- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Over the decades, Notre Dame’s football program has been blessed with more shining images and icons than anybody else’s. Consider: the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, the Gipper, the Four Horsemen, et al. And that’s only for starters.

Now, however, the Fighting Irish have lost one prime asset. Play-by-play man Tony Roberts has been canned, unceremoniously, after 26 seasons behind the mike as a radio voice who thrilled millions nationwide.

Of broadcasting games for Valparaiso in the ‘60s, Roberts once recalled, “I used to pretend I was doing Notre Dame.”

That dream came true, just like in Hollywood, but only with a very rude wake-up call this spring.

Roberts’ name should start bells clanging for sports fans in these parts, even if they don’t live and die with Irish football fortunes. In a notable career spanning 40-plus years, he has handled the Senators, Bullets, Navy football, College World Series and various other assignments. The guy’s a pro, and a very good one.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much in the nutty world of radio, where people and formats often seem to change between station breaks. Look what happened to Frank Herzog after about a thousand years as the Redskins’ popular radio play-by-play guy. He’s a backup news anchor nowadays on WTOP-FM, a respectable enough job but hardly akin to shouting, “Touchdown, Washington Redskins!” as thousands around the area rejoice.

Last Christmas, Roberts received a congratulatory note from David Halberstam, vice president and general manager for sports of the Westwood One radio conglomerate, congratulating him on his “inimitable and immediately identifiable” work. Talk about lumps of coal in the Yuletide stocking. Last week Halberstam’s office issued a press release that Hall of Fame broadcaster Don Criqui would replace Roberts next season. The only reason for the change, Halberstam subsequently told the South Bend Tribune, was that “we’re making changes,” which is no reason at all.

How did Notre Dame’s faithful listeners react. Eric Hansen, who wrote the Tribune’s story, says he has received more than 100 e-mails on Roberts’ ouster, exactly three of them approving the move. And, Hansen says, many of his respondents “can’t believe Westwood One would treat Tony like that.”

Welcome to corporate radio, folks — and keep your scorecards handy.

“The part that bothers me is, there was no reason for it,” Roberts said yesterday at his home in Gainesville, Va. “It wasn’t because Notre Dame wanted me out. It wasn’t because the fans wanted me out. It wasn’t because [coach] Charlie Weis wanted me out. Westwood One said they wanted to move in a different direction. That’s the lamest of excuses, but I have no recourse. It’s their company.”

Did somebody say “unfortunately”?

The company added injury to insult, Roberts said, by offering him a chance to do Notre Dame games and other assignments for the next two years provided his salary came out of his severance pay. Showing remarkable self-control, Tony had a one-word description for that bit of baloney: “Extortion.”

So what does Roberts do now? Tony doesn’t care to publicize his age, but he certainly has been around a few birthday blocks. In today’s youth-oriented broadcast market, that can be a significant if silly handicap. Apparently, experience does indeed count — against you.

“I’m going to move on,” Roberts said. “I’ve already talked to an agent, although the timing is tough because everything for this fall has probably been allocated. Hopefully, I’ll have something lined up by next year at this time, but you know what? There will never be another Notre Dame.”

Of course not. That’s like saying there will be another Sinatra, another Brando or another Picasso.

“I could never understand how Lou Holtz could coach at South Carolina after being at Notre Dame,” Roberts said. “Nothing against South Carolina, but …”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Yet a guy has to earn a living, so “I’m open to phone calls [from] anybody who has a play-by-play job. … I’ve got a lot of home run, touchdown and 3-point-basket calls left in my body, and I plan to use them. Something will come up, sooner or later.”

And if you believe a good guy deserves a good break, you have to hope it’s sooner.

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