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Repeating something Billy Packer said on national TV got the wrath of Iowa upon me
It was 2001, and the nation found out the truth from Steve Alford. I was from freakin’ Iowa
If Billy Packer, who died Thursday, was a commentator on a college basketball telecast, it was a big game.
Packer worked 34 Final Fours. He said what he thought and didn’t seem to worry about it.
One of those times was on a 2001 March Sunday in Chicago when Iowa faced Indiana in the Big Ten men’s basketball championship game. Mike Davis was Indiana’s interim coach, and did a nice job that season. Former Indiana All-America guard Steve Alford coached Iowa.
Late in Iowa’s 63-61 win, Packer said Alford and Davis were playing for the Hoosiers’ job. That was interesting to those of us in Iowa.
Three days later, the Hawkeyes were in Uniondale, N.Y., where they would play (and defeat) Creighton in the first round of the NCAA tourney. At a news conference the day before the game, I asked this to Alford:
“Steve, national newspapers, national radio shows have continued talking about you and linking you to the Indiana job. Should those stories die?”
That was a marshmallow served on a tee, if Alford saw it as a marshmallow served on a tee. He could have said yes, smiled, and that would have been that. Alford didn’t see it that way. He got quite upset about it, actually.
“You’re from freakin’ Iowa,” he replied. “Why are you asking me that?
“Ask Billy Packer. Packer says he called me. He didn’t call me on Monday.
“I’m not interested. … I went through this … I’m not interested in entertaining any questions about Indiana University. They’re in a regional somewhere, I don’t know where they’re at.
“Go out to their site and ask Indiana people about what’s going on at Indiana.
“We are the Big Ten champions. We are the University of Iowa. Ask me questions about the University of Iowa.”
Melissa Isaacson of the Chicago Tribune didn’t think Alford should tell the questioners which questions to ask, and had a follow-up on the matter.
“What did I just say?” Alford responded. “Well, I’m not saying anything. Are there any questions about Iowa? Jiminy Christmas!”
ESPN ran that clip on every SportsCenter the rest of that day, and SportsCenter was on a lot of times. Sports radio people from Chicago and Timbuktu were phoning my hotel room, and I did a masterful job of not taking their calls. Thank goodness the Internet was a sliver of what it is now. Message boards and social media in Iowa would have devoured me. Alford was just beginning to take Hawkeye basketball to the stratosphere, and I was Darth Vader with a fully-charged lightsaber.
Oh, the phone messages and letters to the editor that waited for me back at Iowa after the Hawkeyes lost their second-round game to Kentucky in Long Island. The gist of it was “Why are you trying to run Steve Alford out of Iowa?”
I’ve always insisted the people who write weird letters and emails like that are in the very-minor minority. But the very-major majority who would never waste a moment doing something like that don’t make any noise, so the first group can be really loud.
Indiana gave Davis the full-time job, by the way. Alford eventually moved on to New Mexico, UCLA, and now Nevada, where his team is 16-5 this season.
Billy Packer worked games on CBS for seven more years. I never got to talk to him about that 2001 day in Chicago and what made him say what he said. But I will forever appreciate that when he, Al McGuire and Dick Enberg worked games together on NBC, it was great television.
The next time I saw Alford after that Long Island day that had me considering the United States Federal Witness Protection Program was that September. It was, ironically or coincidentally, in Chicago. He sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.
I went to write a column about it. We met in the press box and he couldn’t have been nicer, laughing about what had happened months before as if it had been a big old fun time for everybody.
Alford told me he jokingly asked a Cubs official if he could tell the fans “We’re from freakin’ Iowa.” But instead, he introduced himself and Iowa players Luke Recker, Ryan Hogan and Jason Smith by saying “The Big Ten champs are at Wrigley today!”
I never had anything resembling a problem with Alford again. What was kind of funny to me, though, was the longer he stayed as Iowa’s coach, the more that readers were telling me I was being too easy on him.
In hindsight, on that 2001 day in Long Island I should have asked “That rascal Billy Packer was making mischief for you on CBS the other day. Should we try to get him kicked off television forever?”
Which is absurd, of course. But in 2023, a media panderer or two might dance that pandering dance if they think it will curry favor among a coach and his or her fans.
I’m sad about Billy Packer’s death, as I was about Enberg’s and McGuire’s. They put on a great show. That’s what this big-time college sports is, you know. It’s a show. If you’re on the right side of it, you can take it to a lot of different places and keep making money.
I’d love to see Iowa play Nevada in a first-round NCAA tourney game this year. Or a second-round or third-round or sixth-round game. It would be a great story, and that’s all I really ever want out of this stuff. The trick is not to be in the middle of a hot story when you’re covering it.
Alford was right back then, I must admit 22 years later. I am from freakin’ Iowa.