SEATTLE – He did it with inflection and nuance, almost imperceptibly building up momentum until his call erupted into a paroxysm of emotional energy. It seemed to burst out of the radio, sending shivers up the spine of every purple-blooded listener over the span of nearly four decades.
Of all of Bob Rondeau’s endearing qualities that rightly are being celebrated as he heads into his final Husky broadcast at the Fiesta Bowl, that is what I will both remember and miss the most: his ability to convey the excitement of the event in a way that was almost palpable.
It’s a quality that only the great ones possess. When something truly memorable happened in a Husky game – an electrifying run, a long touchdown pass, a game-winning shot – it was as if Rondeau’s call validated it. And it came with a depth of feeling that couldn’t be faked, and thus couldn’t be forgotten.
“When he hits that crescendo of a big play, he’s completely in that moment,” said Jason Hamilton, Rondeau’s basketball partner for the past 15 years. “There’s nothing else. That’s why you feel it through the radio. It’s not contrived.”
It is the only voice that multiple generations of Husky fans have known, save for a three-year stretch from 1986-88 when Barry Tompkins was the Husky play-by-play man after KOMO lost the contract. Damon Huard remembers growing up in Puyallup and driving to soccer practice in the family’s Caprice Classic, listening to Rondeau call Husky football games. Later, Rondeau would call Huard’s exploits as Washington’s quarterback, and still later, Huard would be Rondeau’s football broadcast partner for eight seasons.
“When his voice comes over the airways in fall, all is right in the Northwest,” Huard said.
Rondeau is a perfectionist. For this column, I talked to many of his partners and co-workers, and every one of them used that word – lovingly, and admiringly. When I sat in the booth for the UCLA game Oct. 27, I saw that firsthand. At one point, Rondeau gave the wrong score as the broadcast went to break, and he admonished himself during the commercial: “Come on, man! Pay attention!” When play resumed, Rondeau smoothly corrected himself and continued on a broadcast that was nearly flawless.
“He’ll pound the walls if he gets a call wrong or a kid’s name wrong,” Huard said. “He takes so much pride in his job.”
Said Craig Heyamoto, who has kept statistics for Rondeau on the road since 1980: “I think he sets a very high bar for excellence. That’s for himself. And because he does that, he inspires that level of effort from those around him.”
Rondeau manages to straddle the fine line between caring deeply about the Huskies and yet not coming off as a homer. If their performance stunk, he would let the listeners know, though more sardonically than viciously. And when things went badly, he reacted viscerally, both on the radio and in the booth.
“He brings his emotion almost to the next gear,” said Tom Freal, a spotter and producer for Rondeau’s broadcasts, also since 1980.
Freal remembers a game at the old Husky Stadium in which Washington turned the ball over as it was driving toward the winning touchdown. Rondeau thumped the window so hard in frustration Freal thought it might break.
“He was as disappointed as the listeners were,” Freal said.
But when the Huskies soared, well, that’s when the Rondeau poetry poured forth, as when the Huskies throttled Oregon last year to end that long football drought. Here’s what Rondeau said in the aftermath, an extemporaneous masterwork:
“Dawg fans … I want you to mark down October 8th, 2016 … a day when this world just turned into a little bit better place to live. Twelve years of the Oregon penitentiary … and what a jailbreak here at Autzen tonight as the Dawgs explode to a 70 to 21 romp over the Oregon Ducks. Hunting season to be sure … 13 years of futility came out here tonight as the Dawgs win it by 49 points.”
Another Rondeau classic was Washington’s overtime win against Arizona for the Pac-10 title in 2011. It is remembered for Gus Johnson’s “cold-blooded” call of Isaiah Thomas’ game-winning shot on the television broadcast, but the radio call of a hoarse Rondeau, his voice nearly shot, is memorable as well:
“Crossover move, stepback jumper on the way … Yes! At the buzzer, it is good! Washington has won it! Oh, my goodness!”
“It’s funny – it’s a call he hates,” Hamilton said. “He has no voice left. He’s stretching his vocal cords to the hilt, and if you ask him to this day, he’ll say it’s not his best. But that’s why I like it. Even under those circumstances, he was trying to give it the Bob Rondeau touch we all know and love, doing all he could to get it there.”
One of Rondeau’s greatest broadcasts was one of his toughest – the game against Stanford in which safety Curtis Williams was seriously injured. That obviously cast a serious pall over a wild game in which Marques Tuiasosopo led an 80-yard touchdown drive for a Husky win in the final seconds.
“I thought that was Bob at his best,” Heyamoto said. “He knew something serious happened to Curtis, and I think it tempered the way he approached the game, but he plowed through it. He still said what happened, and conveyed the excitement of that final pass.”
In fact, when I talked to Rondeau in April after he announced his pending retirement, that game stood out as perhaps his most memorable – and certainly his most fraught.
“I think that’s the game that probably more encompasses the highs and the lows than any of them,” he said. “I had never seen an event that so drastically changed. It covered the spectrum of emotion. Guys, seeing what they were seeing on the field, a kid who was absolutely fighting for his life, players crying. It was incredible. It’s the only broadcast I’ve had where I lost it, too.
“To see all of that process, and try to report on it, with no TV – I think that’s, obviously, where radio is at its absolute best. I think we did some really good work that day. And watching Marques Tuiasosopo walking up and down the sidelines, grabbing guys by the facemask, as that team had absolutely fallen apart … that was a drive for the ages, to go down and win that thing.
“And then all of the aftermath and so forth. Who writes this stuff? It was crazy. Absolutely unforgettable. I get goose bumpy just talking about it. It was an amazing day.”
It has been an amazing career for Rondeau. Freal likes to say it has been like a storybook, traveling with Rondeau all these years to football shrines around the country. It’s OK to get goose-bumpy Dec. 30 when he signs off for good. Not that Rondeau is comfortable with all the fuss. Unlike some in his profession, he is not driven by ego.
“What I’ve always liked about Bob, he’s a guy who takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” said Jeff Bechthold, Washington’s sports information director.
Added Chuck Nelson, the former UW kicker and Rondeau’s football partner from 1994-2009: “Bob was the rare combination of being very proud of how good he was, and knowing how good he was, but yet he had no ego. It was about the broadcast and the game, not about Bob and us.”
Let’s hope that the Fiesta Bowl provides one last chance for Rondeau to drain his emotional reserve, a final crescendo for a brilliant career.