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Commentary: Legendary broadcaster Bob Robertson was like a family member to many Cougars

By Larry Stone Seattle Times

When Jim Walden was doing his stint as Bob Robertson’s color man, he made it a point to sit down next to Bob-Rob whenever he was about to set the scene for the upcoming Cougar football game. Never mind that Walden’s on-air input wouldn’t be needed for maybe half an hour. He wanted to hear an artist at work.

“He had the most brilliant style,” Walden recalled. “It would be snowing, raining, overcast and ugly in Pullman, and here comes Bob. For the next five minutes, he would paint the best picture of the setting for a college football game I’ve ever been around. That’s my tribute to Bob – I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”

Robertson, who was the da Vinci of Cougar sports for more than five decades, died Sunday at his home in University Place at age 91. Few announcers have ever been as synonymous with one place as Robertson was with Washington State University, bestowing his artistry on generation after generation of Coug fans.

It was hard to process when Robertson stepped down in October 2018 after doing 589 WSU football broadcasts, and it’s even harder now to process that his voice is silenced forever.

“I always thought he was absolutely indestructible,” said Dick Fry, who was Washington State’s sports information director from 1957 to 1970. “Bob’s enthusiasm never waned. Never.”

Nor will his stamp on the broadcasting world. From his first broadcasting gig as the voice of the Wenatchee Chiefs baseball team of the Western International League in 1947, Robertson did it all. As was the case for sports broadcasters of that era, he rarely turned down a job. Robertson wound up with a vast array of credits on his résumé, including soccer, hydro racing, basketball, wrestling, roller derby, boxing and numerous others. As Tacoma Rainiers principal owner Mykal Thomsen, a family friend of Robertson’s, said: “I swear that guy could do play-by-play for a tiddlywinks contest and make it interesting and keep people’s attention.”

He simply loved calling games. For nine years, into his 90s, Robertson called Rainiers baseball games on Sunday with Mike Curto – sometimes driving across the state so he could call Spokane Chiefs rookie league games as well.

“I charged after it, like all sportscasters in a smaller market,” Robertson told me in the days following his 2018 retirement.

Even on “days off,” Robertson would often go to Cheney Stadium and sit next to Curto, just because he loved watching baseball games. And just to hone his knowledge of sports, he also worked as a high school official in football and basketball for 20 years.

“My whistle is still hanging in the spare room,” he said with pride.

But it was as the voice of the Cougars that Robertson made his indelible mark. That was preceded by short stints as the voice of Notre Dame and, yes, Washington, the latter job causing former WSU sports information director Rod Commons to say wistfully on Monday, “We don’t mention that too much. We had him out on loan.”

Being a broadcaster-for-hire didn’t sit well with Robertson, however. His first stint at Washington State, from 1964 to 1968, had lasted five years. After calling the Husky games from 1969 through 1971, he returned to Pullman and had an epiphany.

“I figured if I jumped around every time the bid was up, I’d just be for sale or rent,” he told me in what turned out to be my final interview with Robertson in 2018. “I decided to stay with the Cougars, and I did. I never regretted that.

“There are great people at the University of Washington; I worked there long enough to know that. But I found my extra family with the Cougars. I’m just a small-town guy, anyway. I was part of a family from the start when I arrived there.”

Family is the word that came up repeatedly as I talked to friends and colleagues of Robertson on Monday. You simply can’t replicate the bond that develops with listeners after so many years of hearing one voice – particularly one as warm and distinctive as Robertson’s.

“Cougar fans just knew what they were going to get when they turned on the radio at 1:30 in the afternoon or 7 at night or whenever it was as time went on,” said Commons, who worked closely with Robertson as WSU’s SID from 1976 to 2007. “They were going to get a very consistent, very knowledgeable … almost a family member telling them what’s going on on the football field.”

Indeed, current WSU announcer Matt Chazanow said joining the broadcasts in 2015 was like getting invited to a seat at a family picnic.

“And Bob was running the picnic,” he said. “He kind of transcended doing the work and became synonymous with the school. His voice IS Cougar football, and always will be.”

By all accounts, Robertson was not pleased to be taken off his play-by-play role on the football broadcasts with Chazanow’s arrival, just as he had blanched over being replaced on basketball play-by-play in the 1993-94 season. But to his everlasting credit, he never took it out on his replacements, graciously helping them learn the ropes from his new vantage point as analyst and color man. When Bob-Rob gave his stamp of approval, it was a golden ticket in Cougar Nation.

“The way he was in the booth with me, his blessing, meant everything,” Chazanow said. “It was literally his booth. I still call games with that in mind – his quality and what he meant to the Cougs and the industry and the business. … It probably could have been awkward. It’s easy to see how it could have gone that way. But he was great to me, and that meant the world.”

Robertson’s institutional knowledge was unparalleled – “just a treasure chest of all those firsthand accounts,” as Chazanow put it. And Robertson somehow managed to straddle the line between having a deep love of all things Cougar and yet not being an unrepentant homer on the air. As the folksy Walden put it, “He was a Cougar up to his nose, yet during a broadcast, he didn’t wear you out with syrupy BS. You knew he was for the Cougars, but he did a nice job presenting both teams.”

Jerry Kyllo was producer-engineer of WSU football broadcasts for the final 26 years of Robertson’s career. He can recall him swearing just one time, when he felt the Cougs had been jobbed on a pass-interference call at Tennessee.

“If you’re going to call the damn game, call the damn game!” Robertson thundered, while Kyllo did a double take in the booth. “It was the only time anyone ever heard him swear.”

Kyllo knew Robertson as well as anyone after so many years running the broadcasts. He was with him when they got locked into Martin Stadium after a long postgame show and had to call the Pullman cops to let them out. He marveled at Bob-Rob’s wizardry with the faithful old abacus he used for keeping highly accurate yardage stats long after everyone else had switched to computers.

“That was amazing to watch,” he said. “It was beads on a bar, two colors. The upper part was the Cougars, the lower part was the visiting team. He wouldn’t even think about it. He’d be talking about stuff and just reach down with his pencil and swipe the beads. It was like second nature to him.”

Kyllo heard Robertson tell him how the one regret of his broadcasting career was finishing runner-up to Dave Niehaus to be the Mariners’ voice in 1977. And he witnessed how a bit of Robertson’s light was extinguished in 2011 when his beloved wife of 59 years, Joanne, died.

“You could tell his whole attitude changed then,” Kyllo said.

Robertson always said his wife would be the one to tell him when it was time to retire. But he had to make the decision by himself – with the urging of his four kids – when he felt dizzy and disoriented after a football game in 2018.

Bob Robertson wasn’t indestructible after all. But the memory of him will be.

“There were objective things Bob was great at,” Chazanow said, “but it came down, subjectively, to this: When people are driving 70 down the road, do they forget they’re in their car and feel like they’re in the stadium? Bob did that. He pulled you in.”