Not “Oh My!”….But Oh No!: Dick Enberg, Mt. Rushmore Broadcaster, Leaves Us

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.

Dick Enberg 2Without 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.”

Dick Enberg 6A 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.

Dick Enberg 4The 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.

Dick Enberg 5The 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.

Dick Enberg 3As 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.

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Mornings Without Timmy B: Life Goes On…..Minus an Old Radio Friend

A month from now, the world will not be the same for some network sports talk loyalists.  Oh, life will go on unless we are stricken with a catastrophic illness.

However, someone we have come to feel as a good friend—-even if we have never so much as outstretched a hand for a greeting—-will not be where he has been for 14 years.

We will see Tim Brando with his heavy schedule of Fox Sports play-by-play—including Big 10/Pac-12/Big 12 football, Big East basketball, and an upcoming role in Fox’s maiden coverage of U.S. Open golf.

Two weeks ago, he told his audience, “This is a day that we were not looking forward to, but April 30th, ‘The Tim Brando Show’ will come to an end.”  The huge travel schedule for Fox (and for Raycom’s television coverage of ACC basketball) took him off his own show at times for extended periods.

In the last six months, Timmy B has been away from radio almost as much as Johnny Carson appeared to be absent from “The Tonight Show” during the seventies.  At one point, I jokingly said to Brando after he returned from a two-week sabbatical, “This is like having Johnny back after two weeks of John Davidson.”

Yet, from the afternoon he took a career gamble and went behind a microphone to launch “The Tim Brando Show” on Sporting News Radio, Timmy B has been an institution for thoughtful sports conversation, particularly of the college variety.

Southern radio listeners in six states were offered a daily sample of Brando’s analysis before he premiered “The Tim Brando Show.”

A regionally-syndicated afternoon talkfest, “Conference Call,” paired Tim with former Auburn (now Akron) coach Terry Bowden during college football season and with network analyst Billy Packer in the frozen months of college basketball.

You knew where things were headed on the first show.  At the time, Brando was the studio host for CBS SEC football.  Bowden was studio analyst for ABC’s Saturday football coverage.  Bowden hit the first salvo:  “Saturday, I was looking over at the monitor at CBS.  I just want to know one thing.  Is that Tim’s real hair?”

Three years later, after the owner of “Conference Call” fizzled in a sea of financial and legal implosions, Brando was approached by Sporting News Radio to take on the 4-to-7 slot in the afternoon.   NFL studio host James Brown anchored mornings on SNR.

Brando’s show premiered during Super Bowl week in 2001.  Facebook and Twitter had not been invented.  We were nine months away from the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was still a megahit for ABC.  George W. Bush had just been inaugurated for his first term.

Even though Timmy B was at the helm of a national show, the three hours had a local feel and flavor that endeared listeners to become christened Brandophiles.

The first week, a caller set the tone.  His name was George.  “Hey, I was just sittin’ here in my La-z-Boy havin’ a few and started turnin’ my radio dial,” George said.  “I stopped on this station and said, ‘That sounds like Tim Brando.’  Did you lose your job at CBS?”

Most of us who are regular listeners have never been in the same room with Brando.  Yet, we feel he is a friend.

Before he started the national show, I was still doing a website (TVgameshows.net) that followed the revival of big-money quiz shows and the expanding daytime games similar to a wire service.

Some of my readers were posting comments suggesting Brando, who was once a finalist for the host of daytime “Wheel of Fortune,” was on the short list of candidates to eventually replace Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.”

I have never been one not to go to the horse’s mouth.  I called Timmy B on “Conference Call” and asked him outright if he might be a potential presider over the Showcase Showdown and Plinko.

“Well, I don’t know anything about it, though the idea is surely interesting,” he said.  “Since this has come up, I’m going to check out your site.”

I didn’t give a second thought to that, but he actually did.  Two days later, I had an e-mail from Brando with compliments on the professionalism.  “Most people don’t think of journalism involving game shows, but you’re doing it right, professor,” Brando wrote.

As a side note, Timmy B would have been a terrific choice to oversee the Cliffhangers game but CBS opted to go with a compromise selection after Barker’s departure.

Over these 14 years, “The Tim Brando Show” has been shifted to almost as many time slots as was “The Jeffersons” on network TV.  We followed him from 4:00 to 1:00 to 10:00 to 9:00 and back to 10.

Timmy B developed a sense of humor with a pinch of resignation over the migration of the show.  Sporting News Radio ultimately sold to Yahoo!  Neither of those entities possessed the syndication muscle of the six-headed monster, ESPN.  If the show was in a market on terrestrial radio, it may not be there the next week.

“We always know if our show is on your station on Friday and it’s not there on Monday, in most instances, that station has changed formats to religious,” Brando said.  “We have a laundry list of those markets.”

In the difficult world of sports talk radio, Timmy B was more of a survivor than Rich Hatch and Sue Hawk.  He took some insulting blows.  In the early ‘00s, XM Radio carried the full lineup of Sporting News Radio.  In January 2004, Brando was abruptly told that his 4-to-7 p.m. slot was being displaced on satellite radio by the inimitable Claire B. Lang.  If you love NASCAR, Claire B. may be your lady.  To say the Brandophiles were angry is mild.

Eventually, he reconnected on Sirius Radio, pre-merger with XM.  By then, the Brando show had moved to mornings.  Our guy was back five mornings a week.  Well, almost.

In pockets of a given week, usually on Mondays or Tuesdays, if you tuned to Sirius at 10 a.m. for Brando, you were treated to the excitement of a taped replay of World Cup Skiing.  For one thing, competitive skiing on radio is on a par with listening to a parade on your Sony Walkman.  But tape-delayed skiing?

I immediately shot an e-mail to Brando to ask what gives.  He had no idea.  “If that happens again, let me know as fast as you can,” he answered.  “This has everything to do with the people who advertise on our show.”  After six times of hearing about slaloms and missed gates, skiing disappeared.

In the fall of 2011, “The Tim Brando Show” made its way to television.  CBS Sports Network, which was stymied for an identity after purchase of the former College Sports Network, began turning to live programming.

Brando, the long-time studio host for the SEC on CBS, was tailor-made for mornings on CBSSN—which had largely been a haven for reruns of rodeo circuits.

For two-and-a-half years, we were entreated to Brando on-screen live from Shreveport with his entertaining crew of Rogers (Hey Boy) Hampton, producer Dave (Huba Druba) Druda, sports news update anchor Patrick (Mr. Know-It-All) Netherton and Jay (Call Screener) Whatley.

“The Tim Brando Show” was not a mega-ratings draw on CBS Sports Network.  Then, again, neither is anything else on CBS Sports Network.  I will make the unqualified case that CBS made the purchase of College Sports Network either to keep ESPN from swallowing yet another property or to at least have a token presence in sports cable television.

Notice how little conversation exists about Brando’s replacement “Boomer and Carton,” a New York-based sports talkfest.  If CBS wants properties to flourish on cable, that network needs to pony up for better cable sports properties than the service academies and the Mountain West Conference, and commit to solid, consistent promotion for its programming across all of its platforms, including big CBS.

Brando is where he is, in no small part, because he has one of those network-quality voices in the classic mold of a Lindsey Nelson, a Ray Scott, or a Curt Gowdy.  When Timmy B is there, you have a larger-than-life event even if the game is a long way from the Super Bowl or a conference championship game.

The Brando on radio delivers a side many of his play-by-play or studio viewers never see.  He offers sharp, well-defined, crisp commentary on the critical issues facing intercollegiate athletics.

He took on his own employer, The Sporting News, for publishing separate editions recognizing twin national champions in football in 2004, one for LSU and one for Southern Cal, when LSU won the BCS title that was the recognized achievement.  USC won a p.r. championship and Brando stuck it to The Sporting News for buying into it.

No one in a high-profile sports media capacity campaigned harder for more than a decade to end the ludicrous method of selecting a national football champion than Brando.  His relentless vocal campaign for a playoff at least peripherally led to Dan Wetzel’s outstanding book, “Death to the BCS,” which exposed the financial irregularities of the big bowl system.

Timmy B has been a one-man firewall against the often-irrational football fan base of The University of Alabama.  Brando is congratulatory on their success; he does not suffer fools who believe national championships are a birthright for the Crimson Tide merely for stepping on a field.

When CBS Sports lead anchor Jim Nantz was in the midst of a difficult divorce, Brando openly took on ESPN for singling out Nantz’s marital situation on SportsCenter.  “If that had been Chris Berman or Brent Musberger in the same situation, I wonder if it would have even been mentioned?” Brando questioned.  “Is there no such thing as privacy left?”

Brando is a sports broadcast historian.  While Colin Cowherd may have the power of the four-letter network behind his morning odyssey, Cowherd is perpetually dismissive of coaches and broadcasters of an earlier era.  Cowherd is so glued to ESPN’s daily focus group research that he would talk about Joba Chamberlain instead of the death of a legend, Pat Summerall.

Timmy B readily pays homage to his role model, the old Wyoming cowboy Curt Gowdy.  He has welcomed Verne Lundquist to the mike multiple times to tell some of his rich stories as a voice for ABC, CBS and the Dallas Cowboys.  The nation’s great college broadcasters always have had a home on Brando’s show.

I will single out two Brando shows that have meant more to me than any other over these 14 years.  Both of them involved interviews with the same coach.

In 2010, I encountered a bout with depression.  As anyone who has experienced it will tell you, the road back is often as slow and deliberate as basketball often was before the shot clock.  I was directed to take long walks during my spring break as a college professor.  I did.  I took along my Sirius portable radio and listened to Brando.

During NCAA Final Four week, Timmy B brought on Iowa’s newly-hired coach Fran McCaffery.  Brando started the interview by saying, in a perfect Musberger impersonation, “We have the new head coach of the HOCKEEEEEEYES, Fran McCaffery.  Fran, if you’re gonna make it in Iowa, you have to learn to say it like Brent—-the HOCK-EYEEEEEEEES.”

McCaffery erupted into an uncontrollable cackle that sounded like a cross between Barney Rubble and Michael Landon.  Brando egged him on and said “HOCK-eyeeeeeeeees” at least a half-dozen more times.  I had this visual picture of Fran about to fall off his chair.  I had not laughed in about three weeks.  I did that afternoon while walking in the park listening to Brando.  My healing was not immediate but that was the start of my journey back.

In March of last year, McCaffery was back on with Brando, only the interview was not for comedic relief.  Coach Fran told the story of his son Patrick’s bout with cancer.  Patrick McCaffery had surgery to remove a tumor on the very day the Hawkeyes were back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done is not to get a team to buy into what it takes to make the NCAA tournament,” McCaffery said.  “It was to walk into my son’s room, wake him up, and tell him he had cancer.”

Brando was at his best that day.  He asked three questions during the entire 11 minutes of McCaffery’s segment.  Timmy B backed off and let the coach tell his emotional story.  Over these 14 years, that one segment is one that will stay with me when the memory of all the soreheads yapping about sportscaster bias has vanished.

In recent years, Timmy B has christened me The Ombudsman.  When issues of media coverage in sports raise questions, I periodically chime in on The Brando Show.  “Are we (the media) sometimes the problem?” is a question he sometimes tosses at me.  At times, I answer yes, in no small part because of the billions of dollars at stake in sports and the broadly increasing numbers of stakeholders for those billions.

For 13 years, I was the online video voice of the NAIA women’s national championship basketball tournament.  Virtually no one knew aside from the coaches and players of the 32 teams who came to Jackson, Tn., for the event.  Timmy B would always shoot me an email and ask me to call in on the day of the championship game.

“Who have you got tonight?” he asked before the 2010 title matchup.  “Union and Azusa Pacific, which I am sure are household names across the country,” I answered.

Brando reminded me of a salient point.  “Don’t ever minimize that,” he said.  “Somebody has to do that game and it happens to be you.  Always remember that your work means a lot to those kids and to their families who hear you call the game.  It doesn’t matter what level of play you’re at.”  He is right.

The month of May will bring on our first touch of humidity in the Southeast.  We will see some of the early signs of rye grass turning yellow.  Perhaps a thunderstorm or two will remind us of a change of seasons.  When Brandophiles turn on their SiriusXM radios in the mornings, Timmy B won’t be there.

Life will go on—-but mornings will not be the same without our old friend, who frequently reminds us:  “I don’t root for teams.  I root for people.”