An interview with Uncle Verne Lundquist
CBS’ beloved voice of college football, college basketball, and golf mostly just misses calling Olympic figure skating.
Spencer Hall: You’ve never seen an ending like the 2013 Iron Bowl, right?
Verne Lundquist: No. Laettner, perhaps, but that was at the end of a very interesting, fascinating basketball game that lasted two and a half hours.
When I talk about the coming together of the instances in that fourth quarter [in Alabama-Auburn]?
First of all, it was 21-21 at the end of three, and AJ McCarron hits a 99-yard touchdown pass to break the tie. If you think back about that game, in my mind, you really had to remember what happened. Sammie Coates catches a touchdown pass with 37 seconds left to tie it again at 28, and then we all remember the finish: the craziness of whether Yeldon did or did not get out of bounds with one second left or not, and the time it took for the replay official to determine if there was one second to put back on the clock in the first place. More than anything, Nick [Saban]‘s decisions, because he was disgusted with his senior field goal kicker to put a redshirt freshman from Poland out on the field to try a 56-yard field goal. The kid hit it pretty well.
I think all those things that preceded the actual return by Chris Davis make it extremely unlikely that we’ll ever have a finish like that again.
SH: People forget that the distance between you and the audience is pretty small in reality. In the case of something like the Iron Bowl, you have to get out in a crowd control situation where there’s a lot going on, and it’s not all totally controlled, right?
VL: I think that’s fair to say. We don’t have police security, but we have young men and a young woman who are employed by CBS. They meet us in the booth after a game. Gary [Danielson, Lundquist's football partner] has to do a postgame hit for CBSSports.com, I’m out first with my wife, Nancy, and with my spotter and statistician. We go down in the elevator, and they walk us to where our cars are. It’s a precaution, because people can get a little crazy. Some people even poison 100-year-old oak trees down there.
SH: I mean, what’s a human at that point, right?
VL: Exactly. It’s a crazy scene.
SH: I wanted to ask about a spot earlier this year when Kenyan Drake was injured on the field during the Alabama-Ole Miss game. Social media got a very clear and disturbing close-up of the injury, but on-air, no one seemed to notice it immediately. What I thought had happened was that you and Gary didn’t have a clear shot at it, because you’re looking at the field, right?
VL: I was. I had no idea of the severity of the injury. Once the play starts, my view is on the field and very seldom just off the monitor, unless they’re in goal-line situations. Then it’s much more prudent for me to do it off the monitor, because I can see it so much better. I was watching the field, and I believe Gary was, too. It wasn’t until we saw the replay that we realized the severity of the injury.
SH: I don’t think most people realize that both of you are just watching the field to process things, and not the monitor. Like Gary, he’s just picking out what he sees — formations, plays, and tendencies — live from the field view.
VL: And that’s why he does it as well as he does. I’m jumping off topic here, but a shout out to Gary on that. I think he does that as well as anybody in the business.
SH: That first five seconds of Gary Danielson can be disturbingly accurate.
VL: I try not to gloat about him on the air, because he can handle that himself. But I do think he’s brilliant at his understanding of tendencies, if that makes any sense. That’s a product of years of playing and more significantly his ability to forecast plays is a product of a lot of film study during the week and his basic understanding of what might work in a circumstance.
SH: Most people don’t realize you’re not a Vernon, but are a Merton Laverne.
VL: Thank you very much. There’s a story there. I was Merton Laverne Lundquist, Jr. I still am. My dad went by Merton. I went by Laverne all the way through college. To this day, I’ll have people call my home in Steamboat Springs, and if they ask, “Is Laverne there?” I’ll know it’s a high school friend or colleague. My mother called me Laverne til the day she passed away.
There’s a story as to how the name change came about. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Johnny Cash and “A Boy Named Sue,” but I was a boy named Laverne. That led to certain brushes in the hallway with folks in high school. I got teased about it a lot.
My first full-time job in radio was at WOC in Davenport, Iowa, in the fall of 1962 and spring of ’63, while I spent one year of school in the Lutheran School of Theology in Rock Island, Ill. This was a year after I graduated. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, and my dad was a Lutheran minister.
So I applied for a job just to help myself get through school and pay some bills, and the program director was named Bob Gifford. He called me in his office and said, “I’d like for you to do the radio show from 9 to midnight, and you can be the disk jockey, but listen there’s no way I’m putting you on the air as ‘Laverne.’
He had some stage name he wanted me to use, and I was proud of my family and didn’t want to embarrass my mother and dad, and so we compromised. I did not accept his stage name offer, which by the way was “Jerry Lund,” and the compromise was I compromise the “La-” off my name.
SH: That’s 1963. When do you end up in Dallas?
VL: Well, I did spend one year in theological school. I have six hours of Greek, which has not been particularly helpful in my career. I got a summer job after that one year at WOC down in my hometown of Austin at KTVC AM/FM/TV, owned by President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson. I was there for three years as the sports director, went to San Antonio and did news for one year. I just took a break, and realized how much I missed actually being involved in sports, and got lucky. I got a job at WFAA in Dallas in September of 1967, and that was the third time I’d applied for that job. I’d been turned down twice, but got it the third time.
SH: One other little known fact: in that span of time, you were also the announcer for the Dallas edition of Bowling for Dollars.
VL: Thanks for bringing that up. [he laughs]
SH: Was this one of those things where the boss said, “By the way, we don’t have anyone to do Bowling for Dollars, so …”
VL: Well, here’s how it happened. They came to me and said there’s this franchise quasi-sports game show that’s been a big hit in access time around the country. It’s called Bowling for Dollars, and it’s on in New York, in Chicago, in Boston, in Philadelphia, in Los Angeles.
Access time was a big emphasis in the ’70s. The FCC wanted original programming back then in that slot. It was produced by a company in Baltimore named Claster Productions. They had two franchises: Bowling for Dollars and Romper Room.
I told them I wasn’t doing this. They gave me the number of a rather prominent sportscaster named Chick Hearn, who hosted the show.
SH: The Lakers longtime announcer, right?
VL: Yes. They said, “He’s expecting your call.” So I called him, and he said, “We tape every Monday, and we tape six half-hour shows so that each week, we can take a week off. It airs Monday through Friday in L.A. at 5.” I asked him how does it do, and he said, “Oh my gosh, we kill Huntley/Brinkley. We destroy Cronkite. We obliterate whatever ABC puts up against us.”
SH: You’re telling me that some the most important newscasts of the past century were all blown away in the ratings by Bowling for Dollars?
VL: Yes. I pumped myself up a little bit and asked Chick, “You’re the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers. Do you worry about your dignity and reputation in being the host of a bowling show?” And he got real sarcastic and said, “Son, you need to understand something. Everybody who watches this show has no idea that I do the Los Angeles Lakers.”
SH: Did you guys kill the competition in ratings in Dallas, too?
VL: Oh my God, yeah. I didn’t like doing it. I was embarrassed by it. But now, honest to God, it’s been 39 years and every month, maybe once a week, I’ll be in a public place like a grocery store or an airport, and if there’s someone from Dallas they’ll say, “I grew up watching you in Dallas.” And I know what comes next, every time: “I grew up watching you on Bowling For Dollars. It’s been 40 years.”
SH: I’d like to shift gears.
SH: You’re known for brevity. The primary influence you’ve cited on that has been Ray Scott, the old Green Bay Packers announcer who was very concise in his calls. Is that something you still consciously think about, or is that just a reflex at this point? And if you have a call, is it a matter of forethought, or do you just make it up as it comes to you?
VL: I try to say less. I think football lends itself to saying less, though not quite like golf. I think that’s where you should really practice the art of the layout. Basketball is a little more difficult because the action is so continuous. Ray Scott was a great influence on me when I was very young in this business. I was lucky enough to know him quite well. He and his wife Bonnie actually visited us in Steamboat six months before he died. He was a role model for me.
I think Pat Summerall was the greatest counter-puncher that we ever had in this sport. I couldn’t pay him a bigger compliment. He saw his role, especially with Madden, as a setup guy. That’s how I see my presence in a broadcast booth.
I don’t take stances very often, because I feel that’s the role of the analyst. A lot of people disagree with me on that: “Why don’t you weigh in?” etc. I just don’t see that as my role. The other part of it is that I don’t think I’ve ever made a call that made its mark pre-scripted. I know I never have. Any comment that I’ve made during a broadcast has been spontaneous.
SH: You say that you rarely take stances, but the time I wanted to ask about was the 2009 call in the LSU-Ole Miss game. Facing something like fourth-and-26, Jordan Jefferson throws the ball close to the goal line in a situation where they end up with no time outs and needing a field goal with the clock showing 1 second. Your call on this was: “What are they doing?!??”
That’s all just reaction, right?
VL: Absolutely. I can remember one other circumstance similar to that, in Auburn-Georgia early in my years in the SEC. Mark Richt forgot he didn’t have any timeouts left, and he signaled from the sideline in a goal-line situation for David Greene to kill the clock. I just reacted like people at home did, which was to say “Inexplicable.”
SH: You are a classical music fan.
VL: I have some on right now. I’m sitting at the computer, and if I’m home during the day, I have on either Colorado Public Radio out of Denver, or Minnesota Public Radio out of Minneapolis. It’s a big part of our lives, Nancy’s and mine. She was a voice major at the University of Texas. I got to do the commencement speech at my alma mater in May of 2014, and I told them that of all the courses I took there, the most life-altering for me was my involvement in the college choir. That has given me more benefit than any specific course I took while I was there.
I’m not strictly a classical person. I sang in a rock ‘n’ roll band when I was in high school.
VL: See, I’m peeling back the onion for you.
SH: What was the name of the band?
VL: We weren’t really a band, we were a quartet, and we sang folk music and rock ‘n’ roll. We were called The Flat Tops.
SH: What part did you sing?
VL: I was a doo-wah guy. We had four of us, and we had a manager. We used to sing at what we called teen canteens, Friday night sock-hops and that kind of stuff. We had one guy who could really carry a tune. The rest of us were backups. We were nowhere near as good as other groups back then, but we had this one guy who could really carry a tune, and the rest of us sang, “Dooo-waaah, dooo-wahhh.” I was the background guy.
SH: The background guy still gets a boat if they hit it big.
VL: Oh yeah.
SH: Did you ever have a coach or a player have a problem with something you said in the booth?
VL: I’ve had a general manager get mad at me. What I’m thinking about were the 16 years I did the Dallas Cowboys radio broadcast. Tom Landry never, ever said a word to me. Never, in terms of being critical of what I did. Tex Schramm, though, took issue with many things I said. He was like a godfather to me. He was responsible for giving me the chance at my first play-by-play job at a football game. He told me many times, “I will never, ever argue with you if you are issuing an opinion. But if you’re wrong on your facts, I’m gonna come after you.” I was wrong on my facts enough that he came after me. We always got through it, and I loved him dearly. He’s the one with whom I’d engage with some emotion.
I was in a room when Andre Waters and Dan Fouts got into it. That was about Dan, not me, though.
SH: You’re not getting in between those two.
VL: No, no, no. I became an observer at that point.
SH: This isn’t the first time you thought about ducking under a table, though, because you were next to me when a tornado hit the Georgia Dome in 2008 during the SEC basketball tournament.
VL: I never pass by downtown where I don’t recall that night. A guy had just canned a three to send the game to overtime. Then we heard the train, and it does sound like a train. Do you remember the Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury took his child, grabbed him, and took his team off the court? Did you stay inside or outside?
SH: I was inside for a bit, but then rolled out to take pictures outside.
VL: They told us to stay where we were, so Raft [Bill Raftery, Lundquist's basketball partner] and I stayed on the court for an hour. Our producer and director went outside to see if the production truck was OK. It was, but the producer’s rental car had a concrete beam fall on it and completely destroyed it. We took a golf cart to the Ritz Carlton and drove through a lot of the damage. When we got back, around 2:30 a.m., we had to take the stairs because they wouldn’t let us use the elevators.
SH: Most everyone dove under tables. I wasn’t smart enough to do that. You did the Olympics three times, doing figure skating almost exclusively.
VL: Yup. When we found out we were going to be able to do the Olympics it was a highlight for me. This was back in 1988, and I grew up admiring Jim McKay so much not only for the Wide World of Sports, but also for his genuine warmth as a host. So one of the things I always wanted to do was the Olympic Games, both summer and winter. It was my good fortune to do three in the winter.
When we got the call, I thought for sure they were going to tell me I was going to do the alpine events. I live in a ski resort year round, and Billy Kidd was our alpine expert, and he taught me to ski. I naturally thought I was going to go to Albertville and do skiing with him.
They said no, we’re gonna put you on figure skating. And my initial reaction was, “Really?” Nancy was the one who said no, you’re gonna love it because of the music, and because of your love of athletic competition. Scott Hamilton and I were partners.
SH: Is he as infectious in person?
VL: Absolutely. When I was lucky enough to be inducted into the Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame in ’07, I had Scott present me. He flew from Los Angeles all the way to Charlotte at his own expense and presented me. By the way, when it came time for the introduction, he introduced me as Merton Laverne Lundquist, Jr. That’s not totally been forgiven.
We hit it off right away. He’s gone through some life-altering moments — he’s had two bouts with cancer, he married relatively late in life to a gorgeous and charming woman, and they are the parents to two lovely little boys. They live outside Nashville. He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever come across.
It’s not only his infectious personality when he’s doing an event, but it’s his intelligence and his passion for his sport. He’s sometimes the conscience of a sport that can’t find its way, and I admire him for it.
When we did our first one in Albertville in ’92, he was the first analyst for that sport since Dick Button in 1960. The two guys that preceded me were Al Michaels and Jim McKay. We had pretty lofty standards that we had to reach.
Scott knew his sport inside and out, but I didn’t. I knew there were six jumps, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between any of them. We worked this all out. We’d go to practice, and they give you what you call a jump sheet, and I’d have some sense of what was coming in the next four minutes or so. But just to make sure I didn’t blunder my way into an egregious mistake, when something significant was about to take place, Scott would very quietly put his left hand on my right forearm. And I knew that meant, “Just shut up.” And I did, and let him carry it through to the completion of that part of the skate.
And of course we were involved in the Tonya and Nancy thing in 1994. Which was the world’s worst cartoon, or the most memorable Olympics, depending on which side you look at it from.
SH: You did three of these, and the one I remember most was Lillehammer, because it seemed like the only place that went completely and 100 percent bonkers for the event itself. I remember mad crowds, Bjørn Dæhlie, and everything just seeming so completely committed. Was it really that different if you were there?
VL: Absolutely it did. I think it was the best-hosted Olympics, and everything the Norwegian committee did seemed to hit the right notes. They were magnificent hosts, they were well-prepared, organized, and passionate about everything.
A quick example: Our guys, we were programming for prime-time. Now we, being the Americans, got off to a great start. There was Picabo Street and Tommy Moe, and we did great in the alpine events. We had the background of the Tonya and Nancy event, which built up every day.
But there was one event on what our guys called “Black Thursday,” which was the 4×100 cross-country men’s relay. Our people argued, without success, that the committee had to give us something other than cross-country. We could not put cross-country on prime-time in North America. They said no, it’s our national sport, and this would be like your Super Bowl. It will be the prime event, and it will be one of the only events that day.
Well, God love our guys, they finally got with it. If that’s the case, and we got no hockey and no figure skating and no alpine events, let’s do this in a big-time fashion. And they did. Al Trautwig, I thought, was terrific as a commentator. We had Greg Gumbel hosting, Andrea Joyce reporting, and multiple cameras all on an event that gets very little coverage in this country. We drew a 25.6 rating that night.
SH: I remember doing this. It was pre-Internet, so you couldn’t tell everyone on Twitter or Facebook, “Hey, go watch this.” We called each other that night and said, “No, you have to go watch this.” I think people forget that sometimes all people want is drama, even if it’s cross-country skiing. They’ll watch it.
VL: I so agree with that. I’m half-Norwegian, so I loved to see the whole thing. This is 40 kilometers, and four guys, and Bjørn Dæhlie is the anchor leg for Norway, and this Italian — I think his name was Silvio Fauner — edged him at the finish line by less than four inches at the tip of his ski. The next morning, the country was in shock because they were overwhelmingly favored to win. We had this young Norwegian who was driving us. I got into the car and said to the young man, “You must be heartbroken with the way the relay finished.” He looked at me and said, “Yes, but didn’t the Italians ski well?” I thought “Wow, you’ve never been to a bar in the Bronx.”
I get asked a lot, “Is there anything you wished you could have done?” Not really. It’s all about luck, and about what rights the company has. I’ll never do a Super Bowl, but I’m fine with that. I’ll probably never do a Final Four championship game, but I’ve done 31 tournaments in March Madness in a row. Augusta? How could I top what I’ve done there?
What surprises people, though? If I have to give one event to do again, I would choose doing figure skating at the Winter Olympics with Scott Hamilton. That’s the one time I would go back and revisit it. That’s the one event I’d do.
SH: Have you had everything on the menu at the Masters?
VL: Oh listen, that’s the tradition unlike any other. If I don’t have my two egg salad sandwiches before I climb into the tower at 16, something has gone amiss.