In his son, McKay has his biggest thrill

Jim McKay has a theory about parenting that explains why he became so emotional four months ago when his son, Sean McManus, brokered a landmark deal in their family's business, sports television.

McKay, a star of ABC Sports for more than 30 years, believes the success a child achieves says more about his parents than anything the parents achieve on their own.

That's why when McManus, the president of CBS Sports, called McKay in January to tell him that CBS had beaten fairly long odds to get back into broadcasting NFL games, it meant more to the father than all the Emmy awards, the Peabody and all the other accolades that McKay, 76, has earned.

"You're proud of yourself, but then you say, 'Doggone it. It's that little kid that has grown up and had amazing success at a reasonably young age.' It's tremendous pride," said McKay, who lives in Monkton with his wife, Margaret McManus. "The odds were so much against it. People were saying they'd never get it."

McManus recalled his father's reaction to the phone call.

"He was speechless when I said it to him and reacted very, very emotionally. What he said was, 'I think you ought to talk to your mother for a moment,' " said McManus, 42. "He was not able to speak. He was emotionally affected by the fact that something that I had been talking about regularly for a year might actually come to fruition. He was totally overwhelmed.

"You have to be really lucky to get those kind of moments in life, and I think I was really lucky to be able to experience it and to be able to share it with him. It was one of those watershed moments that you sort of remember the rest of your life."

Celebrities and their offspring often do a "circle dance" trying to balance love and notoriety. Singer Bonnie Raitt, the daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, wrote a song with that title about her relationship with her father. It includes the lyric:

"I'll be home soon

That's what you'd say

And a little kid believes

After a while I learned that love

Must be a thing that leaves."

McKay tried to stay off that dance floor by sharing as many moments as possible with McManus, taking him on ABC road trips, for "Wide World of Sports" or the Olympics or whatever else was on the itinerary.

As a kid, McManus, who grew up in Connecticut, spanned the globe with his father, watching Lee Trevino win the 1968 U.S. Open in Rochester, N.Y., witnessing A.J. Foyt win three Indianapolis 500s.

Once on a golf trip to Jacksonville, Fla., Sean, who was 12 at the time, went to work as a "go-fer," getting coffee and running errands. When the broadcast was over, a unit manager saw McManus standing around and asked him why he wasn't in the pay line with the other temporary help.

"Sean said, 'The pay line?' " said McKay. "He just assumed he was supposed to do what he was doing. He went over and got his $25 a day."

They went to Kentucky Derbys, British Opens and all the rest, father and son.


Best friends

"He's my best male friend by far and he has been really since he was a kid," said McKay.

"Except for the fact that he missed a lot of weekend football and baseball games I played in, there's no downside to being the son of Jim McKay in any way, shape or form. It was a whole lot of fun," said McManus, who is getting married May 23 to Tracy Torre, an interior designer.

Said Margaret McManus: "Sean really feels that each one of us, in his own way, is a role model. If you were going to measure love, and I don't know how you would do that anyway, I know he's probably closer to his dad, but I don't think that means anything."

McKay started out as a reporter at The Evening Sun in 1946. A year later, he left to work at WMAR-TV, going on the air with the station's first broadcast. James K. McManus became Jim McKay when he left Baltimore to do a CBS show called "The Real McKay," and he kept that as his professional name, while his family retained the McManus moniker, to give his wife, daughter and Sean privacy.

And while Sean McManus has always appreciated his father's gesture, he could never run from being the son of Jim McKay. In fact, he never tried.

"The fact of the matter is that everybody I meet knows who my father is," said McManus. "When I went to college, he said to me the same thing he said when I went to prep school: 'Everyone's going to know who your father is. Some people are going to treat you either better or worse than they normally would, but you're not my son. You're yourself.' "

As a student at Duke, McManus interned one summer at a brokerage, where a family friend was vice president. When he graduated in 1977, with a double major in English and history, McManus received a tantalizing offer and a guarantee: Work at the brokerage full-time and you'll make $1 million a year by the time you're 30.

McKay asked McManus to think about the offer, and McManus, as he has done often, asked his mother for her counsel. But the son's mind was made up pretty quickly.

"I could have had a great opportunity on Wall Street, but after that summer, my parents said to me, 'What do you think?' " said McManus. "I said 'I think I'm going to be bored stiff. I could probably make a lot more money on Wall Street, but I'll be bored.' I wanted to work in television."

He always knew

"He's always known from a little boy what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go," said Margaret McManus. "I guess he really chose television probably, I think, because he is so close to Jim."

McKay pulled some strings to get McManus a job as a production assistant at ABC. That was the one and only time the father greased any professional wheels for his son.

"Everything from then on has been on his own," said McKay. "It's become a cliche for people with some influence like that to get there and say, 'I just opened the door. That's all I could do.' Well, that's all you can do."

McManus took it from there, working to prove himself in his father's business.

He elected to stay out of announcing on the theory that, just as Brooks Robinson's sons might never be the third basemen their dad was, Jim McKay's son probably wouldn't be the announcer his dad is, either in perception or reality.

"I think I would have gotten all the interviews and everyone would have looked at my cassettes and they would have been real nice to me, and I probably would have gotten a nod as a tie-breaker, if it were me against, say, a stockbroker," said McManus. "But I would have been judged totally on how good I was and I don't think I would have been very good at it."

What McManus became very good at was working behind the scenes, rising meteorically. He spent two years at ABC, then went to NBC, where he was an associate producer for three years before he became the youngest vice president in network history. He was placed in charge of sports programming and assisted in negotiating for events.

In 1987, McManus left NBC to head Trans World International, the television division of International Management Group, a mammoth multi-national representation and production company. He negotiated the American television rights for the Summer and Winter Olympics as well as for Wimbledon, the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the British Open.

In December 1996, he moved to CBS. Immediately he worked to restore the sports division, which had drifted aimlessly since losing the NFL in 1993.

"It's given us at CBS Sports more than just a pulse, but a reason to feel full and complete again," said anchor and play-by-play man Jim Nantz. "We went through a very wrenching stretch at CBS from December 17, 1993, for about three years. And the whispers around the industry were very negative and very gloomy about would CBS even stay in the sports business. Well, folks, we're not only still in the sports business, we're thriving. I look at our full array of events and it matches up with anyone and what they have as a department."

In the process, McManus garnered a reputation for sincerity and integrity.

"The best feedback I get, and I hear it from many places, is more than 'Your son is doing a good job,' " said McKay. "More than that, you can count on his word. He's up-front all the time and you know where you stand with him. It's not always the case in our business or any business."

Qualities of success

Similarly, McManus says those very qualities have made his father a lasting success.

"People really, really like him," said McManus of McKay. "It's very easy to grab and get a studio host or a play-by-play guy who's unbelievably proficient and says all the right things, but to find people who are really likable is the most difficult thing."

McManus says that if McKay were starting out today as a sportscaster, he'd have a "very tough time" getting hired by a network, because he's not as "polished" or as good-looking as other broadcasters.

"That doesn't make me mad," said McKay. "I'm short, not beautiful. I don't know about that smooth business. I will say one thing. I think I've made very, very few mistakes in my career."

For the record, Jim McKay is under contract to ABC until the year 2000, and a man of his stature would make a nice pick-up for an executive from another network.

"He's well compensated, and if available, I will certainly speak to his representatives," cracked McManus, who recalled his father's emotional reaction to the news that CBS was back in business with the NFL. "In the back of his mind, very selfishly he thought he had a chance of hosting 'The NFL Today' for us. That was a big reason for his happiness."