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Why Not Wisconsin?
By Matt Lepay
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Matt Lepay
All rights reserved.
Never Underestimate the Power of Good Timing
One of my favorite sayings comes from former UW basketball coach Dick Bennett, who leaned on these four words quite a bit during his stellar career: "Know who you are." This means know your strengths, and know where you can improve. I consider myself someone with a rather limited skill set. Like many young boys, I had dreams of being a professional athlete. My fantasy was to play for the Cincinnati Reds. I grew up spoiled rotten, watching the Big Red Machine of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and all the other terrific players who made up one of Major League Baseball's best-ever teams.
However, try as I might, I realized in high school that the odds of me ever getting paid to play baseball were slim and none. Make that none and laugh-out-loud-and-please-leave-the-room none. Basketball also was out of the question. As for football, well, that wasn't going to happen, either. I had the double-curse — I wasn't very big, but I was slow. To be fair, I also broke my leg playing baseball on a muddy field. I was playing second base. While I was covering the base on a steal attempt, an errant throw forced me to the first-base side of the bag, and I collided with the runner. My leg got caught in the muck, and snap! Down goes Lepay.
To make a long, boring story a little shorter, my leg was not properly healing. During basketball training camp the next fall, I was unable to run very well, even by my rather low standards. I needed a bone graft operation; doctors took some bone from my right hip to help my right tibia heal. As they were performing the surgery, they discovered a fist-sized tumor, which luckily was benign. The operation went well, but I had to go more than a year without running, jumping, or putting any kind of stress on the leg.
I could say that stopped a great athletic career from unfolding, but I would be lying. I have always loved playing sports, especially baseball and basketball, but someone of my limited ability was going to peak early, like about 6 grade. I go back to Bennett's line "Know who you are." By the time I was in high school, I knew I was never going to possess the physical ability to play at a high level. Coaching was something I thought about, but early in life I contracted a bug. It just happened to be the broadcasting bug. I grew up listening to Reds games on the radio with Al Michaels. Yes, that Al Michaels. Before he hit it big on the national stage, he was the Voice of the Cincinnati Reds. Following the 1973 season, he left that gig to become the San Francisco Giants announcer. In Cincinnati, a young announcer named Marty Brennaman arrived, and he has been the team's primary radio voice ever since.
I loved, and in fact still love, how good announcers describe a game, especially on the radio. While baseball obviously warrants a different tempo from football and basketball, my desire to get into this racket began with Al Michaels and Marty Brennaman. Of course, to many sports fans, Michaels is best known for his call of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's improbable run to the gold medal in Lake Placid. "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" might be the most famous line in sports broadcasting history.
For me, Michaels has another line that runs a close second. In the 1972 National League Championship Series, the Reds and Pirates were battling in the fifth and decisive game. Going into the bottom of the ninth, Pittsburgh led 3–2. Johnny Bench tied the game with an opposite-field home run. Later in the inning, with George Foster at third, Hal McRae at the plate, and Bob Moose on the mound, I had my first real moment of what heaven is like for a sports fan. Almost 40 years later, I clearly remember Michaels' call. "The 1–1 pitch to McRae — in the dirt — it's a wild pitch! Here comes Foster! The Reds win the pennant!!" (Michaels pauses as the crowd goes wild.) "Bob Moose throws a wild pitch, and the Reds have won the National League pennant!"
Sports nuts across the country have terrific memories for such moments. We might forget our home address, but we remember great games by our favorite teams. That was mine, and I was just 10 years old, but I knew at some point I wanted to have a job like Al Michaels. I like to think that my lack of athletic ability helped to accelerate the process.
While attending Ohio State University (note I am refraining from writing The Ohio State University), my focus shifted from baseball to college football and basketball. I set a goal of being the voice of a major college program within five years of graduation. I made it, but it was more because of dumb luck than anything else.
While in school, a group of us put together broadcasts of OSU hockey and baseball games. We actually went out and sold enough advertising to cover the costs of phone lines and even some travel. Since we were just a campus radio station that about 50 people could actually hear, we knew those advertisers were very sympathetic.
We had no real guidance. We just called the games as best we could and hoped to get a demo together to help us find a job after graduation. It worked well enough for me to get hired by WNCI in Columbus, which at the time was owned by Nationwide, the insurance folks. Our studio was downtown in, oddly enough, the Nationwide building. It was quite the contrast, insurance folks wearing gray suits and white shirts, working in the same building as a bunch of knuckleheads at a radio station playing Top 40 music.
WNCI was, and still is, a music station, so play-by-play was not going to happen. I went from being a news and sports reporter to the morning drive sports anchor. Eventually I became the morning news and sports anchor. I wasn't very good, but I did get a good education into the business of radio. Not long after I started, the station fired its longtime morning personality, which created quite a stir in the local radio world.
There is an old saying about broadcasting — "You haven't lived until you've been fired." By early spring of 1986, I could say that I lived. Our station had tweaked its format a few times and hired and fired various DJs. Now it was my turn. The program director called me into his office, and with all the warmth of a January blizzard said, "Matt, we have to cut the budget. That means we have to let you go." After directing me to the business office to get my last check, he offered me this lovely parting gift. "I have to write a memo on this. Do you want me to say you resigned or that we let you go?" I opted for the latter. I believe my dismissal saved the station a grand total of about $12,000. Big bucks in the big city, right?
It probably was the best thing that could have happened. I was reading news and sports and yukking it up with the morning host of the moment. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to call games, and that was not going to happen at WNCI.
After a brief stint as a news director in Athens, Ohio, I finally was able to land a job that allowed me to do some play-by-play. At WPTW in Piqua (pronounced Pick-wa), Ohio, we called a ton of area high school football and basketball games, as well as some American Legion baseball. That was the good part. The radio version of purgatory was that we pulled eight-hour air shifts playing the "beautiful music of yesteryear." It was elevator music. I had gone from a station that played Phil Collins, Madonna, and Huey Lewis to a station that played "I'm Just a Singer in a Rock 'N Roll Band" by something called 101 Strings with Trumpet.
After close to two years of that, I figured maybe this radio thing might not work out. My girlfriend and future wife Linda (same person, by the way) was already working in Columbus, and we thought it would be a good idea to return to school, pick up a few more public relations classes, and get a job in the world of PR.
This is where I got lucky. The day I resigned, I picked up a trade publication called Broadcasting magazine. In the classified section was an ad for an afternoon drive sports anchor and play-by-play announcer for Wisconsin basketball. I put together an audition tape, mailed it to WTSO radio in Madison, and since I knew next to nothing about Badger basketball, I started doing a little research.
It was as though the planets aligned. Within a few days, I received a call from Chris Moore, who was the station's sports director, morning drive anchor, hockey announcer and, when needed, an all-around nut job who could crack up a room with his humor. Within two weeks, the station brought Linda and I to Madison, where we met Chris, as well as program director Jeff Tyler and station manager Roger Russell. My head was spinning, but Russell did a lot to put me at ease. He was a very folksy but savvy radio man. People seemed to actually enjoy coming to work every day, which is something I did not experience at a couple of my previous stops. Rog's first question was, "So, you like to fish?" followed by, "Do you golf? What's your handicap?" I figured he knew I was pretty nervous, so he was just trying to put me at ease. Others have told me he did this quite a bit when he interviewed job candidates.
They offered me the job on the spot, which is something that does not happen very often. Linda and I talked it over, and within two days of the interview, we were getting ready to move to Wisconsin. In just a few short weeks, our life plans had changed. We were nervous about leaving Ohio. Adding to our little angst was the fact that, out of the blue, Linda had a job offer in San Diego. So not only were we leaving our family and friends in Ohio, we turned down a chance to live in Southern California, all so I could pursue my dream of being a major college play-by-play announcer.
Our biggest worries about moving to Wisconsin were probably similar to others who grew up south of there. How much snow do you guys get? Will my car survive the sub-zero temperatures? Did we really just say no to a job offer in San Diego? Okay, maybe not everyone asks that last question, but it was going through our minds.
Chris Moore was a huge help. The only problem was three months after we moved to Madison, he left. Chris is a very gifted broadcaster, and he is also funny as hell. He does a great Dick Vitale impression, and he had a number of other character voices that came in handy during his sports updates for WTSO and also WZEE (Z104), a highly rated Top 40 station. Chris was able to chase his dream of becoming an NHL broadcaster, and he left Madison for the New Jersey Devils. He later became the voice of the Florida Panthers. From there, Moore went on to stints with ESPN and Fox Sports Radio. He lives on the East Coast now, and his wife, Pam, is a successful attorney.
Chris could tell Linda and I had reservations about moving to Wisconsin, and he went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. Maybe many of you have no idea who Chris Moore is, but I will say without hesitation that any success I have had in this business is in large part because of Chris. He discovered my demo tape and was very aggressive in giving a 26-year-old know-nothing a shot at calling major college basketball games.
Life takes people in different directions, and it has been too long since I have talked to Chris, but for Badger fans who like what I do, credit Chris. Of course, if you wish I had never arrived in Madison, I would suggest it is all Chris Moore's fault. Feel free to blame him!
Little did we know in June 1988 that when we moved here from Ohio, that I would end up with a pretty cool gig. Through the years, I would find out that the planets would align several more times, making me as lucky as any sports announcer in Wisconsin, and perhaps beyond.
Thank you again, Chris, for taking a few minutes to listen to my audition tape.CHAPTER 2
Today, Camp Randall Stadium has suites, club seats, and nice scoreboards with video screens, not to mention statues of Pat Richter and Barry Alvarez. There is also a phallic-looking sculpture called Nails Tails, which stands erect, so to speak, outside the stadium near the southwest corner of a small parking lot. As you might guess, Nails Tails has been the target of many one-liners since its unveiling in 2005.
No matter what you might think of Nails Tails, the stadium looks pretty good these days. It has come a long way from the Camp Randall I walked into for the first time in June 1988. Back then the stadium, while nearly a quarter century younger, looked much older. The artificial surface was about as soft as your average driveway. There were no statues to be found. The offices were creaky. It certainly was not what anyone would expect from a major college program.
It is a similar story of compare and contrast between the Kohl Center today and the UW Field House. The Kohl Center is a huge, 17,000 seat arena for basketball, and it holds more than 15,000 for hockey. It has hosted major non-sports related events from Elton John to the Dalai Lama. While maybe not the most intimate building in the world, it has been a very good home for Wisconsin basketball and hockey.
Meanwhile, the Field House has been remodeled and today serves as a good home for volleyball and wrestling, but when I walked into the old barn back in the summer of '88, I have to say it was underwhelming. Among other things, it was in need of a paint job and new windows. Depending on where you were sitting, you could be freezing or boiling.
Or you might be hacking up a lung.
In the late 1980s, you could still smoke in the concourse. For many, that was a halftime ritual, which made a radio broadcaster's job a bit more challenging. Our location was Row 1 of the upper level. Keeping in mind that smoke rises, you can imagine what the Field House was like for those of us who were seated upstairs.
It also was plenty warm up there, until someone opened a window or unless someone sat by a broken window. In addition, it was a good idea to take care of your bathroom needs before tip-off. Similar to Williams Arena at Minnesota now, restrooms at the Field House were lacking. I often had nightmares of standing in a line 100 people deep at halftime and missing the start of the second half. Suffice it to say it was a good idea for me to go easy on the sodas before game time.
However, I always like to have some water handy during a broadcast. At the Field House, that got me in trouble more than once. Being in the upper level means there are fans sitting right below me. We are talking about bleacher seats, so if I drop something, it lands on someone in the lower level. A couple of times I accidentally knocked a cup of water off my ledge that passed for a table, and some fan would get an unexpected bath. On one occasion, the fan decided to march right up to my spot, and while I was on the air, he began to chew me out for being a klutz. I had to admit that I could not blame him. I was just thankful he didn't douse me with a full cup of soda.
Maybe time makes the memories grow fonder, but I kind of miss those old Field House days. I believe the fans who were there truly loved the game. Although I said my first visit was underwhelming, I will say that when the place was full, it rocked. There were days or nights after really good games when I would leave the building with my ears ringing. Man, can those old buildings hold noise.
I think players, especially good shooters, really enjoyed playing there. The place is intimate, providing a good shooting background. In a book he wrote many years ago, Steve Alford mentioned how much he liked playing in those types of gyms. For those who only know Alford as a coach, I'll just say that as a star at Indiana University, he could shoot the ball a little.
Although Camp Randall looked a little beat up by 1988, I could imagine how that stadium must have been during great football games such as when the Badgers upset No. 1 Michigan in 1981 or when they knocked off Ohio State in 1984. When I first arrived in town, I heard an audio clip from the great announcer Earl Gillespie as he described a fourth-down stop that sealed a 16–14 victory. "Byars is short!! Byars is short!!" referring to star Buckeyes running back Keith Byars. It was hard not to get goosebumps listening to Gillespie's classic voice with the roar of the crowd in the background.
Unfortunately, there were far more snores than roars in the fall of 1988. I was struck by the lack of anticipation going into the season. It did not take very long to understand why. The football team had produced three straight losing seasons. In the spring of 1986, Coach Dave McClain died of a heart attack. Jim Hilles had the difficult task of trying to lead the Badgers that fall, and the team finished 3–9.
Enter Don Morton. He could talk a pretty good game, and no doubt he excited boosters and other fans across the state. It was even better when Wisconsin beat Hawaii in the 1987 season opener. After winning two of three non-conference games, reality set in with a 1–7 Big Ten record. At least the one victory was against Ohio State, so at the time the program could try to hang its hat on that victory.
Excerpted from Why Not Wisconsin? by Matt Lepay. Copyright © 2012 Matt Lepay. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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