Oh My: Legendary announcer Enberg to bid farewell to March Madness
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sportscaster Dick Enberg died Thursday (Dec. 21) at age 82. Crescent City Sports’ Lenny Vangilder sat down with Enberg in New Orleans, his last NCAA basketball tournament assignment, for this story in March 2010.
Forty-nine years ago this month, a 26-year-old graduate student at Indiana University was hired to do play-by-play for the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.
Fast-forward a half century, and 75-year-old Dick Enberg is calling his final NCAA Tournament this month, beginning with his first and second-round assignment for CBS at New Orleans Arena.
Enberg reportedly turned down the opportunity to sign a new contract with CBS, instead choosing to do local baseball telecasts for the San Diego Padres. He will continue to do select golf and tennis assignments for CBS and ESPN.
But years from now, when they write the final biography on Enberg, it will likely begin with his college basketball broadcasting career.
Just how much has the game changed since Cincinnati’s 70-65 victory over Ohio State in 1961? “There was no national telecast,” Enberg told me earlier this week during a break from practice sessions at the Arena. “Columbus and Cincinnati were the only markets that carried the telecast. The game was in black-and-white. I worked alone.
“I don’t think anyone knew what college basketball could become.”
The game has grown exponentially in the last half-century. And Enberg, with his signature “Oh, my!” call, would take America through the most important stage of that growth, as the play-by-play man for the two most significant games in college basketball history.
I didn’t have to finish asking the question. “Sixty-eight and seventy-nine,” Enberg said.
The Jan. 20, 1968, regular-season matchup between unbeatens UCLA and Houston in the Astrodome was billed as the “Game of the Century.”
“It was the first time ever a college or pro (basketball) game was televised nationally in the regular season (in prime time),” Enberg said. “(It was the) largest crowd ever to see a game at the time” – 52,000 at the Astrodome.
No. 2 Houston defeated No. 1 UCLA 71-69, snapping the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak.
“It needed that result,” Enberg noted; otherwise, “it would have just been another Bruin victory.
“It was certainly the most significant sports event I’ve had the privilege to call in terms of its historic place.”
Eddie Einhorn’s syndicated network TVS televised the UCLA-Houston game and the majority of national college basketball telecasts through the 1970s.
The 1979 national championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State matched the game’s biggest stars – Earvin “Magic” Johnson of Michigan State and Larry Bird of Indiana State.
“It’s still the largest, percentage-wise, television audience ever for the NCAA final,” Enberg said.
The bigger of the two?
“People want to credit (Michigan State-Indiana State) as being the most significant game,” Enberg said. “I would argue that UCLA-Houston was the more significant game in terms of history, but ’79, because of the popularity and publicity surrounding Bird and Magic, put on the afterburners and sent (college basketball) all the way into the stratosphere.”
The three-man broadcast team of Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer achieved virtual rock-star status. Then, in a cruel twist, the child that Enberg helped grow would be taken away from him two years later, when the NCAA awarded the rights for the men’s basketball championship to CBS, beginning in 1982, which was, coincidentally, the first Final Four played in the Superdome.
“I remember it being a very sad time for us,” Enberg recalled. “Billy immediately went to CBS, but Al and I were sitting there as representatives of NBC, as we did for several tournaments, hoping we would earn back the rights. We were there as diplomats, politicians, marketers, whatever to try to encourage the NCAA people to give it back to us, which never happened. So I was just a spectator for the ’82 game.”
Enberg never had the opportunity to call a Final Four in the Superdome, or any other dome, for that matter.
“I think we’ve lost something in the domed stadiums,” he said. “It isn’t as intimate. People don’t seem to care. They play big ticket prices to be able to sit 100 miles away from the court. That’s the way it was in the Astrodome (in 1968), in fact. They put the court in the middle; they didn’t know where to put it. They didn’t think about screening off half the stadium because they sold 52,000 tickets so they put it in the middle of the field and no one had a good seat.
“Again, it underlines how far we’ve come in this sport from I’ve not even sure the NCAA final in 1961 was a sellout, with no national TV, and now we’ve got this enormous response to the product being produced.”
This visit to New Orleans is a business trip for Enberg, who is calling his 11th NCAA Tournament for CBS. And, it’s probably a good thing for his bank account.
“I’m disappointed that on this trip we’re trying to figure out eight teams in four games (he called all four games here on Thursday) and then two on Saturday,” he said. “I’d like to take my run down Royal Street. I’ve bought a lot of antiques here and art and my wife is breathing a big sigh of relief knowing that I won’t have too much free time. The shopping, the food, the ambiance is very special. I always look forward to visiting New Orleans. I wish I had time to do some things away from basketball.”
Now, it appears, he will.
Thanks for the ride, Mr. Enberg. Oh my, it has been quite a thrill to watch.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…