Maybe it's the glasses he now wears, another baby boomer surrendering to seeing well over looking good. Maybe it's Katie's adoring-little-sis influence. Or maybe it's having good ol' Uncle Joe around every morning.
Whatever, doesn't Bryant seem to be . . . mellowing? Doesn't he seem less the big meanie who picked on Willard and was a bad "husband" to Jane when "the other woman" Deborah came along? Doesn't he seem kinder and gentler and processed through the mill that gives superstar millionaire anchormen that artificial yet comforting sheen of regular guy-ness?
After some two years of turmoil and musical chairs in the female co-host's seat, NBC's "Today" show seems to have settled down, yet Bryant (Not-So-Humble) Gumbel is probably the same guy the press has loved to call arrogant over the years. Read what they say, and you'd think he's why all those women are slamming their balcony doors and yelling, "Egoiste!"
"I don't contend that I'm a shrinking violet. Anybody who sits in front of a camera has to have an ego," Mr. Gumbel said during an interview yesterday after speaking at a conference in Baltimore. "Am I any more egocentric than Ted Koppel or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather? I would say no. Do I try to control my programany more than they try to control theirs?"
The answer implied is another no, but that's Mr. Gumbel for you -- "Today" is "my" show rather than "our" show. And that, perhaps, has been his greatest "sin:" His unwillingness to at least pretend to be just another guy on the bench rather than the team's star player.
Mr. Gumbel, who yesterday spoke to several hundred persons attending a conference on minority entrepreneurship sponsored by the State of Maryland, is indeed unapologetically confident. But, the way he sees it, the difference between one man being called confident and one being called arrogant is a matter of race.
"Do I think I'm judged by different standards?" he, again, asked rhetorically. This time, the implied answer is, yes. Yet, Mr. Gumbel said he believes life is too short to respond to his critics, though he makes veiled references to the 1988 Sports Illustrated article that portrayed him as the height of arrogance -- and mean to his mother to boot.
"I rarely talk about it," he said. "People who are inclined to believe things like that without verification of any kind, why should I care about their opinions? I'm not going to run around saying, 'I didn't do it, I didn't do it.' "
In person, Mr. Gumbel, 42, maintains the same professional -- some call it aloof -- demeanor that he has on the air. He is, of course, warmer and looser in person than on the cool medium of television, and certainly is pleasant company whether speaking one-on-one or to a large crowd as he did at the conference. And though he'd been up since 4 a.m., his energy level was admirably high and he planned to watch the Miami football game last night be-fore catching his usual four hours of sleep before today's "Today" show.
Leaving Baltimore to return to New York, he noted with a grin that he almost took a job covering high school sports at The Sun. He was 23 at the time, and instead took a job as a sportscaster in Los Angeles -- which became his stepping stone to fast-rising career in that medium. The new downtown stadium caught his eye -- his luncheon talk was at the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel -- and the longtime Cubs fan said he hopes to get someone to give him a tour soon.
Speaking to the business conference, he joked about his own image problems. "Because my public image falls somewhere between Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson, I do come here somewhat aware of what you think I am, or what you've been led to believe I'm like," he said.
And, because he was pressed for time, he told the group that while he couldn't host a "Q-and-A" session, he'd just go ahead and provide the "As" to the usual "Qs" that he tends to get.
"It's easier than you think."
"She's fine; yes, I'm glad she's back."
"He's the same off the air as on, and we get along fine."
"I can't help what you thought, this is as tall as I ever got."
For all the ruckus that has swirled around him -- from the February 1989 publication of his scathing memo criticizing, among others, weatherman Willard Scott, to the badly mishandled switch of co-hosts from Jane Pauley to Deborah Norville to Katie Couric -- Mr. Gumbel is widely acknowledged as among the best think-on-your-feet interviewers that morning news has produced.
He's coming up, in January, on his 10th anniversary as "Today" host, and proudly notes no one has ever lasted that long in what seems to have become a hot seat in TV news. Yet "Today," once the dominant morning show, has slipped and languished into the No. 2 slot behind ABC's "Good Morning America."
Still, Mr. Gumbel has said he's confident -- what else? -- that "Today" will regain the top rung by January. And, while he "loves" Ms. Couric, he's loathe to credit her with the show apparently beginning to regain its footing -- much as he is loath to attribute its decline to the Jane Pauley-Deborah Norville brouhaha.
"The show has so many elements, it's difficult to view any one and say it's responsible for an increase or a decrease [in the ratings]," he said. "It's like tipping the front domino and them picking up one of the middle ones and saying that's the one to blame. It's hard to isolate any one element and to say, 'That's it.' "
He, however, is undeniably an element more equal than others in the "Today" mix. And he seems in a secure spot, despite the fast-gaining NBC career of Bob Costas, who has been announced as anchor of next year's Summer Olympic games rather than Mr. Gumbel, whom some thought "too cold" when he did the 1988 games.
As for "Today," Mr. Gumbel hints that perhaps 10 years is JTC enough. Whether he means that, or whether it's part of the posturing that comes with contract negotiating (his contract expires in November), it's hard to tell.
"I've always said I never wanted my presence on the program to become a burden to those who work on it or those who watch it," he said, enigmatically enough. "I've always thought it's better to quit too early than too late."