've told this story before ... you heard something you almost never hear in a sports stadium. You heard audible gasps. I don't know how many people were there that night — 80,000, whatever. You heard not cheering at first, but first there was like a gasp. Then there were a couple of seconds of silence. Then there was a spontaneous thunderous applause. And you knew that all of those tens of thousands of people were thinking exactly the same thing. And it wasn't a simple thing. It was not just enough that this was one of the most famous athletes the world has ever known. They kind of 'got it' all simultaneously. That here was a guy who had once been the most controversial athlete on the planet and now was close to universally loved and respected. So he'd had a metamorphosis of that kind. But also he'd gone in a different way. He'd been changed from the most beautiful and outspoken athlete to a man who was imprisoned inside a body that had betrayed him. And, in a sense, it embodied the best spirits of the Olympics in that someone who not only was so charismatic, but in truth was a very vain main, an egotistical man, is now willing to humble himself and present himself as is to the world. It's an inspiring thing. I don't think it happens very often, when you're in a large gathering and you know that everyone has exactly the same thought at the same time, and that's what happened there."
Q: Being in Lexington, I've got to get in a University of Kentucky question before closing. What's your take on John Calipari's first season here?
A: Well, Calipari's going to win wherever he goes. From a distance, it seems that he makes no bones about it — the roster's often going to be made up of one-and-done guys. A guy like John Wall, from what I'm told, was a good student. I have less of a problem with someone who comes for one year and is a legitimate student and leaves than I do with someone who hangs around for three or four years and it's a sham that he's a student at all. So, until they change the rule, I don't see what the problem is — other than, if you're a Kentucky fan, you wish he stayed.