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Pioneer sportscaster Michael dies at 70

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

Longtime Washington sportscaster George Michael died Thursday morning, ending a larger-than-life career marked by groundbreaking innovations and an outsized personality that loomed over a no-nonsense sports town brimming with characters.

"George was a pioneer in sports broadcasting," WRC-TV (Channel 4) said in a statement early Thursday announcing Mr. Michael's death from leukemia at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest Washington. "He was a gifted interviewer, a master storyteller and one of the hardest-working journalists out there."

Mr. Michael, 70, anchored the station's sports desk from 1980 to 2007 and produced the nationally syndicated "George Michael Sports Machine" television show. He is perhaps best-known for his pioneering use of game highlights, which became the model for such shows as ESPN's SportsCenter.

In addition to his appearances on the station's nightly newscasts, Mr. Michael also hosted a series of other local sports shows, including "Redskins Report" and "Full Court Press." He continued those shows, and Monday reports with Redskins coaches, even after he gave up his daily job with the station.

Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins for the past decade, called Mr. Michael a "consummate reporter and a valuable friend."

"I doubt we'll ever again see a sports reporter who was so admired by the people he covered," said Mr. Snyder, adding that there would be a moment of silence before Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs called Mr. Michael a "dear friend."

"I always appreciated George's direct and honest approach, and I certainly leaned on his advice many times throughout my career," Mr. Gibbs said. "He was a tremendous influence on me and so many in sports and in the Washington community because he truly cared about the people he covered."

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said Mr. Michael was one of the "most respected, thought-provoking and honest reporters" he had encountered.

"George always was well-prepared for any topic, fair in his commentary, opinionated in his comments and entertaining in his delivery. He was a role model for sportscasters in D.C. and around the country," Mr. Leonsis said.

Tony Kornheiser, a former Washington Post columnist and former commentator for ESPN's "Monday Night Football," postponed a vacation to air a tribute to Mr. Michael on his ESPN 980-AM radio show, prompting others to call the show and pay their respects.

Mr. Kornheiser called Mr. Michael "a local television presence of the highest order."

"He's a giant in the town," Mr. Kornheiser said.

Film critic Arch Campbell, another longtime WRC-TV employee, said on the show that Mr. Michael was diagnosed about two years ago with cancer and that he had recently seen him.

"Everybody knew he was struggling, but it's hard to believe he passed away," Mr. Campbell said. Mr. Campbell said Mr. Michael had been home, but felt sick on Sunday and was admitted to the hospital.

"It's a blow that he's gone," Mr. Campbell said.

Sonny Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame Redskins quarterback who was a staple of several of Mr. Michael's television programs, praised Mr. Michael's work ethic.

"I've never met anybody that worked harder than George, that prepared more than George," Mr. Jurgensen said on the broadcast.

Mr. Michael helped launch the television careers of Mr. Kornheiser and Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon.

Mr. Wilbon said on Mr. Kornheiser's show that Mr. Michael grew up poor and was conflicted about the wealth that came with his success.

"George was a complex person, but he loved talking to people," Mr. Wilbon said. "He wasn't afraid to talk about race. We both liked to stay up, and I remember so many late-night calls, him saying 'Are you watching Kobe Bryant?' "

Mr. Wilbon also repeated the frequently told story about Mr. Michael making his mother travel by bus halfway across the country to see baseball great Jackie Robinson play.

Former professional basketball player and ESPN sportscaster Len Elmore said Mr. Michael was one of a kind and set the standard for sportscasters everywhere but remained humble despite his success.

"He was never full of himself despite being the man around town," Mr. Elmore said.

Mr. Michael was born George Michael Gimpel on March 24, 1939, in St. Louis. He dropped his last name as a radio disc jockey in Philadelphia and New York, where he was known as "King George" in the 1960s and '70s. He was also a radio commentator for New York Islanders hockey before he came to Washington.

After joining the station in April 1980, he created "George Michael's Sports Final," a local sports highlight show that was nationally syndicated in 1984 as the "George Michael Sports Machine."

He established an audience and a rivalry with popular WUSA-TV sportscaster Glenn Brenner until Mr. Brenner succumbed to a brain tumor at age 44 in 1992.

Mr. Michael went on to dominate the local television sports market with his high-energy delivery and segments that, in addition to daily sports news, contained regular features on professional wrestling and high school football and highlighted lesser-known sports, such as NASCAR and bull riding.

Randy Bernard, chief executive officer of Professional Bull Riders Inc., attributed the increased popularity of his sport in recent years in part to Mr. Michael's broadcasts.

"George was one of the greatest friends the PBR could ever ask for," Mr. Bernard said. "He was one of the first mainstream sportscasters to recognize and promote the competition of bull riding, and much of the PBR's success was due to his support early on."

Mr. Michael ended his day-to-day relationship with WRC-TV in 2007. He was offered a long-term contract but turned it down amid budget cuts so that other employees wouldn't be laid off.

Mr. Michael was responsible for hiring his successors at the station, Dan Hellie and Lindsay Czarniak. During the 6 p.m. news broadcast on Thursday, Miss Czarniak honored Mr. Michael.

"Today we lost a man who told us sports, but made it one hell of a show," she said.