George Hill of Port Angeles, the unseen personal stat man for TV sports legends Al Michaels and Brent Musburger, remains on a 40-year journey that has made him the Forrest Gump of sports broadcasting.
You’ve never heard of George Hill, but if you’re any kind of sports fan, you’ve certainly enjoyed his work for decades.
Perhaps an apt stat from Brent Musburger in the middle of a college basketball game, courtesy of Hill, or a humorous quip by Al Michaels on “Sunday Night Football,” hand-delivered to him on a 3-by-5 card, mid-broadcast, from Hill.
It’s been an amazing sporting life for the 68-year-old Hill, who lives in Port Angeles but traverses the country as the personal stat man for Michaels and Musburger, two broadcasting legends still going strong in their 70s. He’s had a Forrest Gump-like presence at legendary sporting events, the unknown man finding his way into the picture.
Hill’s “real” job is fundraising for the Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles. Doing statistics on broadcasts seen by tens of millions, he jokes, is his “play job.”
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“I just couldn’t be luckier,’’ said Hill. “It’s kind of like picking your parents. If I could have picked two announcers, I couldn’t have picked better ones. Both are still very young in the way they work and everything they do.”
Oh, the places Hill has been and the games he’s seen in the nearly 40 years he’s had this gig. Start with the six Olympics, including a courtside seat at the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid when Michaels uttered his most famous line: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
Multiple Super Bowls and national championship college games. “Monday Night Football,” “Sunday Night Football,” SEC football, NBA broadcasts, college basketball, an array of college bowl games, even a couple of seasons with Musburger doing the NFL’s World League in Europe.
Doing the math, Hill estimates he’s worked more than 1,000 games in his career. And he figures he travels about 150,000 miles a year to get here, there, and everywhere, often with impossible connections that he somehow conquers — “the least favorite part of the job,’’ he admits.
It started out as a job, anyway. But somewhere along the line, a staid working relationship grew into a friendship. And then, eventually, both Musburger and Michael became like family to Hill — as did spotter “Malibu” Kelly Hayes, who has worked with Michaels nearly as long as Hill has.
When Michaels and Musburger got word I would like to talk to them for an article on Hill, they called almost instantly. Affection and respect practically oozed out of the phone lines.
“George has been my faithful companion for a couple of decades,’’ said Musburger, 76. “I think of him as one of my best friends.”
“I can’t imagine doing this without him,’’ said Michaels, 71.
To understand these happy unions, let’s go back to the beginning, a San Diego State-Arizona football game in Tucson on Sept. 17, 1977, when Hill was first paired with Michaels, then the No. 3 or 4 announcer at ABC.
Actually, we’ve got to go further back than that, to Hill’s days at the University of Washington (which he attended from 1972 to ’75), working in the Huskies’ sports-information department under the tutelage of Donn Bernstein.
When Pete Gross became the Huskies’ broadcaster, Hill worked as his spotter on football and did stats on the UW basketball broadcasts for both Gross and Bruce King. He also worked with Gross on Sonics telecasts from 1976 to ’78, and when Gross took over as the first Seahawks’ play-by-play man in 1976, he brought Hill along as his spotter for four seasons.
Bernstein, meanwhile, moved on to ABC as a top executive, helping Hill get a job as a researcher at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, working graveyard to prepare packets of information for the broadcasters. When Michaels’ crew, featuring Lee Grosscup as the color man, needed a stat man in Arizona, Bernstein called his old friend, Hill. A bond was born.
“I just kept working with Al,’’ Hill said. “I laughed at his jokes, I guess, and he kept me around.”
There’s far more to it than that, of course. A good stat man is essential to a broadcast. He notices trends and streaks that he communicates both to the announcing team, via those 3-by-5 cards, and the production truck, via headset, so they can prepare insightful graphics.
His main job is to make the announcers — who have too much else to do to track, say, consecutive completions by Russell Wilson or the number of steals by Michael Jordan — sound smart and informed.
“It’s like an offensive lineman — if he were to go down and not be there, it would leave a big gap,’’ Musburger said.
“But someone as good as George goes about his business, always makes his blocks, and makes sure I have correct information. It’s an absolutely integral part of the broadcast.”
Musburger calls Hill “the king of accuracy,’’ and it all stems from the deceptively simple stat board he fashioned in his early days in the business and still uses today. It’s basically a large piece of sturdy paper with a series of grids, and different colored markers to distinguish the four quarters. But the result of Hill’s painstaking tracking is an intricate battery of stats that match or surpass most of what can be generated via computer — a device he doesn’t use during the broadcast.
“I’m actually quicker,’’ Hill said. “I can do things computers can’t. Of course, computers can do 55 things — maybe 155 — I can’t.’’
That’s kind of the point, actually. Hill has an innate sense for the kind of nugget that his crews appreciate — and an uncanny ability to weed through the vast statistical noise, eliminate the extraneous, and produce something substantial.
“He has a great feel for what’s relevant,’’ Michaels said.
And also for what’s funny. Hill will often slip Michaels or Musburger a funny line that sometimes makes its way onto the air.
“Truth be told, some of my funniest lines ever came from cards George handed me,’’ Michaels said.
Hill’s association with Michaels segued to “Monday Night Football” in 1985, when he actually joined the crew of Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath for the final few games of the season. The next year, Michaels was promoted to MNF play-by-play, and Hill worked with him on the high-profile show for the next 20 years. When Michaels moved to NBC and “Sunday Night Football,” Hill moved with him; statisticians, like spotters, are paid by the network but generally are hand-picked by the broadcaster.
Meanwhile, in 1990, Musburger moved from CBS to ABC and needed a stat man for his college crew that included color-man Dick Vermeil. Hill was given a four-game tryout — “and I’m still working,’’ he said.
The Musburger-Vermeil-Hill crew stayed together 10 years. Musburger now does SEC games on ESPN, so during the football season, Hill will fly on Thursdays from Seattle to wherever that week’s game is — sometimes in remote locales like Fayetteville, Ark., or Starkville, Miss. Friday is production meetings and fraternizing with Musburger and his crew (Musburger’s son is now his spotter). Then comes the college game on Saturdays, followed by the daunting task of getting to wherever “Sunday Night Football” happens to be.
“Somehow, some way, he’s able to figure out how to get from one end of the earth to the other,’’ Michaels marveled. “We never know how he does it. George just appears. He’s the postman. Nothing stops him from his appointed rounds.’’
“He’s like that St. Bernard in the French Alps,’’ Musburger added. “When you’re in trouble and covered with snow, you can count on George to be there. He’s never missed a gig.”
Hill says he has an intricate knowledge of the airline schedules, a supply of Red Bull, and a few tricks he’s accumulated over the years. But mostly, he endures arduous drives after games and ridiculously early wake-up calls.
“It’s logistically impossible a couple times a season — and I’ve always made it,’’ he said.
Beyond Hall of Famers Michaels and Musburger, as well as a stint doing NFL games with Jack Buck, Hill has worked with a dazzling array of color men over the years. Besides the aforementioned Simpson, Namath, Grosscup and Vermeil, there’s been Gary Danielson, Dan Fouts (with whom Hill has an annual bet on the Oregon-Washington game), Kirk Herbstreit, Jesse Palmer, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, Dennis Miller, John Madden and Chris Collinsworth. In basketball, he’s shared a booth with Bob Knight, Joe B. Hall, Dick Vitale and now Fran Fraschilla.
It’s been a long, circuitous route — “a 40-year odyssey, in Michaels’ words — for the kid from Port Angeles High School who, when he was asked the first time whether he knew how to keep stats, “I lied and said yes.”
Now, Hill is an acknowledged master of the art. Yet Hill’s efforts remain largely anonymous, and that’s all right with him.
“At the end of the game, I know if I’ve done a good job,’’ he said. “It’s self-rewarding.”
The biggest reward, besides the primo seats for some of the greatest moments in sports history, is his bond with Michaels, Musburger and their crews. Hill is inextricably linked to both men, for as long as their careers endure. These families are forever.
“I don’t think I’m at the end-game,’’ Michaels said. “But I’ll tell you one thing: George and Kelly will be with me until the end.”
Not bad for a play job.