Broadcasting is, by its nature, a powder keg. Walking that live ad-lib tightrope knowing the slightest slip could (and has) end a career is nerve-wracking for even the most veteran commentator. College broadcasting is even more combustible. Inexperienced announcers plus open mics equal, well, this.
I had my share of explosive moments on the air during my days as an Abilene Christian University journalism student and in the years immediately following when I called some of the Wildcats’ football and basketball games on the road. Thankfully, none went viral; but some left me feeling just as sick as the guy in that video above surely felt.
I was fortunate to get hired at KACU-FM during my freshman year and (somehow) stay employed all four years I was in school. In the summer of 1989, finding part-time job pickings slim in my hometown of Nashville, Tenn., I returned to Abilene to work 40 hours a week at the station. With my ’82 Chevette Diesel on the disabled list, I was reduced to borrowing cars or bumming rides from buddies.
Mooch-as gracias. Even with my considerable proficiency in that regard, I found myself without wheels one Saturday morning when I was scheduled to sign the station on the air at 6 a.m. I was apartment-sitting for an ACU English professor that summer at the corner of Judge Ely Boulevard and E.S. 11th Street, so I figured I’d need a solid 30 minutes to hoof the 2.5 miles to the Don H. Morris Center.
Panicky about oversleeping, I woke up inadvertently every half hour through the night. Until I needed to. At 5:55 a.m., I very advertently leapt out of bed with a shriek, threw on my clothes and tore out the apartment door. I still giggle at the thought of what I must’ve looked like to the people passing me by. Maybe like Forrest Gump, only not as smart.
I made it to the Skinny’s convenience store (now the CVS Pharmacy) at E.N. 10th Street in 10 minutes. My chariots were on fire, and I was burned out. I called ACU security and convinced campus cop Ken Arnold to come get me. The 90-second car ride wasn’t long enough to let me catch my breath, so when I signed on at 6:17 a.m. it sounded something like this:
“Thanks for listening … (mic off, desperation gasp for air, mic back on) … to 89.7 … (mic off, another titanic inhale, mic back on) … KACU-FM … (music begins, dull thud as I collapse on the control room floor).”
During my senior year, ACU’s play-by-play man at the time, David Bacon, knew I wanted to be a sportscaster and graciously offered me the opportunity to do a couple of football games in his absence. One of those was down in Kingsville where the Wildcats would take on the then-mighty Javelinas. My broadcast partner was one of the great players, coaches and men in ACU Athletics history, Don “Smitty” Smith (’53). It was the first time I’d ever done a full game as the play-by-play man, which became immediately apparent. During one particularly frenetic sequence, a punt landed near midfield, may or may not have struck a member of the receiving team, and bounced high in the air, at which point all 22 players commenced scrambling around like a scene from The Benny Hill Show. Not that anyone listening would’ve known.
In the play’s and my confusion, I essentially curled up in a fetal position sucking my thumb. I said nothing. Smitty, not wanting to butt in but also not wanting me to sit there staring at him silently and stupidly, began vigorously pointing at the field with a series of grunts to encourage me to actually do in some small measure what I had gone down there to do, which was describe what was happening.
A couple of years later, I called an ACU basketball game at Angelo State University. The gym in San Angelo back then was basically the size of a kitchen pantry, and the crowd noise was deafening. Our broadcast booth hung out over the bleachers where the ASU fans sat, so I could barely hear the producer who was back in Abilene at the radio station. After several futile attempts to communicate, I finally shouted, “The only way this is going to work is if you yell as loud as you can when the commercial is over to let me know when to start talking.” It went on that way all night.
I listened back to the recording of that game the next day. If I turned up the volume as high as it would go, you could faintly hear at the end of each commercial this poor soul screaming at the top of her lungs: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” Fortunately, she hadn’t sprinted down Judge Ely to get to work, so she had enough breath to handle it.
In 1996, I was working in Dallas but still calling most of the ACU basketball games on the road, including the women’s team’s deepest ever run in the NCAA playoffs. Back then, the Division II playoffs culminated with the top eight teams playing for the title at the home of the highest-ranked remaining team, which in ’96 was three-time defending national champion North Dakota State University. The sports information director at the time, Garner Roberts (’70), arranged for me to catch the same flight from Dallas to Fargo, N.D., through Minneapolis that assistant athletics director Todd McKnight (’89) and a few other ACU fans were taking on the day of the game.
We made it to Minneapolis but found out upon landing that all flights the rest of the day to Fargo had been canceled because of a snowstorm. We explored other options: different airline, car, dog sled; no luck. On a whim, I suggested to McKnight we look into chartering a plane. We found one for $900. In what may well have proven to be his final act on behalf of the university, McKnight gave it the thumbs up. Four of us shoehorned into a private plane and took off for Fargo’s frozen tundra.
We still had to beat the clock. The game was scheduled to tip at 2 p.m., and we weren’t scheduled to land until a couple of minutes before then. We radioed ahead to the terminal to have them call a taxi and it was waiting when we arrived. The driver raced to the gym where I bounded up the bleachers to the broadcast booth, only to find the equipment wouldn’t work. So I called that entire national quarterfinal win over Northern Michigan University over a hand-held telephone. (Long-distance rates may have applied.)
The Wildcats lost a heartbreaker in the semifinals the next day as a blizzard blew in across the Dakota hills. I got the last flight out on that Sunday morning. A TV crew from Abilene station KTXS wasn’t as fortunate. As far as I know, they’re still stuck in Fargo.
Twenty-five years after calling my first ACU game, this has all come full circle. In my role as the Wildcats’ play-by-play man and assistant director of athletics for external operations, I have the great pleasure of giving current student broadcasters their first on-air opportunities. You’ll often see them sitting next to me with headphones on at many of the games we air. If you happen to spot us, feel free to come over and say hello. In fact, for old times’ sake, why don’t you wait ’til the commercial is over then scream at the top of your lungs.