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Yes, Verne!

Verne Lundquist has never been the no. 1 play-by-play guy, but his is the voice of some of the greatest moments in sports history. And after 40 years, he’s as ecstatic as ever.

As he begins his final year calling SEC games, Verne Lundquist enjoys universal love. He’s Uncle Verne, to use the term of affection birthed at Every Day Should Be Saturday. "He is everybody’s couch," said Gary McCord, who calls golf with Lundquist on CBS. "There’s a nice shawl over you as you sit back and relax and listen to the wonderment of television."

Yet Lundquist’s status as a no. 1 guy, an unquestioned alpha of sports TV, makes you forget that it took him the better part of 70 years to get there.

The story of Lundquist’s career is a story of Moments. By Moments, I don’t mean your average walk-off homer or game-winning fade route. I mean the truly unbelievable, world-changing plays. Most play-by-play men may call one or two during a career. Verne has called more than a half dozen. As his colleague Jim Nantz said, they just seem to "drop out of the sky."

In July, when I met Lundquist at the PGA Championship, we watched a few of these plays. We talked about how they helped make his career and occasionally even redeemed it — reminding us of just how skillful Uncle Verne could be.

Lundquist and I also considered the idea that some cosmic force, Providence in a network blazer, had conspired to put him there with Jack and Christian and Tiger and Chris Davis. There are friends of Lundquist’s who believe that — that these Moments are a great karmic reward. I think I’m beginning to feel the same way.

I met Verne — calling him "Lundquist" seems utterly wrong — at a hotel restaurant. He was wearing a pink CBS polo shirt. His posture was hunched. "I’ve had both knees replaced and a shoulder replaced," Verne said. "I’ve got a back that is going to be replaced!" Verne needs treatment and six months of rehab for degenerative scoliosis, but he’s putting it off so he can make one last trip through the SEC. (Once healed, Verne will continue to call two golf tournaments a year and March Madness for CBS.)

Verne offers a retort to the idea that sports announcers should look like cable-news anchors. "It’s maybe that he’s a little overweight," said Gary Danielson, his partner on CBS. "He doesn’t disarm anyone. He looks like your uncle, OK? His tie’s not always perfect and his shirt’s not always perfectly tucked in. But he has that everyman quality. And it’s something 99 out of 100 broadcasters would kill for."

The disconnect, in any case, vanishes as soon as you hear Verne’s voice. It’s rich and homey. Verne’s laugh has a deep crevasse carved into it by the three packs of Marlboros he smoked daily until 1992. Verne was talking about the second of his three marriages. "I fulfilled every man’s fantasy," he said. "I married a flight attendant. We all had to do it! Heh heh heh."

There are a few hundred people, from Gainesville to St. Petersburg, Russia, who are under the correct impression that they are Verne Lundquist’s best friend. "I’m lucky if I have three or four really good friends in my life," said Danielson. "Verne has 20 or 30 friends every weekend coming to visit us. And they’re the ones saying, ‘This is my dearest old friend …’" Asked why Verne is a serial friend collector, Bill Raftery, who called NCAA basketball with him for years, told me, "I think people are prouder to collect Verne."

Just as there’s no public and private Brent Musburger, there’s no public and private Verne. His TV persona is his own: warm and slightly rakish but mostly bashful. If you pay Verne a compliment, he’ll say, "That’s very fair." This is what a typical announcer would say if you told them something damning that happened to be true.

I flipped open a laptop. I wanted to show Verne one of his Moments. January 21, 1979. The Super Bowl. Cowboys vs. Steelers. The Cowboys were down seven but they were driving for the tying score. Over the grainy images of NFL Films, we could hear Verne’s voice doing the radio call …

We watched Smith, the Cowboys tight end, writhe on the ground in horror.

When he called that play, Verne was 38 years old and in his Ron Burgundy prime. He was doing Cowboys games on the radio and the 10 p.m. news on Dallas’s biggest station. "He was the big dog in the town, the cock of the walk," said Brad Sham. "A lot of that time he was single, he was skinny, he was on TV, and, relatively speaking, he was making a lot of money."

"I was a skinny little duck," Verne marveled when I showed him a publicity photo from the ’70s. "Ho-ly cow."

When Verne called his first Cowboys game, in 1972, he’d never done play-by-play before. But he handled it OK. He soon set his sights on being a national guy. On inhabiting the same air as Jim McKay and Keith Jackson and Curt Gowdy.

ABC gave him a few college football games in the ’70s. But the work was meager. Instead of sending him to the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, ABC shipped Verne to Peoria to call a bowling tournament.

When Verne would drive home after the late news, he’d rage at ABC. "Those drives, they still hurt," he said. "I couldn’t understand what I couldn’t give them. … I was a sour guy." Years after he became a famous announcer at CBS, he was still rehearsing the speech he was going to give a certain ABC executive if he ever ran into him.

The video from the Super Bowl continued to play. Jackie Smith sat dumbfounded in the end zone. We listened to what Verne said next …

When you think about how most announcers talk, about how their words feel pasteurized for our consumption, what Verne said was jarring. Verne thought of Smith, thought of how this was his last NFL game and how badly he wanted to catch a big pass, and he said what he felt. It was one of Verne’s first huge Moments. He aced it.

I told Verne there was something pure about the way he called a game — that even if he occasionally stumbled over the words, the pathways to his emotions remained unblocked.

"I think that’s very fair," Verne said. "I’m not jaded. I’m not jaded at all."

In a just world, we’d grade sports announcers for the way they call off-tackle runs through the first three quarters. The world isn’t just. We grade announcers, by and large, by the way they handle the game-changing play. Play-by-play men both desire and fear Moments. Calling one perfectly earns you a spot on sports’ eternal nostalgia loop. Butchering one can mean scorn on Twitter or, worse, exile to regional cable.

Moments are fickle. Vin Scully’s legend is buffed by the fact that, on his final tours calling the World Series on TV, he drew both Bill Buckner and Kirk Gibson. Dick Enberg, who announced big games for three decades, slips into semi-obscurity because we ask, "What was his great call again?"

Whatever his frustrations, Verne had Moments rolling at him from every direction. "I don’t think anybody can identify how there’s been this intersection of Verne and big moments," said Jim Nantz.

Verne said, "I’m told there are other guys who have been overheard whispering, ‘Shit, it’s him again.’"

Exactly what makes a Moment great remains mysterious. We tend to focus on the words an announcer uses, but the words usually aren’t all that special. A sportswriter in Lake Placid who filed the lede, "Do you believe in miracles?" would have been told by his editor to try again. But the incredulity in Al Michaels’s voice, and the way it matched the audience’s own, made the line a classic.

This is the irony: The dispassion we demand from a play-by-play man for most of the game is the opposite of what we demand in the clutch. We want excitement and we want it to be authentic. Verne’s call of Tiger Woods’s chip-in at the 2005 Masters — "IN YOUR LIFE have you seen anything like that?" — was essentially his mantra. "He’s one of us," said Eli Gold, who calls University of Alabama games. "He is an everyday sports fan who happens to have the CBS eye on his microphone."

"Sometimes, he can’t even find the words," said Gary Danielson. "And it works. I remember in one game, there was a great play and he said, ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ And then, after another play, he said, ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’ I said, ‘Verne, what’s better, an "Oh!" run or an "Ah!" run?’" Verne is the only announcer who does Joycean interior monologue.

At the final round of this year’s Masters, Jordan Spieth gave away the tournament by putting two balls in the water on the 12th hole. But then Spieth birdied 13 and 15. When he came to 16, it seemed Verne might call a truly miraculous Moment: Spieth winning and losing and then winning the Masters again on the same day. When Spieth knocked his tee shot to 8 feet, Verne bellowed, "Ohhhhh, yes!"

Any announcer can give us excitement. Verne accesses another, purer emotion. It is ecstasy.

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 1981, Verne’s contract with ABC went unrenewed. CBS made him a piddling offer: six college football games and two college basketball games. Verne was 41 years old. He remembers an executive telling him, "This is your last chance."

A Moment arrived in one of Verne’s first games. October 23, 1982. The University of Illinois at Wisconsin. With less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin’s quarterback took the snap, turned to the wide receiver at his left, and threw the ball into the turf. It looked like an incomplete pass.

In fact, it was bounced lateral — a bit of trickery called the Oh Shit Play. Verne recognized it immediately. Honoring the network censors, he exclaimed, "It’s the Oh My Play!" just as the receiver, Al Toon, gathered the ball and heaved it downfield. CBS executives swooned — Verne had knocked that Moment over the fence! By year’s end, he had a platter of golf and college football and the NCAA tournament. "And all of a sudden, at 42, I stepped through," Verne said.

I pulled up another Moment. April 13, 1986. The Masters. Verne and I watched Jack Nicklaus stalk around the 17th green in his famous yellow shirt. We heard Verne’s voice over the images …

Nicklaus was 46 years old. He’d made about a meager $4,000 in prize money that year. As Verne looked down from the 17th tower, Nicklaus was storming back to win this tournament by shooting a 30 on the back nine.

On the video, we saw that Nicklaus was ready to putt. Verne spoke …

"Then I just shut up," he told me.

"The key is, just be instinctive," he said. "Try not to overtalk the moment. I think there are certain guys who are incapable of shutting up. No names. Heh heh heh."

Nicklaus tapped the ball. As it rolled toward the hole, you could hear Verne undergo a transformation …

Voice-of-God Verne was giving way to Verne the fan — the Verne who would reach into his head and say whatever came to mind. Nicklaus’s putt dropped in …

I paused the video as Nicklaus’s arms shot up into the air. "See the arms?" Verne said. "It was in absolute synchronicity with ‘Yes, sir!’ I think that is what really helped sell the phrase."

The funny thing about "Yes, sir!" is that it wasn’t original. Two holes earlier, CBS’s English wisenheimer, Ben Wright, used the same phrase to punctuate Nicklaus’s eagle putt. Nicklaus had even raised his arms in synchronicity with the words.

Given the same words uttered over the same picture, we can see the power of small variations in tone. Wright’s tone was Fleet Street arch. Perfect for any hacks watching from the press room. Verne’s tone was Main Street warmth. Perfect for all of America. Nobody remembers Ben Wright’s Moment. Everybody remembers Verne’s.

For more than a decade at CBS, Verne was stuck at the metaphorical 17th hole. He was well paid, and mostly doted on by critics, but he wasn’t a no. 1 guy. "Verne has never been the guy," said Danielson. "He’s never been Al Michaels. … Verne was always the second-most-valuable guy."

"He was always second fiddle," said Terry Bradshaw, who called NFL games with Verne in the ’80s. "Everything was behind Summerall or behind Musburger."

Pat Summerall, CBS’s grand master of elision, was no. 1 on pro football and tennis and golf. Brent Musburger, CBS’s resident hotdog, was no. 1 on college football and college basketball and hosted the NFL pregame show.

CBS
CBS

Verne wanted to be no. 1 at something. Anything. On April Fools’ Day 1990, Musburger was fired in spectacular public fashion. But his jobs were split between Jim Nantz and Greg Gumbel.

"I think there’s a pool of us … that is capable of handling the lead spot," Verne said. "And then it’s a matter of, I like the way he dresses better. I like the way his pauses come into play. There’s no real explanation for that. You deal with the vagaries of it."

Moments kept coming Verne’s way. And, oddly, they came Verne’s way because he was no. 2. March 28, 1992. Kentucky vs. Duke. 2.1 seconds left in overtime. CBS’s no. 1 team was doing a game 500 miles away. Verne was left with this

February 25, 1994. Lillehammer. Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding. A really weird Moment. That night, Harding would skate to music of Jurassic Park until she complained of a broken skate lace and retreated backstage. Verne spoke for the world …

CBS’s no. 1 guys were encamped in the studio. Verne — because of his availability and his Verne-like willingness to announce anything — spoke to an audience of 126 million.

At CBS, Verne became a Yoda figure. When a player stepped off the field and into the booth, it was up to Verne to make him coherent. "He taught me patience," said Bradshaw. "He helped me with my messaging — getting my message out in a short period of time. He tolerated my humor. And I just think he enjoyed my innocence a lot."

By the early ’90s, CBS wanted its color men — John Madden, Tim McCarver, Billy Packer — to be its stars. The play-by-play men were told to be pass-first point guards. Verne’s job was to help create stars that would become bigger than he ever would be. In 1990, Bradshaw was snatched up by the network pregame show, where, on CBS and Fox, he has worked lucratively ever since. Verne was still no. 2. "He takes second or third place better than most people," Bradshaw said.

Verne will allow that of course he would have liked to have been no. 1. But his disappointment was balanced by the happiness in his personal life. He met his third wife, Nancy, in 1980 when she was on a blind date with another man. They have lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for 32 years and have helped turn the city into the classical-music capital of the Rockies.

When we met, Verne and Nancy had just seen Hamilton on Broadway. "We were a little nervous because it was hip-hop and rap," Verne said. Verne’s tastes run more toward Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. But he loved Hamilton in the way that only Verne can. "I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen," he said.

When CBS lost its NFL rights in 1993, Verne briefly let the network for Turner Sports. But, otherwise, he made peace with the 17th hole. "What say we settle down and be comfortable?" he asked Nancy. They could drink wine on their back deck, travel the world with an expense account (Nancy occasionally worked as Verne’s spotter), and field the Moments that came Verne’s way.

April 10, 2005. The Masters. Verne was now stationed at the 16th hole. Tiger Woods, leading by one, chipped a ball that was snug against the edge of the rough, aimed at a spot, and hoped it would trickle toward the hole — a near-impossible shot. Verne spoke

The ball paused on the lip of the hole for nearly two seconds, then fell in …

The Moment can be read as autobiography: the call of a man who knew what it was like to come to rest right on the edge of glory.

In sports TV, a phone call between management and the talent sometimes requires a Mike Pereira review to figure out what really happened. Such is the case with the winter 1999 conversation between Verne and Sean McManus, then the president of CBS Sports. In McManus’s telling, he called to inform Verne that he was being taken off the no. 2 NFL team and moved to the no 1. SEC team. It was no. 2 for no. 1 — but, in network terms, it counted as a demotion.

In Verne’s telling, the conversation was conducted on a hypothetical level. Verne had heard rumors CBS was going to hire away Dick Enberg from NBC. McManus said the rumors weren’t true. But … if Enberg were to become available, and if CBS were to hire him, what would Verne think about becoming the voice of the SEC? In either case, Verne got the message. He hung up, turned to Nancy, and said, "Babe, pack your bags for Tuscaloosa." (Enberg was hired by CBS the next year.)

Verne swallowed and got ready for his new life. "He never expresses disdain or discomfort over a change in position," said Bill Raftery. "If he does, it’s momentary and it’s private and it’s, ‘OK, let’s go.’"

Meanwhile, college football was changing in ways Verne couldn’t imagine. First, in 1998, the creation of the BCS had effectively nationalized the sport. If everyone was competing for the same title, what happened in Tuscaloosa mattered a lot to a fan living in Eugene, Oregon. The second change was that the SEC was becoming a power. Starting in 2006, the conference won seven straight BCS titles. That created a kind of SEC chic, lifting the careers of Southern interpreters ranging from Wright Thompson to Clay Travis (at which point we’ve covered the waterfront).

CBS
CBS

Yet for all its tradition, the SEC never had a single unifying "voice." It had a cacophony of homers employed by the schools themselves. After a 2001 win over the University of Tennessee, Georgia’s legendary play-by-play man Larry Munson exclaimed, "My God Almighty … We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose!"

Verne, though he didn’t know it, was a perfect fit for the SEC. For Verne was the bridge between the local homer and the network play-by-play man. He had the stature and professionalism of the latter but the naked emotion of the former. Oh, bless his heart …

"I don’t want this to come across badly because I adore him," said Gary Danielson. "But you know how you have your hometown guys do the local broadcast? … It doesn’t matter if those guys mispronounce a name or don’t exactly know the score all of the time. You say, ‘He’s our guy, and I like the way he calls a game, and, when he’s talking, I know it’s my game.’

"That happened to Verne four years ago," Danielson continued. "He became their guy. Verne could feel it, too. Every time we’d go out to eat or have lunch in the afternoon, everyone wanted to be next to Verne. It was almost like Dick Vitale."

The booth for the CBS Game of the Week, producer Craig Silver noted, works due to the opposing personalities of the announcers. Danielson, who is more aloof and clinical, teaches X’s and O’s. Verne marvels at the players’ flyspeck hometowns. "I’m the teacher with the red pencil," Danielson explained, "and he’s the rush chairman of the fraternity."

Danielson said that, in their decade working together, he and Verne have conducted a few hundred pregame interviews with players. After all but perhaps five of them, Verne has turned to Danielson and said, "What a great kid." Danielson told me, "Half the time, I go, ‘Really? I thought he was BS-ing us.’"

In a sport where every fan is looking to get offended, it’s the kind of thing you can’t say on the air. It’s up to Verne to offer empathy and grace. Last October, Alabama was thumping Georgia 38–3. Verne said, "There is a perception about this Georgia team, forged in recent years, that if there is a pothole in the road, they will drive into it. And we’re seeing it again." It was the nicest possible way of saying the Bulldogs always choke.

SEC on CBS has been the highest-rated college football "package" for seven years running. Verne’s transformation was more profound. He got big. Bigger than any no. 2 NFL guy. Bigger than all but a handful of TV sports announcers, and more beloved than any of them. By way of a demotion, Verne had fallen into the no. 1 job he wanted all along. "He finally found his niche, man," said Terry Bradshaw. "Verne finally got his due. Verne became a star."

As he approached 70, Verne had his dream job. But he had to negotiate the annoyances of old age in front of the nation. In 2012, after Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M upset no. 1 Alabama, Slate’s Josh Levin produced a laundry list of errors Verne made during the game. For a time, Danielson took calls during his weekly appearances on Paul Finebaum’s radio show. When too many callers complained about Verne’s mistakes, the segment was discontinued.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that when a weird play happens — a fumbled snap, say — Verne won’t call it. He’ll just say, "WHOA …"

"… while I try to figure out what the hell happened," Verne said. "Yeah, that’s true."

Is that an old-man trick? I asked gently.

"Of course it is!" Verne said.

Fox’s Tim Brando, the former host of CBS’s pregame show, said that by 2013 there were worries inside the network about how long Verne would go on. This is why Verne’s friends talk about cosmic forces. Because once again, the Moments seemed to drop from the sky.

I flipped on the play known as the Prayer at Jordan-Hare. November 16, 2013. Auburn vs. Georgia. Fourth-and-18. Thirty-six seconds left. Auburn trailed by one and had the ball at its own 27-yard line. On the screen, Verne was silent as quarterback Nick Marshall waited for the snap.

You’re not saying anything here, I pointed out.

"Fourth-and-18, I don’t need to remind anybody," Verne said.

Marshall dropped back and threw a pass into triple coverage …

… and somehow a Georgia defender tipped the ball right into the waiting hands of Auburn’s Ricardo Louis. Verne spoke …

Hear that? The anti-ecstasy that dignifies a Georgia fan’s sadness and the ecstasy that celebrates with Auburn? On the broadcast, Danielson called it "the most improbable touchdown you’ll ever see." That honor would stand for exactly 14 days.

November 30, 2013. Same stadium. Auburn vs. Alabama. Tie game. Bama ball on the Auburn 38-yard line. One second to go.

I started the video. Verne and Danielson initially thought Nick Saban would throw a Hail Mary. Then the kicker Adam Griffith trotted onto the field …

"By way of Poland," Verne muttered as he watched the video.

You love giving us the hometowns, I said.

"Heh heh heh," Verne said.

On the screen, Griffith’s kick sailed into the end zone. It took a half second for Verne to process that the kick had been caught by Auburn cornerback Chris Davis, and that Davis was going to run the ball out of the end zone. A Moment! Right here in the Iron Bowl! Now, Verne was in ecstasy …

As soon as the words came out of his mouth, Verne froze. Two men stand to his left in the booth: spotter Butch Baird and statistician Chuck Gardner. Verne hadn’t seen them make an arm motion to indicate a flag. But he was terrified he’d missed it — terrified he’d made the ultimate mistake in front of an audience of nearly 14 million. Dear God, he thought, don’t let there be any flags down there. Butcher this Moment and an executive might tap him on the shoulder and say, "That’ll be enough, Mr. Lundquist."

Verne looked around and let out a long sigh. There were no flags.

After he nailed those two Moments, just about everyone stopped griping about Verne. "In a span of 14 days," Paul Finebaum said, "Verne went from Uncle Verne, who occasionally stepped on himself … to the most beloved SEC announcer of all time." Verne wasn’t just a no. 1 guy anymore. He had crossed into legend, the place Vin Scully resides, where everything that came out of his mouth was avuncular poetry.

On his final tour of the SEC, Verne will enjoy certain creature comforts. He and Nancy will live in a CBS-owned apartment in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. On game days, a golf cart will deliver Verne to the press box. There, a cameraman named Dick Garrett and an audio assistant named Barbara Hanford will prepare a table so that Nancy can sit a few feet away from Verne in the booth. (If the game lags, Nancy will sometimes read a book.) Verne will dine with the same ecstasy with which he calls a game. "One of the things I admire about Verne is that very few major announcers eat hot dogs during halftime," said Finebaum.

A month after Verne calls the SEC title game, he and Nancy will board a cruise ship. Verne is part of the house entertainment. On the voyage from Cape Town to Singapore, he will tell stories. Some will surely be the stories of the Moments described above. This will be the soundtrack of a profoundly sad moment in the history of college football: the sound of Verne Lundquist sailing off into the sun.

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