By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006 2:56 PM
Tony Roberts wants you to know that he's not angry and he's not bitter, even if the hurt in his voice more than occasionally comes through loud and clear, just as that gravelly voice boomed across the nation's airwaves for 26 years as the network play-by-play broadcaster for Notre Dame football.
That illustrious run ended following the 2005 season, and not by Roberts' choice. This fall, he's spent football Saturdays watching college games on television or working on his putting stroke over at his favorite golf course a short drive from his Northern Virginia home. That Roberts, a Hall of Fame broadcaster in every sense of the word, is no longer the voice of Notre Dame football is a travesty of the highest order. A fate this consummate professional who literally bled Irish green hardly deserved.
Roberts handled his first Notre Dame network game in 1980. He was an old-school play-by-play guy who occasionally riled the Irish faithful by telling the absolute truth when things were going badly, as they often did over his tenure on the air. His signature call was "Touchdown, Irish!" and he did games the old fashioned way, always keeping up with the action on the field, repeating the score and time remaining on a regular basis and seamlessly working his sidekick color analyst into the discussion.
How good was he? In 2005, Roberts was honored with the prestigious Chris Schenkel Award presented by the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. Over a broadcasting career spanning close to 50 years, Roberts has been the voice of Indiana football and basketball, Navy football, the Washington Senators and Washington Bullets, as well as handling hundreds of network sportscasts for Westwood One and reporting from five different summer Olympic Games. No broadcaster has ever worked more Army-Navy or Notre Dame-Navy games, and it seemed as if he'd continue stretching those records for as long as he chose to keep working.
"I always hoped that it would be my call when to stop," Roberts said.
"Unfortunately, I was wrong."
Last Christmas, Roberts said he got a letter from the new man in charge at Westwood One, a former Miami Heat broadcaster named David Halbertstam who had moved into the company's executive ranks. Halberstam wrote Roberts and told him what a wonderful job he'd done over the years and what an integral role he had played in the company's success. According to Roberts, he also wrote that he looked forward to working with him for many years to come.
Roberts contract was up this past February. For most of his Notre Dame tenure, he had always worked on a one-year contract based on the premise that, "if they don't want me, I'll just take a hike." But Roberts wasn't prepared for the negotiating stance Halberstam took in their initial negotiation to renew that contract for a 27th year.
"They called me in and said they wanted to take my severance pay, cut it into two chunks and have me do Notre Dame football with it for the next two years," Roberts said. "I told him that was illegal and I wouldn't do it."
The next time they met, Roberts brought a union attorney with him and made a counter-proposal. There was no demand for an outlandish raise, just an expectation that he'd be treated fairly as a long-time and apparently much-valued employee. He was told the company would get back to him, so Roberts and his wife took a long-planned cruise to South America and a week-long visit to Belgium.
When he returned, Roberts said he got a telephone call from Halberstam.
In a speaker-phone conversation, Roberts was told that Westwood One had decided to pay him his severance, and oh yes, the company would be announcing that it had hired a new broadcaster to do the play-by-play for Notre Dame football. On May 15, Westwood One put out a press release saying that veteran broadcaster Don Criqui had been hired to do the games, offering no reason why Roberts had been let go.
"We thank Tony for his 26 years of service as the voice of the Irish,"
Halberstam was quoted as saying in the press release. "The Irish faithful will long remember his riveting calls of great Notre Dame football moments along the way."
In a telephone interview, Halberstam said, "we were willing to bring
(Roberts) back as the play-by-play voice. I made an offer to him. He chose not to accept our offer. Other than that, I really can't get into any more details. At that point, we had Don Criqui available and we decided to move on. As difficult as it was, we had a situation where we tried and it didn't work out."
Pressed for details on the offer he made to Roberts, Halberstam declined further comment.
Roberts said that when he got Halberstam's letter over Christmas, he had a gut feeling that something was not right, despite its laudatory tone. When he was told five months later that he'd been thrown out of the booth and under the bus, it was a punch in the gut that aches to this day.
"I'm still not angry," he said. "Look, if The Washington Post calls you up and says we don't want you any more, we're moving in a different direction, that's their decision. That's their right, no matter what kind of service you've given them. If that's the way they want to go, what can you do?
"But I was really disappointed in Notre Dame's response to this. When you're around the school for as long as I was, you always hear about the Notre Dame way, you always hear about the Notre Dame family. But now, it makes you wonder how they can let a member of their family be treated so badly. Look, no matter what they say, Notre Dame is the 800-pound gorilla.
You don't think those weasels (at Westwood One) wouldn't have knuckled under if the school had said 'we want you to keep Tony Roberts.'"
John Heisler, Notre Dame's long-time sports information director and an assistant athletic director, insisted in a telephone interview that the school was powerless to pressure Westwood One into keeping Roberts.
"This was a business negotiation between Westwood One and one of their employees," Heisler said. "As much as most of us hoped that Tony would continue, it simply didn't happen. Tony thinks it should be our call. We've never had it in our contract with them or with NBC as to who the announcers should be. We don't think that's in the insitution's purview."
It says here that Tony Roberts served Notre Dame as well as any broadcaster in its storied history. The squeals of protest over his firing on a number of Irish fan web sites will attest to Roberts' popularity around the country. Roberts was told that head coach Charlie Weis had even made a call on his behalf to school officials urging that the veteran broadcaster be allowed to continue in the booth. Sadly, it fell on stone cold ears, and Notre Dame, to its everlasting discredit, never stood by its man.
Roberts said the other day that Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White did e-mail him earlier this fall and told him the school wanted to honor his long-time service with a ceremony during halftime of an Irish home game. A proud and principled man, Roberts declined the offer, writing back that it wasn't necessary, because the honor had been all his in having been The Voice of Notre Dame Football for so long.
"I won't go back there until that chair is mine again," Roberts said. "If it happens, it would probably have to be through divine intervention. All I know is, I've still got a thousand touchdown calls left in me. I'd love to go back, but obviously, it's out of my control."
Heaven knows that Notre Dame football fans would welcome Roberts back to the broadcast booth in a South Bend minute. "Touchdown Irish" always did have a nice ring to it, for most everyone except the tone-deaf network weasels and the so-called family of university dolts who did him so wrong.