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For nearly twenty years Eli Gold has been behind the microphone for Alabama football, calling many a memorable game and witnessing first hand some defining moments in the history of Alabama football: an unbelievable win at Penn State; numerous wins over Tennessee on the Third Saturday in October; a national title win over Miami. He also had a front row seat for the 1990 return of "Junction Boy" Gene Stallings. Those firsthand memories, plus many great moments from "days gone by," are just some of the stories...
For nearly twenty years Eli Gold has been behind the microphone for Alabama football, calling many a memorable game and witnessing first hand some defining moments in the history of Alabama football: an unbelievable win at Penn State; numerous wins over Tennessee on the Third Saturday in October; a national title win over Miami. He also had a front row seat for the 1990 return of "Junction Boy" Gene Stallings. Those firsthand memories, plus many great moments from "days gone by," are just some of the stories as told by the Voice of the Crimson Tide.
Other memorable moments include:
"The passion he brings to his broadcasts, be it NASCAR or Alabama football, is beyond compare. There is no one better to write a book about one of the proudest franchises in all of college sports." ―Mike Helton, President, NASCAR
"A whole generation of Alabama fans [know] Eli as "The Voice of the Tide." Like all great broadcasters, he is a wonderful storyteller and this book is filled with some stories that I had never heard. An enjoyable combination of Bama football history and behind the scenes broadcast booth stories." ―University of Alabama coach Mike Shula
On the Air
In 1998 I found out that my new color man was going to be Kenny "the Snake" Stabler. I was excited because of who he is. Who wouldn't be? But I'm a preparation freak. I always go on the air more prepared and with more information than I will ever need. And I expect the same from the other people working on the broadcast. I just didn't know, given Kenny's reputation of being a fun-loving sort of party guy, what we were getting besides a magnificent name.
So, our first game together, I remember thinking, I hope he shows up and he's prepared. He is always exceedingly prepared, not only for the game we're doing that day, but for next week's game as well. When we promote the following week's broadcast, Snake's able to give you a nugget or two about something or somebody. He doesn't take the easy route and just say, "Yeah. It's going to be a good game. Anytime Alabama and Arkansas get together...." Snake always has something meaty.
Kenny prepares for a game differently than I do. I go to Tuscaloosa and watch practice. I talk with the players and coaches. Because he lives a few hours away on the Gulf Coast, Snake calls the coaches during the week and has lengthy meetings with them on the phone. As a result, when he comes to the booth, he has different types of notes than I do.
He'll say things like, "Here's what we're looking at in a third and such and such situation and what our options are going to be depending upon where the defensive backs from the other team are lined up. Are they man-to-man? Are they zone?" During the game he sketches and diagrams plays that he refers to during the broadcast.
Kenny's presence, without question, has made me a far better broadcaster. No matter how much I prepare, there are certain elements I can never bring to a broadcast. I've never taken a snap under center in the SEC or the NFL. The guy wears a Super Bowl ring. I'm smart enough to know what it is that I don't know (if you know what I mean). Kenny can explain it, explain it clearly, and do it in ten to twelve seconds before we have to set up the next play. He's that good. End of discussion.
We work really well together because, first of all, we have an excellent rapport. We laugh and joke. We don't get profane. (At least not on the air.) After all, this is a family show! In general, we have a blast. I like the way Kenny puts things. If we're talking about a certain NFL player, he'll say, "Yeah. I've been underneath him a few times." Or if the quarterback gets hit he'll say, "Now, that'll knock the taste out of your mouth!"
The other thing is, I think it helps that we look at the game totally differently. I'm a describer. He's a strategist. I describe what goes on, I follow, I see. He looks at the game like a quarterback does. And he has the ability of any well-trained, experienced analyst.
A good color man has to have a keen knowledge of the subject, particularly on radio. It's different on TV where you're adding captions to pictures and talking over the next play as the fans are watching it. But on radio, you've got twelve seconds to get in, analyze it, and get out. You're setting it up for the play-by-play guy so you've got to get out quick!
The color guy needs to explain what happened in such a way that keeps the veteran listener entertained but at the same time makes it digestible for the newcomer or casual fan. Again, you only have twelve seconds. It's not at all easy. And Snake nails it.
The biggest compliments we get as broadcasters are fans listening to our broadcasts-even when they're actually sitting in the stadium. I love to look down into the grandstands from our booth and see all the people with headsets on. They're at the ballgame-live and in person-but they're still listening to us! I can see them laughing or nodding and sometimes they'll turn around, look up toward our booth, and wave or give us a thumbs-up. What a hoot.
People at home also turn down the TV sound and turn on the radio when watching the game. I understand why they do this. The radio broadcast is a little more thorough. It's slanted towards Alabama and by now, Snake and I are like an old pair of broken-in loafers. People are used to us. They know we know the players and that makes them comfortable.
Why else is our broadcast as good as it is? (If I may say so myself!) It's because of our support crew. Tom Brokaw, late of NBC Nightly News, said it best when he signed off from his program for the last time in early December 2004. Brokaw said, "This is a huge team effort. I am the most conspicuous part of the team, but make no mistake about it, it's a huge team effort." So it is with the Crimson Tide Sports Network.
Seated behind Snake and myself during each broadcast is our engineer/producer, Tom Stipe. On Fridays before game days, home and away, Tom reports to the broadcast booth to begin the tedious job of setting up the equipment. Wires upon wires. Cables upon cables. The latest in sophisticated wireless gear, mixers, and studio hookups. It's quite a production. Later, Tom heads down to the locker room to check on transmission lines that will be used on our postgame show.
Tom sees to it that we don't have any technical flaws, which is good because in this age of digital audio transmission, every flaw is magnified. Let's face it, Snake and I work during a game, but Tom really works.
Standing behind Snake and me is our spotter, "Butch" Owens. His real name is Nelson (he said I wouldn't have the guts to put that in this book), and he is one of the most vital cogs in our operation. Butch has worked with me since the middle of the 1989 season. It doesn't matter which league or which network I'm working for, Alabama, NBC, CBS, TNN, or Sports USA Radio, if I'm doing a football game (college, NFL, arena) "Butchie Boy" is my spotter. What does a spotter do?
Butch helps "spot" certain things on every play. He keeps me current on substitutions. He pinpoints the tacklers. He'll watch for key blocks away from the ball that I might not have seen. He relays information to me via a series of hand and arm signals coupled with his pointing to a specially prepared spotting chart that I make for every team.
It's to the point now that I could miss a play totally and recreate it entirely through Butch's hand signals. Often, Butch will write me a note about which play ought to be called next, and, son of a gun, that's the play that'll be run. There is probably no one person more responsible for my growth as a football broadcaster than Butch Owens.
Statistician Brian Roberts sits to my left during every broadcast. Just like Butch, Brian works with me on all of my football broadcasts-Alabama, NFL, all of them. He is a walking, talking, Univac computer. He is accurate and quick, and he has an uncanny feel for what little statistical tidbit would fit into a broadcast at a given moment. Other than the obvious game-related stats, Brian keeps track of career numbers. Who is passing whom on an all-time list of one sort or another. The boy is good! He keeps some strange hours, but he's good.
And then there's Tom Roberts, our sideline reporter (among his many other duties). For years, Tom was the network's statistician before he moved to the sidelines and handed the stat job over to his son Brian. I have to stress, this was not nepotism. Indeed, Brian was deserving of the job. Before he was hired, Brian worked in the university sports information office keeping stats of televised ball games. He's great with numbers and has been an outstanding asset.
Like me, Tom Roberts is a lifelong broadcaster. From on-air TV newscasts to news director to broadcast management, Tom has been in this racket forever. On game day Tom anchors our pregame, halftime and postgame coverage, and he also fills the vital role of sideline reporter. He brings the emotion of being "right down there among them" to our listeners.
Tom Roberts and Tom Stipe continually talk during the game. It was midseason in 2004 when all of a sudden, wide receiver Tyrone Prothro was lined up at quarterback. Instantly, Tom Roberts began yelling (off air, into Tom Stipe's headphone) "Prothro at quarterback! Prothro at quarterback!"
Immediately, Tom Stipe relays the information via our closed circuit communications loop, "Prothro at QB ... That's Prothro!" Butch Owens, also seeing the swap at QB, begins gesturing wildly like a "pointer in heat" while at the same time I, too, notice that Pennington is out and Prothro is in. That's how our team works.
I know that I'm not the best football broadcaster in the world. I do alright, but I am comforted in knowing that my back is always covered by our crew. If Tom, Tom, Butch, or Brian tell me something, I use it on-air without a second thought. I trust them all implicitly. We're all great friends and blessed to be living a life that one could only dream about.
This crew and I feel a huge responsibility to the fans listening in the stadium as well as the fans who aren't in the stadium. There are people who can't come out to games because they're working or they're sick, or they can't afford tickets. I picture those folks in my mind's eye when I get to work on game day. Radio has always played an enormous part in Alabama football. During the early championships and first days of Bear Bryant, the games weren't televised. In the late fifties, there was no such thing as ESPN. There were just the over-the-air networks that featured maybe one football game per week. This was for the whole country! In 1957 and 1958, not one Alabama game was televised.
There was very limited TV coverage in those days, so when Alabama played away games, the radio network was your golden connection if you were not one of the lucky few who could travel and get a ticket to the opposing team's stadium. There was no such thing as satellite TV or videotape. Everything was shot on film. Film took time to develop. So the radio was it.
Longtime Alabama assistant coach Clem Gryska, who came to work for Coach Bryant in 1960, remembers having the radio on every weekend before he began attending every game in person.
"I would park the car in the carport," Gryska said, "turn the radio on and wash the car on Saturday afternoon. I'd turn the hose on, then stop it when I heard the volume of the crowd go up!"
These days, Alabama games are broadcast on stations affiliated with the Crimson Tide Sports Network, which carries the Alabama games (as well as the pregame and postgame shows, and The Coach Mike Shula Show) on some sixty stations. But this network, which is now a corporate conglomerate consisting of both radio and TV holdings, had some truly humble beginnings.
Bert Bank, at age ninety, is our distinguished producer emeritus and still sits in the booth with us on game days. He got the radio ball rolling in Tuscaloosa in 1953.
"Lionel Baxter, an outstanding broadcaster at WAPI in Birmingham, asked me to start the network," Bank said. "I had the only FM station in Tuscaloosa at the time. There weren't but two stations carrying Alabama football then, and he wanted the broadcast to originate in Tuscaloosa. Well, I was glad to do it. At the very least, I wanted to get the Alabama games for my station."
The first year, Bert barely got his expenses covered. The next year, he was paid a salary. He hired announcers, began producing shows to go along with the football broadcast, and the network was under way.
Bert had the enormous challenge of starting the radio network during Alabama's less-than-victorious era. In 1953 Coach Red Drew's team went 6-3-3, followed by the 1954 season in which the team went 4-5-2. Then of course the next few years were Bama's worst ever-they won just four games in three years. True, fans of the Crimson Tide are loyal, but try selling radio ads or getting additional stations to sign on to the broadcast in this environment!
If anyone was up to a challenge, it was Bert Bank. As a young man and graduate of the University of Alabama, he planned to go to law school. When World War II broke out, however, he joined the Air Force instead. Bert has the incredible distinction of being a survivor of the Bataan Death March. He was held as a POW in Japanese camps for several years. He still speaks to veterans' groups and wrote a book about his experiences. After working in radio for years, he went on to serve in the Alabama legislature. Among his many accomplishments there was passing a bill renaming Denny Stadium as "Bryant-Denny Stadium" in 1975. What an inspirational man.
A few years into Bert's radio career, Alabama hired Paul W. "Bear" Bryant to be its new head coach. Bert knew right away this was terrific news for the school, the team, and the network.
"During our first meeting," Bert said, "Bryant asked me how many stations we had on the broadcast. I said five. He said, 'I don't care if a town only has fifty people. If they have a radio station, I want to be on it.'"
Bert told the coach in order to accomplish that, the team would have to win. Coach Bryant jumped out of his chair and said, "Crank it up, boy. I win!"
As Bert, and everyone else now knows, Bryant was true to his word.
"He knew one thing," Bert said, "and that was to beat you. I played golf with him, and if you beat him one day, you can bet your butt he'll be out there tomorrow looking for you, wanting to get his money back!"
Coach Bryant turned his team into winners immediately. Suddenly, it was no problem signing on new stations and sponsors. Well, almost no problem.
"One day, I asked him to come down and talk to a new sponsor," Bert remembered. "I said, Paul, I have a guy coming from Golden Flake potato chips. They're a big, big sponsor and I want you to be nice. If you've got any charm, please show it today!"
Happily, Golden Flake is still a major Alabama sponsor to this day. (And if I may say so, the makers of the best potato chips and pretzels anywhere.)
With a little help from the winning teams of the Bryant era and beyond, the Crimson Tide Sports Network now broadcasts Alabama games all over the state-and then some-every football Saturday. Few fans can travel to every out-of-town game, especially when they are played far away. So it's a thrill to serve as the fans' link to the team.
I feel honored to have the chance to do the job that the legendary John Forney did as the Voice of the Tide for thirty years. Our broadcasting booth is named after him because he was the one who was at the helm during radio's glory days.
John Forney was the conduit. He was the man who brought Bear Bryant into people's living rooms through the sixties and seventies, at a time when we still got very little TV coverage and before there was such a thing as ESPN or the Deuce (ESPN2).
The thing is, radio still matters. After all this time, people still tune in. What an absolutely spectacular medium-radio is theater of the mind, really. I have the responsibility and, hopefully, the ability to describe the color of the pewter grey sky overhead, the color of the uniforms, the smells and the sounds. I always work with the windows of our booth wide open so I can be a part of things, so I can "feel" the game. Hopefully, people benefit from that.
I was reminded of the importance of radio a while ago when coach Mike Shula shared a wonderful letter he got from a soldier serving in Iraq. On the air we always say, "Hello to Armed Forces Radio." But this time we got some feedback that these guys in the middle of some Godforsaken part of the desert had found a way to log onto the computer and pick up our broadcast.
It really touched me. The guy wrote, "When Eli Gold's voice starts intoning from the stadium, we're transformed to the ballpark. I'm an Alabama fan and I'm sitting next to an Auburn fan doing the same job. We're arguing with a Tennessee fan and guys from the PAC-10, and it's a little touch of home."
What a scene. Here are guys brushing aside sand fleas and trying to tune out mortar rounds while putting one ear up to the speaker to pick up our broadcast. It kind of puts it in perspective. And makes me want to keep doing this for a hundred more years.
Excerpted from CRIMSON NATION by ELI GOLD Copyright © 2007 by Eli Gold. Excerpted by permission.
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