Verne Lundquist's Last Call: The voice of the SEC prepares to sign off
- Lundquist has been a network college football broadcaster since 1974 and the voice of the SEC since 2000, but this season he's signing off college football for good.
BATON ROUGE, La. — His bronchitis is acting up. You won’t know it come kickoff 34 hours from now at Tiger Stadium because that voice is going to deliver as it has for six decades. But on Friday morning over eggs and bacon at his hotel in Baton Rouge, Verne Lundquist is feeling it in his lungs. The CBS broadcaster was a three-packs-a-day Marlboro man from 1956 to ‘92 before a doctor told him he had to quit. Hardest thing he’s ever had to do, Lundquist will tell you. Acupuncture and hypnosis failed but the nicotine gum finally stuck. Of course you can never really escape your past, so the cough stays.
The iconic sports broadcaster turned 76 in July and admits he feels his age on many days. For years Lundquist has dealt with degenerative scoliosis, a spinal curve caused by a combination of age and deterioration. He’s also had both knees and his right shoulder replaced. But on the day before CBS broadcasts No. 13 LSU versus No. 1 Alabama in Death Valley, Lundquist’s back feels fine. He is scheduled for back surgery next September at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, and plans to rehab in time to call March Madness and The Masters in 2018. “An X-ray of my back looks like an upside question mark,” he says, laughing with the famous Uncle Verne chortle.
I’ve embedded with Lundquist and the SEC on CBS crew for a weekend in Baton Rouge, the 153rd college football game Lundquist and partner Gary Danielson have called for CBS since Danielson replaced Todd Blackledge in 2005. Lundquist first started calling college football at the network level on Sept. 18, 1974, when he voiced Ohio University at Kent State for ABC, a regional game that featured a Kent State graduate football assistant named Nick Saban. (Whatever happened to that guy?) The journey will end with the annual Army-Navy game on Dec. 10 in Baltimore. Then Lundquist will step away from college football, a decision he swears he and CBS Sports management made jointly last May. He will continue to call the NCAA tournament and the Masters until his body (or CBS) says he cannot.
“This has been more sentimental than I thought it would be,” Lundquist says during breakfast at The Hilton Baton Rouge. “From the very beginning of this year—we started at Texas A&M—it has been sentimental with a certain degree of nostalgia. I think it is fair to say I’ve been more emotional than I thought I would be. You realize every stop could be the last one there. There are moments this year where I have said, ‘Gosh, I am not going to be doing this next year.’ But the better angels say to me I am having back surgery next year and I’ve been doing this at a network level for 42 years. I will always be connected to this sport, and those connections are very meaningful to me.”
The CBS SEC production crew is truly a traveling family, a group of 70 or so men and women of different ages and job responsibilities who live across America and come together for 15 weekends each fall across the South. Lundquist is a genial man, son of a Lutheran minister, a man who collects people.
His colleagues truly love him. It’s not an act for a visiting reporter. You see it in the small details—a stage manager brushing off crumbs from his jacket in the Tiger Stadium booth, an operations manager alerting him to a curb so he doesn’t slip, Danielson hugging him after the broadcast. On Friday night in Baton Rouge the corporate side of CBS Sports rented out an Italian restaurant called The Little Village where a group of 25 production people, broadcasters, executives and one World Series winner (Cubs pitcher Joe Smith, the husband of sideline reporter Allie LaForce) feasted, told stories and toasted Lundquist. At one point in the evening Lundquist stood up to thank everyone on the crew, but returned to his chair quickly because he got choked up.
Until the SEC job came along, Lundquist—who has worked at ABC Sports (1974 to ’81), CBS (1982–95, ‘98–today), Turner Sports (1995–97)—had never been a lead broadcaster on a sports package. Though he had called some of the most memorable moments in sports history—Jack Nicklaus’s birdie at No. 17 at the 1986 Masters (“Yes, sir!”); Christian Laettner’s game-winning jumper over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Final; the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan showdown at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics—it gnawed at him that he had never reached the height of some of his broadcasting contemporaries. His career prior to the network level would be a success story for most in sports broadcasting. He was a major media figure in Texas as the longtime radio voice of the Dallas Cowboys (1972–84) and the sports director for top-ranked WFAA-TV in Dallas.
Though he would spend most of his career in sports, Lundquist did experience one memorable night as a news gatherer. On the night of Nov. 22, 1963, as a 23-year-old weekend sportscaster on television and afternoon disc jockey (“Catch The Verne Lundquist Show from 5 to 9 p.m!”) at KTBC-AM-FM-TV in Austin, Lundquist volunteered to drive CBS News correspondent David Schoumacher and two other staffers the 60 miles from Austin to Johnson City so they could interview friends and relatives of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who would soon become President, for Walter Cronkite’s broadcast back in New York. It’s a part of a life away from the booth that sports viewers do not know. You might be surprised to learn that Lundquist attended seminary after college, that he’s been married three times, that he loves classical music and visits the symphony often, and that what holds his soul are Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Nancy, his wife of 34 years, who was once his football spotter.
There’s a lot of Uncle Verne in the Lundquist persona, but when you get him one-on-one, he’s self-aware and sober about his career. He will tell you that for years he was bitter, first about not landing a fulltime network job into his 40s. Then about being the No. 2 man at networks behind the likes of Brent Musburger or Pat Summerall. When CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus offered Lundquist the lead of the SEC football package, Lundquist did not perceive it as a huge deal because, in 2000, it was not. But it became one because of the explosion of the SEC nationally.
The job made him part of the SEC terra firma, but it wasn’t always a love affair with fans. SEC football viewers can be brutal on broadcasters; perhaps only soccer watchers are tougher. Lundquist knows he’s made mistakes over the years on players’ names—there are message boards that catalogue them—and there have been plenty of stories suggesting in not so subtle terms that he and Danielson should exit the booth. (In 2012 Deadspin headlined an article: “We Love You, Verne Lundquist, But It's Time To Go.”)
“Broadcasters say we don’t pay attention to the noise,” Lundquist says, “but we all pay attention.”
This year, though, has been nothing but warmth. In every city the SEC on CBS crew has traveled, the programs have honored Lundquist. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin gave Lundquist a fitted pair of cowboy boots, Tennessee made him comedy video featuring Peyton Manning and Georgia offered a video tribute on the scoreboard of Sanford Stadium and had the marching band spell out “Yes, sir” before the game. At LSU, along with a first-quarter display on the video board, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva came in at halftime to present Lundquist with a game-worn No. 18 LSU jersey (which the school annually awards to the player who best represents the program on and off the field).
“I have been overcome by the warmth of people,” Lundquist says. “It is extraordinary to me how many people are aware that this is my last run. I get it in airports, all ages. People come up to me and say, ‘I want to thank you. You have been the voice of my childhood.’ Then there are older people saying that they have been along with me for years.”
By season’s end, he and Danielson will have completed 11 years together, Lundquist’s longest broadcast partner outside of Bill Raftery (15 years). Danielson says he’s tried this season to take in how appreciative Lundquist is of fans and colleagues.
“There was some rough times for Verne three or four years ago in the SEC,” Danielson says. “He was getting killed. So it has been delightful to be part of the group that helped him through it and to see such a great finish. I do have a sentimental side. I do not like to show it, but this has touched me. I think the thing I’ve learned most from being around him is how being authentic is the most important thing in broadcasting. I don’t have to be [Cris] Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit, who bridges different generations. I wish I would have known that more as a quarterback. Sometimes when I played against Dan Fouts or Dan Marino or the big players, I might try to do too much. Verne taught me just being yourself is good enough.”
The weekend goes by fast for the broadcasters. On Friday the production crew meets with coaches and players from both teams and runs through graphic packages in a very low-key rehearsal in the broadcast booth atop Tiger Stadium. Lundquist goes through the ad reads he’ll make on Saturday and practices certain phrases that could be tricky, such as pronouncing South Lafourche High School, the high school of LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron, as “La-Foosh.” There’s a Friday afternoon production meeting with key staffers, where Danielson and Silver, the producer, note some of the things to look for in the game. On Saturday morning after breakfast, Lundquist spends a couple of hours in a hotel room reading on both teams and going over his announcer boards. He arrives at Tiger Stadium about three-and-a-half hours prior to kickoff; when he exits the van, fans immediately begin yelling, “Verne!”
Nothing over the weekend indicated Lundquist is having second thoughts about his decision. Brad Nessler has already been announced as the successor to Lundquist (he will call the Sun Bowl with Danielson) and Lundquist said Nessler left him a voice message in July saying that he would stay out of the way during Lundquist’s final season. (The two have not met face to face since the announcement.) “I think he did that out of respect for me, and I have tried to acknowledge him and make people aware that I have no ill feelings,” Lundquist says. “I have tried to incorporate him in all the public questions about succession. I hope he comes to the SEC Championship game, and I’d love to have him there with us.”
About 15 minutes before kickoff, Lundquist tapes the intro to the primetime broadcast (“It is indeed Saturday night in Death Valley!”), and then sways to the music of “Louisiana Saturday Night” while going over some last-minute notes. Immediately before the kickoff, Lundquist pats Danielson on the back. Danielson claps. Ready to go.
If you are looking out on the field, here’s how the booth looks from left to right: Chuck Gardner, the longtime stat person for Lundquist, sits to the far left, then comes Butch Baird, Lundquist’s longtime spotter and a former spotter for Dick Enberg. Next to Baird is Lundquist, then Danielson, and to the far right is David Moulton, who does stats for Danielson. The stage manager for the LSU game is Amanda Storck, a former pole-vaulter at Central Michigan whose many tasks included keeping track of what promos Lundquist needs to read and when he needs to read them. The booth also includes a camera operator (Dick Garrett) and an audio engineer (Barb Hanford).
Lundquist says that as he’s gotten older he relies more on watching the monitor than the live play on the field. Thus, Baird plays an enormous role for Lundquist in the broadcast. (“If he says something is true, I believe him,” Lundquist says.) Throughout the LSU-Alabama game Baird points to players on Lundquist’s board so Lundquist can quickly identify tackles or secondary coverage. Spotters also alert broadcasters to flags. Gardner floats Lundquist stats throughout the game, charting them by hand. Lundquist and Danielson stand most of the game. At times Baird reminds Lundquist to sit down during time outs to give his back a bit of relief.
Mistakes still happen. Lundquist refers to Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts as “Harris” and Danielson picks him up a couple of times with some play-by-play calls as CBS goes to break. Lundquist will also note later that his call of the game’s lone touchdown—a 21-yard fourth quarter run by Hurts—was a tick off because of a stumble. “I have done games at the network level for 42 years, and I haven’t done one without a mistake,” Lundquist says on air. “I’m trying. I have five games left.”
Off the air, Lundquist says, “Names and dates that used to come to me like that are sometimes slower, and it is concerning. I have always been proud of my memory, and now all of a sudden I find myself looking at Nancy saying, ‘What was his name?’ It’s not worrisome. It’s part of aging but still concerning.”
But Silver is right. Lundquist still brings it during a 3-hour-and-20-minute broadcast. He’s among the best ever between plays, where he offers interesting asides. Few announcers can deliver lines better and with more force at the big moment. Take the time to watch the final seconds of the Alabama-Auburn game in 2013. It is sports television at its finest.
“When you tell the story of the SEC, they had a footprint in the Southeast that was not appreciated by a lot of people,” Danielson says. “As the conference rolled out nationally, Verne ended up being the perfect guy at the perfect time. I think his genuineness and trustworthiness played well here.”
Lundquist knows the crew wants to pay tribute to him on air, but he has asked Silver to wait for the SEC Championship. (His career is tied to the SEC, and he also wants to let the Army-Navy game stand on its own.) Of course this isn’t goodbye forever. That’s the important thing to remember. Lundquist will still call the NCAA tournament with Jim Spanarkel in March, and he’ll be at his usual hole No. 16 for the Masters in April. Then comes a trip or two with Nancy, back surgery in September and basketball again in March 2018.
But the conclusion of the Army-Navy game will be his final words on a college football broadcast, and he’s been thinking for months about what words to use. He would like to say goodbye to the audience in real time, but he has no idea if he can make it through without breaking down. They might have to tape a segment prior to the game.
“[Director] Steve Milton wants me to do it live to capture the essence and whatever feeling there is in the air,” Lundquist says. “But if I get into a lot of goodbyes or thank you’s, where do you end? I think I’ll let Steve know two minutes from the end the game whether to do it live or use the tape. Army-Navy deserves all the respect, and I will be emotional.”
I tell Lundquist I think he should remind viewers at the end of Army-Navy that he isn’t leaving forever and that they would see him again in March. Lundquist thinks about it for moment. “I don’t know if it’s relevant to the moment,” he says.
Then he laughs that Uncle Verne laugh.
“But maybe I’ll just say thanks for everything and we’ll see you again in March.”