By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 28, 2007 11:41 AM
When ESPN executives asked Mike Tirico if he'd mind doubling up his workload this week to cover the Virginia Tech-East Carolina football game on Saturday, it hardly took him a Blacksburg minute to tell them he'd be delighted and quite honored to accept the assignment.
Tirico has mostly been out of the college football play-by-play business since he took over as the main voice for ESPN's Monday Night Football in 2006. But the chance to cover the first game at Tech since a deranged gunman killed 27 students and five faculty members on campus last April 16 before taking his own life made Tirico's decision to head back to campus a no-brainer for a man who said he's always had a special affinity for Tech going back to his own undergraduate days at Syracuse University.
The first football game Tirico ever broadcast was in 1985, when Syracuse traveled to play Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium. He was a sophomore at the time working at the campus radio station, following in the tradition of a long line of Syracuse student voices who went on to distinguished sports broadcasting careers, including Marv Albert and Bob Costas, among many others.
His partner in the booth that day was fellow Orangeman Bill Roth, who took a career path that allowed him to become Tech's now long-time football play-by-play broadcaster. That day 22 years ago, they split up the game, one man doing play-by-play for the first and fourth quarters while the other did analysis, and flip-flopping those roles in the second and third quarters.
In the years since he left Syracuse, Tirico also has covered a number of games in Blacksburg, many of them in his role as the lead play-by-play man for ESPN's Thursday night college football series before moving into the Monday night booth last year. Most of the members of his old Thursday night crew -- the technical staff and on-air people -- will be doing the Tech game this week, including fellow broadcasters Todd Blackledge and Bill Curry.
"That first year, I had no idea where Blacksburg even was at that point," Tirico said. "I was an 18-year-old kid from Queens, New York. I remember turning into the stadium, and there were cows in a pasture right across the road. I'm sure they're still there. We traveled on the team charter. Back then, the campus radio station would trade out our services to the athletic department to provide the public address announcer and statisticians for all the non-revenue sports in return for traveling with the team.
"In fact, doing the statistics for the women's basketball team let me meet the girl I dated in college who is now my wife. Debbie was a point guard on the team, and we'll celebrate our 16th anniversary on Saturday. I'm usually on the road for those anniversaries, but at this point, she understands."
One of the reasons Tirico was asked to do the Tech game may well have had something to do with his inspired work on a Monday night game last fall, when the New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome for the team's first home game since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city. That also was an emotionally charged event, and may well have been the MNF broadcasting crew's finest performance of the season.
"They're so different in terms of the incidents that preceded the games -- Mother Nature vs. a crazy person," Tirico said. "But the two similarities are the emotion surrounding each game and the fact that sports does have some role as being a band-aid at times, and this is one of those times.
"After twenty years of going to the place, I'm glad I'm getting the opportunity to do the game. Hokie pride was there before the shootings. It's a very proud school, and sports has a way of bringing that out. This will be the first experience they'll have with a large event at Tech since the shootings and its immediate after-affect. Obviously there's going to be great interest, and we also have a responsibility to handle it with sensitivity and understanding."
Under normal circumstances, ESPN almost certainly would not have included the game on its national broadcast schedule. Tech is a national power, ranked in the top ten in most preseason polls with a chance to contend for the national championship. East Carolina is coming to town for a big pay-day and a likely pasting, but the game almost certainly will attract a large viewing audience, for all the obvious reasons.
"I've always said that sports at a university is the front porch to the entire school," Tirico said. "No matter how much great work their researchers do, no matter what their scientists or engineers are doing, they don't bring 80,000 people into the stadium every Saturday. It doesn't drive the donations from the alumni. It doesn't make that kid in California watching the game say to himself, 'boy, that looks like a really neat place to go to school, maybe I'll apply.'
"Sports is the welcome into the university, and I know the folks there want to show the world that Tech is as strong and as vibrant as ever and will overcome this scar."
Tirico had something of a dress rehearsal for handling the Tech game when the Monday night crew did the Atlanta Falcons preseason game earlier this week, the same day former Tech quarterback Vick pleaded guilty in Richmond to federal charges over his involvement in a dog-fighting operation. He had to achieve a delicate balance between the game itself and all the controversy swirling around Vick and the beleaguered Falcons, the same challenge he and his colleagues will face Saturday in Blacksburg.
"You get a sense of that balance when you get there," he said. "Because Tech could be the ACC champion and contend for the national title, some people tuning in will want to know about the football end of it. A large number of people want to gravitate to the game to see what's going on with the school, so you sprinkle it in."
Tirico will be on campus Friday and reunite with Drew Weaver, the Virginia Tech golfer who won the British Amateur championship earlier this summer. Tirico met Weaver when he covered the British Open for ABC and Weaver played in the tournament. Weaver will escort Tirico around campus on Friday, the better for the broadcaster to get a feel for the atmosphere surrounding the season-opening game from more than the football team and its coaching staff.
"I do want to get a sense of what's happening in the athletic department and with the team," Tirico said. "But I also want to get a sense of how the university has gone forward. I want to talk to students, I want talk to some faculty people. I think it's our responsibility to let people know that. I don't want it to focus on the players putting a memorial sticker on their helmets and using that as false inspiration. I don't think that's going to be the case at all.
"We need to let people know that the memory of the people who lost their lives will be remembered at Tech going forward for a very long time. People watching can get a sense the school is still mourning but also vigilant in keeping their memories alive. Sometimes we're journalists, sometimes we're chronicling what's happening at a place. It's got to be a lot more than talking about East Carolina's problems at left guard.
"And I'm honored to do it."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.