The press box’s big three

I had a great time announcing a women’s basketball game at the UW–Madison Kohl Center Wednesday.

The team I was covering lost 107–58, and we had some technical problems. I don’t care. It was still fun. Sports announcing, as I think I’ve said here before, is the most fun thing I do in my life.

I pointed out to my on-air partner how things had changed in that neighborhood over the years. Thirty years ago, when I was a UW journalism and political science student (pause to blow the dust off myself), the first story I did for my TV news class was of a proposal to finally build a replacement for the Fieldhouse and the Dane County Coliseum on the east side of campus where students lived in old houses. As part of that story I got to interview UW men’s basketball coach Steve Yoder and hockey coach Jeff Sauer, and they were nicer to students who weren’t their own players than one would figure. (Sauer was a class act who didn’t get enough credit for his coaching success.)

The Kohl Center did open in 1997, after Herb Kohl donated $25 million of the $72 million for it. A lot changed at UW over that time, beginning with cratering football, followed by football’s rebirth. Twenty years after it opened, I cannot think of a better college basketball facility, and it’s better than the soon-to-be-replaced Bradley Center in Milwaukee, since the Herb Garden has basketball sightlines patterned on the Fieldhouse and the Bradley Center did not.

Then while wasting time on Facebook (and I apologize for the redundancy) someone mentioned former UW football announcer Fred Gage. Which got me to find this:

Long off the tee and legendary around a piano bar, Fred Gage was a pillar of the local radio market and a voice of the Badgers in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He was also a pretty good athlete. At Green Bay East High School, he competed in football, basketball and golf. At UW (1938-1940), he lettered three times in football for head coach Harry Stuhldreher. One of his earliest teammates was running back Howie Weiss, the Big Ten MVP and sixth-place finisher on the 1938 Heisman ballot.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Gage returned to Madison and went to work in the communications business with the Capital Times and WIBA radio (the former owned the latter through 1977). In the late ’60s, Gage was instrumental in expanding the FM band, out of which “Radio Free Madison” was born. Besides sitting on the board of directors of the Cap Times and the Evjue Foundation, he was one of the top amateur golfers in the state of Wisconsin.

It has always been hard to sell Shreveport, Louisiana, as a desired postseason destination. But the Independence Bowl committee scored a major coup in 1982 by landing Don Meredith to be the guest speaker at the luncheon honoring the competing teams, Kansas State and Wisconsin.

Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback (1960-68), was then sharing ABC’s Monday Night Football booth with Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Fran Tarkenton.

“Everyone has asked me what Howard is really like,” Meredith crowed to the gathering. “Well, he’s a guy who changes his name from Cohen to Cosell, wears a toupee and says he’s telling it like it is. You’ve got to be kidding.”

That got yuks from the audience, which included announcers from Wisconsin’s three broadcasting teams. Prior to radio exclusivity, Madison listeners could choose from Jim Irwin and Ron Vander Kelen (WISM), Earl Gillespie and Marsh Shapiro (WTSO) or Fred Gage and John Jardine (WIBA).

Following the luncheon, Gage and Jardine, the former UW head coach, were mumbling to themselves “You’ve got to be kidding” when they learned of their broadcast position for the game. Because the stadium press box was too small to accommodate everyone, they drew the short straw.

Gage and Jardine were perched on top of the press box. They had to climb a ladder to get there. Save for a tent over their heads, they were exposed to the elements. Of course, it rained. Cats and dogs rain. Thunder and lightning. Sideways rain. Below freezing temps and 23 mph gusts.

About 50,000 tickets were sold. About 25,000 showed up.

On the air, Gage noted that the Independence Bowl committee had spent $20,000 to paint the field with a gigantic red, white and blue eagle, whose wings spread from the 20-yard-line to the 20-yard-line. But he quipped that they hadn’t spent a nickel on a tarp to protect the field.

Gage and Jardine soldiered on. As they did famously throughout their friendship. When Jardine retired from coaching, he had his choice of analyst jobs.

“My dad had a choice between taking the money (from the other competing radio stations) or hanging out with Fred on a Saturday afternoon,” Dan Jardine once recalled fondly of the negotiations. “And he went with hanging out with Fred on a Saturday afternoon.”

Friday nights were fun, too. Especially since Gage could never turn down an opportunity to belt out “Danny Boy” — his go-to Irish ballad. Former UW athletic director Pat Richter used to say, “There are certain people who are characters in every lovable sense of the word and Fred was one of them.”

Gage was the Voice of the Badgers in football for 35 years.

As previously mentioned, there were other “Voices” who shared the stage before exclusivity.

Irwin was best known as the Voice of the Packers. That was his title for 30 years — 20 of which were spent bantering with analyst Max McGee, the former Lombardi-era wide receiver. There was a folksiness to their broadcasts, not unlike Fred and John. They were Jim and Max to their loyal fans.

Irwin was ubiquitous.

In addition to his “Ironman” stretch with the Packers, 612 consecutive regular season and postseason games, he was a voice of Wisconsin football for 22 years. During that period, Irwin missed only one Badgers game, and that was when his father died in 1977.

In another role, Irwin was the Voice of Hoops in the state. He did UW basketball for five years and UW-Milwaukee games for two years during which his partner was Bob Uecker, for whom he’d sub on Brewers broadcasts. Moreover, Irwin was the voice of the Milwaukee Bucks for 16 years.

Irwin was indefatigable.

For those 16 years, he pulled off the hat trick as a voice of the Packers, Badgers and Bucks.

“I probably had, from a sportscaster’s standpoint, the three best jobs in the state and that’s very fortunate,” Irwin told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1999. “But I don’t know whether I would recommend anybody trying to do that. It was a logistics nightmare trying to get to all of those events.”

It might mean covering the Bucks on Friday, the Badgers on Saturday, the Packers on Sunday.

There was even an occasional doubleheader.

“There were a number of times when I would do a Packers game,” Irwin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “then jump in a plane and fly home for the Bucks. Somebody else would start the (Bucks) game and I would slide into the chair at the end of the first quarter and take over.”

While Irwin was synonymous with the Packers, he had strong feelings for the Badgers.

So did Gillespie, who was the Voice of the Milwaukee Braves after the franchise moved from Boston in 1953. Gillespie’s run lasted a decade. (The Braves eventually relocated to Atlanta in 1966.)

His signature phrase with the Braves was “Holy Cow,” which he began using while broadcasting the Class AAA Milwaukee Brewers in the early ’50s. Even Harry Caray conceded Gillespie used it first. “You tried to paint a picture with your words and I painted it the way it looked to me,” Gillespie said.

When covering the Badgers, he used broad strokes.

“There are so many people in the business who look for the glass being half-empty,” Shapiro, a longtime TV sports anchor in Madison and the owner of the Nitty Gritty, once noted. “Earl always looked for the bright side and it was always half full when he talked about Wisconsin football.”

Whether listening to Gage, Irwin or Gillespie, the results were always the same even though the on-air presentations were different. So it was on Dec. 11, 1982, when the Badgers beat Kansas State, 14-3, in the Independence Bowl. It was the school’s first bowl win.

But it was not Gage’s and Jardine’s first rodeo.

They survived the wind, rain and rooftop view.

It’s a safe bet that they even toasted to it once or twice.

Jardine, who stayed at Wisconsin after he retired as football coach and did a lot for the UW, was Gage’s last on-air partner. Having done a high school football playoff game on a press box roof in similarly dire weather (no rain, but 50-mph winds), I am highly amused at the thought of having to do a Division I bowl game (known to the UW Band as the “Inconvenience Bowl,” because it was played the day before fall-semester final exams, and known by others as the “Insignifance Bowl”) outside. Somewhat amazingly, the Independence Bowl (now sponsored by something called Walk-On’s Bistro and Bar, previously sponsored by the Poulan Weed Eater) still exists today.

Gage’s UW broadcast was only on WIBA in Madison. Gillespie’s broadcast originated, believe it or don’t, in Wisconsin Rapids; his partner before Shapiro was ’60s Packers radio announcer Ted Moore. Gillespie, as you know, was the first voice of the Milwaukee Braves.

Irwin’s broadcast originated from WTMJ in Milwaukee and was on WTSO before WISM. When Gage and Jardine retired, their replacements were Paul “Shotandagoal” Braun and former UW tight end Stu Voigt, who did Vikings radio for several years. There were two other broadcasts until UW decided to consolidate broadcast rights in the late 1980s.

Irwin first worked with Gary Bender (as well on Packer games) …

… and then got the play-by-play role when Bender left for CBS, leading to …

Those three and others worked during the days when the Badgers would go entire seasons without being on TV. (Though Wisconsin Public Television carried replays the night of the game, with Braun announcing.) The only way to follow what was happening at Camp Randall if you weren’t there was by radio.

Irony that didn’t happen: Had Bender, instead of (future Bucks announcer) Howard David, had done the game (it was a syndicated broadcast), he would have been announcing his alma mater (Kansas State) against one of his former employers (Wisconsin). Irony that did happen: The Badger quarterback that year was Randy Wright, who ended up getting drafted by the Packers and replacing KSU alum Lynn Dickey as quarterback.


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