ATLANTA -- In his makeshift office in the bowels of the Olympic broadcast center, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol tries, with premium cigar in hand, to convince you that he's not a star.
"I'm married to a star," said Ebersol, referring to his wife, actress Susan Saint James. "Susan hasn't done a television series in seven years and if she's in any room in the United States and anybody over the age of 20 hears that voice, every head in the room spins. They don't have to see her. That voice gives it away. That's what a star is."
That may be, but Ebersol is a living link between the late actor John Belushi, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, interim baseball commissioner Bud Selig and wrestler Hulk Hogan.
"He's very attuned to popular taste and culture, and he understands it and he produces to it. He's a character and he's a friend," said David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association.
Ebersol helped launch "Saturday Night Live," revitalized the previously moribund NBC sports division and engineered the biggest deal in sports broadcasting history, with the $3.5 billion acquisition of five Olympics over the next 12 years.
As he settles into the executive producer chair for NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics, which opened here Friday, Ebersol, the reluctant star who has made the top six of the Sporting News' 100 most powerful sports figures for the past three years, prepares to create another star from the galaxy of 10,800 athletes gathered during the 171 1/2 hours the network will broadcast the event.
Will it be pixie-like gymnast Dominique Moceanu, sprinter Michael Johnson, some unknown Russian weightlifter or Kenyan distance runner who will tug at the American viewers' heartstrings during the Games?
Rest assured that there will be someone. Ebersol, who dropped out of Yale as a 19-year-old to research the 1968 Winter Olympics for ABC and wrote his college thesis on former IOC president Avery Brundage, believes too strongly in the power of the Olympics and in the "up close and personal" approach to telecasting the Games to operate otherwise.
"The philosophy that I have for doing the Olympics I know that it is the only way to make an Olympics production successful in terms of getting the largest possible audience to watch it. I mean, I watched the guy invent it," said Ebersol.
The "guy" Ebersol refers to is ABC News President Roone Arledge, who guided that network's sports division to the pinnacle of the business through the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s.
Ebersol cut his television teeth under Arledge, first as a researcher, then as Arledge's executive assistant and finally as a producer on ABC's "Wide World of Sports." Ebersol calls Arledge the second most important adult male figure in his life next to his father.
"In the history of television, there's never been another figure like this man," said Ebersol. "Not only is he this mythical figure, a little bit larger than life but he's arguably, along with ['60 Minutes' executive producer Don] Hewitt, one of the two most important line producers in the history of television."
For his part, Arledge, who left sports in the mid-1980s to run ABC News, where he remains, has watched bemused as his protege has taken many of his touches and used them to pull NBC Sports from the cellar, where it languished when Ebersol took over in April 1989, to the top.
'He's just been smart'
"The main thing he's done is he's just been smart," said Arledge. "There's no question that the model of what we did at ABC Sports is what NBC has followed and very, very successfully. At a time when other people were tentative and not forming relationships and all the rest of it, Dick was doing the opposite, and that's why he's so successful."
Indeed, like his mentor, Ebersol, who will be 49 Sunday, has taken bold steps with great flourishes.
He snatched the NBA away from CBS in late 1989, and negotiated a deal that got the network a share of the lucrative baseball postseason package without taking any of the sliding regular-season schedule.
"One of Dick's greatest strengths is his willingness to make decision, to be decisive, to have an idea and to follow through on it," said Bob Costas, who is anchoring NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage. "If you need someone to cut the Gordian knot, so to speak, if you need someone to take a situation and get to a resolution, he's the guy."
Ebersol's flair for the quick strike was never better displayed than his capture of the American broadcast rights for the Summer Olympics of 2000, 2004 and 2008 and the Winter Games of 2002 and 2006 for NBC last year for $3.55 billion.
The first leg of that deal -- obtaining the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, and the Winter Games of 2002 in Salt Lake City for $1.25 billion -- was pulled off in flights between Atlanta, New York, Stockholm, Sweden, and Montreal in less than 48 hours, as Ebersol and a colleague stealthily shuttled in and out of hotels and airports to finally present a one-time, take-it-or-leave-it bid to IOC officials.
A few months later, Ebersol masterminded another coup, snaring three more Games, sites undetermined, from his competitors, before they knew what had happened and could make counterproposals. This ensures that, for the next generation, save for the 1998 Winter Games carried by CBS, NBC will have the crowning jewel in sports television all to itself.
Said Arledge: "It's a terrific stroke. There's some question as to whether NBC paid too much money for Sydney, but whether they did or didn't, to then get three Olympics after at 3 percent inflation is a spectacular achievement."
Not always gold
Not everything Ebersol has touched has turned to gold. He was given control of the "Today" show in the late '80s and hired Deborah Norville as news reader. Norville subsequently replaced Jane Pauley as anchor of the show, a move that was widely panned by critics and the show's audience.
Privately, his competitors grouse that Ebersol plays fast and loose with the rules during bargaining, citing, for instance, the Olympics deals, which came outside the normal negotiating window, and his signing of Notre Dame, the most powerful college football school in the country, to a telecast deal for its home games, weakening a federation of football schools.
Ebersol's anger nearly cost the network the baseball package, when he declared that NBC would not return to the game until the next century after baseball officials didn't meet deadlines for announcing whether they would continue a joint venture with NBC and ABC. Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, NBC's parent company, talked Ebersol into reconsidering his stance.
Ebersol's wrath also flowed at Costas, after a 1993 interview during the NBA Finals in which he asked pointed questions of NBA Commissioner Stern about the league's policy on gambling.
Costas and Ebersol, who had worked together on a late night interview show, had agreed that the announcer would have to quiz Stern about the gambling policy, particularly with rumors swirling that the NBA's most popular player, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan, had a gambling problem.
Ebersol wanted the gambling questions to come at the end of the interview after Costas had established the league was prospering. Costas, however, leapt right into the subject, and the interview appeared to be quite contentious.
Angry with Costas
"By the time the interview was over, I was ready to kill him. Stern couldn't have cared less. He actually laughed at me for being so upset about it. I just felt at that particular time, it showed a lack of respect, but no question was out of bounds," said Ebersol.
Said Costas: "What happens when people are really good friends, if they have a misunderstanding and a temporary falling-out, assuming they can reconcile, they are usually better friends after, and that's what's happened with me and Dick."
Indeed, the two men recently agreed on a new contract for Costas that will keep him with NBC through 2002, and Ebersol's deal with the network has been extended until 2004.
Ebersol, who also was at the helm for the 1992 Olympic telecasts, said this likely will be his swan song as producer of the Olympics, explaining that such a project is a part of a "young man's game."
"People have asked me for years, 'What will you do next?' " said Ebersol. "I made up my mind in the fall after Barcelona that as long as I stayed in television, this was all I wanted to do. I was away from sports for 15 years and I still read the sports pages first, but I didn't realize just what a great hold that passion for sports had on my life."
Pub Date: 7/22/96