The Hacks at The Games: Newly retired TV sports announcer Brent Musburger was deceived by one at a Yale-Harvard game he was describing in 1982

Veteran broadcaster Brent Musburger prepares for his last broadcast prior to an NCAA college basketball game between Kentucky and Georgia, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. The game marks Musburger's last broadcast before retirement. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

The veteran sports announcer Brent Musburger, now 77, called his last game on television last Tuesday. For the record, it was in basketball and Kentucky defeated Georgia 90-81 in overtime.

Since revealing that he is hanging up the microphone, the media has been highlighting his long career and remembering some of the notable events and descriptions associated with him.

It’s therefore time for us to bring one of the Musburger highlights out of mothballs, as it may be of special interest to Sportzedge’s Yale and Ivy League affiliated readers.

Nobody was prepared for the MIT balloon to appear in the middle of "The Game" on that fateful afternoon in 1982. (Photo: Wiki.MITAdmissions.org)
Nobody was prepared for the MIT balloon to appear in the middle of “The Game” on that fateful afternoon in 1982. (Photo: Wiki.MITAdmissions.org)

It happened in 1982 when Musburger was the play-by-play voice of the Yale-Harvard football game on CBS-TV. That day, Musburger inadvertently gave an inaccurate and startling description of something that happened in Harvard Stadium in the third quarter. Perhaps he could not be blamed for being duped, since hardly anybody was prepared for what was taking place.

As with most network announcers, Brent probably arrived in Cambridge a day or two early, met with the coaches, looked at film, and boned up on the teams and their personnel. But he might not have delved enough into the history books, or he would have been alerted to expect the unexpected. Then perhaps he would not have been caught off base, to use a baseball term in a football article.

So when a big 5-foot weather balloon suddenly arose from the ground during the third quarter, grew and grew in size, then exploded, leaving debris scattered about.

Musburger changed from a game announcer to a news reporter, and got some of his “facts” wrong.

Called the balloon a bomb

Numerous media sources confirmed that Musburger apparently didn’t recognize it to be a balloon and instead, when it exploded, told the TV audience it was a bomb.

Boston Magazine

“CBS’s Brent Musburger mistakenly announced on television that a bomb had floated down from the stands and exploded, leaving a three-foot crater.”

In reality it was not a bomb, only a harmless balloon, and the “hole” was actually the chamber in which the balloon and its inflating device had been hidden.

MIT Technology Review

“CBS’s Brent ­Musberger mistakenly announced on television that a bomb had floated down from the stands and exploded, leaving a three-foot crater.”

Sports Illustrated:

“The most exciting thing that happened at this year’s Harvard-Yale game (Harvard won—yawn—45-7) was the sudden and startling appearance in the second period of a 5-foot weather balloon on the 46-yard line of Harvard Stadium. Although Brent Musburger indicated on TV that the balloon had floated down from the grandstand and ‘exploded,’ leaving a 3-foot hole in the ground, actually the balloon emerged from the field, getting bigger and bigger until it burst, spewing white powder around. The hole it left turned out to be the chamber in which the balloon and its inflating device had been hidden.”

Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession

“The stunt drew national attention as sportscaster Brent Musberger breathlessly, thoughy inaccurately, announced on CBS that a bomb had blasted a three-foot crater.

There is no way of telling how many viewers who had friends and relatives at Harvard Stadium that day in 1982 may have become alarmed and concerned that their loved ones were in danger. And who could blame them if they saw the thing explode and heard the Musburger commentary.

MIT got the blame (credit?) for the prank

If it wasn’t a bomb, what was it that so ominously exploded in plain view of 40,000 people?

The so-called brains behind all of all this came from a fraternity at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has no football team but plenty of “boy geniuses.”

We pick up the story from The Harvard Crimson, (Nov. 22, 2003), which looked back on the incident 21 years later.

“Once built, the most difficult task was burying it under the sod of Harvard Stadium and concealing it from the vigilant grounds crew. Over the course of eight nighttime visits, complete with lookouts and camouflage, the Dekes were able to run wires underground through a gap in the cement track that once rounded the field, and then into the bowels of the concrete horseshoe where the power supply was located. Given their poor luck with security, the MIT students waited until the week of the game to install the fire extinguisher-size device into the ground and hoped the sod would not die before the game. . .

“ . . . So with 7:45 remaining in the first half . . . . a nozzle burrowed its way out of the turf near midfield and began to inflate a large black balloon. The crowd stood in quiet awe while both teams retreated wearily from the minivan-sized globe.

“On its surface read MIT, and after a few minutes the balloon suddenly popped and as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.”

The remains of the big black balloon were cleared from the field, and panic was averted.

Harvard’s president at the time, Derek Bok, told The Crimson “I sat there and didn’t really know what to think. I thought the Phoenix was again rising from the ashes . . . I thought I had seen it all.”

Millions viewed it on TV

In addition to being shown as it was happening on the Yale-Harvard telecast, a replay of the prank was spread across the country during a break in the nationally televised Ohio State-Michigan game.

Not the first or last time for the MIT frat

MIT’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity has a history of successful and unsuccessful attempts to make its presence felt at Yale-Harvard games, both before and after this notable prank. Here’s the scorecard:

1) In 1966 some DKE fraternity brothers were expelled after it was discovered they had planted explosive cords, in an effort to blast the MIT letters into the playing field. The plan was foiled after the cords were discovered by the grounds crew.

2) In 1978 they turned from explosives to paint. Dekes developed a device that would spray paint their sacred letters MIT on the field before a Yale-Harvard battle that year. Again, the plan was discovered before it could be put into effect.

3) Not content with its success in 1982, some MIT students pulled another stunt in the third quarter of The Game in 1990. Using a rocket, they draped a banner proclaiming MIT over a goal post crossbar. The next day a Boston Herald headline blazed “Tech pranksters steal the show.”

Yale pulled a few shockers

In addition to the MIT impact, those familiar with the Y-H rivalry are well aware that on a few occasions, including just this past season, there have been surprise doings in the stands. Some of them were not for family audience, and provoked reactions ranging from laughter to anger to shock.

Last November, for example, several Yalies performed the “Saybrook Strip,” in which they changed their usual “down to the waste” disrobement to a group mooning directed toward their Harvard counterparts, despite the chill in the air.

In 2004 a group of 24 Yalies infiltrated the stands dessed in crimson jerseys saying “ Harvard Pep Squad,” of which there is really no such thing. They passed out flash cards and written instructions to unsuspecting Crimson alumni and fans, and on a given signal the words “We Suck” were unknowingly displayed to those in the student sections across the way.

It’s immortalized on YouTube:

Both of those incidents are permanently and graphically still floating around on the internet.

It may have started in the Yale Bowl

Such antics go back at least as far as 1914. Historical newspaper accounts show that at the dedication game of the Yale Bowl, Harvard students set the goal posts ablaze with flares and explosives they had secretly prepared to go off after their hoped for Harvard victory. Harvard did win, and the pyrotechnical display, along with a taunting snake dance around the field, hurled further abuse on the Yale fans.

The Boston Globe (Nov. 24, 1914) put it this way:

“There was a blaze of fire and then a shower of rocket lights. Then the top of the goals suddenly turned to blazing balls of crimson—and so remained for a long time.”

The paper explained that box covers in which rockets and red fire power were securely packed had been placed over the tops of the four posts. When the game was over a few participants in the scheme climbed up the posts and lit the fuses which set off the display, while the culprits quickly descended from the posts.

That flame and explosive show 103 years ago was a precedent for the “balloon blast” that Brent Musburger, 40,000 other spectators, and millions of TV viewers saw in 1982.

How they described the balloon blast

William (Bill) Wallace, in The New York Times

“After the second Harvard touchdown late in the second period, a balloon suddenly began to inflate slowly out of the ground near midfield. The letters M.I.T. were scrawled over the dark object, which then burst as players, officials and coaches stood about cautiously. After five minutes of delay Harvard groundskeepers put the field in order and the contest resumed. The balloon was inflated by a canister and both had been planted beneath the turf. No one knew by whom.”

Deborah Douglas, now a curator for the MIT Museum

“The two teams were lined up when suddenly our attention shifted toward the sideline. That’s when we saw it. Everyone was trying to make out what was written on the balloon. Some of the Harvard police seemed to draw their guns. And then suddenly it exploded.”

United Press International

A huge black balloon covered with the letters MIT mysteriously rose out of the 46 yard line before thousands of football fans at Harvard stadium and exploded Saturday in an apparent remote-control prank.

“There were no injuries. The Harvard-Yale football game was delayed about 10 minutes. . .”

Harvard spokesman Kevin Fitzgerald (UPI)

“It just appeared out of absolutely nowhere. It was quite curious. It had the attention of everybody.”

Theverge.com

“As the frat later explained, the prank was part of an operation that had been in the works for several years. The balloon was inflated by a freon-driven hydraulic press buried three feet below the ground, and was powered by a vacuum cleaner motor. Members of the house’s “Bomb Squad” planted the device a few days before the game, making eight trips to the stadium during the dead of night. The students were confident that the explosion would cause no bodily harm . . .”

Sports Illustrated (Dec. 6, 1982)

The most exciting thing that happened at this year’s Harvard-Yale game (Harvard won—yawn—45-7) was the sudden and startling appearance in the second period of a 5-foot weather balloon on the 46-yard line of Harvard Stadium. Although Brent Musburger indicated on TV that the balloon had floated down from the grandstand and ‘exploded,’ leaving a 3-foot hole in the ground, actually the balloon emerged from the field, getting bigger and bigger until it burst, spewing white powder around. The hole it left turned out to be the chamber in which the balloon and its inflating device had been hidden.

From the SI Vault

Bob Lobel, WBZ-TV (Boston)

“It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen. . . . It had to be the greatest college prank of all time.”

Michael Madden, the Boston Globe

“The prank of pranks.”

Musburger’s misleading description

There is no telling if this misleading report on television that there was a “bomb” explosion on the field had alarmed viewers, especially those who had relatives and friends at Harvard Stadium and who could have concluded that they were in danger. If it had happened in our post 9-11 era, with high security and many anti-terrorism precautions taken at large spectator events, this prank could have had serious repercussions.

Years in the planning

It was not a spur of the moment stunt, but an elaborate project emanating from the brilliant minds of MIT students who may not have had better things to do in their spare hours. Later, at a press conference, some of the DKE brothers displayed blueprints and explained that the ominous looking object that rose from beneath the earth only contained freon.

They said that under cover of darkness during eight trips to Harvard Stadium they had installed wiring into an empty circuit breaker of the irrigation control board to put the balloon into action. On the day of the game, a Deke brother talked his way past a campus policeman, got into the electrical room, and pulled every circuit breaker, which finally set off the mechanism. The explosion that followed is now a part of Yale-Harvard history, which had its origins in the Yale Bowl display of flares and fireworks in 1914.

Musburger did not let it pass

Was Musburger fazed by being duped into thinking it was a bomb and then spreading his assumption to the viewers? Apparently not enough to let it get buried in television history. The segment ended up on Musburger’s subsequent New Year’s Day college football special.

The Explosion over, The Game continued

The explosion may have been the highlight of the day, at least to Bulldog fans for whom there was little to cheer. That audacious and scary prank in the second quarter was an episode that not even Brent Musburger could accurately explain.

Although his broadcast days are now over, he will probably never forget his unanticipated moment of having to describe The Explosion at The Game.

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