In the late 1970s, Johnny Holliday was doing a morning radio show on WWDC, where he was pitted against Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver, morning-drive heavyweights at WMAL who “owned the market,” in his words.
So when Andy Ockershausen – the sports media kingmaker who helped create the Redskins radio team of Frank, Sonny and Sam – asked Holliday about joining WMAL, he was immediately interested. Ockershausen said Holliday might one day have a chance to replace Harden and Weaver. That was good enough.
“Those guys were much older than I was; they’re going to retire sooner or later, and maybe in a couple of years I’m just gonna slip in there,” Holliday remembered thinking. “It was a high-profile all-personality station. You could do a lot of things there: you could entertain, you could be creative.”
You could also do sports, and so while Holliday waited for his morning-drive slot, occasionally filling in for Harden and Weaver, he started covering athletics for WMAL. This was hardly new ground for him – he had done Stanford football on television and Cal basketball on the radio (with Rick Barry); had done GW basketball and Navy football. Now, Ockershausen needed someone to do the play-by-play for the University of Maryland.
That was in 1979. If anyone would have suggested to Holliday, now 75, that he’d still be doing Maryland games in 2013, “I’d think they were crazy,” he said.
And yet here we are, with the Terps set to honor Holliday for 35 seasons of play-by-play work during halftime of next Saturday’s meeting with Virginia. He has broadcast 13 bowl games, called a men’s basketball national championship, outlasted six football coaches and three basketball coaches, and become inextricably linked with a school he never attended.
“Johnny was the voice,” said longtime basketball coach Gary Williams. “As things started to get better at Maryland, he became like a national voice. Any time you can brand your program, I think it really helps, and Johnny gave us a national voice doing the radio.”
“Growing up, listening to Johnny Holliday, he was definitely the voice of Maryland for me, even as a kid,” agreed Scott McBrien, a one-time Maryland quarterback who now does sideline reporting during radio broadcasts. “Johnny’s one of a kind, that’s for sure.”
Indeed, his career has far too many bold headlines and hidden nooks for this space: he’s been a prominent rock DJ, a stage actor, a network news announcer, an Olympic broadcaster and a baseball studio host, to give just a few examples. But he’s associated with no institution as much as Maryland; he “is and always will be the ambassador of Maryland athletics,” as Boomer Esiason told the school.
Along the way, he’s interacted with about every key athletic figure in the school’s modern sports history. Lefty Driesell once called to complain when Holliday said the Terps had lost a game at the free-throw line. Bobby Ross taped their radio show before dawn when Holliday’s mom was sick, then sent flowers to the hospital. Joe Smith leaped over his head during a game in Hawaii; D.J. Strawberry tried to do the same thing but instead smashed into the announcer’s chest.
“He’s leaning over me – ‘Mr. Holliday, are you ok???’ I sat up, put my headphones on, pumped my fist and just kept broadcasting,” Holliday said with a laugh. “But man did he hit me. I was sore for days.”
When he started, he would pick up one-off color analysts for road football games; he’s also shared a booth with 10 regular football analysts, including a former Redskin (Brig Owens), well-known broadcasters (Tim Brant, Ken Broo) and Terps legends like Jack Scarbath, who scored Byrd Stadium’s first touchdown. Holliday is one of just 11 FBS announcers who have been doing the job for at least 35 years, according to the school.
When Maryland and WMAL split up in 1991, Holliday began working directly for the school. And while he didn’t attend Maryland – he got a job straight out of North Miami High, and never finished college – Holliday makes no apologies for his rooting interests.
“I want them to win every single game — I don’t hold that back at all, and I feel very bad when they don’t,” he said. “I try to be as honest as I can. We don’t sugarcoat it. But any time someone tunes in our broadcast, they will know within a couple of minutes if Maryland is winning or losing by the tone of our broadcast.”
“You could tell he was Maryland’s guy without being a homer, which is a fine line,” Williams said. “The thing I liked about Johnny — which is not true of everybody on the business side of things — when we lost, he lost too. He took it just like a coach or just like a player.”
Said McBrien, “He’s always been a true Terrapin.”
The longtime broadcaster is still plenty busy, between his studio duties for MASN before and after Nats games and the 10 grandchildren he and wife Mary Clare cherish. And while he’s honored by Maryland’s gesture, he thinks this whole halftime ceremony thing is unnecessary.
“I’m not retiring; I’m not ill,” he said. “Thirty-five is nothing compared to Vin Scully. It is nice. It’s very nice to be appreciated. But to me, it’s something that I enjoy doing. I don’t consider it a big deal, really. It’s a job that I do; I go out there and hope to do the best I can.”