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Verne Lundquist: Broadcast Legend From Austin to Tuscaloosa

Verne Lundquist has a half century of work in broadcasting, and his rise to network stardom –like most of those in TV – combines “luck” with preparation.

Sports broadcasting play-by-play is among the hardest/easy jobs you can find.

The best don't overrun the action. They accentuate the moment so smoothly that viewers assume just about anyone could do it.

Well, yes anyone can -- as long as they can clearly and crisply call the action in 15 seconds or less, with the director in his ear telling him what replay is available, the producer talking in the other ear about how to throw it to commercial, the spotter leaning over his shoulder pointing to numbers involved in the play, and his color announcer is waiting for his cue to step in.

For half a century, Verne Lundquist has been one of the best practitioners of the "minimalist" style of sports play-by-play. That style has led him to produce some of the most memorable lines uttered during a live broadcast of a sporting event.

Lundquist, now loved/loathed as the "Voice of SEC Football," is among a handful of broadcasting pioneers whose careers span the time when live sports was considered to be the "Toy Store" of network TV to today where in a fractured market live sports is the most lucrative revenue stream in broadcasting.

While Verne can mangle names and calls with the best of them, he still understands better than most how the big moments need just a little amplification.

Verne spent his formative years in Austin. And while other kids grew up dreaming of being the next Duke Carlisle or Tommy Nobis. I dreamed of being the next Verne Lundquist.

Lundquist's dad became pastor at Gethsemane Lutheran Church here in Austin when Verne was 12. Their next-door neighbor was D.X. Bible. Verne graduated from Austin High and Texas Lutheran University, and after a brief six-week stint in theological school, he became a part-time DJ at KTBC-radio in Austin.

Cactus Pryor hired him as the weekend sports anchor for KTBC-TV in September of 1963 - nice timing to start a sports broadcasting career.

Luck is When Preparation Meets Opportunity

During TV's infancy, local newscasts were a "public service," a task to help validate their FCC license. Then in the 1970's stations discovered that local news gave them their best return on investment. The newscasts could produce as much as a third of the stations revenues on a fraction of their expenditures. Management took more interest in who was fronting those newscasts, which meant anchors became higher paid - and more expendable.

All local news anchors are slaves to the ratings. Hard numbers that give you a thumbs up or down continually throughout the year. The numbers are there in black & white, but good luck in understanding exactly what drives them. As an anchor, if you haven't been fired, you haven't been in the business very long.

My first sports anchor job was with KVUE-TV in Austin. A consultant was brought in to help boost the ratings. His research said only 20% of our audience cared about sports. Therefore, I was directed to try to appeal to "the 37-year old mother of two, whose kids played little league sports."

I was lousy at it and was fired a few months later.

The good news was that anchors, like coaches, are a green resource to be recycled at will.

Three months after I was fired at KVUE, the same consultant hired KTBC Sports Anchor Paul Alexander for their Tucson client. With Alexander out of the market, they reasoned, their new guy at KVUE wouldn't have to combat an established anchor at the # 1 station in town.

I was working at KNOW radio at the time, and a friend at KTBC encouraged me to call their General Manager.

I called and got an appointment. The GM was late to the meeting. He apologized and said he got held up at the barbershop.

"I was getting my haircut, and there were two guys on either side of me talking sports," he said.

"One of them brought your name up and wondered what happened to you, because you were his favorite sportscaster. The other guy agreed that he missed you as well."

The GM then added, "I take it as a sign, so the job is yours if you want it."

No interview. No audition.

I started the next week.

In a business where the stakes are high and there is no clear template for success you don't have to look very long to find similar stories, even for Verne Lundquist.

After leaving KTBC, Lundquist landed at WFAA-TV, the runaway ratings leader in Dallas. He had only been on the job two weeks when he traveled with the Dallas Cowboys to Washington for a game against the Redskins. Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm wanted Lundquist to host the post-game radio show that week.

Schramm wanted Lundquist involved with the radio network because he wanted the sportscaster for the top-rated TV station associated with the Cowboys. Lundquist turned it into a 12-year career as the play-by-play announcer for the Dallas Cowboys, which in turn led to working college games for ABC and eventually on to CBS.

Lundquist stayed on with WFAA throughout 1970's, later admitting that he wondered when the station would get tired of his freelance work and decide that they needed a change.

Dale Hansen - Fired to be Hired

In a business where three years is a lifetime, WFAA, Ch. 8 has had exactly two sports anchors over the past 46 years.

Verne Lundquist sat in the chair from 1967-1983. Dale Hansen has been there ever since - an unheard of string of stability. Of course, this is local TV news, so naturally, the stability came out of chaos.

I first met Dale Hansen when he was working for KMTV in Omaha. We were covering the College World Series and KMTV allowed us to use their editing facilities. Even then the Hansen personality was set in stone: charismatic, arrogant, opinionated, argumentative, and self-aware enough to poke fun at himself.

Hansen wore out his welcome at KMTV in Omaha in 1980 and was fired. He landed on his feet - and in a Top Ten market - when KDFW-TV Ch. 4 in Dallas hired him in August.

Two years into his stay at KDFW, Hansen was part of a news team that suddenly found itself in a dead heat with WFAA in the ratings war. About that time, William Wilson, the Omaha News Director that had fired Hansen, found himself out of a job.

Hansen couldn't resist. He sent Wilson a note thanking him for letting him go in Omaha, since he, Hansen, was now working at the top rated station in a Top Ten market while Wilson was looking for work.

In September of 1982, KDFW was looking for a News Director.

Care to take a guess as to who got the job?

Hansen updated his resume, and a few months later he was ready to put it to use.

Across town, Verne Lundquist was spending more and more of his time away from WFAA on assignment for ABC. WFAA decided that hiring Hansen to anchor the 6:00 PM sports while Lundquist worked the 10:00 pm newscast would be a win-win.

Verne was working an ABC event when Dale Hansen was announced as the new hire for WFAA. When he got back to his hotel room that night, Lundquist noticed the red light on his phone blinking like a traffic light on speed.

He later admitted his first thought was, "Well, is it my turn?"

Instead it was the beginning of his permanent move to the network, while Dale Hansen helped rejuvenate WFAA's ratings and established himself as an outsized personality who loved playing "Peck's Bad Boy," on TV.

He has picked fights with just about every major sports figure in Dallas, including Jerry Jones. And any man who can irritate Barry Switzer into jabbing him in the shoulder during a live interview is ok by me.

He has also taken stances on many subjects with his "unplugged" commentaries, recently garnering national attention for his reasoned take on Missouri's Michael Sam announcing that he is gay.

Both Dale Hansen and Verne Lundquist took advantages of the "luck" of timing, but both knew exactly what they wanted (Hansen - to be a big fish in a warm weather market - Lundquist to be a network announcer) and were prepared to take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself.

And as BC's certified Golf Prick I would be remiss if I didn't end with Verne's perfect call of the perfect shot.