Phyllis George, the former Miss America who became a female sportscasting pioneer on CBS' "The NFL Today" and served as the first lady of Kentucky, has died. She was 70.
A family spokeswoman said George died Thursday at a Lexington, Kentucky, hospital after a long fight with a blood disorder.
Her children, Lincoln Tyler George Brown and CNN White House correspondent Pamela Ashley Brown, remembered George as "the most incredible mother we could ever ask for."
"For many, Mom was known by her incredible accomplishments as the pioneering female sportscaster, 50th Miss America and first lady," they said in a joint statement. "But this was all before we were born and never how we viewed Mom. To us, she was the most incredible mother we could ever ask for, and it is all of the defining qualities the public never saw, especially against the winds of adversity, that symbolize how extraordinary she is more than anything else. The beauty so many recognized on the outside was a mere fraction of her internal beauty, only to be outdone by an unwavering spirit that allowed her to persevere against all the odds."
Miss America in 1971, George joined Brent Musburger and Irv Cross in 1975 on "The NFL Today." Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder later was added to the cast.
"Phyllis George was special. Her smile lit up millions of homes for the NFL Today," Musburger tweeted. "Phyllis didn't receive nearly enough credit for opening the sports broadcasting door for the dozens of talented women who took her lead and soared.''
Each Sunday afternoon, "The NFL Today" aired three live versions of the half-hour pregame show -- one at 12:30 p.m. ET for the East, another at 1:30 ET for Midwest stations and again at 3:30 ET for the West Coast -- in addition to brief halftime breaks during the long afternoon. Until then, pregame shows had little cachet; it was the postgame program with highlights from the Sunday games that held sway.
"The CBS Sports family is deeply saddened by the passing of Phyllis George, an icon in the sports broadcasting industry who contributed greatly to the rich history and tradition of CBS Sports," Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, said in a statement. "Phyllis was not only a key member of a show that remains the gold standard of NFL pregame shows, the NFL Today with Brent, Irv and 'The Greek,' but also a pioneer for all women in broadcasting."
"In my gut, I thought Phyllis was pretty special," the late Bob Wussler, who hired George at CBS, once told USA Today. "I thought there was a role for her, as somebody who could talk to guys who knew something about sports."
But George said she was bombarded with hate mail.
"When you're the first, you're a pioneer," George told USA Today in 1999. "I felt they didn't know who Phyllis George was. They played me up as a former Miss America, a sex symbol. I can't help how I look, but below the surface, I was a hard-working woman. If I hadn't made that work, women eventually would have come into sportscasting, but it would have taken them longer."
George spent three seasons on the live pregame show, returned in 1980 and left in 1983, winning plaudits for the warmth of her interviews with star athletes. She also covered horse racing, including the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, hosted the entertainment show "People" and co-anchored the "CBS Morning News."
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's Boston Celtics and served as the governor of Kentucky.
"Phyllis was a great asset to Kentucky," Brown told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We had a great partnership. I think we enjoyed every single day."
From Denton, Texas, George attended the University of North Texas for three years then went to TCU after earning a scholarship as Miss Texas in 1970.
In her 2002 memoir, George wrote that a male friend told her sportscasting wouldn't work because it was a man's job. George even acknowledged knowing nothing about the industry and having no experience or another female mentor to follow.
None of it 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 that approach for launching a defining career she didn't expect -- one that saw her range into an astonishing variety of ventures and roles, in media, the film industry, food and beauty products and as the glamorous first lady of the Bluegrass State.
"Saying yes to yourself opens up opportunities that can take you anywhere," George wrote. "Having a mentor in your life who says yes to you is also key. Appreciate your mentors when you're starting out. And later, always give credit to the people who were there with you at the beginning."
ESPN sportscaster Hannah Storm remembered George as "the ultimate trailblazer" who inspired other women by showing that careers in sportscasting could be within their grasp.
"A lot of times when you're dreaming of something as a career option, you have to see it in order to believe it," she said. "And someone has to be first, and that was Phyllis."
Rest In Peace Phyllis George 🙏🏻. A true pioneer who approached her job with enthusiasm, empathy and humour. She was herself-charming and funny ..helped her audiences connect with some of the great sports figures of the day. Condolences to her family & all who loved her. ❤️— Hannah Storm (@HannahStormESPN) May 16, 2020
Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, called George's hiring as part of "The NFL Today" team a "groundbreaking decision" that "changed the face of sports television."
"She had an openness and enthusiasm that made her a valuable contributor," Pilson said. "She didn't claim to know a tremendous amount about sports, but she knew 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 that came through on the set and in the interviews."
George conducted one-on-one interviews with star 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," Storm said. "But someone has to go first. I give her so much respect for truly her courage. She had to put herself out there. Phyllis George did something out of the norm. And I'm forever grateful for her leading the way."
George wasn't the first, but she made her entrance around the time that other women were getting their starts reporting on sports too.
Jane Chastain was hired at CBS in 1974 and became the first female announcer on an NFL telecast that fall.
Lesley Visser became the first female NFL beat writer during a 14-year career at The Boston Globe that started in 1974. She later worked on "The NFL Today," as well as with ABC and ESPN, becoming the first woman assigned to Monday Night Football in 1998.
Visser said George "always made you feel important and warm. I never heard her talk about anyone in a negative way. She made everything look so easy. She had a magnetic personality."
The industry discovered George after she co-hosted "Candid Camera" and the Miss America pageant. 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 her a three-year deal and paved the way to her breakthrough role the next year on "The NFL Today."
George moved on to co-host the "CBS Morning News" in 1985 but quit 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 taken to task by critics who charged that she didn't know sports and didn't know news.
"[Being Miss America] has been a help and a hindrance," George once told the Los Angeles Times. "It's been a help in that it's opened doors. It's been a hindrance in that people immediately said 'BQ' -- you know, beauty queen. And you had to prove yourself more than the next person."
George cited Emmys garnered by "The NFL Today" as evidence that she mastered the sports interview.
"I kept showing up, and they kept saying, 'Hey, maybe she's here to stay,'" George said. "Then we won a couple of Emmys for 'The NFL Today' show."
ESPN's Beth Mowins, who in 2017 became the first woman to call a regular-season NFL game since Gayle Sierens called one in 1987, said seeing George on "The NFL Today" provided Mowins' "aha" moment.
"There was a woman talking about football," Mowins told TheFootballGirl.com. "That's what I was drawn to. I like sports and like to talk, so the two blended together perfectly."
As a businesswoman, George founded Chicken By George, an eight-item line of fresh, marinated, chicken-breast entrees, and sold it two years later to Geo. A. Hormel & Co. She created Phyllis George Beauty in 2003. The cosmetic and skincare product line was sold through a TV home-shopping network.
She wrote several books and had roles in a pair of Hollywood comedy films.
"Phyllis is a pioneer. Her range is what impresses me the most," former Kentucky and Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, now at Iona, wrote in the foreword to George's memoir, "Never Say Never: Ten lessons to turn you can't into YES I CAN."
"She entered a highly competitive pageant and emerged as Miss America," Pitino wrote. "She became the first national female sports broadcaster. She flourished in the limelight as First Lady in the state of Kentucky. She's been successful in business. And she is a respected humanitarian. Each step along the way, she embraced the mission at hand."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.