It’s still odd to turn on the Olympics and Bob Costas is nowhere to be found.
As the de facto emcee of NBC’s Olympics coverage for decades, Costas was the rare TV personality to be associated with a single sporting event.
He left NBC in early 2019, but continues working for other platforms where his wit, bite and candor may not threaten a network’s relationship with the NFL.
His new show Back on the Record with Bob Costas, is available now on HBO.
As someone who grew up listening to his radio show and late-night talk show, and watching him interview a wide array of personalities beyond sports, he was a genuine inspiration.
And the chance to tell him this was a genuine thrill.
“That’s very kind of you,” Costas said in a recent phone interview. “Having said all of that, you better not screw this up.”
In a 30-minute conversation he covers how David Letterman helped to launch his career in a different direction, the interview he always wanted and the time Jack Nicholson dropped an F-bomb on him.
Mac Engel: You were associated with sports early in your career but what prompted it to take a different path?
Bob Costas: It was actually [former NBC president] Dick Ebersol’s idea with a little bit of encouragement from David Letterman. Like you, Letterman had heard the radio show. He told Dick, ‘If Bob can interview Bart Starr for a whole hour, he would make anyone interesting.’
ME: Did you want to do, Later with Bob Costas?
BC: It took some convincing. My kids were very young at the time and I was commuting between St. Louis and New York. Dick’s first idea was that it would be a nightly reflection, a bit in sports, some pop culture. When he realized I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, want to do it from New York four to five times a week, he turned it into, Later.
No bells or whistles. We did multiple shows a day with guests so we could tape several. It was one of the most important things in my career and Dick deserves a lot of credit for it.
If I have any regret is that I chose to leave Later reluctantly after six years. I was doing the commuting, we had the Olympics, we had the NBA and we were about to get baseball back. I thought something had to come off the plate.
Now the show has gotten a second life with YouTube. I get texts from people saying, ‘I saw you interview Robert Duval or Smoky Robinson.’ I think, ‘Oh, really, when was that?’
ME: Will this show on HBO be like that in any way?
BC: It has elements of it. To Dick’s credit, when I left Later he was the head of NBC Sports, and he helped to arrange for me to do profiles on news magazines shows. That’s when they were news magazines and not crime shows.
That’s when I did an extended profile on Woody Allen, Mickey Mantle, and a bunch of others. They all have overlaps and similarities to Costas Coast to Coast (his radio show).
ME: You have interviewed so many notable names, is there anyone you want but have not?
BC: I’ve had the same list as everyone else. Everyone wanted JD Salinger, and that’s not possible unless there is a seance. In sports, people would love to see a 1-on-1 with Sandy Koufax, but, to his credit, his knows himself and he’s not comfortable with it.
I asked him in the mid ‘90s and he called me back personally and said if I ever do it, you’re the guy I’d do it with. I was at the front of a line that never moves. It didn’t matter if you were first or 15th.
I did interview Joe DiMaggio, who was very reticent.
When I was doing Later the person I really wanted was Jack Nicholson. People don’t realize this, they only saw him on the big screen, or courtside at Lakers games. He explained to me, ‘I think of myself as a movie star that you pay your money to leave your house and you see the person that way.’ To do anything else diminishes that. He was always very nice to me.
He didn’t do Johnny Carson, or any of those shows. Now, he’s a big basketball fan. The Bulls are hosting the Blazers [in the 1992 NBA Finals], and I’m hosting it. He shows up to the game because he’s shooting a movie [close to Chicago].
Our director asks me to go ask him for an interview. It’s a complete fool’s errand. I tap him on the shoulder, and he stands up, turns around and it looks like the face from The Shining. He recognizes me and says, ‘Oh, hi Bob.’
I tell him to just play along, that I’m supposed to ask you to do an interview. He says, ‘Bobby, you’re a nice kid. You do good work. How can I put this nicely? No [bleeping] way.’
ME: You are what, 65 or 66?
BC: I’m 69.
ME: I knew that, but I figured the better way to set up this question was to shoot low and act like I didn’t know.
BC: That’s a smart move on your part.
ME: The last sports TV personality to follow your path in terms of going well beyond sports was Howard Cosell, who famously became very bitter about the state of sports and TV when he retired. How have you avoided that?
BC: I’m not sure I follow.
ME: Great. Here I am interviewing my idol and I’m blowing it — by the time Howard was later in his career sports TV had changed a lot. Sports TV has changed a lot since you entered the profession and yet you seem not bothered by it at all. How?
BC: I didn’t know Howard well, but I was acquainted with him. I think a lot of that was Howard’s own basic personality. In my case, there will be times when you feel more connected to something than other times.
During the prime slice of my career, let’s say from the mid ’80s to 2005, whatever I did was a good example of whatever ability I had. Baseball on NBC, Later, the Olympics and the way they were done, the radio show. Appearances on Conan O’Brien, Meet the Press, magazine pieces, the NBA and now HBO. Every one of those was just a really good match.
Over the last decade or so, through no one’s fault, there were fewer things that were a fit for me. I never felt alienated from it, but I felt less connected to it all.
All of us who have a clear eye, and except in Sochi I’ve had a clear eye, I see certain things in sports I am skeptical about, or critical of, but that’s not to say I no longer like it or am angry about it.
ME: You have been candid and critical about the state of sports journalism, and it has often sounded like you are frustrated, disappointed and even sad. Have those feelings changed at all?
BC: My feeling is there is more good sports journalism than ever before, and a lot of it is digital and in print. Or HBO, or ESPN’s 30 For 30.
Now, if you are talking about right’s holders it’s too much to expect them to take a consistently journalistic approach. The networks do what they do really well, game coverage and features. Look at the Olympic coverage. The cinematography on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, if there is any better I don’t know where it is.
I’ve always said this and it’s now new, where network sports tends to fall short is when it comes to journalism and appropriate commentary. I’m not saying you should interrupt a game for an essay, but there is a time and a place for it. In fairness, NBC did give me an opportunity to do that, not as many as I’d like, but I don’t run the world.
ME: Do you think the sports fan or consumer can distinguish, or cares, about the news it gets about its team, or league, from a broadcast media partner, or the league itself?
BC: This is what it is, if it comes judiciously or appropriately during event or game coverage, you have the larger audience so it resonates more.
I am not the only person who talked about concussions in football, or steroids in baseball. But when I did it, however briefly, it resonated more. Did it piss people off more when I said a similar thing? Yeah, because it reached more people.
ME: Few in sports media love baseball as much as you. Is the criticism about the state of baseball a result of older media members being overly nostalgic, or is it just pragmatism that says the MLB needs updating?
BC: It’s pragmatism. It’s understood in the game that’s why they brought [former Cubs and Red Sox GM] Theo Epstein. They brought him in to temper what he helped create. Analytics is great for a competitive edge, and I’ve said this for years, baseball is supposed to have a leisurely, but not plodding, pace.
I’m not one who said baseball was better when I was a kid. You always have a fondness for sports or music from when you were a kid, but you’d be crazy to say the talent in the game isn’t better. But the pace of play is plodding and a legitimate issue.
ME: Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate this.
BC: A pleasure and my best to you.