Few, if any, broadcasters have found themselves calling as many iconic sports moments as Verne Lundquist. His minimalist, sincere phrasing has punctuated some of the most memorable moments in the history of sports television. However, although luck and timing have lent a helping hand, Lundquist took these moments and made them his own.
“Coach K [Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski] once said, ‘It’s been my experience that you can be presented with an opportunity, but then it’s up to you to capture it.’ And I suppose that’s what I’ve been able to do — and more often than most folks have had an opportunity to do,” says Lundquist. “In those moments, I’ve just tried to say exactly what I thought everyone else at home watching was saying to themselves. If I have a philosophy, then that’s it. I’ve tried to be a conduit for people’s emotions as they are home watching the game.”
During his 54 years in broadcasting, Lundquist has manned the announce booth at ABC Sports, CBS Sports, and Turner Sports, in addition to serving as the radio voice of the Dallas Cowboys for more than a decade. He has called more than 20 sports but is best-known today as the lead play-by-play voice of the SEC on CBS, a role that has made him one of the most recognizable personalities in the business.
“I truly believe that the mantle of the voice of college football was passed from Chris Schenkel to Keith Jackson and then to Verne,” says CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “He has upheld the highest of standards as he assumed this role. Verne has set the standard for college-football broadcasting.”
A Pastor’s Son With a Passion for Broadcasting
The son of a Lutheran minister, Lundquist was born in 1940 in Duluth, MN, and grew up in Everett, WA, and Austin, TX , attending Austin High School and serving as PA announcer for basketball games. While at Texas Lutheran College (now Texas Lutheran University), he worked at the local radio station, KWED, his first professional broadcasting gig. After graduating, he looked to follow in his father’s footsteps and entered Augustana Seminary College in Rock Island, IL, supporting himself working as a nighttime disc jockey at nearby WOC-AM.
“I knew I enjoyed radio a great deal,” recounts Lundquist, “and, more importantly, I knew that I enjoyed being a performer on radio a lot more than the seminary. That made the decision for me.”
In 1963, he joined KTBC-TV/Radio Austin as weekend TV sports anchor and afternoon-drive radio host and was soon named full-time sports anchor. After a short stint as nightly news anchor at WOAI-TV San Antonio in 1966, he became lead sports anchor and sports director at WFAA-TV Dallas, serving for 16 years.
The Voice of America’s Team
In addition to his role at WFAA, Lundquist spent four years as pre/postgame and halftime host for the Dallas Cowboys on KLIF-AM, including for the famed Ice Bowl NFL Championship Game in 1967. In 1970, he entered the Cowboys booth as color commentator alongside play-by-play man Bill Mercer and was elevated to lead play-by-play voice in 1972, a role he would remain in throughout the team’s glory years until 1984.
“At that time, I had an offer to go to Los Angeles and serve as sports director at the CBS O&O, KNXT, but [Cowboys President/GM] Tex [Schramm] offered me the job [as lead play-by-play] only if I stayed in Dallas. I wanted to be a national-TV-network play-by-play guy, and he said, ‘If I give you the radio job, the networks will find you because we’re gonna be pretty darn good in the next decade.’ So I turned down the job in L .A., and I stayed in Dallas. Obviously, it obviously worked out quite well for both of us.”
He became a beloved sports figure in Dallas, winning seven consecutive Texas Sportscaster of the Year Awards (1977-83). He was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2003 and Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
Survival of the Fittest at ABC
The massive exposure offered by calling games for “America’s Team” — which was broadcast on 120 stations in 19 states at that time — indeed led to his first broadcast-network opportunity with ABC Sports, calling a handful of college football games in 1974. The following year, he called his first national game — No. 2 Texas A&M vs. No. 5 Texas — and became a fixture on ABC Sports, serving on Wide World of Sports and calling everything from golf to bowling to boxing and even the North American Soccer League. However, ABC Sports’ Murderers’ Row of play-by-play announcers made it difficult for Lundquist to prosper in the rankings.
“It was survival of the fittest at ABC,” he acknowledges. “The talent pool was pretty amazing. At one point, when I was the No. 4 play-by-play guy, Keith Jackson was No. 1, Chris Schenkel was No. 2, and Al Michaels was No. 3. It was tough to move up: the elevator kept stopping on the fourth floor for me. It was frustrating.”
A Fresh Start at CBS
By 1982, both Lundquist and ABC Sports were ready to move on. After his contract was not renewed, CBS Sports offered him a small package of six football games and two basketball games.
“I was 42, and this was my last real opportunity to be a top network play-by-play guy,” Lundquist recalls. “It worked out beyond my wildest imagination.”
Before the football season was out, that six-game package became 10. Then Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and CBS Golf Executive Producer Frank Chirkinian came calling with an offer to announce five golf tournaments, which grew to 17 by year’s end.
“Everything just blossomed,” says Lundquist. “I got a fresh start with people that didn’t know me and thus had no preconceived notions of what my limitations were. It was an amazing opportunity.”
He would go on to become a fixture of the NFL on CBS over the next decade, working extensively with Terry Bradshaw and Dan Fouts and occasionally with John Madden and others, before CBS lost the NFC package following the 1993 season.
“Verne is a willing assist man. If there was a hall of fame for point guards in the booth, Verne would be Bob Cousy, John Stockton, or Magic Johnson,” says SEC on CBS Coordinating Producer Craig Silver. “Every analyst that ever worked with him would say that. He’s the greatest assist man in history. He’s confident enough in his own ability and personality: he can throw the perfect pass, and the other guy can score and get more of the glory.”
In addition, he became one of the most recognizable presences on CBS’s golf coverage, calling his first Masters in 1983 (and every one since except 1997-98), the first of 20 PGA Championships, and innumerable PGA TOUR events. His arrival at CBS also marked the beginning of a 32-year run as play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports’ NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship coverage.
“There’s no question he captures the moment perfectly, but it’s not premeditated,” says his longtime March Madness announcing partner Bill Raferty. “He just reacts in the sense of the moment to succinctly put words together that have impact and draw that particular moment to a great conclusion. I think that’s what legendary play-by-play guys do. And there is no finer guy.”
Lundquist also made a name for himself at the rink, serving as lead play-by-play announcer for figure skating at the 1992, 1994, and 1998 Olympic Winter Games. He also called NBA on CBS, as well as more than 20 sports, including track and field, swimming and diving, boxing, volleyball, gymnastics, soccer, weightlifting, free-style skiing, archery, horse racing/jumping.
“The mark of a great broadcaster is, when that moment finds you, to be ready for it. And Verne has always delivered in spades when that moment finds him,” says Silver. “I think what makes Verne unique is that he reacts like a fan and he brings such great personal emotion to it. I just think he captures the emotion that every fan watching feels – whether you’re on the winning side or the losing side. It’s a unique quality.”
A Brief Departure to Turner
After CBS lost the NFL in 1993, Lundquist headed to Turner Sports (though he continued to call figure-skating events for CBS). At Turner from 1995 to ’97, he handled play-by-play for the NBA on TNT with Chuck Daley and the NFL on TNT on Sunday nights with Pat Haden. He returned to CBS in 1998. Says Lundquist, “I was ready to go home.”
“Verne is one of the very best announcers in the history of this industry,” says McManus, who brought Lundquist back to the Tiffany network in ’98 after taking over CBS Sports. “Whether it be college football, the Masters, the NCAA Tournament, or figure skating, he has called them all with class, dignity, humility, and an amazing talent for saying the exact right thing at just the right moment.”
Cementing His Legacy: SEC on CBS
The stars aligned for Lundquist in 2000, when he was moved from the NFL to become lead play-by-play announcer for the SEC on CBS just as the SEC’s dominance began and the Bowl Championship Series made college football a truly nationalized sport.
“Verne was instrumental in helping to make the SEC on CBS the highest-rated college-football package in America,” says McManus. “When we moved Verne from the NFL to the SEC, it was not a welcomed move by Verne, but he made the SEC on CBS his own. And now, 17 years later, he will tell you himself that it has been one of the highlights of his career.”
His folksy way, affable personality, and knack for downhome storytelling have made him a fan favorite in college football, prompting the loving moniker “Uncle Verne.”
“Verne. Just saying his name out loud makes you smile,” says SEC on CBS lead reporter Allie LaForce. “Not only is he an incredible journalist and broadcaster, but he is one of the most loveable and kind human beings on the planet. Verne makes everyone around him better. I’ve been so fortunate to work with him on both college basketball and college football since I began at CBS. His impact on my career is immeasurable.”
Lundquist — who lives in Steamboat Springs, CO, with Nancy, his wife of 34 years — will call it a career following this college-football season, eliciting one emotional tribute after another at each stadium on this year’s SEC on CBS slate.
“Sports broadcasting will never see another Verne Lundquist,” says Gary Danielson, who has served as his boothmate since 2006. “During his hall-of-fame career, he succeeded spectacularly by simply being himself, something the viewer instinctively recognized and enjoyed. He covers his assignments like he lives his life: with honor, joy, loyalty, and, most of all, compassion. I’ve been blessed to sit at his side for 11 wonderful seasons. As Verne steps down from college football this season, I am often asked if anyone can replace him, and I simply say, ‘No, sir!’”
A member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame, winner of the 2016 Sports Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and now a Sports Broadcast Hall of Famer, Lundquist has provided the narrative for some of the most unforgettable moments in sports history. From Jack Nicklaus’s birdie putt on 17 at Augusta National in 1986 to Tiger Woods’ epic hole 16 chip shot 19 years later on the same course. From Christian Laettner’s miracle jumper to propel Duke into the Final Four in 1992 to 11-seeded George Mason’s unprecedented upset of UConn to do the same thing 14 years after. And who could forget his refined restraint in letting the moment speak for itself after the game-ending Kick Six in the 2013 Iron Bowl? In more than five decades in the booth, Lundquist’s genial tone and minimalist style have guided a nation of sports fans through some of its greatest moments.
“I love doing this, and I’m blessed to be able to do it reasonably well,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best people and partners in the business over the years. And I’ll cherish every minute of it.”