Bob Costas' first paid broadcasting assignment landed him on a puddle jumper to the middle of nowhere and took $150 out of his pocket.
But everyone, it turns out, must start somewhere.
Calling games for the Syracuse Blazers minor league hockey team for $25 and $6 meal money is a world away from London, where Costas -- who is working his 10th Olympic games for NBC Sports -- will provide a summer soundtrack into America's living rooms.
Among those who will tune in is Andy MacWilliams, himself a former hockey and college basketball play-by-play man, who convinced Costas that if the young confident broadcaster wanted to make in-roads into sportscasting, he would likely have to climb his way up from the bottom.
Costas was still a student at Syracuse University when MacWilliams was the Blazers' radio play-by-play announcer on WSYR, a 5,000-watt AM station. When MacWilliams got an offer to broadcast games for the Cincinnati Stingers of the old WHA, the Blazers needed a replacement on short notice. MacWilliams told Costas to apply for the job and said that he would recommend him to the station's management.
But there was a problem for Costas. He didn't know hockey. He loved sports –- something that initially had brought him and MacWilliams together as students at Syracuse. He hemmed and hawed about the opportunity, uncertain if it was the right job for him. MacWilliams convinced him to consider it seriously.
"This is your ticket to getting paid and getting onto WSYR," MacWilliams told Costas. "You never know what else will happen."
Reluctantly, Costas agreed.
MacWilliams, who had transferred to Syracuse from Williams College, figured he could teach Costas the ins and outs of the game in less than four hours. The Blazers played in the North American Hockey League, which inspired the 1970s cult hockey film "Slap Shot."
Then MacWilliams convinced the radio executive who held the broadcast rights to Blazers' games that Costas was the right man for the job. Costas, for his part, also took measures to ensure that he would be hired. He told the executive his hockey tapes were unavailable, which was technically true. And afraid that a lack of experience may cost him, Costas adjusted the treble and bass levels on the tapes of the basketball games he had called to give his voice more authority.
Getting the job might have been the easy part considering what Costas had to do to get to Johnstown, Pa., to work his first assignment.
On its surface, it wasn't overly complicated. Costas was to hitch a ride on the team bus to Johnstown. All he had to do was show up.
Instead, after missing the team bus, Costas was forced to find his own way to Johnstown. He booked a flight that took him from Syracuse to Pittsburgh and then from Pittsburgh to his final destination.
"He gets to his first job and he's already in the hole $150," MacWilliams says.
It didn't get any smoother.
Costas, known for his sharp attention to detail and meticulous preparation, had memorized the entire Johnstown roster in preparation for his first game on the air.
Unbeknownst to the radio rookie, Jets' owner Johnny Mitchell changed the team's uniform and numbering sequence, leaving Costas scrambling throughout his first broadcast.
Years later, Costas -- who has also worked on a variety of other projects -- has become the familiar face in anchoring NBC's Olympic coverage. The London Games will be his ninth Olympics working as the network's prime time host, introducing American viewers to athletes who step into the spotlight once every four years, often carrying with them inspiring stories of their road to the Olympics.
MacWilliams, who characterized a young Costas as "pretty precocious," insists his college classmate didn't need the help.
"He would have made the big-time without me," McWilliams says.
For Costas, one of the biggest challenges of his Olympic assignment is chronicling so many stories and introducing a host of new faces.
"People ask me all the time, ‘Have you started studying these athletes?" Costas said last month at a press conference for NBC's on-air talent. "There is no way in the world that anybody -- anybody -- Ken Jennings or the computer that beat him on 'Jeopardy' -- nobody can know these 10,000-plus athletes and these 200 nations up and down."
As daunting of a task as Costas faces in helping NBC provide comprehensive coverage of the London games, MacWilliams knew from the first time he met Costas that his fellow student radio mate could be destined for big things.
"He had a steel-trap mind, tremendous memory and he was very cool in any broadcast situation," says MacWilliams, who rose through the minor league ranks before becoming the voice of the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks.
Costas' skills set includes a warm personality and a sense of humor that led him and MacWilliams to co-produce a spoof of "American Bandstand" that continued to be shown on campus for 15 years after they left Syracuse. It's a combination that has helped him to tell memorable Olympic stories for television viewers across the country.
"You're looking for personal stories -- you're always looking for quirkiness, too," Costas says. "Any good broadcast -- not just an Olympic broadcast -- should have texture to it.
"It should have information, should have some history, should have something that's offbeat, quirky, humorous, and where called for it should have journalism and judiciously it should also have commentary."
Much of Costas' style was honed in experimental work sessions in Syracuse's radio and television studios, where he and MacWilliams devoted their time rather than following a more traditional educational route.
MacWilliams says both met the minimum classroom requirements, choosing instead to spend long hours on their craft.
Both loved sports despite their different backgrounds and found common ground working on projects that gave them hands-on-experience and that forged a friendship that remains firmly intact today.
The two share a March 22 birthday, an occasion that prompts an annual phone call. When business brings Costas to Cincinnati, where MacWilliams now works as a Morgan Stanley Smith Barney financial adviser after years of calling Xavier basketball games, the two old classmates get together, reliving the good times of their past.
But during the next 16 days, MacWilliams will watch his old friend during NBC's prime-time coverage, proud of the career Costas has built for himself.
And just like that, Syracuse and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, seem like a lifetime ago.
"I remember his roots and he does, too," says MacWilliams, who was forced to change careers due to a medical condition that caused spasms in his vocal cords. "He's a pretty humble guy but I would have predicted that he would have been a success – he just had a lot of confidence. He's well spoken and he's got a great vocabulary ... and the Olympics just plays to his strength, which is to have fun on camera, to move pretty seamlessly from event to event and to interview without a lot of preparation.
"There's a lot going on, but he makes it look easy and I'm proud of him."
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