sports (2006-21)

At Notre Dame, a corporate stooge supplants a broadcasting icon

Les Yesman in South Bend

by Tony Basilio

Imagine for a second you found out that John Ward was actually fired when he was replaced by Bob Kesling back in ’99. That hypothetical became reality recently at Notre Dame where Tony Roberts, the eyes and ears of America’s most prestigious college football program, was thrown to the scrap heap in a dismissal that would’ve made Simon Cowell wince.

Roberts’ forced extraction from the Notre Dame family serves to enforce the fear that radio sports broadcasting is turning into more of a corporate arm for teams and programs and less of a function of serving fans with truth and accuracy.

For 26 years, Tony Roberts called it like he saw it on Notre Dame radio broadcasts. You may not know it, but if you’re a football fan or talk-radio listener, you probably heard Tony Roberts somewhere along the way. His Westwood One duties included anchoring morning sportscasts as part of Jim Bohannon’s Morning in America radio show. He could also be heard Sundays providing his booming voice to NFL football games as a lead play-by-play man. The crown jewel in Roberts’ Hall of Fame-caliber career was Notre Dame football.

A pained and devastated Roberts joined me a day after Eric Hansen broke the firing story in the South Bend Tribune . To his credit, Roberts didn’t attempt to sugarcoat his departure. In what has to be a humiliating time for him, Roberts stands before the whole world as one who was unashamedly pushed out.

“Eric Hansen told the story as it is,” Roberts said. “He told the story exactly as it happened. They’re (Westwood One) saying that they didn’t fire me. They call it a failed negotiation, and that’s just semantics. They let me go.”

Like John Ward before him, Roberts is among the last of a dying breed—announcers who are equal in style and substance. “I still think of John Ward doing the games,” Roberts reflected. “He was a great announcer, a great Tennessee announcer. I’m sure that his fans miss him. He walked away on his own accord; well, good for him. He did go when he wanted to go and good for him. I wanted to work the next 10 years with Charlie Weis and then, when he left the program, I was going to leave the program, but it didn’t work out that way.” 

In Announcerville these days, it’s all about cookie-cutter guys who will play the company line. No criticism. Recently in sports we’ve seen somewhat critical signature voices like Steve Stone with WGN-TV replaced by safe choices. “Nobody wants to go away from the company line,” Roberts said. “You don’t want to tell it like it is or be negative because, when you’re negative, then the fans become negative. There were times during my Notre Dame career when the team wasn’t playing well that people would call for my job. They would say, ‘Why is this guy so negative?’ They got in touch with Notre Dame and they reached my company and would say ‘Get this guy out of here.’ The thing about being a play-by-play guy, it all goes back to kill the messenger. When it’s not going right, the play-by-play guy is the most vulnerable guy because he’s an easy target.”

Roberts said that his honesty was always measured with a sense of responsibility. “When you’re doing a game and trying to be honest, you also have to be careful. This is because you’re dealing with people’s lives. The coach has a wife and kids who go to school or are out in the community and listen to it all. At the expense of being right, you don’t want to hurt anybody’s reputation or career.”

The great irony with Roberts’ dismissal is that it comes at a time when Notre Dame football seems poised for prolonged success. To this point, Roberts is steadfast in denying that the school had anything to do with his ouster. “Notre Dame had nothing to do with this. This was Westwood One’s decision and theirs alone.”

I pressed Tony further by saying that it seemed hard to believe that Notre Dame, the most powerful college football program in the sports history, couldn’t have insisted that Roberts remain in the booth. They are, after all, the 4,000-pound gorilla of their sport that not only has a national radio network but a national television arm as well.

Roberts maintains that, in two and a half decades, Notre Dame never said a cross word to him regarding his sometimes abrasive style. “I never had any notification from Notre Dame to cease and desist. Not through four athletic directors or five football coaches did anyone tell me to zip it. Not one time.”

Still, from my corner of the world it seems that Westwood One’s decision to fire Tony Roberts after 25 years on the job and replace him with Don Criqui had to have been signed off on by Fighting Irish brass. To suggest otherwise seems like wishful thinking. It’s a shame that the Yankees already play on the “Yes” Network. This would be a great moniker for what is about to become Notre Dame Football on the radio. For that matter, “Yes” would work in just about every market I tune to these days.

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