I recently read a little observational piece over at Get the Picture! about legendary Georgia Bulldogs radio broadcaster Larry Munson. This article mainly referred to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which mentioned that, due to health problems, Munson will not be attending the Atlanta Sports Awards Gala.
That brought back some memories ...
Now -- obviously -- I am not really a Georgia fan, but I have a great deal of respect for Munson, not so much for his style or delivery, but because of what he represents. Munson, along with Mississippi State's Jack Cristil, the Tarhead U's Woody Durham, Duke's Bob Harris, and Gene Deckerhoff of FSU represent the last of the great southern college radio announcers. I'm sure there may be a few more scattered across the country, but there can't be too many more. They are, sadly, a group which is fading farther and farther into the past every year. I know that time presses on - that is hardly a revelation. The fact that millions of broadband denizens congregate in this place known as the blogsphere -- a place which did not even exist a few short years ago -- is testament to that. While I embrace the advance of technology and progress, along the way we do lose real tangible pieces of the past which are truly golden.
Make no mistake, the "Good Old Days" were rarely as good as some would have us believe. Still, within the confines of the world of college sports, there are parts of the past which are worth preserving. In our TV-dominated sports world, the radio has become antiquated. There was, however, a day when the radio was the only way for the vast majority of fans to follow their favorite team - or any team at all, for that matter. When my Father was growing up, there were three channels on the television, and each of those channels carried one game a week. When my Grandfather was growing up, television didn't even exist. In that sense, my Grandfather embraced "wireless technology" almost seventy years before I got my first wireless enabled laptop. My wireless connects me to the internet via a router; it has keys and an LCD monitor. My Grandfather' wireless had a dial and a the ability to pick up a static-ridden signal that bounced around the ionosphere and brought with it a world beyond the confines of the mountains of Western North Carolina. To this day, my Grandfather still has a battered old radio next to his bed so he can "listen to his ballgames."
Larry Munson is one of the few remaining patriarchs of the golden age of college sports radio broadcasting. He has been broadcasting Georgia games since 1966. Up until the last season, he had missed only one football game in that time. This past year, due to debilitating arthritis and back problems -which made travel, and at times even walking, extremely difficult for the 85 year old -- Munson only broadcast home games from Athens, leaving the road games to younger men. Mississippi State's salty and sarcastic Jack Cristil has been at it even longer than Munson, having begun his stint behind the microphone in 1953. Up until 2006, Max Falkenstein of Kansas had been broadcasting for an unbelievable 60 consecutive years. Falkenstein had been broadcasting so long that, when dubious clip of him calling the final game of Kansas' last undefeated basketball season appeared on the internet, that I'm sure some thought it was some probably thought it was authentic ... despite the fact the game was played in 1909. This select band of broadcasters served as the eyes for fans all across the country, and in their heyday every school had its own "voice" which was as unmistakable as the mascot and the school colors.
Of course, most schools still have their radio voice, but increasingly those broadcasters serve as more of a PR rep for the athletic department than a true sportscaster. The broadcasters of yesteryear were as numerous as they were idiosyncratic and distinctive. Every school had one, and each broadcaster had his own style which set him apart from the others. There was the friendly conversation with Cawood Ledford (Kentucky), the pristine enunciation, emphasis, rhythm of John Ward (Tennessee), the complex imagery of Al Ciraldo (Georgia Tech), the warbling and swooping voice of Bob Fulton (South Carolina). The voices of Jim Phillips (Clemson), Otis Boggs (Florida), Stan Torgerson (Ole Miss), Jim Fyffe (Auburn), John Forney (Alabama), Paul Eells (Arkansas), John Ferguson (LSU), and of course the gravelly and bombastic sounds of Larry Munson (Georgia) carried the gospel of college sports to fans and alumni all across the country. What's more, in an era before the preening primadonnas of ESPN, the college radio broadcaster was also listened to by a wider audience -- including those who didn't even have a dog in the fight. They were the voices that painted the pictures and brought games into living rooms, cars on the road, backyards, and businesses all across the country.
Today, for most folks, the idea of just listening to the broadcast of an affiliated college radio network - other than the one for their team - is foreign. Today, it is the tame and tidy world of "made for TV" sports that most appeals to people. I suppose that isn't necessarily a bad thing. As a general proposition, most television broadcasters are more objective and balanced than university-affiliated radio broadcasters - especially in the case of the decidedly partisan Munson, who typically refers to the Bulldogs simply as "we" or "us" ...
... or did the great college radio broadcasters simply not try to conceal their bias. (yes, Bill Curry, I'm talking to you...)
Furthermore, in most cases, television has a much more polished delivery; there really isn't much to argue about there. Yet, in the world of sports - at least the world of college sports - isn't it supposed to be just a little rough around the edges?
In defense of the sports viewing audience, the great personalities are largely a thing of the past, and college sports radio is much less interesting. Now, it seems that most affiliated radio broadcasters try very diligently to emulate the style of television broadcasters. They focus on speaking clearly (something no one ever accused Munson of doing), in simple evenly modulated sentences (avoid the high end near-screaming of Woody Durham of UNC), and try and make things very ... "sterile."
White bread, rice with no butter, just like the lay of the land in the Midwest - really flat, really boring, and goes on forever...
Oh, I am not trying to be overly critical of the current generation of college radio sportscasters. Some are quite good - even showing moments of brilliance - but they are somewhat hamstrung by the expectations placed upon them by their schools, their image conscious alumni, and the media in general. A great example is the current Voice of the Tennessee Vols, Bob Kesling - who enters his tenth year in that role in 2008. After taking over from the legendary John Ward in 1998, I didn't like Kesling all that much, despite the fact that I had watched him on, then, JP Sports broadcasts as well as Knoxville Channel 10 Sports for several years, and like his work. Kesling, however, has really grown into his role as a dedicated radio broadcaster. Along with color-man Tim Priest for football, the Vol Network really puts together some top flight coverage. With each passing year that Kesling calls games on the radio, he seems to develop a little more of a persona, he seems more comfortable, and the energy level of the broadcasts increases.
Bearing that in mind, in case any of you satellite radio executives are reading out this, the fact that Sirius carried the Vol Network was the only reason that I purchased my first satellite radio in 2004. In 2007 Tennessee switched over to XM, and that move was the only reason I bought an XM unit (like I really needed two different units on two different networks, I mean they play the same damn music). While the days of the little 500 watt stations dotting the countryside sending the signal out to each little town across the south, without competition from television will never return, the advent of satellite radio may, very well, bring the world of great college broadcasting back into our homes. With a near limitless medium -- which is what everyone says satellite radio is -- there is no reason that every college radio broadcast can't go all across the country, and beyond.
Still, I have such fond memories of listening to John Ward announcing the Tennessee games. With Ward, I learned that often I could see the game better with my eyes closed and my ears open. John Ward's words became my eyes, and they never saw things as clearly as they did when he was painting the picture word by word. I learned that a true professional needs no introduction, no pomp, and no showy entrance. I learned that class is a commodity not often found among broadcasters (just watch to ESPN on any given night). I learned that mistakes in public are not a bad thing if you can have a good laugh about it. There was nothing quite like hearing "Give him SIX!!" and the oft imitated "It's Football Time in Tennessee," and I will always miss that. To you lucky fans who still have one of the greats behind the microphone, allow me to give you a little piece of friendly advice ...
...cherish your opportunities to tune in and watch with your ears.
Georgia, you better enjoy your chances to dance with "Lady Luck and her Hobnailed Boot." You folks in Starkville, enjoy those "drives of the game ..." including the one back "home from Starkville to Tupelo," while you still can. Yes, and you Smurfs in Chapel Hill (yeah, yeah, I know I went to school there too, but it was "trade school") take advantage of your opportunities to "go where you go, and do what you do, and may all of your skies be Carolina Blue."
At any rate, I sincerely hope that Larry Munson, Jack Cristil, Bob Harris, Woody Durham, Gene Deckerhoff, and the other remaining legends of the airwaves keep at it as long as they can. Speaking from personal experience, once they are gone, it just doesn't seem the same for a very long time.
I suppose this terribly long, sappy, and sentimental journey into the past needs to be cut off at some point, so I'll end it here. That said, given my penchant for "collecting" things (See my Tennessee Home for the Visually Offensive) I have some plans to create another museum of sorts here at Gate 21 -- one which will put some of the magic of these great college broadcasters on display for a little while longer. Thus, if you have any good clips for posting, feel free to email me, and I'll find a good place for them where they can be appreciated.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with a little montage I managed to put together from a few select clips I found. The sound quality isn't always that great, but maybe, just maybe, it might make you smile, make you laugh, or bring back a few memories...
Yes, that is the true voice of college sports...
Images: (from top to bottom) Larry Munson (Online Athens/Banner Herald); Jack Cristil (MSU); Max Falkenstein (ESPN); Al Ciraldo (GTAlumni.org); Cawood Ledford (ESPN); Jim Fyffe (AU); John Ward (UT); Woody Durham (Raleigh News & Observer) Audio: Kentucky Sports Network; Vol Network/Host Communications; Maroon to the Max/MSU Radio Network; Tarheel Sports Network/Vilcom Communications; Florida State Sports Network; Auburn University Radio Network; Georgia Sports Network; LarryMunson.com; SixPackSpeak.com; UKThunder.com; Alabama Radio Network
* Disclaimer: All Audio Clips remain the property of the licensing authority and their respective universities and/or institutions. Gate 21 makes no claim of ownership as to these clips, and they are displayed on this website for the sole purpose of entertainment and social value. Any questions or concerns regarding the display of such audio should be directed to the administrator of this site.
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