Earlier this week, I talked to two Marian University Sport and Recreation Management classes about my particular aspect of sports, sports broadcasting. (The third gets to hear me Tuesday, rescheduled from Thursday due to an ill daughter.) Fifty-five minutes of talking minus questions cannot answer everything, of course; blog readers have read about some of my radio adventures.
I started the talk by playing the above video, which shows highlights of Ripon High School football from 2003 to 2006, the first four years The Ripon Channel carried games. The 2003 and 2005 teams won state, and the 2004 and 2006 teams got to the third round of the high school playoffs, which gives us the Good Timing Award.
When asked why I liked doing this, I pointed to two of the highlights, which are in reverse order on the video. In 2006, one year after winning state, Ripon squeaked into the playoffs and was rewarded by a trip to undefeated and number-one-seeded Lodi. Ripon had beaten Lodi a year earlier in the pre-state game (the blocked punt highlight), so you can imagine the Blue Devils relished a chance to get payback.
Late in the game, Ripon led 28–26, but Lodi maneuvered for a game-winning field goal, which seemed likely since Lodi had hit two field goals before that. So I took the minimalist approach and said that the Lodi kicker was ready to try the game-winning field goal, and then (at 1:40 on the video) … “BLOCKED! RIPON WINS!”
Five days later (at 1:17 on the video) came the second-round game against Chilton at UW–Oshkosh’s Titan Stadium. Chilton led 14–7 late, and Ripon had (I kid you not) a second and goal from the 35-yard line after a horribly timed clipping penalty. So quarterback Scott Gillespie threw into the end zone, where receiver Brendan O’Brien (son of our oldest son’s fourth-grade teacher) tipped it to running back Peter Schroeder, who caught it, sending us (after O’Brien’s extra point) into overtime, where, one Chilton touchdown and missed extra point, and one Schroeder touchdown and O’Brien extra point later, Ripon won 21–20 in overtime.
Sports is indeed, in the words of the late Jim McKay, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition. That’s particularly true in small towns, where there is much more interest in the local teams than in bigger areas. My newspaper ownership experience included a Cuba City girls basketball state championship, during which, as had been predicted, most of Cuba City and a couple of other communities emptied out to go to Madison for the state tournament. When Ripon won the state high school baseball title, the number of fans at Fox Cities Stadium for both of Ripon’s state games dwarfed, in order, Green Bay Notre Dame and Spooner, their two state tournament victims.
Cuba City (ironically in retrospect) was the site of the first high school football game I ever announced, a 28–27 overtime win over Lancaster on a gorgeous fall Friday afternoon. I had done very limited announcing (as in one basketball game and part of another hockey game) before that, so the listeners got to hear my first football work that afternoon. The press box at Cuba City High School was closer to the end zone than the 50-yard line, and in this case the end zone opposite where all the overtime plays took place. Moreover, the press box was on the east side of the field, not the west, which meant that the rookie play-by-play announcer looked into the sun for the entire overtime.
I spent a year announcing football and basketball before I really knew what I was doing. Even today, there are relatively few training opportunities in sports broadcasting; you learn by doing. I learned much more about what I was doing by working with someone who had professional sports broadcasting experience, instead of as my second thing. (His reward for this comes later.)
Announcers get better by doing, but announcers are coherent only because of the game prep work they do. Part-time announcers will spend three times the on-air time (two hours for high school football and college basketball, three hours for college football) in game prep, including getting rosters, schedules and pertinent stats. (College information for which comes from sports information directors, which is why every announcer says nice things about SIDs.) Every game is really within a three-game window — what happened last week, what is happening this week, and how will this affect next week — for both the participants and the conference they’re in. And you have to be willing to do the game prep, even in the dark of night, to do a decent job announcing the game.
Sports has been called the toy department of journalism. It is nevertheless important to those who follow sports. The small towns where I’ve spent most of my adult life focus all of their Friday nights on the local football or basketball teams. Over time, you meet parents of players, and you cover players’ brothers and sisters. And in one case, I became a family’s personal announcer — the aforementioned quarterback Gillespie was a four-year basketball starter at Ripon High School, and then a four-year basketball starter at Ripon College, which means I announced eight years of Scott Gillespie. (Who is, a bit ironically, the great-nephew of former Milwaukee Braves announcer Earl Gillespie.)
No one has asked me where my style of calling games comes from, which is good, since I can’t really answer that question. I do not yell as much as the video might lead you to believe, but sometimes I think I sound like Gary Thorne, who seems to have two registers — normal conversation and blow-out-the-press-box-windows volume.
Jim Irwin was the Badger football and Packer announcer (working with Gary Bender on each) until, respectively, after I graduated from college and the 1990s Super Bowls. Bob Uecker has called the Brewers as long as I can remember, first working with the late Merle Harmon, and then as the lead announcer since 1980. Back when people cared about the Milwaukee Bucks, Eddie Doucette was their announcer (followed by Irwin), and Doucette’s unique style probably echoes to some extent in Wisconsin basketball announcers who grew up in the ’70s when the Bucks were worth watching. And my hockey calls probably come from long-time UW hockey announcer Paul Braun, although not his goal call, the one-word “Shotandagoal!”
My favorite sports announcer, Dick Enberg, formerly of NBC, doesn’t know this, but he announced a lot of football in my neighborhood. I barely remember the Packers’ Glory Days TV announcer, Ray Scott, but thanks to having a collection of garrulous partners on the air (and I’ve gotten along with every one of them), I have learned that, as with Scott, in play-by-play less is often more. I doubt I picked up much from the announcers of Packer TV games in the ’70s and ’80s, since CBS or NBC usually assigned their lesser announcers to such lesser teams as the Packers.
I haven’t done enough baseball to have a home run call. My hockey goal call is simply “Score!”, which I think I got from the old New York Rangers TV announcer, Jim Gordon. (USA Network carried Rangers games on Monday nights in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and since that was the only NHL that I saw, I became a Rangers fan.) I started calling three-point shots as “Bango!” in honor of Doucette, but when my wife and occasional statistician pointed out that no one would know that reference, I changed it to “Bullseye!” That and my touchdown call are the closest thing I have to signature lines; the 2003 Ripon football team averaged 46 points per game, many on long runs, so I’d call those long runs by counting down the yard lines and ending with “to the 20 … to the 10 … to the end zone!” And the headline of this blog, the greeting I use for all live events, is stolen from Phil Mendel, the UW hockey public address announcer and road radio and TV announcer in the 1970s and early 1980s.
I’ve been very lucky to have announced some great games over the years. One was last Saturday, a 31–27 Ripon nailbiter win over Beloit. (So I should point out that Illinois College at Ripon can be viewed here Saturday at 12:50 p.m. Central time.) In games like that announcers occasionally have a thought along the lines of “And I’m getting paid to do this,” and I can certainly relate to that.
I did three years of Ripon College basketball on the radio when we moved to Ripon. That included a 1,000-plus-mile trip that tied together basketball games in Monmouth, Ill., and Grinnell, Iowa, with a Ripon College alumni breakfast in the Twin Cities. (Grinnell games are an adventure themselves given that the Pioneers and their opponents regularly break the 100s. Generally any Grinnell game I announce will outscore any NBA game of the same day.) The next year featured Operation Krispy Kreme, a 773-mile round trip from Ripon to Lake Forest and Jacksonville, Ill. Good thing I like to drive.
Our good timing at starting to cover Ripon football extends earlier than the fall of 2003 for me. The previous Ripon boys basketball season featured an attempt to get to state for the first time since 1936. I drove to Oconomowoc in a blizzard to watch the fourth quarter (due to the blizzard) of Ripon’s regional final win over Columbus. During the game, I noticed a cameraman on the Ripon side, shooting the game, but without announcers. So I emailed a Ripon College professor who had a video business on the side and asked him if whoever was doing the shooting was looking for an announcer. He passed on the information, and so that Friday I was sitting at Milwaukee Lutheran High School (having additionally recruited a coworker who was a basketball referee to do color) announcing the sectional semifinal game between Ripon and Milwaukee Lutheran. One day later I announced Ripon’s sectional final win over Milwaukee Juneau to clinch the first state berth since 1936.
Since then, I’ve announced everything from undefeated seasons to, well, the other extreme. I’ve enjoyed each in large part because of the people I work with on the games, including my on-air partners and the cameramen (who my parents fed on our every-other-year football trip to Waupaca a couple weeks ago).
The odd thing about my part-time announcing is that I have a career’s worth of strange stories (as you probably can tell). I was sitting in my office at Marian College (now University) one early April morning when I got a phone call from one of the hotels in Fond du Lac. The person on the other line was a co-owner of an adult amateur hockey team in Texarkana, Texas, which was playing in the USA Hockey National Championships beginning that afternoon. The tournament took place at the same time that the Iraq war began, and even though the team had purchased air time for the games on a Texarkana radio station, the radio station could not send anyone to announce the game because staff was needed in case of big war developments. The radio station sent the equipment on the team’s flight to Wisconsin, promising they’d find an announcer up here, but did not. The hotel clerk suggested calling Marian, I guess because Marian has hockey. When the co-owner asked if anyone at Marian had broadcast hockey before, I said, why, yes, I had announced hockey before.
Six hours later, after getting my wife, who conveniently was home on maternity leave with our youngest son, to bring my game bag to work, I sat in the Blue Line Family Ice Center, announcing a team I’d never heard of before that morning in a tournament I had barely paid note of before that morning on a radio station I’d never heard of in a part of the country I’ve never been to (four states in the Texarkana area). It was, however, a great experience — three one-goal games, with the winning goals scored progressively later in the games. The Texarkana fans were great (there were three Web sites for the team, one of which had video of the team’s on-ice fights), and apparently the listeners back in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma liked my work, based on the feedback I got over the phone line from the radio station. They were particularly interested in my description of the eight inches of wet snow that fell during the second day of the tournament.
That eventually led to my year of announcing Marian hockey, which was fun as well. I got one of the nicest compliments in my life when, at the end of the final game of Marian’s season, the mother of one of the players came up to me and said that I was her favorite hockey announcer. Given that she was from, I believe, Canada, where both hockey and hockey announcing were invented, I was most honored, even though I know that I was her favorite because I was the only announcer to announce her son’s work.
The topper goes back to the mid-1990s, when we had a game one Friday night early in the season in Westby, followed the next afternoon by a game in Wauzeka, which had never had a game broadcast from there before this day.
When we arrived in Wauzeka, the press box immediately reminded me of the guard tower that got blown up in the opening titles of the old TV series “F Troop.” (That’s what the literary types call “foreshadowing.”) Getting up to the press box, I noticed that three of the steps looked as though they were pulling out of one of the stringers, so I suggested we (myself, my wife, my fellow announcer, who I previously mentioned taught me how to announce a game, and his four-year-old son) avoid those steps.
My partner then left the press box for a bathroom trip for his son, returning about 10 minutes before we were to go on the air. He got his son up to the press box, then headed up the stairs. And then I heard a tremendous noise, and looked at the source of the noise to discover that there was no fellow announcer and no more stairs. He had hit the bad steps, gone through them, and crashed to the ground 10 feet below, leaving a gaping hole in the stairs. The home team’s trainer came over to clean out the nail gouges up both sides of his torso, but when he became woozy, it was decided that perhaps he should be checked out at the nearby hospital. So when the taped voice threw the game to us, naming both of us, the first thing I had to do was explain why only I would be announcing that day, seeing as how at that very minute the local ambulance was driving him and his freaked-out four-year-old to the hospital.
Complicating matters further was the fact that my partner, to avoid paying for the installation of a telephone line, had created a Rube Goldberg-like arrangement where the radio unit we were using (it broadcasts between the FM band and the public service band) was picked up by a police scanner, which was connected to an old telephone in an office in the high school, by using two alligator jacks hooked into the posts of the handset’s microphone and the external plug on the scanner. That arrangement meant that I couldn’t hear how I sounded; my partner was going to listen to a radio while we called the game, but that duty went instead to my wife, who doubled as floor manager, cueing me to talk when we came out of commercial. I also had to say on the air at the end that I hoped someone from the radio station could come to the game and disconnect the equipment, since I had no idea how to do it. As it happened, my partner checked out OK at the hospital and returned to the game site just as the broadcast ended.
It was, fortunately, a good game, with the home team winning 18–11. But there is a reason why you rarely hear football games with just one announcer. The listeners don’t want to hear just one voice essentially nonstop for almost three hours, and the announcer doesn’t want to hear himself essentially nonstop for almost three hours.