The delivery has changed, from the piece of furniture to the transistor to satellite signals and the internet, but the intimacy of radio is as intoxicating as ever. It is a disembodied voice, speaking in your ear, taking you somewhere that you would be otherwise unable to go.
The marriage of radio and football Saturdays is nearly as old as the medium itself. If intercollegiate athletics is the front porch of a university, then the play-by-play announcer, “The Voice of the (Your Team Here),” is the guy sitting in the rocking chair, pouring iced tea and inviting you to take a chair.
Bill Roth went to work at Virginia Tech at 22 in 1988 — yes, the Reagan Administration. That was the second season in Blacksburg for head coach Frank Beamer, who may have been the only man more closely identified with Hokie football than Roth. For 27 seasons, Roth served as “The Voice of the Hokies.”
He began every broadcast by saying, “From the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the hills of Tennessee, the Virginia Tech Hokies are on the air.” He ended every regular season with the cross-state rivalry against Virginia. Roth called a Cavalier game again Saturday, but it was against UCLA. Roth is the new Voice of the Bruins.
He sat in the press box of the historic Rose Bowl for the first time and called the remarkable debut of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns in the Bruins’ 35-17 defeat of the ‘Hoos.
It’s a safe bet that Roth is the only Pac-12 announcer who would easily slide into calling Virginia “the ‘Hoos.”
And so now the Bruins, knocking on the door. First down and goal to go for Rosen. From the left hash mark, the 18-year-old rookie, in his first game, takes the snap, flips it into the end zone. It is caught for the touchdown and the Bruins have taken the lead as Fuller scores the first touchdown of the season.
That voice intensifies the emotional connection that an alum has with his alma mater, that a resident has with his state university, that a young boy growing up in Pittsburgh has with the Pirates. That was Roth, who as a 9-year-old would watch the Pirates and do his own baseball play-by-play, cassette recorder in his lap, feet hanging over the edge of the couch, nowhere close to reaching the floor. He employed his 78-year-old babysitter as his color analyst.
“Well, Mrs. Donagan,” Roth recounted in a pre-adolescent squeak, “it looks like the Phillies are going to leave Steve Carlton in the game to pitch to Willie Stargell.”
“Um, Billy,” Mrs. Donagan replied, “would you like another Pop-Tart?”
Roth arrived at Virginia Tech a year out of the Newhouse school at Syracuse, where his buddies included Mike Tirico and Sean McDonough. And he stayed there, chronicling the rise of Hokie football from an independent to the Big East to the BCS Championship Game in the 1999 season — when Michael Vick and No. 2 Virginia Tech led No. 1 Florida State in the fourth quarter — through four ACC championships.
Roth won the state Sportscaster of the Year award 11 times. He has been elected to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He became an institution. And then, with gut wrenched and tears emptied, he left.
“Virginia will always be home,” Roth said. “The people there are my closest friends.”
He left because most of his living relatives are in the Los Angeles area. He left because he didn’t want to wake up at age 70 and wonder about the opportunity he didn’t take.
“This is the winningest program in the history of college sports,” Roth said of UCLA. “This is the Yankees of college. It’s an unbelievable city. It’s a global market. I could have coasted to the finish in Blacksburg. I wasn’t ready.”
He no longer has to string together a network of 60 stations and tend to the care and feeding of each market. There are 180,000 Bruin alumni within the sound of his voice. UCLA games are broadcast on one station that reaches 20 million people.
That station is KLAC, home to the Bruins and the Dodgers. Roth is working on the same air as Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers who just announced he will remain with the team for his 67th season in 2016. Roth still has the cassette tapes he recorded of Scully’s NBC call of the 1979 World Series, when the Pirates beat the Orioles in seven games. But he doesn’t need them. He slips immediately into Scully’s musical cadence:
“HERE’s Wilver Stargell and, of course, he always makes the opposition a bit uneasy, especially in a situation like this. Game is tied in the eighth inning. McGregor rocks and throws. There’s a high drive, deep right field. Singleton at the track, at the wall, way back, it’s GONE! Pops has done it. Stargell homers. The Pirates have the lead.”
Roth, sitting in a restaurant near his new home in Marina Del Rey, snaps his fingers.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” he said.
Bruins leading 7-6, going at warp speed. Rosen back to throw, fires, end zone, it is caught for the touchdown! TreMENdous throw by Rosen as he hooks up for the touchdown midway through the second quarter. Duarte, over the shoulder, a yard deep in the end zone and in a crowd. Spectacular catch!
The pace of Roth’s speech picks up with the pace of the play and slows down when the whistle blows. There is a musicality, a rhythm in his delivery, which is slightly nasal. His goal, he said, is to keep it conversational, as Scully still does, as Red Barber did before him. It is a one-sided conversation between announcer and listener, a bond that stretches as far as the signal. A generation ago, that signal needed a clear night and 50,000 watts of power.
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