This past weekend, I was doing my usual Saturday afternoon autumnal dance. On the TV, the Wisconsin Badgers were battling Purdue. On my laptop computer, the Pioneers of UW-Platteville were fighting for their Division III playoff lives against St. John’s.
As sometimes happens, I got a split on the day. The Badgers won easily, 49-20, taking another step toward what I hope will be their fourth Big 10 championship in the past seven seasons, and perhaps this year a trip to the College Football Playoff. The Pioneers, on the other hand, gave up a controversial touchdown on the final play of the game to lose, 32-31, ending their season at 8-3.
UWP is my alma mater, and I started following them years before my matriculation there in 1975. The very first college football game I attended was in Platteville in the fall of 1968, or perhaps it was ’69, at old Hill Field, where my father played when he was in high school and college. In ’72, sparkling new Pioneer Stadium opened on campus, and my dad and I attended the very first game, a Pioneer victory over Iowa Wesleyan. A few years later, I was up in the radio booth calling the play-by-play on the campus station, WSUP-FM.
An old UWP comrade of mine was calling the Platteville-St. John’s game on WPVL-FM. Mark Evenstad and I combined for one of the most memorable broadcasts in WSUP’s history, a basketball game in 1978 in which UWP defeated Loras College by something like 116-112, and that was in a regulation 40-minute game, folks. The Pioneers and Duhawks put on a no-defense show that night at the Loras Field House in Dubuque, Iowa. As I recall, “The Shark” and I got the game because it was over the Thanksgiving holiday break and we were the only announcers available.
The Radio-TV major was a popular one at Platteville back then, in an era when clear-as-a-bell (except during storms) FM radio was just starting to supplant crackly, tinny AM as the listeners’ preferred mode of audio. By the mid-70s, cars were starting to come with AM/FM radios installed, as opposed to the AM-only sets they’d carried for the previous generation. All across the upper Midwest, young guys like myself were growing up listening to disc jockeys on rock stations like WLS out of Chicago and baseball broadcasts on WGN (Cubs), WMAQ (White Sox), WCCO (Twins) and KMOX (Cardinals). I was in 7th grade when my grandparents gave me a desktop AM radio (Coronado brand) for my room, and at night I could pull in stations from all over. The DJs on WLS, guys like Larry Lujack, John “Records” Landecker and Fred Winston, seemed to be having fun every day, as it if wasn’t work at all. Plus they lived and worked in the big city of Chicago, where there would be constant action and, we were sure, lots of good-looking girls. When The Bob Newhart Show premiered on TV in 1972, showing the comedic life of Windy City psychologist Bob Hartley (Newhart) and his gorgeous wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), it was proof positive; if a shlub like Newhart could snag a babe like Pleshette, we were sure to do even better.
Those of us who were athletically-inclined tuned in to the golden voices of radio sports, like baseball icons Herb Carneal (Twins), Jack Buck (Cardinals), and Vince Lloyd (Cubs). When the Brewers arrived in Milwaukee in 1970, the Platteville station, then with the call letters WSWW, became an affiliate and a year later we were introduced to Bob Uecker, a former Major League catcher who made a career of lampooning his mediocre playing days and became a giant of baseball broadcasting. He just finished his 46th season on the air and will be back for more next spring.
My favorite, though, was a guy named Eddie Doucette, who called Milwaukee Bucks basketball games. The Bucks entered the NBA as an expansion team in 1968, and they hired a young Michigan State grad to be their first radio voice. Back then, the NBA was not nearly the cultural and financial behemoth that it is today, so Doucette was told point-blank that the success of the team at the gate depended largely on him attracting fans through his radio calls of the games. The Bucks struggled through their first season and then drafted All-American center Lew Alcindor in 1969, becoming a championship contender overnight. Soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the player Doucette dubbed “The King” led the Bucks to the championship in 1971. Suddenly there wasn’t much pressure at all on the young broadcaster. All he had to do was call the game, and he did so with a verve and elan that was unmatched across the radio dial.
Every player had a nickname. Some were obvious, like his monickers for Kareem, Oscar Robertson (“The Big O”) and Jon McGlocklin (“Johnny Mac”). Others were bestowed by Doucette to connote the player’s style or personality. Thus, fleet-footed guard Lucius Allen became “The Rabbit,” long-striding forward Bob Dandridge was “The Greyhound,” lead-footed backup center Dick Cunningham was “The Cement Mixer,” high-jumping forward Curtis Perry was “Sky King.” Doucette’s lexicon became so complex that a dictionary of his terms was published in the Bucks’ program, and the uninitiated fan required a few games of careful listening, preferably paired with a picture-only TV broadcast, before he really could understand what was going on.
When I started listening to Doucette’s radio call of Bucks games back in the fall of ’68, I was hooked. That was what I wanted to do. And so I did.
Chasing the dream.
When I enrolled at UWP in the fall of 1975, my hometown of Potosi was only 15 miles away but it might as well have been 1500. College was a brave new world indeed. There was no doubt in my mind that I would soon be on the air at the campus station, WSUP (90.9 FM, “The Mighty Ninety”). I had the voice, of that I was certain, and I’d already spent years doing mock play-by-play of games on TV at home, even making up my own games with tabletop baseball and football sets. In 9th grade, I got a basketball game out of a cereal box; using a deck of standard playing cards, the player followed a chart and the game unfurled in the mind of the player. After I made a few modifications to inject more realism, I was soon playing and broadcasting an NBA tournament every spring, complete with typed-up rosters and statistics I jotted down in a real scorebook. (My best friend, Dave Esser, and I used the game during lunch hour to play a tournament involving every college basketball team in the country. We got through the first round before the teachers pulled the plug.) When my high school got a primitive black-and-white, reel-to-reel videotape recorder and camera in my junior year, I called our school’s football games, with my buddy Gerard Winkler as cameraman and technician. So, when I arrived on campus, I assumed I would be way ahead of my peers. I quickly discovered that most of them had been doing almost exactly the same things as I had done.
Things did not go quite according to plan. I volunteered right away to call football and basketball games. The radio station was largely run by students and the treasured game assignments were ruthlessly controlled by upperclassmen. I didn’t get any football games that freshman year, and when basketball came around I was told to submit an audition tape. So, I went to one of my old high school’s games and sat on the stage, calling the game into a cassette recorder. I submitted the tape and a month went by. The guy in charge finally told me to submit a tape of a UWP game, which I promptly did. A couple weeks later I was told that it was good, but there were only a few games left in the season and they were already assigned to older students.
This did not sit well, but what could I do? When sophomore year rolled around, I again got no football assignments. Basketball was starting up and I again asked for a game. “I’ll need to hear an audition tape,” I was told–by the same guy as the year before, if I recall–and this time I said no, I’d already turned in two tapes the previous year and was told they were good. So, how about it? Okay, you’re on the next game.
This was it. My big chance. For the first time ever, I would be going on a real radio station and doing an honest-to-God call of a real game. People would be listening. Maybe a future employer would be driving through and hear the game and say, “Man, who is that guy? I want him at my station!” We thought that all the time, because once in awhile it really did happen. So I was pumped. I even put on a sport jacket and tie before going to the arena that night. When I showed up at Williams Field House, two other guys were setting up the gear. I knew only two announcers were assigned to a game. What’s the deal? Well, there must have been some mix-up, I was told, but maybe we can find another microphone. I told them to forget it.
My dad was at the game that night. I went down and sat next to him in the stands as the game began. He asked why I wasn’t on the air up in the broadcast window at the end of the floor, and I told him what had happened. What was I going to do about it? I told him that I was thinking of chucking it all, changing majors, to hell with these guys. Well, you could do that, he said, you could give up and quit, or you could do something about it. Like what? Talk to whoever’s in charge, he said. That won’t work, the guys in charge are students. No, they’re not in charge, he said, they may think they are, but they’re not. A faculty member’s in charge. You might want to go talk to him.
The next Monday, I went to see the head of the department. The next day I was told by the station’s student manager that I would be on the air the following Saturday night for the home game against UW-Stout.
That was early in 1977. Over the next 39 years I would do hundreds of games, high school and college, including three national championship college football games and 11 high school state championship games in football, baseball, basketball and hockey. I’ve traveled all over the country and had some great thrills, called some unbelievable games and met a lot of great people. I witnessed and described “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” and none of it would have happened if I had ignored my father’s advice.
Where would the long road lead?
The dream was to become the “voice” of a major college or professional team. Even before I graduated in 1979, I started working at a commercial radio station, WGLR in nearby Lancaster, an AM “daytimer,” as stations were called in those days when they had to sign off at sunset. But I got my first taste of the big time there, when I covered the local high school’s girls basketball team at the state tournament in Madison. They played both their games during the day, at the old UW Field House, and won the title. Six months later I took a job at KYSS AM/FM in Missoula, Montana, working as news director and calling games of the city’s parochial high school. I put together my station’s bid to become the new radio home of the University of Montana Grizzlies, but when we lost out to the incumbent station–KYSS management, unfortunately, provided very little support for my bid–I went back to Wisconsin, working at WKTY/WSPL in La Crosse and calling high school and UW-La Crosse games. After eight years I went north to WMEQ AM/FM in Menomonie, calling UW-Stout games, and then after a couple years to Rice Lake, even further north. I went to work at WJMC AM/FM, owned and operated by an old UWP friend of mine, Tom Koser. There were no college games to call up here, and by then my life priorities had changed, as they usually do. By 1999, I decided it was time to move on from radio.
Tom didn’t hold it against me, though, and I continue to broadcast games for his stations in Rice Lake and nearby Hayward. This past March I followed the boys team from Cameron along the basketball tournament trail, all the way to the state finals at the Kohl Center in Madison.
I often listen to Wisconsin Badger football and basketball on the radio, and their play-by-play voice, Matt Lepay, does a great job. Matt’s from Ohio and a couple years younger than I am, and he got the UW job in 1989, when I was working in La Crosse. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t jump at that opportunity. I’m very confident I could’ve done that job, perhaps even as well as Lepay, but hey, he works every weekend from September into March, and I don’t have to. He’s done a national championship game (Wisconsin vs Duke, 2015 NCAA basketball), but I’ve done 3 (UW-La Crosse in NAIA Division II football, ’85-’88-’89). He’s done the Rose Bowl in Pasadena several times; I’ve done college playoff games in domed stadiums and next door to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Some doors open in life, and some doors don’t. The doors that opened for me in radio led me north from La Crosse, to Menomonie and then Rice Lake, and not southeast to Madison or even back to Platteville, where I once thought I’d like to end my career as the voice of the Pioneers. But that would’ve meant my old buddy The Shark wouldn’t be able to do that job. And more importantly, going south instead of north would’ve meant never meeting the beautiful woman who became my wife. So I’m okay with how things turned out.
But when I go back to Platteville for a football game, I sneak a glance back up at the press box. I was there many times back in the day, and it was great, and when I look back up there now, I can’t help wishing I was in the booth, at the mic one more time.