Bob Costas: The Conscience of NBC Sports on Sandusky, Olympics Scandal and, Yep, Being Short
Mired in the ratings cellar, the network has pinned its gold medal hopes on the charming, challenging sportscaster.
Nowhere was that more obvious than in his interview in the fall with Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who on June 22 was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Costas had been working contacts in an effort to land interviews with Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who testified he'd seen Sandusky in the shower with a young boy, and head coach Joe Paterno, to whose son Jay he'd been reaching out. NBC News bookers were in State College, Pa., circling Sandusky and his attorney Joe Amendola, who agreed to an exclusive interview when he learned Costas would conduct it for the network's Rock Center. Costas had read the gruesome grand jury report and spent an hour on the phone the day before with a social worker who specializes in forensic interviews with sexual abuse victims for the New York Police Department. But as Amendola was en route to New York -- on an NBC-chartered plane -- executives began to see promos for a CNN interview with him. "I expressed my displeasure in fairly colorful terms," says executive producer Rome Hartman, adding that he does not know if Amendola made the last-minute and now-infamous suggestion to get Sandusky on the phone with Costas out of a misguided effort to make amends. "He knew, and we kept reiterating, that what we really wanted was an interview with his client."
The call was patched through the control room. It lasted 36 minutes. At one point, the line died and producers had to phone Sandusky back. Regardless, Costas seized the moment with blockbuster results. "Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?" he asked. Sandusky repeated the question back to Costas. "What are you willing to concede that you've done that was wrong?" he asked. Sandusky: "I shouldn't have showered with those kids." An incredulous Costas: "That's it?" And so it went.
The segment on the Brian Williams-hosted newsmagazine ran for eight minutes, but Costas pushed for more. "I felt like they should have blown out whatever segment was after it," he says. (It was a piece about Alabama's controversial immigration law.) "They did make more time for it than they had originally formatted. Let's put it this way: They had a big inning but left a few men on base."
In retrospect, Hartman agrees, though he points out, "There was no shortage of damning stuff" in those eight minutes. "It was a phoner, and it was one of the most gripping interviews that any of us will ever see," he says. "Bob was pitch-perfect. He was respectful on a human level, but he didn't give a single inch."
Indeed, the interview (an extended version of which ran online) continued to reverberate throughout Sandusky's trial. An exchange about his charity work -- during which Sandusky stated, "I didn't go around seeking out every young person that I've helped for sexual needs" -- was of particular interest to prosecutors, who on June 15 asked NBC News lawyers to authenticate a full, unedited transcript of the interview.
Since the segment aired Nov. 14, there has been a formal effort by the network's news division to use Costas more. On July 12, he appeared on Today to discuss the damning results of a seven-month investigation headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh that found failures at the top levels of the Penn State hierarchy -- and that Paterno might have known about Sandusky's behavior as far back as 1998. "Everybody at Penn State knew that Paterno had no real superiors. They tried to get him to resign a few years earlier, and he told them to kindly leave," says Costas. "This is a tragic situation, and a small part of the tragedy is what Joe Paterno's failures and neglect did to his own reputation."
NBC News -- and certainly dozens of other outlets -- are still pursuing a sit-down with Sandusky and his wife, Dottie. But Costas prefers to let his November interview stand as his contribution to exposing an abuse that destroyed dozens of lives and ripped the lid off the insular world of college athletics. He says, "I don't want to be in the Jerry Sandusky business."
Ohlmeyer was taken aback when he laid eyes on his then-27-year-old hire after only hearing him on the radio. Recalls Costas: " 'Don said, 'You have a future, but damnit, you look 14! How much older do you think you'd look if you grew a beard?' I said, 'Five years older.' He perks up. 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, because that's how long it would take to grow one.' "
Costas retains elements of his old boyishness. He's given to wisecracks (when he partnered with Ahmad Rashad on NBC's football games, they worked malapropisms from Rashad's Minnesota Vikings teammates into their reports). Although he celebrated his 60th birthday in March, his full head of hair remains brown save for some flecks of gray in the sideburns. And, no, he does not dye it.
Much to his two children's bemusement, Costas is cantankerously at odds with technology. He has voiced an aversion to the social-media culture of oversharing: "It's inanity." As to whether his NBC bosses have asked him to join Twitter, he replies: "No, they know better." He has an iPad but likes to start his day with an actual newspaper (after a cardio workout on the elliptical): He has The New York Times delivered to his door and also reads the New York Daily News, New York Post, Wall Street Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He favors texting but does it on an antiquated flip phone. Says Rashad: "When you become an icon like Bob, you've got to have something weird about you. So I guess it's his phone."
Costas is very comfortable in his own skin, routinely dropping self-deprecating comments about his height (he's 5-foot-6½). Told he'll be shot with New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (6-foot-8 and who also attended Syracuse University), he does not bat an eye. "Oh, I see what you're going for," says Costas with a wry grin. "It's all about the contrast -- tall, short, black, white."
His self-assurance makes him even more of a natural than some of his peers in front of the camera. "A lot of TV people are a little nervous to be on TV," says Ricky Diamond, who produces Costas Tonight. "He's the least tense person I've ever seen on TV." Adds Bruce Cornblatt, who has worked with Costas at NBC, HBO and now MLB Network: "When broadcasters interview people, they stop listening at a point because it's their turn next. Bob is sure that when the person stops talking, he'll know what to ask next."