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Phyllis George, trailblazing sportscaster, dies at 70

CBS sportscaster Phyllis George in 1976.
CBS sportscaster Phyllis George in 1976.Suzanne Vlamis/Associated Press

Phyllis George, who achieved one level of fame as Miss America 1971 and another four years later when CBS hired her as a member of the otherwise all-male cast of “The NFL Today,” died Thursday in Lexington, Ky. She was 70.

Her family said the cause was polycythemia vera, a rare blood cancer that had been diagnosed 35 years ago.

Hired as a cohost of CBS Sports’ weekly pregame football show — which featured high-profile hosts Brent Musburger and Irv Cross and gambling commentator Jimmy Snyder, or Jimmy the Greek, as he was known — Ms. George immediately became the most prominent woman in sportscasting.

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But with her beauty-queen background and her modest television résumé, she was criticized for lacking the traditional sportscaster credentials. She was not a former sports writer, like Musburger, and she was obviously not a retired football player, like Cross.

She responded to her critics by saying that she knew enough about sports, especially football, to get by.

“I’m from Texas,” she told People magazine in 1976, “and down there you follow the Texas Longhorns and the Dallas Cowboys or you don’t belong.”

And she was unquestionably a pioneer. To many young women who hoped to have careers in sportscasting, seeing her sharing the studio desk with Musburger, Cross, and Snyder and discussing the day’s games was inspiring.

“Sometimes you have to see it to be it; you have to know something is a career option in order to aspire to it,” Hannah Storm, an anchor at ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” wrote in an e-mail. “Which means someone has to be first. That was Phyllis George — a true trailblazer.”

Ms. George was best known for her interviews with athletes. A noteworthy moment happened in 1975 when Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys’ stoic quarterback, unexpectedly confessed to her: “I like sex as much as Joe Namath. I just like it with one person, my wife.”

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Late that season, her first with “The NFL Today,” she recalled being worried that she had been chosen by CBS to play a token role.

“I told Brent I was no expert,” she told The Orlando Sentinel. “But every week, what you’ve got to understand is that I get more and more to do because my confidence is growing and their confidence in me is growing.”

Still, it was not easy being a woman in a male bastion years before increasing numbers of women gained wide respect at various networks.

“We talked recently about the #MeToo movement,” her daughter, Pamela Brown, said in an interview. “She said, ‘Pam, I went through all of it’ — all the sexist comments and how during commercial breaks she’d have an idea and one of the guys would steal it as if it were his.”

She remained with “The NFL Today” for three seasons before being replaced during the 1978 season by Jayne Kennedy, another former beauty queen. The next year, Ms. George married John Y. Brown Jr., who had built the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain and was elected governor of Kentucky in 1979. She was the first lady of the state for four years.

Phyllis Ann George was born on June 25, 1949, in Denton, Texas. Her father, Robert, owned an oil distributorship. Her mother, Diantha Louise (Cogdell) George, was a homemaker. She attended the University of North Texas, but did not graduate.

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She took more than a decade of piano lessons and aspired to a career as a classical pianist; that did not happen, but she played piano at the local and state pageants that culminated in her being crowned Miss America. For the talent portion of the competition, she played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

When she was announced as the winner of the title and began her runway walk, she nodded to the judges and her crown fell from her head.

“I thought ‘You can’t leave it there,’ so I bent down and carried it,” she told The Press of Atlantic City in 2013. “I had flowers and a scepter in one hand and a crown in the other.”

Her first major job in television was as host of “The New Candid Camera” with Allen Funt in 1974. CBS Sports hired her soon after and began to give her assignments, the most prominent being “The NFL Today.”

Bob Wussler, the president of CBS Sports, said he wanted to hire a woman who would provide a human interest angle that male commentators did not.

“She’s a warm, attractive, very nice individual,” Wussler told The Sentinel. “She brings the average 25-year-old-lady fan kind of aspect, which I think is important.”

After being replaced by Kennedy for two seasons, Ms. George returned to “The NFL Today” in 1980 and stayed until 1984. Early the next year, she replaced Diane Sawyer as an anchor of “The CBS Morning News” with Bill Kurtis. She was again criticized, this time for not having a journalism background. After eight months, she resigned.

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She went on to host a talk show on the Nashville Network, write several books, and start two businesses: Chicken by George, a maker of marinated fresh chicken-breast entrees, which she sold to Hormel, and a line of cosmetics and skin-care products, Phyllis George Beauty, marketed through HSN.

In addition to her daughter, she leaves her son, Lincoln Tyler George Brown, and two grandchildren. Her marriages to Brown and Robert Evans, the Hollywood producer, ended in divorce.

Ms. George recalled to The Kansas City Star in 1995 that despite the difficulties she faced at CBS Sports, she would have done it again. But, she said, she should not have done “The CBS Morning News.”

“They didn’t play to my strengths,” she said. “They didn’t play to anything I had. They just left me sitting there. To show up for eights months, as I did, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”