Feinstein: Radio Has Always Been My Companion

Fall asleep at the wheel? No chance. For John Feinstein, there's nothing like listening to a game on the radio, especially late at night

John Feinstein
September 23, 2019 - 11:19 am
UCLA Washington State

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I began my day Monday, the way I begin almost every morning when I’m home: sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the two newspapers that are delivered to my house: the Washington Post and the New York Times. I realize that I completely date myself with that admission, but that’s what I do daily. I have no desire to give up the feeling I get when I spread the paper out in front of me, sip my coffee and push one of my cats off the paper when he attempts to plop down on top of it in an effort to get me to pet him.
            
Later, I say. He glares. I push him away and he gets it—grudgingly.
            
I don’t spend a lot of time on Mondays reading about NFL games; I’ve already seen them or seen highlights. I’ll glance at the columnists to see if what they’re writing about interests me: Jerry Brewer on Sean Payton getting a little ornery when someone asked about winning his FIRST game ever without Drew Brees as his quarterback, I read. Tom Boswell pleading (again) with the Nationals to make a postseason run, I pass. For the record, Boz has forgotten more baseball in the last 15 minutes than I’ll ever know, but when he writes on the Nats…like I said, pass.
            
The only thing I am guaranteed to read in the Post every Monday is my friend Chuck Culpepper’s column summing up the weekend in college football. I am not as enamored of the big-time college game as Chuck is: where he sees beauty and romance, I tend to see hypocrisy and liars. Not that I don’t enjoy college football—clearly I do—but I lean towards the service academies and the Ivy League. Chuck’s job is to cover either the biggest game of the week or the most intriguing big-time game.
            
And, in my only slightly biased opinion, he does it better than anyone. Chuck is a joy to read, in large part I think, because it is a joy for him to write.
            
His column this past Monday began with him in his car at 2 a.m. driving through Georgia, en route from Athens—where he witnessed Georgia beating Notre Dame in a game that ended close to midnight and then had to write when the game was over—to Atlanta, where he caught a plane to somewhere. With Chuck, it could be almost anyplace.
            
So, there he was at 2 a.m., listening to satellite radio as UCLA pulled off one of the most stunning rallies in college football history, coming from 49-17 down late in the third quarter to shock Washington State, 67-63. Yes, it was football, not basketball.
            
UCLA scored 50 points in the last 18:48 of the game. FIFTY-POINTS. Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon threw nine touchdown passes—and his team lost. To show you how out-of-control quarterback statistics are, consider this: Gordon has now thrown for 1,894 yards and 21 touchdowns in four games. No one has mentioned his name as a Heisman Trophy candidate and probably won’t.
            
In 1963, Navy’s Roger Staubach won the Heisman. In 11 games that year, he threw for 1,702 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ran for 371 yards and nine more touchdowns. In those days, those were great numbers—Heisman-worthy numbers.
            
Back to Chuck and his wee-hours-of-the-morning drive through Georgia. His description of his drive brought back a myriad of memories for me. I have always been a late-night driver. Early in my career, a lot of those drives were like Chuck’s—late night from some place fairly remote to get to an early morning plane flight. More recently, they’re just long drives since I don’t fly unless I have absolutely no choice.
            
But the radio, in one form or another, has always been a companion and—like Chuck—my mind was almost always on sports in one form or another.
            
One of my most vivid memories dates to early March in 1998. I was driving through Florida, from one PGA Tour stop to another while researching my second golf book. I didn’t have the benefit of satellite radio the way Chuck did, so I fiddled with the dial until I found WHAS, the 50,000-watt Louisville radio station that—surprise—is devoted to college basketball most of the year.
            
It was Monday night and the Tubby Smith show was on—I suspect it was a re-air, but I’m not certain. Smith was in his first season at Kentucky, replacing the (then) iconic Rick Pitino. The host went to the phones. On most coaches shows, the calls are carefully screened to make sure only the most adoring fans get through.
            
This caller began this way: “Coach, I want you to know, I haven’t given up on this team yet.”
            
Kentucky was 25-4 at that moment. The Wildcats would go on to win the national championship.
            
“Well,” Smith replied without any irony in his voice, “I appreciate your support.”
            
Twenty-one years later, I sat in High Point’s locker room prior to a game at Longwood. Tubby Smith is now the coach at High Point, his alma mater. I started telling him about picking up the radio show all those years ago and the caller’s comment. Before I could get to the punchline, Tubby smiled and said, “We were 25-4.”
            
He remembered.
            
Several years ago, during a long drive home from a basketball game, my phone rang. When I looked at the number, I was surprised to see it was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. His team was—as always—good but—as always—struggling a little, midway through the Big Ten season.
            
“I wake you?” he asked.
            
“I hope not,” I answered, “given that I’m on Rte. 15 in central Pennsylvania en route home from Bucknell.”
            
He laughed. “And I thought I was insane,” he said.
           
Izzo wasn’t calling for any particular reason, except to vent. He wasn’t happy with his team, he wasn’t happy with the direction of college basketball and he wasn’t happy with himself. Izzo has always been one of those coaches who looks first at himself when things aren’t going well. Most great coaches are that way.
            
By the time we hung up, I was on I-270 passing through Frederick and close to home. Two months later, Michigan State went to the Final Four—again. Typical Izzo.
            
Mostly, I remember listening to games—ala Chuck on Saturday night/Sunday morning—late at night. I’m from a generation that still loves the radio. I grew up sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car with a transistor radio pressed to my ear so I could listen to games.
            
My dad was in the performing arts and almost had some kind of classical music going on the car radio. He would drive with his left hand, conduct with his right hand. I remember once, on a Saturday afternoon, when the radio was quiet at the start of a trip, wondering if there was any way we could listen to the Mets, who were about to play the Pirates. (Yes, I remember who they were playing).
            
A momentary look of horror crossed my dad’s face. “Bernice, I almost forgot, it’s 2 o’clock,” he said to my mom. “Time for the Met.” (as in the Metropolitan Opera). I groaned and turned on the transistor.

Years later, when dad was the director of The Washington Opera, I wrote a magazine piece about our relationship. The headline was, “The Mets vs. the Met.”
            
Late night, as an adult, I controlled my car radio.  In 1980, during Georgia Tech’s first season in the ACC, I was driving home from Richmond after covering a Virginia-Virginia Tech game. I picked up Georgia Tech playing at North Carolina on WBT coming out of Charlotte. I could hear the great Woody Durham’s call as clearly as if he was sitting next to me going up I-95.
            
Surprisingly, Tech was hanging with the Tar Heels. To be honest, this wasn’t all that unusual for Carolina. Dean Smith’s teams had a habit of somehow letting weaker teams hang around—or even lead—until late in the game and then finding a way to win. It happened so often it actually had a name among ACC fans, “The piss factor.” A team would be playing Carolina and would have a chance to win; even looked like it was GOING to win and then—somehow—would lose. Piss factor. Of course, nowadays many ACC fans ascribe the same factor to Duke.
            
Not back then.
            
The game went to the final possession. Tech, down one, had the last shot. I still remember Woody’s call almost verbatim: “Steppe, jumper—NO!—rebound, Horton.” At that moment, Woody’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Layup, at the buzzer…” A chill ran through me for a split second. Was Georgia Tech’s first ACC win going to come in Carmichael Auditorium—of all places?
            
No, it wasn’t. The next thing I heard was Woody shouting: “He missed! Buzzer sounds! Carolina wins!” I knew he was shouting mostly from relief. I looked up the final score just now: it was 54-53. Tech did get an ACC win that season—at Virginia. It finished 1-13 and was 0-14 the next season (Brooke Steppe, the team’s best player graduated). Duane Morrison was fired and Bobby Cremins was hired. In his fourth season, Cremins won the ACC Tournament and took Tech to the elite eight. The rest is history.
            
But I’ve never forgotten Woody Durham’s call of that missed layup—even now, almost 40 years later.
            
My wife hates it when I drive somewhere late at night. She worries I’ll get tired behind the wheel—a legitimate concern, but I’m usually okay. I’m carried by adrenaline—the way I’m sure Chuck was the other night—and by the radio; especially if there’s a game on somewhere I can pick up.
            
The highways are usually free of traffic and I set the cruise control and go into jock-world, comfortable because it is a place where I’ve been for most of my life.
 
                                    
John Feinstein’s latest book is, “Benchwarmers,” a Young Adult book about two sixth-grade soccer players—a boy and a girl—and their quest to prove themselves to a difficult coach and some insecure teammates. His novel, “The Prodigy,” about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters who must deal with an overzealous father, agents and apparel reps who want to turn him into a human ATM machine, is just out in paperback. His most recent non-fiction work, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” is also just out in paperback. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com

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