The shortest distance between two points is a straight line but the old coach came full circle on Saturday. After a tumultuous career, Bob Knight finally made it back home to Bloomington and Assembly Hall greeted him thunderously and warmly.
The Hall of Fame coach was fired in 2000 and vowed never to return. Time is often the best way to diminish anger and Knight was back for a ceremony that honored the 1981 Indiana championship team. I.U. fans were delighted and emptied their lungs.
Bob Knight was a head coach at age 25 at Army. Six years later, he took over the reins at Indiana where he would remain for 29 colorful and stormy years. Few in the I.U. family knew Knight better than Don Fischer, who’s been calling Hoosiers football and basketball since 1973.
Through four decades plus, Fischer experienced the best and the worst, three national basketball championships under Knight and decades of notorious losing on the gridiron. For all the success of the basketball program, Indiana’s football program has been the epitome of failure.
Emotional roller-coaster? Since Fischer’s first year behind the I.U. microphones, there have been nine football coaches, from Lee Corso to Tom Allen. All nine had or have a losing record. Conversely, the basketball team has had five non-interim basketball coaches. All have produced winning records.
Fischer started in the business young. He got the Indiana job at age 26. Forty seven years later, his name is synonymous with sportscasting in the Hoosier state. Get this. Don has won Indiana’s Sports Announcer of the Year 29 times.
The Illinois born broadcaster learned much about connecting the dots on radio from basketball broadcast Hall of Famer Joe Tait. Like Kevin Harlan and others, Fischer talks glowingly about how the retired ex-Cavs announcer influenced his calls.
Fischer, 73, is going strong and says he’ll only quit when he’s no longer having fun or his wife Susy says it’s time. The longest tenured broadcaster in college today is Ray Goss, who’s in his 52nd straight year calling Duquesne basketball.
Fischer and I had a chance to catch up.
It’s been a long haul for you at Indiana. Before we get to the basketball successes, how do you maintain your composure calling Indiana football? The program isn’t exactly a paragon of glittering success?
I know I.U. football isn’t the greatest by any stretch, but I got into this business to do what I love to do which is play by play. So win or lose, I’m still doing what I love to do. So while winning is definitely more fun, I’m still challenged to do the best that I can, even if the team that I’m broadcasting games for is losing a lot. And the football Hoosiers have definitely lost a lot in my 47 seasons. In some ways, I think Indiana’s struggles on the gridiron have helped me become better at my job. It certainly has made those games and years that they have won very special.
Is there any hope that I.U. football will ever compete with the Michigans and Ohio States in football?
I would say it’s very unlikely that Indiana will ever be consistently competitive with those schools. Yes, there have been blowouts, but I.U. has hung with them until the fourth quarter in several recent games and even taken Michigan into overtime twice in the past 5 years.
As I understand it, Hall of Fame basketball voice, Joe Tait helped you in your early years.
Yes, when we were both working in small Illinois markets, Joe and I ended up teaming on the two day, eight game Illinois High School basketball finals. We shared play-by-play and color. Working with Joe was a godsend because I was such a fledgling in the business and would have butchered the two days on my own. Sitting beside him was an incredible learning experience that I cherish to this day.
About two years later, I was out of work due to a format change at the station I was working for in Springfield, Illinois. I called Joe who at that point was in Terre Haute. He said I’m getting ready to leave to become the first voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers (1970). Why don’t you take my place here!
So I joined him at WBOW in Terre Haute before he left and he went with me to Evansville to do a high school football game. I don’t know why, but I was so nervous wanting to show him how much I had improved, that I spit the bit, in horse racing terminology, and on the ride back home I apologized for my performance.
He said something like “I may get fired before I leave for hiring you.” We both laughed but I decided right then that I still had a lot of work to do. Needless to say he went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Cavs, and I’ve done alright for myself as well.
What did you learn from Tait?
Number one, never go into any game without being well prepared. Always do your homework. But from a pxp standpoint to keep the game(s) pretty basic and simple. You’re the eyes for a radio audience and letting them know where the ball is, who’s got it, and what they’re doing with it, in a way that allows the listener to visualize it, is critical. I try not to be redundant using the same terms, words and phrases as much as possible, something at which Joe was a master.
Who were the broadcasters you grew up admiring and what did you pick up from them?
The first guy I listened to as a kid was Harry Caray when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals. The excitement and fun he brought to a broadcast was inspirational. I grew up a Pittsburgh Pirate fan and listened to the Bob Prince. He was one of the great storytellers and I always admired it, since I’m not very good at it myself. But the guy I liked most was St. Louis Blues announcer Dan Kelly. I know very little about hockey, but he was the best I’ve ever heard at how he used inflections in his voice. Dan never went overboard with his calls, yet projected the excitement of the moment as well as anyone ever has.
How did you wind up with the I.U. job?
I was looking for work when my old boss in Terre Haute, a guy named Harvey Glor, called and asked if I had applied for a station job at WIRE in Indianapolis that included being the “Voice of I.U. football and basketball.” I applied and was told there were almost 300 applicants and that if they were interested in me, they would reach out. About a week later, WIRE called and asked me to interview. I did, and the rest is history. The General Manager Don Nelson and Program Director Bill Robinson made that decision and I’ll be forever indebted to both.
You’ve called three Hoosiers’ college basketball championships. Have the program’s recent struggles tempered your enthusiasm?
Not at all. I love play-by-play, and these days I’m just doing p-b-p and coaches talk shows along with a few speaking engagements. Life doesn’t get much better than that!
What are the top three memories of those championship years?
(1) In 1976, the final two minutes of that win over Michigan is one that I’ll never forget. Bob Knight started taking out his starters with the game against Michigan well in hand, and watching those players celebrate what is still the last unbeaten season in college basketball is still an emotional memory. That team was so determined and businesslike the entire season. To see them finally go a little wild with the enjoyment of the moment was just special.
(2) In 1981, I.U. started the year with a 7-5 non-conference record and things weren’t going well. Knight took the reins off Isaiah Thomas and the team started playing better. But they really took off when Landon Turner finally got his head on straight late in the season. In the opening game of the NCAA tournament, I.U. destroyed a really good Maryland team and they cruised to the title game to play North Carolina which had beaten them early in the year at Chapel Hill. I.U. trailed the entire first half, but Randy Wittman hit a baseline jump shot just before the halftime buzzer that gave the Hoosiers a one point lead. Thomas stole the ball twice for easy layups to start the second half and I.U. never looked back.
(3) In 1987, Knight did arguably one of his greatest coaching jobs with a team that was the least talented of his three national title squads. And the whole year boiled down to the last thirty seconds of that game. With everyone figuring that star guard Steve Alford would take the last shot, they worked the ball until Keith Smart with six seconds left, drove toward the left baseline and put up an off balance 15 foot jump shot just before he flew out of bounds. Needless to say it’s still one of the most iconic moments in not just Indiana history, but in all of college basketball.
How did you get along with Knight and did he ever get on your case?
We had our moments, but we got along fine. I was 26 years old and my first boss at WIRE told me that my responsibility was to get a pre-game interview with coach prior to every game, and to do whatever I had to do to get it. He said it wasn’t always going to be a pleasant experience because Knight could be a bit ornery. Well that was one of the great understatements of all time.
But as the years went by, I got to know him better and he got to know me, and I think each of us had a mutual respect for one another. I know to this day, that he is the greatest college coach in the history of the game, and I don’t care who has won more games or who others think is the best. I saw what he did with the talent that he had, and how he went about molding those teams, and he did it without ever breaking the rules.
What did you learn from Knight?
That perfection in anything is unattainable. But those who strive for perfection are almost always the most successful.
Of all the sports in the state, pro or college, is I.U. still number one in the hearts of sports fans there?
Just like everyplace else, winning these days is the most important factor in who ranks number one in the hearts of fans. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, if I.U. gets back to the national championship level again anytime soon, this state will make the Hoosiers king of the hill once again.
If you had to give me a broad-brush answer, are young broadcasters today prepared to graphically paint the picture as you’ve done or the great Tait did?
That is really hard to answer David. It seems to me that almost all of the young guys want to go into television. Even the guys who start out in radio are looking for TV jobs because that’s where the big money is. And small town radio stations these days are so much into automation that they don’t hire as many young people to be on the air. And that’s the training ground that guys like me had and needed, to grow into what we became. Of course, there are some great college and university telecommunications programs where sports broadcast hopefuls can get excellent training, but once out of school, unless they are exceptional talents, where do they go to hone their skills? So I would say generally, I doubt that many are as prepared as they need to be.