To this day, Bob Costas remembers a phone call he received the night before the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Opening Ceremony.
Longtime ABC sports anchor Jim McKay was on the other end, passing the torch to Costas, who was embarking on his first Olympics as primetime host at age 40.
“We had been acquainted, but not that well acquainted,” Costas reflected last week. “I don’t remember everything he said, but one thing he said was, ‘Just remember this, you’re the right guy.’ I didn’t know if he was 100 percent right, but I hoped he was right, and I’m glad that he felt that way.”
Costas announced last week the end of his Olympic hosting career, ending with a U.S.-TV record 11 Games in the primetime chair. McKay, who died in 2008 at age 86, previously held the record of eight and even came back to work with Costas at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games (which Costas then likened to Joe DiMaggio coming back to play with the New York Yankees in the 1960s).
Costas will be succeeded by Mike Tirico in PyeongChang next year.
Tirico has his own one-on-one McKay story, from flying home after covering the British Open together in the late 1990s or early 2000s for ABC.
“Lucky for me, the nerd TV sportscasting lover, I was seated next to Jim across the Atlantic to come back to the U.S., and I said, I hope he doesn’t take a nap,” Tirico said last week. “He napped, and then he woke up, and we spoke for about three hours about the Olympics.”
Tirico recalls few details, but the tragedy at the Munich Olympics and the Miracle on Ice were both discussed.
“To hear Munich from Jim McKay’s mind and beyond the book that he had written and how he had discussed it along the years,” Tirico said, adding separately, “I remember asking Jim about [the Miracle on Ice] and trying to convey the excitement that people at home had of watching this game and all of its implications, sport and otherwise, while knowing the result and his ability to do that. He gave some detail about knowing the result yet trying to play it straight and to share the joy that he was sure was going on behind him with everyone after the game ended.”
Costas has said McKay was kind to him from the get-go. In the 1992 Olympic preview issue of Sports Illustrated, McKay said this in a Costas profile:
“NBC’s Olympic coverage is in very good hands. Anchoring the Olympics sometimes requires you to change course quickly, and Bob does that very well. You have to know so many different sports, and he knows them. You have to have a nice sense of story, which he has. You have to be a good interviewer, and having been the subject of a two-parter on Later [Costas’ late-night talk show], I can tell you he’s an excellent interviewer. Audiences are so much more sophisticated than when I started doing the Olympics, and Bob will bring that sophistication to the viewer. I’m sorry I won’t be in Barcelona to do the Olympics, but if I have to watch anybody, I’m glad it’s Bob Costas.”
Costas worked 12-hour shifts during the Barcelona Games and wasn’t able to see one minute of the Dream Team in person, he said last week. But he did find time to call McKay to thank him for that quote, according to the Washington Post.
“He said he felt we were doing a fine job, and of course that meant so much coming from him,” Costas said in August 1992, according to the newspaper. “And for him to say what he did about me in the magazine even before I did the Games also meant a great deal to me.”
The advice Costas gave Tirico last week echoed what he reportedly said of McKay back in 1992 — “Even though you have the highest amount of respect and admiration for someone else, you don’t try to copy them, because inevitably you become just some sort of pale imitation of them.”
“To have that connection with those two men and to know that I’ve worked with both of them, it gives me an understanding of how important the job is,” Tirico said, “but also the type of people that they are and what is needed and necessary to do the job the right way.”
VIDEO: Montage of Bob Costas’ Olympic highlights