Longtime college basketball commentator Billy Packer, the voice of the NCAA tournament for more than 30 years, died Thursday night. He was 82.
Packer’s two sons, Mark and Brandt, announced the news via Twitter on Thursday night.
The Packer Family would like to share some sad news. Our amazing father, Billy, has passed. We take peace knowing that he’s in heaven with Barb. RIP, Billy. 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/uFRixmgCcd
— Mark Packer (@MarkPacker) January 27, 2023
Mark Packer told The Associated Press that his father had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past three weeks and had several medical issues, and ultimately succumbed to kidney failure.
Packer was the lead college basketball analyst for 34 straight Final Fours, first at NBC and then at CBS, while also doing work as an analyst for ACC games on Raycom. He received a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio and Sports Analyst in 1993.
Packer was the son of longtime basketball coach Anthony Packer, who spent 16 seasons as the head coach at Lehigh. After earning all-state honors as a high schooler in Pennsylvania, Packer attended Wake Forest, where he was named All-ACC in 1961 and 1962. He helped lead the Demon Deacons to three ACC regular-season titles and their first Final Four appearance in 1962, when Packer was named to the all-region team.
He briefly entered the coaching profession before getting his start as an announcer in 1972. Packer told The Athletic in 2019 he “never had any goal to be a broadcaster.”
But within two years, Packer was on the call for NCAA tournament and Final Four games and didn’t give up his seat until leaving in 2008.
“I made up my mind halfway through my career that someday I won’t be doing this anymore. One of the things I said to myself was that I really enjoy the research and studying the game and having the opportunity to interface with people I respect that really know the game and its history. And if I didn’t enjoy doing that, I’d want to stop,” he told The Athletic. “There’s a point where you say, OK, I’ve enjoyed my run, and now it’s time to go back and do the other things I enjoy. The last game I’ve seen in person was the last game I broadcast. That was the (2008) national championship game between Memphis and Kansas.”
Packer has some of the most famous calls in Final Four history, perhaps most notably saying “Simon says … championship” after Miles Simon led Arizona to the 1997 national championship.
He was also part of the broadcast in 1979 with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the title game. That remains the highest-rated game in basketball history with a 21.1 Nielsen rating, which is an estimated 35.1 million viewers.
“He really enjoyed doing the Final Fours,” Mark Packer told the AP. “He timed it right. Everything in life is about timing. The ability to get involved in something that, frankly, he was going to watch anyway, was a joy to him. And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness.”
Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades and set the standard of excellence as the voice of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”
“He had a tremendous impact on the growth and popularity of the sport,” McManus said in a statement. “In true Billy fashion, he analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game. As passionate as he was about basketball, at his heart Billy was a family man. He leaves part of his legacy at CBS Sports, across college basketball and, most importantly, as a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He will be deeply missed by all.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale was among those to pay tribute to Packer on Twitter, writing, “So sad to learn of the passing of Billy Packer who had such a passion for college basketball.”
So sad to learn of the passing of Billy Packer who had such a passion for college basketball. My 🙏🙏🙏 go out to Billy’s son @MarkPacker & the entire Packer family.Always had great RESPECT for Billy & his partners Dick Enberg & Al McGuire-they were super.May Billy RIP .
— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) January 27, 2023
College basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted: “We fell in love (with) college basketball because of you. Your voice will remain in my head forever.”
When Packer stepped away as CBS’ main analyst and was replaced by Clark Kellogg in 2008, the most important people in college sports expressed their admiration for Packer and his impact on the game.
“His understanding of men’s college basketball, his analysis of the game, and his love for its place in higher education has ensured a legacy that anyone can envy,” late NCAA president Myles Brand said at the time. “He is a friend of intercollegiate athletics, and I want to thank him for the enormous contributions he has made to the NCAA’s Final Four tournament, as well as on many, many other occasions over several years.”
“The only word to describe Billy is a giant,” former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said in 2008. “His passion for the game and presenting it the way he presented it is, I think, unrivaled. This creates an incredible void. Those of us who have a passion for the game of college basketball are really going to miss him.”
Outside of his broadcasting career, Packer was involved in a number of businesses and real estate deals.
“Since I played my last basketball game in college, I’ve had no interest in competing in sports,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 1999. “But I love the challenge of business deals. To me, it’s the closest thing to sports. It’s a game adults can play.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.