Tony Roberts, 1928-2023. The Voice of ND football Radio, 1980-2006 (Photo: Notre Dame Athletics)
Dr. Len Clark files another chapter from his occasional series”The Clarkives”
I heard the news in Dublin – Tony Roberts, the longtime voice of Notre Dame football, had died.
I was stunned and turned to my friend Phil Houk to share the news.
It added to the emotional few days I had in Dublin and I hurt.
Just that morning I was on WSBT’s “Gameday AM” talking about the game in Ireland and I referenced, my friend, Tony Roberts by saying, “I want all the games to go right down to the wire with Notre Dame winning. I want a broadcaster’s dream.”
Like many of you, I grew up listening to Tony Roberts call Notre Dame football. I started listening when he was a sidekick of Al Wester and continued listening when he began his tenure, with Tom Pagna, that featured many iconic plays that are now part of Notre Dame lore through his description.
I first met Tony (John Baffa) in 1987 when I was an intern with the Indianapolis Colts. Tony would call NFL games on Sunday’s, after Notre Dame’s game on Saturday, for Mutual Radio. My job allowed me to meet with the talent calling the games and introduced me to the likes of Marv Albert, Curt Gowdy, and, of course, Tony.
Tony and I shared a northwest Indiana connection. Tony had worked for WWCA-AM in Gary before leaving for WAKE-AM in Valparaiso. He had lived in Crown Point, while I was from Portage. He left the area in the late ‘60s to become the announcer for the Washington Senators and to work for Mutual Radio, but he kept strong ties to “the Region.”
Tony’s mother lived in Munster in the late ’80s and attended the same church as the Crown Point radio station owner that I worked for out of graduate school and, later, when I was running Lakeshore Public Radio I hired Tony to do a weekly Notre Dame report on the station.
The first Notre Dame game I ever covered as a media member was in 1987 at Purdue, and it allowed me another chance meeting with Tony.
A couple of years went by and I was teaching at the University of Evansville and was invited to speak at the Loyola University-Chicago Radio Conference. The Keynote speaker for the awards ceremony was Jim Bohannon of Mutual Radio. We shared a cup of coffee in the green room and I asked him how Tony was doing. Jim got a kick out my asking about Tony and gave me his phone number.
When I returned to my office at the University of Evansville I called the number and heard “Sports.”
It was Tony Roberts.
I introduced myself again and was told, “I’ve been waiting for your call.”
We would talk on and off for the next couple of years until another friend, John Miley, owner of the Miley Collection – the world’s largest archive of sports broadcasting – was doing some work for Notre Dame and we were invited to campus where we met Tony before a game.
I still have an autographed picture of Tony that reads, “To Len – one of the keepers of the flame, Tony” to recognize the small role I had in helping preserve broadcast history with the Miley Collection.
Prior to the 2000 Notre Dame football season, I was accepted into the Sports Management Institute (SMI), an executive management program designed for athletic administrators, which consists of a consortium of colleges that offer educational training.
I am the only non-athletic department person to ever be accepted and to graduate from the program. I was in the Notre Dame/South Carolina rotation. Our classwork began at Notre Dame and concluded nine months later at the University of South Carolina. In the meantime, we had to work on our projects. Mine was the development of a course in sports communication.
Part of my project allowed me to work with Westwood One, formerly Mutual Radio, to do special audio features for the pregame coverage of Notre Dame football during the 2000 football season.
I was part of the broadcast crew with Tony Roberts, Tom Pagna, Paul Hornung, Buck Jerzy, producer Al Smith, and engineer Bill Karambelas.
A highlight of my professional career was producing a feature for the pregame show on the rivalry between Notre Dame and USC. I interviewed Ara, Joe Doyle, Gerry Faust, and more and put the elements together in an audio story format for the broadcast.
I remember how excited I was that October day for the broadcast.
Bill, the engineer, handed me a pair of headphones so I could listen to the feature as the studio in DC uploaded the signal, via satellite, which was downloaded by radio stations on the Notre Dame Radio Network all over the country.
A pat on the back from Tony followed by his comments on the air after the feature made the occasion even better.
That next spring, the feature on the Notre Dame-USC Rivalry was named best in the country by the, then, National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association (NSSA) with the Powerade award.
Tony was one of the first to congratulate me and thanked me for making the broadcasts better.
That’s the kind of person he was. Someone who was always reaching out to see how you were doing.
I received a Christmas card every year, since the mid-90s, from Tony. I looked forward to it every year and kept an eye out for the Gainesville, VA postmark. This past Christmas would be the last one.
A couple of years ago, I went to teach at Virginia Tech and Tony and I made plans to meet at a Civil War battlefield near his home, but we never got around to it as he was always off on an adventure and would tell me about them when I called.
I had talked to Tony only a few months ago and was looking forward to catching up with him before the start of the football season.
Tomorrow is never promised and I wish I would have called him prior to my leaving for Ireland. I could have used his advice one final time.
I do have a few photographs of Tony and I, but more importantly, I have memories in the form of recorded highlights and stories that I recorded from that magical season of 2000 when I worked with him. I listen to it on occasion and it brings back fond memories of days gone by.
I think I will listen to it, again, to remember my friend.