It’ll be a big weekend for Hokies at the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame induction in Portsmouth. Virginia Tech broadcaster Bill Roth will be inducted, along with former star defensive end and current Hokies assistant coach Cornell Brown.
Roth has been the “Voice of the Hokies” since 1988, hired when he was just 22 years old. He’s served as the lead play-by-play announcer for Virginia Tech football and basketball ever since. He’s been named the state’s sportscaster of the year 10 times by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
I caught up with Roth and Brown for a story I’m doing in tomorrow’s paper. Here’s a little bit of what Roth had to say about being inducted and looking back at his broadcasting career:
AB: What do you think about this honor?
BR: “It’s tremendously humbling and I am happy and just so honored to have the privilege to work at Tech for 25 years. I’m looking at this completely at a team award, with Mike Burnop, who does the games with me and everyone on our broadcast team, behind the scenes at the studios and our affiliate stations. And obviously it helps. And it also helps to have a championship team as a broadcaster. So a total team effort on the field and on the air. A lot of people made this happen.”
AB: Did the announcement catch you by surprise?
BR: “Yeah, actually when they called, I thought they had the wrong number. I asked [Hall of Fame president] Eddie [Webb], I said, ‘Are you sure?’ There are broadcasters that have gone in. Marty Brennaman, Frank Soden. I grew up listening to Marty Brennaman do the Reds games, and of course, Virginia Tech games in the 70’s. So it’s surreal and quite a tremendous honor to look at the names that are in there. The athletes and coaches., but the broadcasters as well.”
AB: When you came to Virginia Tech, did you think you’d be here for 25 years?
BR: “When I got to Virginia Tech, my only thought was, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ Because I was nine months out of college and I had met coach [Frank] Beamer and I knew how fortunate I was just out of school to get the job. I knew David Braine had taken a huge risk to hire a 22-year-old kid. And my only thought was, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ And I was really fortunate that Mike Burnop … Mike’s the only guy I’ve covered the Virginia Tech football team with. And I’ve worked with one analyst and one coach for 25 years. And so I’m very, very privileged and lucky to have been here at a time when the program ascended to great heights. But to answer your question, I thought, ‘Just don’t screw up.’”
AB: How much did the continuity of one coach and one broadcast partner help you over the years?
BR: “You know what it is when you graduate college. You’re living a dream. It’s all I ever wanted to do was be an announcer. … I always wanted to be a sports announcer with a team. And when I got here and met coach Beamer and met Mike, I had been at Virginia Tech before, at Syracuse when I was a student, and I did that game with [current ESPN/ABC broadcaster Mike] Tirico. Because we were both students at Syracuse. That was my first Virginia Tech game. I was a junior, Mike was a sophomore at Syracuse. So it was a dream come true. And I knew we had great potential. I knew Virginia Tech had great potential because of its passionate fan base and its location. I knew we could have a great statewide radio and television presence. Not only did I think we could win a lot of games, but I thought we could really build a good TV and radio network and get into all these markets where all these fans were.”
AB: Did you think Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech would reach the heights they did?
BR: “Once I saw how he worked ,yes. When I first got here, again, I was wide-eyed and literally was just absorbing and learning and trying not to step on anyone’s toes and learn from coach Beamer and David Braine. But after a couple of seasons of working with him and seeing how he handled it, I thought yeah. There was no question. The way he treated people, the way he interacted with high school players and our coaches. The way he treated me. I knew this was an incredible person and a good coach, and it was only a matter of time until Tech won. And Cornell Brown, when he signed back in February of ‘93, that was a big part of it of really getting it going.”
AB: You mention Cornell, who is going into the Hall of Fame with you this weekend. Was his signing a turning point for the program?
BR: “I think there’s no question that when he signed with Virginia Tech it was a big deal, because in previous seasons it was very unusual for Virginia Tech to get a guy in the top five off of [former Roanoke Times sport editor Bill] Brill and [Doug] Doughty’s list. Cornell was the guy that broke through. And he played that year and Virginia Tech won nine games and went to a bowl and ever since then, it’s been consistent with very few exceptions, Tech has done very well with all the top players in the state. There have been some exceptions, obviously, in the last 21 years, but Cornell was the first one to break through. He was the breakthrough recruit for coach Beamer and that staff.”
AB: Do you have a favorite Virginia Tech moment in your career?
BR: [Looooooong pause] “Wow. Umm … there have been so many. There’s no question the highlight is developing relationships with our players and coaches and fans. And to see where the program has gone to and to see where the television and radio operation is today compared to where it was is really exciting. As far as on-the-field moment … the ‘95 win at Virginia, the win at Nebraska, which was the biggest crowd to ever see a game there in the history of that stadium, which, having grown up just revering coach [Tom] Osborne and Nebraska, beating the Huskers here would be one. I mean, it’s a dream. I tell people that I never wanted to have an office. I never could work at a desk. And my office has been Lane Stadium and Madison Square Garden and the Orange Bowl and the Superdome. To broadcast eight BCS bowl games, if that’s the word we want to use anymore, but to broadcast four Orange Bowl games and four Sugar Bowl games is amazing. It’s just an incredible honor. … To experience that and to experience it with great people like coach Beamer, Mike Burnop and his family, that’s what’s been great.”
AB: Do you have a favorite call?
BR: “We did a contest. The fans picked the Tyrod to Dyrell. ‘Tyrod did it, Mikey! Tyrod did it!’ That was the one they chose.”
AB: Do you agree with that?
BR: “The ’95 game, my call … the Nebraska one was big, obviously. That was an exciting play. That was one of the great moments in Lane Stadium. The one at UVa was, I’m trying to remember … ‘Jim Druckenmiller has engineered the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen.’ Virginia Tech scored 22 points in the last five minutes to beat Virginia, and they had to win the game to go to the Sugar Bowl. And Virginia was really good. So the call at the end of those two games. We’ve won a lot of football games.”
AB: How did you originate your opening phrase, “From the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the hills of Tennessee, the Virginia Tech Hokies are on the air!”?
BR: “I wanted something that was catchy. And I had lunch with Chuck Noe, who was a former coach here and at UVa and a radio guy. And was the South Carolina basketball coach. … And he lived in the Grove in Richmond and we had lunch and he says, ‘You’ve got to be more than good. You’ve got to come up with a shtick.’ I said, ‘I’m not a comedian. I’m more of a play-by-play guy.’ He said, ‘You still have to have a hook of some sort.’ And I talked it over with him and some of my other friends, a broadcaster from West Virginia, and some people I had known and came up with that. And I thought it kind of reflected our goal of getting on the air everywhere. And people liked it. And they liked, ‘Touchdown Tech.’ Both of which are incredibly simple, but people love that stuff. I’m just very fortunate.”