Pete Taylor had no "Oh, my!" or "Whoa, Nellie!" no "Holy cow!" or
"How about that!" His football broadcasts were bereft of
boo-yah's, his basketball broadcasts en fuego--free. "He had no
catchphrases, no signature lines, nothing like that," says his
daughter, Jill. "God, no. He deplored that kind of thing."
As a broadcaster Taylor had it all wrong. "He never wanted to be
the story, he just wanted to describe the games," says Eric Heft,
Taylor's color analyst for 24 years. "Pete appreciated the talent
of a Jim Rome, but that confrontational style just wasn't him."
While colleagues, as if on a rope ladder to a rescue helicopter,
frantically climbed toward larger media markets, Taylor took root
in Ames, Iowa. "Never occurred to him to leave for more money or
a bigger market or a better team," says his son, David. "He
stayed at Iowa State for 33 years, and that's the way it was
always going to be. A few others have stayed put like that: Jack
Buck, Johnny Most, Chick Hearn. And my dad, in Iowa, had that
same scale of recognition."
Strange, isn't it? The more he tried to shrink, the larger Taylor
grew. In wanting to make stars of the Cyclones, he became the
star. In 33 years Iowa State University had five athletic
directors, seven football coaches, seven basketball coaches, 675
losses in those two sports combined and one--one--radio
play-by-play announcer for football and basketball. Says current
athletic director Bruce Van De Velde, "To many, many people in
Iowa and beyond, Pete was Iowa State athletics."
And so, in the hours after Taylor died last week--unexpectedly,
at 57, of complications from a stroke--the Cyclones' athletic
department received emails from disconsolate Internet-radio
listeners in Houston; Atlanta; Phoenix; Virginia Beach; Dallas;
Albuquerque; Hershey, Pa.; Oceanside, Calif.; and innumerable
other, unIowan places. "He has been our ears and our eyes,
carrying images to faithful fans all over the world," wrote
Charles Doo from...Singapore?
How, exactly, did this happen? Taylor wrote--as a high school
freshman, in an English-class report--that a broadcaster "needs
an honest voice, a voice which becomes to the listener that of a
trusted friend. A voice that smiles, that is warm and pleasant to
listen to, and is welcome in any home in the country. A voice
that has not become distorted by artificial theatrical training."
Honest, pleasant, untheatrical? Taylor was, by current broadcast
standards, Van Earl Wrong.
"He didn't have those freakish meltdowns they replay on
SportsCenter," says David Taylor. He did wear his heart on both
sleeves and a sandwich board. Says Pete's friend Kevin Cooney,
news anchor at KCCITV in Des Moines, "You could tell--within five
seconds of turning on the radio, just by the tone of his
voice--whether the Cyclones were winning or losing."
Yet his calls were truer than plane geometry. Often too true. It
was not unusual to hear Taylor, unaware that a station break was
over, profanely lamenting the Cyclones' ineptitude. "You'd think
that after three decades on the radio he'd know when a microphone
was on," says Jill Taylor. "But no, there were several instances
of profanity on the air."
Naturally, this only made him more beloved. Last football season,
after consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Texas, Taylor idly
remarked to Heft that he envied network announcers because "they
never have to care who wins or loses." The following Saturday,
after a win over Missouri, Taylor idly remarked to Heft that he
pitied network announcers because they never get to care who wins
Which isn't to say that sports were his life. Life was. Taylor
loved books and crosswords and Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark.
(When it came on TV, at 11 o'clock on a school night, he woke his
young children and forced them to watch it.) In music stores all
over the Big 12, he indulged his fetish--mercifully rare among
white, middle-aged Iowans--for '70s funk and '80s rap. "I was the
only girl in Des Moines," says Jill, "whose father introduced her
to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five."
When Taylor died, The Des Moines Register ran four stories, and
The Tribune in Ames four more, and listener Tim Frisch of
Stillwater, Minn., wrote the Cyclones' athletic department to
say, "I have never shed a tear over the passing of someone I
didn't know. Until today."
"I'm world-famous all over Canada," says a character in a novel
by Mordecai Richler. Taylor was like that: world-famous all over
Iowa. Heft, distraught, was physically incapable of broadcasting
last week's game against Missouri. Grizzled reporters, with
armadillo-thick skin, found themselves sobbing. "I cried like a
baby," says anchorman Cooney, part of a daisy chain of Iowa
broadcasters that goes all the way back to Ronald Reagan.
"It's funny," Cooney adds after a pause. "The guy without the
catchphrase lasted the longest here, and became the best loved."
It is funny. And instructive. A humble, private, professional man
was, it turns out, the Best Damn Sports Show, Period.
broadcast standards, Van Earl Wrong.