George Michael, a hard-driving, colorful, respected sportscaster at Washington’s Channel 4, died early Thursday of leukemia at DC’s Sibley Hospital. Since 1980 he had been a dominant personality in television sports coverage. Here is a What I’ve Learned interview he did with The Washingtonian‘s Harry Jaffe that appeared in the March 2007 issue of the magazine.
George Michael has shown viewers lots of big plays. What does he think of Dan Snyder? How is all that money changing sports?
Washingtonians know George Michael as the sportscaster who has anchored Channel 4’s local coverage since 1980. But few know that the woman writing his scripts for the last 27 years has been his wife, Pat Lackman.
In 1984 they created the nationally syndicated program The George Michael Sports Machine. It pioneered the use of the highlight reel and paved the way for ESPN’s sports-highlight shows.
In November, NBC told Michael he would have to lay off half of his 20-member staff to cut costs. Michael says he was offered more money to remain as anchor but he didn’t want to stay without his staff, especially his wife.
“There’ll never be another woman sportswriter like Pat,” he says. “It’s painful to think that what we do is going away.”
Michael, 67, is a native of St. Louis. He started reporting on sports for radio stations in Philadelphia. Lackman, a Philly girl, met Michael the summer before her senior year at Villanova when she was an intern at WFIL, the radio station where he worked. Michael was divorced and raising three young children, Brad, Michelle, and Cindi. The two worked together in New York, married in 1978, and moved to Washington in 1980. Michael and Lackman, 53, live on a horse farm in Comus, Maryland.
Their last day working together on the anchor desk is March 1. He’ll continue to appear on the station’s interview shows.
How did you end up working together?
George Michael: We started dating in 1974 in Philadelphia. When I moved to New York, I needed help. It was a Super Bowl Sunday and our writer/producer called in sick. I said, “Pat, I need you to write.” She wrote the Super Bowl script that Sunday.
It was so good that Roger Grimsby, the WABC-TV anchor, said to me, “Who the hell is that writer?”
I said, “Are you asking for a lecherous reason?”
He said, “She’s good.”
So I said to her, “Bingo! You’re doing it.”
When we were dating, I asked if she was willing to accept three kids, because I was a bachelor father. On Easter 1978, the kids and I had been together three or four years. At brunch, my two older kids put their little sister up to a ruse. She said, “Dad, we want to know when Pat’s going to be Mom.”
That was in April. We got married in November. My son stood up for me, and our daughters were bridesmaids.
What brought you to Washington?
Michael: In 1980 I was hired to build a sports department at Channel 4. Before I got here, there had been 14 sportscasters in 16 years. John Rohrbeck, the general manager, met Pat and me. She agreed to help, but she wanted to be home with the kids.
Pat Lackman: I said I’d help get it started, but if I wanted to go do something else, I’d go. Then they said, “Well, why don’t you write for news?” I said, “I don’t want to write about rapes and murders every night.” George said, “Well, if you’re going to do this, you might as well do it here in sports.” I said okay. I didn’t plan to stay, but I learned to love it.
Michael: When John Rohrbeck hired me, he said, “I want to build the biggest and best sports department in the country. Our station’s in fourth place. With you we can do something we’ve never done anywhere else.” The Sports Machine started as Sports Final in 1980.
Was it fun back then?
Lackman: Tremendously fun. There was such an air of “Let’s go get ’em—whatever we have to do! We’re a team. We can do this. We can win in this market.”
When did The Sports Machine become the number-one local sports program?
Michael: In ’84. One of the reasons for the station’s success was that we built a team image. On the team, Jim Vance and I became inseparable friends. Vance is not just somebody I work with. I love that man.
Lackman: They thought it was important to promote the Channel 4 team.
Michael: Everything was about the team, and Rohrbeck said, “I’m going to use sports to make us number one.
What’s changed since then?
Michael: Sportscasting has become more personality-driven. It used to be if you had a lot of tape, you won. Well, now you’ve got the pictures, but you’d better have a good story.
You mean a personal story?
Michael: Tell me about the person. Don’t just show me a picture of Barbaro breaking down—explain it all.
Pat paints pictures. She sees things with words. That’s a gift.
Whom have you admired over the years?
Lackman: Sonny Jurgensen. There are a lot of great quarterbacks who don’t turn into the icon he has turned into. He has a special relationship with this city. People love Sonny.
Michael: Wes Unseld was a giant of a person, a much better man than the public ever got to know. Walter Payton is at the top of the list. Walter was world-class.
Lackman: Gilbert Arenas.
Michael: Oh, God, Gilbert’s special.
Lackman: I admire that he makes all this money but really tries to communicate with the community. He’s always doing something.
Michael: He doesn’t put out an ad about it. He just does it.
Isn’t it amazing that at the end of our time here, the classiest group of people are the current Wizards? Caron Butler—
Lackman: And Antawn Jamison.
Who stands out among owners?
Lackman: Abe Pollin always.
Michael: Abe’s in a league of his own.
Lackman: Again, he does so much charity work, and you never hear about it.
He’s loyal, maybe to a fault. Where do you find that kind of loyalty today? Everything’s the dollar—whatever you can do for the dollar. Abe is loyal to all his people.
Michael: Jack Kent Cooke may have been tough, but he was world-class. And when he called me, I knew right away if it was going to be good or bad. If he started off with “My dear boy,” you were dead meat.
Lackman: He used to say, “I don’t give a jot!” Remember when I bought him a box of Jots candy?
Compare him with Dan Snyder.
Michael: Snyder’s totally different than everybody else because he’s so much younger. He wants to win but can be his own worst enemy.
Lackman: It’s hard for people to look at someone so young, who’s made it rich so quick, and not want to pick the guy apart.
Michael: I give him a hard time. I said, “You have to learn two words: thank you and please. They’re not signs of weakness.”
Do you know the Lerner family?
Michael: Love them.
Lackman: Warm and friendly. Willing to do anything you want. Easy to deal with.
Who has ticked you off?
Michael: John Thompson Jr. when he coached Georgetown. John ran the Gestapo. Now, he and I liked each other a lot. John Thompson had me come speak at his first basketball banquet in 1981. He gets up and says, “You know, when I first came to town, I didn’t like this smartass Michael.” I’m going, “What did I do wrong?” Then he proceeds to say why I’m the emcee and why I’m so good and I’m wondering, “John Thompson’s admitting he likes me?”
We had a great relationship. It was not close, but I admired him beyond words.
Lackman: I don’t think there’s really a bad person we’ve covered. Some people are more difficult than others, but there’s no one where we said, “I never want to go there.”
But you quit going to see the Capitals. Why?
Michael: I had season tickets going back to 1980, but I gave them up in 2005. Ted Leonsis and I have different philosophies. He did it his way.
Lackman: Ted did what he had to do. Is it great for Caps fans? No.
Michael: He put a lot of money into Jaromir Jagr. Bad move. Then he went from one extreme to the other—he has the lowest payroll in the NHL.
Lackman: Compare that to Snyder.
Michael: Dan Snyder has made enough mistakes to last a lifetime, but he did it to win.
Lackman: So Snyder becomes everyone’s piñata.
Michael: I would rather have a George Steinbrenner or a Dan Snyder than a Bill Bidwell, the Arizona Cardinals owner.
Are you comparing Bidwell to Leonsis?
Michael: Ted does things his way, and that’s fine. I like him.
Whom do you not like?
Michael: Marty Schottenheimer. He’s the only person in 27 years who ever humiliated someone on the air.
Sonny Jurgensen asked Marty why he didn’t switch quarterbacks early in the season. Schottenheimer says: “Let me ask you why George Allen switched from you to Billy Kilmer.” Sonny was embarrassed and shot back: “Because he was an idiot.”
Do you think you were soft on the Redskins?
Michael: Not in Joe Gibbs’s eyes. He said to me, “My friends ask why I take your lousy questions.” I told him, “Because I look you in the eye when I ask them.”
Is money ruining pro sports?
Lackman: No one expects players to make $25,000 a year anymore, but years ago you had them playing sports because they loved it. Today you have people who still love the sport, but let’s face it, people like Michael Westbrook—money. Latrell Sprewell saying, “I can’t feed a family on $15 million a year.” How offensive was that? I think there are people in it for the money.
Michael: But Arenas would play for free.
Let’s talk about The Sports Machine. What changed to bring an end to a 23-year success story?
Michael: Here’s the truth without getting in trouble: We were a team that would do anything for each other. Today Jim Vance, Doreen Gentzler, and I will cover each other’s backs. Vance would do anything for me, and I would do anything for him. But beyond that—geez, it’s gone.
Vance can’t believe it’s happening, and Doreen said the other night, “I know what’s happening, but please don’t talk about it.”
But things go on, man. Everything’s going to go on. Channel 9 once had 83 percent of the audience; they don’t today. Vance and Doreen are the best. They’re my family.
Has the business of sportscasting changed?
Lackman: Absolutely. Some stations are getting rid of sports departments altogether. Some people think that if you want to see sports, turn on ESPN. You’ll always need local sports, like you’ll always need local news.
Michael: They say it costs too much to do it right. That’s their cop-out. I tell everybody in here, “Are you willing to pay the price to be a success?”
Quite bluntly, this station is no longer willing to pay the price to have George and The Sports Machine and the staff. Am I willing to pay the price to be number one? You better believe it. If it means working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I’m willing to do it.
Lackman: What most people don’t understand—and I don’t either—is that we made money. We’re a profit center.
Michael: Our sports ratings have never been better. I was told this is not about ratings. This is about cutting overhead.
Were you surprised?
Michael: No. If you don’t have support, if the man in your house doesn’t say, “I appreciate you,” you’re doomed.
So what happens after March 1?
Michael: I don’t have a clue.
Lackman: Well, he’s going to continue to do Redskins Report, Full Court Press, and Mondays with the Redskins coach during football season.
Michael: And I’ve got some other things that have been offered, but I have no idea what I want to do.
I’ll explain it to you this way: I’m coming off of a bitter divorce. Not bitter in acrimony—there were no fights. But Pat and I built the place. It pains me beyond words to tell you what it was like November 14 when I fired 14 people.
I didn’t fire people; I fired winners. I went home and said to Pat, “You’re the best writer I’ve ever worked with. You know you’re the best. I still love you, but you’re fired.”
I had to go to Joe Schreiber, my producer since 1983, and say, “You are the best producer I’ve ever met. You know everyone from Michael Jordan to Joe Montana. They all take your calls. But you’re fired.”
That day I will take to my grave—going one by one down the list and laying everybody off.
I demand 100-percent dedication to the job. You work for me? It’s not a job—it’s your life. The reward for that is supposed to be that you’ll always find happiness. And one day all the happiness stops. It’s very hard.
Lackman: It would be different if we were losing. But we were all winning.
Michael: I always said if you win, you’ll always be secure. Now the analogy is if you win the Super Bowl, the owner walks in and says, “God, this is the best, but you guys cost too much money.”
Lackman: People have asked, “Do you regret that George is not taking that deal? He could have made a lot of money if he stayed here.” I say, “You always regret giving up money like that. But there comes a time, if you want to look at yourself in the mirror and not flinch, you’ve got to follow your conscience. So you can live with yourself.”
It’s sad, but then we say, okay, we’ll think of those good things we’re going to do now that we have all this free time.
Michael: We’re going to go to Nationals games, Wizards games. Work on our farm. We have 160 acres up at Sugarloaf Mountain. We became the largest breeders of black-and-white paint horses in America. We were hot in ’93. In ’93, you would see 50 beautiful black-and-white horses running across our pastures. I would work at the farm from 7 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, shower, shave, get in here, and then work till 1 am. Every day of the week.
Lackman: We’ve started taking really long walks with the dogs, and we’re going to take some day trips to places we’ve never been.
Michael: I want to do things I’ve never done.
Lackman: It’s 27 years. Finished. But we’re going to have fun.