TV pioneer Phyllis George, co-host of ‘The NFL Today,’ dies at 70

Phyllis George, the former Miss America who became a sports pioneer on NBS Today and served as Kentucky's first lady, died. She was 70 years old.

A family spokeswoman said George died Thursday at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, after a long struggle with a blood disorder.

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Her children, Lincoln Tyler George Brown and CNN White House correspondent Pamela Ashley Brown, remembered George as "the most amazing mother we could ever ask for".

"For many, Mom was known for her incredible accomplishments as the pioneer sports host, 50th Miss America and the first lady," they said in a joint statement. "But that was all before we were born and never as we saw Mom. For us, she was the most amazing mother we could ever ask for, and these are all defining qualities that the public has never seen, especially against the winds of adversity., That they symbolize how extraordinary she is, more than anything else. The beauty that so many recognized outside was a mere fraction of her inner beauty, only to be overcome by an unshakable spirit that allowed her to persevere against all odds. "

Miss America in 1971, George joined Brent Musburger and Irv Cross in 1975 on "The NFL Today". Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder was later added to the cast.

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"Phyllis George was special. Her smile lit up millions of homes for NFL Today." Musburger tweeted. "Phyllis has not received nearly enough credit for opening the door to sports broadcasting for the dozens of talented women who have taken over their leadership and gone up."

Every Sunday afternoon, "The NFL Today" aired three live versions of the half-hour pre-game program – one at 12:30 pm. ET to the east, another at 1:30 ET to the midwest stations and again at 3:30 ET to the west coast – plus short breaks in between during the long afternoon. Until then, pre-game programs had little cachet; it was the post-game program, with highlights from Sunday's games that dominated.

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"The CBS Sports family is deeply saddened by the death of Phyllis George, an icon in the sports broadcast industry who has contributed a lot to the rich history and tradition of CBS Sports," said Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, in a statement. "Phyllis was not only an important member of a program that remains the gold standard for NFL pre-game programs, NFL Today with Brent, Irv and & # 39; The Greek & # 39 ;, but also a pioneer of all women in transmission ".

"In my gut, I found Phyllis very special," said the late Bob Wussler, who hired George at CBS, once with USA Today. "I thought there was a role for her, like someone who could talk to guys who knew something about sports."

But George said she was bombarded with hate messages.

"When you're first, you're a pioneer," George told USA Today in 1999. "I felt like they didn't know who Phyllis George was. They interpreted me as a former Miss America, a sex symbol. I can't help my appearance, but below the surface, I was a working woman. If I hadn't done this job, women would have gotten into the sport, but it would take more time. "

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George spent three seasons at the pre-game live show, returned in 1980 and left in 1983, winning applause for the heat of his interviews with famous athletes. She also covered horse racing, including the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, organized the entertainment program "People" and co-founded "CBS Morning News".

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She was briefly married to Hollywood producer Robert Evans in the mid-1970s and to John Y. Brown Jr. from 1979 to 1998. Brown owned Kentucky Fried Chicken and the NBA & # 39; s Boston Celts and served as governor of Kentucky.

"Phyllis was a great asset to Kentucky," Brown told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We had a great partnership. I think we enjoy it every day."

From Denton, Texas, George attended the University of North Texas for three years and then went to TCU after receiving a scholarship as Miss Texas in 1970.

In his 2002 memoir, George wrote that a friend said sports broadcasting wouldn't work because it was a man's job. George even acknowledged not knowing anything about the industry and having no experience or other mentor to follow.

None of that stopped her.

George was a friend of Minister Norman Vincent Peale and a devout believer in his best-selling philosophy of positive thinking. George credited this approach with starting a career she did not expect – one that led her to a surprising variety of ventures and roles, in the media, in the film industry, in food and beauty products and as the glamorous first lady of Bluegrass. State.

"Saying yes to yourself opens up opportunities that can take you anywhere," wrote George. "Having a mentor in your life who says yes to you is also critical. Appreciate your mentors when you start. And later, always give credit to the people who were with you in the beginning."

ESPN sports presenter Hannah Storm remembered George as "the best pioneer" who inspired other women, showing that careers in sport could be within reach.

"Often, when you dream about something like a career option, you need to see it to believe it," she said. "And someone has to be the first, and that was Phyllis."

Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, called hiring George as part of the "The NFL Today" team as an "innovative decision" that "changed the face of sports television."

"She had an openness and enthusiasm that made her a valuable contributor," said Pilson. "She didn't claim to know much about sports, but she did know about people, which is why her interviews resonated. She could do the best interviews with athletes and family members. She was a warm person, and it came out." the set and in the interviews ".

George conducted individual interviews with famous athletes such as NFL greats Joe Namath and Roger Staubach.

"People were uncomfortable with the idea of ​​seeing a woman on TV talking about sports in a prominent role," said Storm. – But someone has to go first. I respect your true courage so much. She had to expose herself. Phyllis George did something out of the norm. And I am forever grateful for her to lead the way.

George was not the first, but she made her entry at a time when other women were beginning to report sports as well.

Jane Chastain was hired at CBS in 1974 and became the first announcer on an NFL broadcast that fall.

Lesley Visser became the first female NFL writer for a 14-year career at The Boston Globe, which started in 1974. She later worked on "The NFL Today" as well as on ABC and ESPN, becoming the first woman designated for Monday Night. Football in 1998.

Visser said George "always made you feel important and warm. I never heard you speak of anyone in a negative way. She made everything look so easy. She had a magnetic personality."

The industry discovered George after she co-organized "Candid Camera" and the Miss America contest. She received a 13-week option from CBS in 1974, without a defined role. A popular interview with reluctant Celtics star Dave Cowens soon earned him a three-year contract and paved the way for his innovative role the following year on "The NFL Today".

George started to co-host "CBS Morning News" in 1985, but gave up after less than eight months. Among the people she interviewed was former first lady Nancy Reagan. She later interviewed President Bill Clinton in 1994 as part of her own prime-time talk show.

She was regularly criticized by critics who accused of not knowing sports and not knowing news.

"[Being Miss America] has been an obstacle to help, "George once told the Los Angeles Times." It was a help because it opened doors. It has been an obstacle that people immediately say & # 39; BQ & # 39; – you know, beauty queen. And you had to prove yourself more than the next person. "

George cited Emmys won by "The NFL Today" as evidence that she dominated the sports interview.

"I kept showing up, and they kept saying, 'Hey, maybe she's here to stay'," said George. "So we won some Emmys for the show & # 39; The NFL Today & # 39;"

ESPN Beth Mowins, who in 2017 became the first woman to call up an NFL game for the regular season since Gayle Sierens called him in 1987, said seeing George on "The NFL Today" provided the "aha" moment of Mowins.

"There was a woman talking about football," Mowins told TheFootballGirl.com. "That's what I was attracted to. I like sports and I like to talk, so the two mixed together perfectly."

As a businesswoman, George founded Chicken By George, a line of eight items of fresh, marinated and chicken breast entrees, and sold it two years later to Geo. A. Hormel & Co. She created Phyllis George Beauty in 2003. The product line for cosmetics and skin products was sold through a domestic TV shopping chain.

She wrote several books and had roles in a couple of Hollywood comedy films.

"Phyllis is a pioneer. Her reach is what impresses me the most", ex Kentucky and Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, now in Iona, wrote in the preface to George's memoirs: "Never say never: ten lessons to transform you cannot be YES, I CAN".

"She entered a highly competitive contest and emerged as Miss America," wrote Pitino. "She became the first national women's sports broadcaster. She flourished in the spotlight as the first lady in the state of Kentucky. She has been successful in business. And she is a respected humanitarian. At every step along the way, she embraced the mission in question. "

Associated Press information was used in this report.

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