John Clay

No love lost for Billy Packer

Dick Vitale wants to be loved. Meet the ebullient ESPN analyst in person, and he will call you by name, pose for pictures, leave a canned message on your voice mail by request, and will even petition your home address so he can mail your offspring a goodie box. Pan his bombastic broadcasting style, if you will, but Dickie V. is a nice guy.

Billy Packer doesn't want to be loved. That isn't to say the longtime — as in long, long time — college basketball analyst being pared from the CBS roster is not a nice guy. It is to say that he has never cared whether we, the viewing public, thought of him as a nice guy. That's not his makeup.

Instead, Packer wanted us to regard him as professional. And smart. And prepared. And analytical. Most of all, Packer wanted us to think of him as right.

The first time I approached Billy Packer one-on-one for help with a story was in the late 1990s. I was at Rupp Arena, as was Packer, there to watch Kentucky practice in preparation for the next day's game with Louisville. My topic was Denny Crum's decline. I approached Packer, introduced myself, politely asked for a minute, then pitched my premise.

In a nanosecond, Packer told me I could not be more misguided.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Kentucky was playing an afternoon game at Michigan State. Packer and I were booked on the same Saturday night flight out of East Lansing. Only neither of us were on the flight, as it had been delayed, and at one point the airline made us would-be passengers wait in the walkway as the aircraft underwent preparations.

To pass the time, a mini-debate concerning the ongoing vote recount in the presidential election surfaced. Arguing one side was a young law school student. On the other side was Packer, who had drawn the law student into the discussion.

It struck me: Billy Packer will debate anybody about anything.

That was Packer's strength as an analyst. He was always prepared, most always professional, always willing to say what he thought. He didn't spend his valuable air time currying favor from coaches, shilling for upcoming events or stating the obvious.

But by the end, Packer's strength became his weakness. As he grew older, he grew more the grouch. In the last few years, he was often too quick to judge and too focused on one or two points.

He came off as an advocate for those who did not need advocacy, the Goliaths at the expense of the Davids. He decried Saint Joseph's No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in 2004, mocked the Missouri Valley's bevy of bids in 2006, all but derided George Mason during the Patriots' run to the 2006 Final Four. He was Billy P-ACC-ker, protector of the powerful.

As a lead analyst, Packer lacked John Madden's oafish charm. His no-nonsense approach often begged for some joyful nonsense. And if Packer was a reliable workhorse, returning year after year for one more hoops season, he also was as stubborn as a mule.

Example: Packer refused to mention the NBA, or how a college player might project to the next level. He ignored pro basketball as if it did not exist. He became too set in his ways.

Little wonder CBS is going a different way. The 47-year-old Clark Kellogg, 21 years Packer's junior, will take Billy's seat. Rumor is Jay Bilas might be asked to take a third chair. It makes sense. We're undergoing a generational shift in this country. Time to pass the headset.

But the Billy bashers should refrain from happily assuming they earned the last laugh by watching an unloved know-it-all be shoved off into the sunset.

Billy Packer never wanted to be loved.