December 22, 2017
I stayed up past midnight this morning and was making one final flip through Twitter, a dubious exercise some evenings. In the left-hand column of Trends, I saw a name that led me to one of those moments where I knew what I would see if I clicked on it.
My reaction was “oh no!” The man who made “oh my” a cemented phrase in sportscasting, Dick Enberg, died at the age of 82.
Without question, he was my idol in basketball broadcasting. Though he was spectacular at the wide variety of sports he called, he made basketball come alive for me as if it were on an Imax screen. I never even remotely came close to his talent and recognition, though I enjoyed 25 years as an NAIA and NCAA Division II basketball commentator. Yet, Enberg was my role model and the main influence for me to go behind the television mike.
This, however, is not going to be a recitation of all of Enberg’s accomplishments. Plenty of obituaries and radio and television reminiscences will do that quite well. As a game show enthusiast, I could wax forever about one of my favorites of the genre of all time, Sports Challenge. The host was Dick Enberg.
Instead, I want to focus on a signature moment that changed the face of one sport. Dick Enberg was a major reason why.
Nearly 50 years ago in January 1968, Enberg played a seminal role in turning college basketball into a national television sport. That is no exaggeration.
At the time, Lyndon Johnson was facing challenges from his own party for re-election which led to his dropping out of the race. Racial strife led to rioting and burning in the Watts district of Los Angeles and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy would both be assassinated only weeks apart. An irreverent satirical hour labeled Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was about to become television’s number one show. In a last hurrah, the Green Bay Packers had just won their second straight Super Bowl. College basketball was a non-entity on network television.
In a game that was a precursor of today’s college basketball Final Four in domed stadiums, John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins were matched against the Houston Cougars of Guy Lewis (who closely resembled Al Lewis, the proverbial Grandpa on The Munsters). The teams would square off at the three-year-old Astrodome. If Barney Fife were describing the plans to Andy Taylor, he would say, “It’s gonna be big, Ang.”
A 33-year-old sportscaster with Midwest roots was chosen to call the game. He was building a name on the West Coast as the voice of UCLA basketball, as well as the radio voice of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Angels. Dick Enberg would not only make history by broadcasting in the largest venue ever to house a basketball game, as well as the largest crowd, but his work nearly a half century ago pushed the sport to a major transition.
The game was in prime time (9:30 pm on Saturday night in the East). However, it was not on CBS, ABC or NBC, but on a small regional sports syndication network—-TVS, created by television sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn.
NBC gave a valiant six-year run to college basketball and the NBA from 1955-61. The network dropped both despite having voices such as Lindsey Nelson, Curt Gowdy and Jack Drees calling the games because the sports just did not click with audiences as an appointment attraction. Advertisers clamored for baseball’s weekend games. They gave support to the National Football League a half century before its multi-billion dollar contracts. They were not even lukewarm to sponsor basketball on TV.
In 1964, Einhorn launched TVS with regional telecasts of SEC basketball and Big 8 games, later expanding to three other conferences. The C.D. Chesley Co. began a package of ACC games to stations along the Eastern seaboard.
Still, the networks were not interested in the NCAA tournament or a regular season college basketball package. Fans had to read about the championship game in their morning or afternoon newspapers. When Bob Wiesenhahn and Paul Hoque led Cincinnati to two straight NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962 and the Bearcats lost a thriller 60-58 to Loyola of Chicago in a bid for a third in a row, television was not there.
The UCLA-Houston matchup was the first attempt of Einhorn to go in prime time. The setting of the Astrodome was enough to attract stations as well as the name recognition of UCLA’s powerhouse center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). A surprising 154 stations picked up the game, most of them network affiliates. Media billed the showdown as the Game of the Century. What a cliche that four-word phrase is now.
The decision to assign Enberg, who called UCLA games on a tape delay but was not a national broadcast name, as play-by-play commentator served as an introduction to a wordsmith with the ability to lift a game into an event. Enberg was limited exposure in about 40 TV markets with “The Perfect Match,” a “Dating Game” knockoff. In dozens of cities, he was an unknown.
Before the first half was over, viewers knew Enberg was on a level above anyone they had ever heard call college basketball. His spectacular intonation and clarity of voice gave viewers the idea this was a night of sports history and that a possible upset was in the making.
Ironically, this was a game UCLA’s legendary coach did not want to play. Wooden did not like his Pacific-8 conference race interrupted by an intersectional game. He felt a non-conference game in January was a distraction to his team’s ultimate goal.
UCLA came into the game with a 47-game winning streak. Most sports analysts predicted the Bruins would eclipse San Francisco’s 60-game streak set in the 1950s.
The Cougars had other ideas. Houston’s Elvin Hayes, who averaged 37.7 points a game, went on a tear in the first half. On his final basket of the first half, Enberg chanted, “ELVIN HAYES HAS 29 POINTS!” Houston led 46-43 at halftime.
The second half was much more defensive. Hayes was held to 10 points but hit two key free throws with 1:54 remaining to put Houston up 71-69. Long before the shot clock era, UCLA worked extensively for a tying shot and possible foul. All-America guard Mike Warren made one of his rare mistakes and threw away a pass with forward Lynn Shackelford wide open.
Houston held onto the ball (this was 15 years before Jim Valvano launched the foulfest on his way to an NCAA title at North Carolina State) and pulled the two-point upset. Enberg could not be accused of being a homer for UCLA. He called the game right down the middle. He built high drama and made the game a larger-than-life experience.
I was watching the game on WJXT in Jacksonville, which pre-empted “Petticoat Junction” and “Mannix” to carry the game. I had a huge fatigue factor with UCLA, though I was a major admirer of Coach Wooden. I celebrated when anyone could knock off the Bruins. I had no doubt this was a college basketball telecast like none I had ever seen. The setting and the exuberant crowd set the tone but Enberg made that game an American classic that paved the way for a much bigger future for the sport.
The ratings were the highest ever for a college basketball game on American television, once all of the markets reported. Advertisers began to take note that, given proper promotion and announcing talent, the college game could draw an audience.
The following year, NBC began carrying Saturday games in the NCAA tournament. By 1969, the championship game and national consolation game became a Saturday afternoon tradition on NBC until they eventually moved to Monday nights.
In the late ’70s, after Curt Gowdy left NBC, Enberg became NBC’s senior voice. His years of pairing with Al McGuire and Billy Packer were of legend. His calls of Super Bowls and Olympics, as well as the PGA tour, placed him on the Mount Rushmore of sports broadcasters.
Study the careers of the classic sportscasters and you will often fine one signature game that propelled them into national prominence. The great Ray Scott’s disciplined call of the Green Bay-Dallas Ice Bowl 50 years ago cemented his legacy. Al Michaels’ “do you believe in miracles?” finish of the U.S. Olympic hockey team semifinal win over the Soviet Union in 1980 was a milestone marker. Verne Lundquist was already a distinguished announcer but his 1986 chant of “yes sir!” when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus hold a 20-foot putt to take the lead at The Masters is on the all-time, all-star list of TV sports memories.
The night of January 20, 1968, was the key moment in Dick Enberg’s career that elevated him to the A-list of commentators. Never again would he be regarded as a regional broadcaster. He changed a sport’s image in the eyes of America on that Saturday night.
I learned a lot that aided my modest career as a sportscaster by watching everything Enberg did and from his autobiography, “Oh My!” In the book, he wrote that in basketball, many young commentators attempt to call every basket in the first half of a game as if it’s a buzzer-beater. “You have to play it calmer early in the game,” he wrote. “If you have a real thriller, you want to save the drama for the closing moments.”
If we are honest, many of us who have been sportscasters on a much smaller level have patterned our styles after broadcasters we admire. One has to be one’s self at the mike to be a quality communicator but in key moments of dramatic and thriller games, I did my dead level best to pump the drama like Enberg during my 25 years as an NAIA and NCAA Division II television sportscaster. He was my absolute role model in basketball commentary.
I periodically look at a women’s conference championship game I called 20 years ago in an electrified arena. In overtime and in a record performance by an NAIA All-American, I screamed, “MICHELLE STREET HAS 45 POINTS!” I thought of that UCLA-Houston game at that precise moment. That call was a tip of the cap to my idol.
That game at the Astrodome nearly 50 years ago was a major reason I wanted to be a sportscaster. Dick Enberg was the catalyst for me.
The news came early Friday morning that Enberg passed away Thursday, likely of a heart attack. His loss leaves a gaping hole for those who appreciate the art of sports broadcasting.
As another great commentator who is a friend, Tim Brando, frequently says when we lose legends: “We’re not replacing them with people who have half the talent.” This morning, Brando tweeted: “(Enberg) was just being himself, a warm human being that brought out only the best in those around him. No one was better!”
A lot of fine broadcasters are out there today. Many young men and women want to go into the field. My two young successors calling NCAA Division II basketball hope they are on a ladder to eventual success. I only wish they all could learn from Dick Enberg. He was one of a kind.