For the ever-growing number of University of Memphis sports faithful -- and that includes followers of the flagship men's basketball program as well as the back-from-the-dead football program -- Dave Woloshin's voice has been a steady (if at times excitable) soundtrack for the heart-pumping highs and the now less frequent lows of Tiger sports. Whether it's a 70-yard scamper by DeAngelo Williams at the Liberty Bowl or a rainmaking dunk by Rodney Carney at FedExForum, Woloshin has been there for fans when they weren't able to make it to the games. Since 1997, Woloshin has teamed with Bob Rush on football broadcasts while also handling basketball duties, partnering the last three years with Matt Dillon.
In addition to his play-by-play gig, Woloshin has been a presence on Memphis sports radio for a quarter century, first alongside the venerable George Lapides on WREC-AM 600 and since 1999 on WMC-AM 790, where his Sports Call grew into an afternoon drive-time institution, particularly for Tiger loyalists.
But all that changed January 1st, when WMC switched formats from sports talk to classic country music. Woloshin remains on contract with the station through April and will be on the air for Tiger basketball for as long into March as John Calipari's club plays. But then what? "Have mic, will travel" is one catchphrase this professional talker aims to avoid.
There was a time when listening to sports talk on the radio in Memphis meant one option: Lapides on WREC. But today, the choices among stations -- and the relative expertise of the hosts -- are as varied as a listener's tastes. Lapides and Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins are the morning standard-bearers with Sportstime on WHBQ-AM 560. And a pair of afternoon shows -- The Sports Bar with Jeff Weinberger on WHBQ and The Chris Vernon Show on 730 ESPN -- are also duking it out for listeners. Which means the next move Woloshin makes will have to be carefully targeted, both in terms of station and time slot.
But Woloshin doesn't seem to be fretting over the career shift. "Sooner or later, this format was not going to keep going [at WMC]," he says. "There are too many sports entities here. I felt there would probably be a change. You get little signs; you can't even articulate them. But I didn't think it would happen till after the season was over. The timing is the thing that's most surprising."
Considering the ups and downs of this 52-year-old Chicago native's career, rolling with this punch seems very much in character.
Woloshin left Southern Illinois University -- without a degree -- for Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 1975. Choosing, as he says, to "be a ski bum and prolong my youth," Woloshin paid his bills as a bellman in a local hotel before responding to an ad for radio talent. He impressed the local station enough -- both with his broadcasting ability and sales talents -- that he wound up with a three-year gig, primarily covering high school football and basketball, though he also covered the Denver Nuggets when Larry Brown was their coach and David Thompson was their sky-walking star.
He returned to Southern Illinois in 1979 to finish his studies in broadcast journalism, graduating in 1980 and taking a television job with the CBS affiliate in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. From Cape Girardeau, Woloshin was lured to Memphis in 1981 by Charlie B. Watson -- then the sports anchor for Channel 13-WHBQ -- and news director Gary Rodemeir (now an anchor in Louisville). The gig as weekend sports anchor was a means for getting Woloshin's foot in the door of a major market and proved to be the launch point for a 25-year ride in Memphis sports media.
By Woloshin's estimation, he's broadcast no fewer than a dozen sports, locally and nationally. (He chuckles at the memory -- and his wardrobe -- of broadcasting ESPN2's very first college basketball game, with Jon Albright. The contestants? Towson State and John Calipari's Massachusetts Minutemen.) He's also been an eyewitness to a sea change in local sports. When he arrived in Memphis, Tiger basketball was essentially the only "major" sport. Memphis Chicks baseball? Consider that climate compared with a city that now has Triple-A baseball and, ahem, an NBA team.
"This city has grown up in every way," says Woloshin. "When I got here, everything was 10 minutes away. Now it's 20 minutes away. The marketplace really wasn't that sophisticated. [Memphis sports fans] are much more sophisticated now. They've grown up with ESPN; they understand the game a whole lot better. If you approached a casual fan during the [basketball] days at the Mid-South Coliseum, they might not have known the difference between a zone defense and man-to-man. They darn well know now."
Woloshin doesn't pause when asked his preference between hosting a studio show and play-by-play. "The games," he stresses. "I love the play-by-play. You're basically telling a story, painting a picture on radio. You're trying to be a periphery of understanding on television. It's so much fun for me, I don't look upon it as a challenge. Each night is a different story. Who would have figured [the basketball game at] East Carolina would have been the story it became? Who could have figured this young Tiger basketball team would go to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and do what they did? You never know what's going to happen, and that makes it so much fun.
"The older you get, the easier you'd think it would be to disengage [from a team]. When you're traveling with a team, though, and you're doing the coach's show, you become more engaged. You have to separate yourself more. You find yourself really wanting a team to win, but you've got to be objective about it."
Like anyone who witnessed the now-famous missed free throws by Darius Washington at the end of last March's Conference USA championship game, Woloshin came away impacted. "I was like everybody else," he reflects. "Here's a kid who collapses on the floor. Is he okay? He was a freshman, a baby-faced kid. If it's a senior who drops to the floor and cries -- a hardened guy with a beard who looks tough -- I don't think it's received the way it has been. But a kid with that infectious smile. It made everybody in the country reach out. Is the kid okay?"
If there's one word that now can strike fear in the heart of a radio host, it just might be "satellite." Jon Scobey is a longtime radio listener and once tuned in regularly to listen to Lapides. ("I think George does his homework," says Scobey.) But despite his thirst for University of Memphis sports and St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Scobey has given up on local voices and turned to satellite radio. "I've gotten so fed up with local sports radio shows that I've got XM Radio in my car so I don't have to bear it anymore," admits Scobey. "It's too much local stuff and not enough national news. And they don't seem to be as knowledgeable as I think they should be. [Former U of M play-by-play man] Jack Eaton was clearly a homer, but I at least found him humorous."
Does Scobey speak for the legion of sports fans in the Mid-South with 24-hour attention spans when it comes to sports? Not all of them. But Woloshin -- and his bosses at WMC -- would bristle at the fact that Scobey, while rooting for Memphis in last November's Tiger-Tennessee game, listened to the Volunteer broadcast on satellite.
Among the gripes voiced by Woloshin's listeners (and on Internet message boards) are that he doesn't give the score enough, that he's not enthusiastic enough (or that he's too enthusiastic), that he doesn't say "we" enough when referring to the Tigers, or that he says "U of M" too much (as opposed to "Memphis," presumably). Obviously, Tiger Nation can be a tough crowd.
Woloshin says he has worked at correcting the football-score reporting: "I give it at least once a series. Toward the end of the game, I try and give it every other down, if not more often.
"The 'University of Memphis' is too much to say. The truth is, if I said 'Memphis,' that would bother some people, because that's what Denny Crum used to say. I suppose I could say 'Tigers' all the time. I'm not playing for the team, so it's not 'we.' I believe I'm part of the family, but I'm not rebounding the ball, I'm not stealing the ball. It's the U of M. I believe in the Jack Buck theory of broadcasting: You let them know who you're for, but you've got to be somewhat objective. You can't please everybody. We were doing a show in 1985, and a guy calls in and says, 'Brent Musberger is terrible.' Another guy calls in and says, 'Vin Scully uses too many big words.' Another guy didn't like Bob Costas. You realize there is no way everybody is going to like you."
As for the presence of satellite radio, Woloshin doesn't buy the dire warnings. "There's always going to be a need for local [coverage]," he stresses. "If you want to know about the Tigers or the Redbirds or the Grizzlies, and you want to sound off, you're not calling XM Radio. When computers came in, everyone thought AP would go out of business. When television came along, everyone thought radio would go out of business. They just found another niche."
With a fiscal year that begins July 1st, it's in the U of M's budgetary interests to find a new radio deal well before the 2006 football season kicks off. Handling the negotiations for the university is Tiger Sport Properties (TSP), a subsidiary of Learfield Communications (based in Jefferson City, Missouri). TSP paid the U of M $5.5 million in 2001 for a five-year contract that gave the company exclusive multimedia rights for marketing Tiger sports. (The contract with TSP was recently renewed through 2011 and, according to associate athletic director Bob Winn, will pay the U of M an escalating annual fee that will reach a maximum of $2.5 million.)
TSP has been in negotiations for a new deal, as the current package with WMC expires at the end of this season. The company find itself in the unique position -- at least when it comes to Tiger sports history -- of selling two winners. With the football team having played in bowl games the last three seasons, and the basketball team firmly in the nation's top 10, the package has never appeared more valuable.
"Compared with the last deal we made with WMC," says TSP general manager Brent Seebohm, "things really couldn't be better than they are now."
TSP linked with WMC through a grandfather clause in the last contract (drawn up four years ago), and WMC retains the right to match any deal TSP makes with another station. Except for a 12-year run on KIX-106, WMC has been the only radio station to broadcast Tiger sports since 1959. But until a new arrangement is reached, WMC is not talking about its plans. Says WMC senior vice president Terry Wood, "We are still the final holder of the rights, and until such time as we actually turn them down, no one else can get them anyway." Seebohm says the aim is to have the new deal in place before the end of basketball season, allowing the necessary time for ad sales before football season kicks off in September.
One element to the search for a new Tiger radio home that might surprise regular listeners is that Woloshin is not necessarily a part of the package. The university retains a right of approval for its play-by-play voice, but a separate deal would have to first be reached between the announcer and the new station. Ask University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, though, and it appears Woloshin's spot on the team remains secure.
"Dave's very professional in his delivery," says Johnson, "and he's become more and more recognizable as the voice of the Tigers. His heart is definitely with us. I get complaints on him just as I get complaints on [football coach] Tommy West and John Calipari. But the overall theme has always been positive, more so lately than before Woloshin started broadcasting for us. There's a familiarity component, and [listeners] are comfortable with Dave.
"One thing I really like about Dave," adds Johnson, "is his enthusiasm and his willingness to emcee a banquet. For him to be present at a function as the voice of the Tigers is important for us."
So where will Woloshin wind up? Ask him now -- and remember his contractual obligation through April with WMC -- and he'll smile slightly, then assure you he'll have a show come April. "The greatest thing that could happen," he says, "would be an AM/FM combination where [Tiger] games are simulcast on both stations and the pre- and postgame shows aired on the AM station, to keep them alive. [Those shows] make the U of M more visible in the community. There's just not an AM signal that's as good as an FM signal. The major complaint I hear is about our signal, pure and simple. I hear people say you get to Collierville and you can't hear it."
The one given at this point is that Woloshin is a Memphian and will remain such for the near future. "The only time I'd consider leaving," he explains, "would be six or seven years from now, when both of my kids have graduated from high school. This is home."
A few picks and pans from 25 years covering Memphis sports.
Favorite moment: "When Tommy West and his wife walked into the lobby of the Marriott hotel in New Orleans after the Tigers won the New Orleans Bowl. It was packed, and when they walked in, people stood up like a wave. A coronation for the new king."
Favorite broadcast: "It wasn't even in Memphis. The first matchup in like 40 years between Georgetown and Maryland [basketball] on ESPN the Friday after Thanksgiving. Joe Smith was the star at Maryland."
Favorite interview: "John 'Bad Dog' McCormack [now with Rock 103] can do a great Muhammad Ali impersonation, young Ali or old. He was so believable that Harold Graeter from Channel 5 came over [to the WREC] offices to interview Ali."
Favorite athlete: "I still think Keith Lee is my favorite college basketball player. Though Elliot Perry was as clutch as I ever saw. And how special is DeAngelo Williams? He's as good off the field as he is on."
Favorite coach: "Charlie Bailey was a great guy. And the combination of Tommy West and John Calipari is so much fun for me, because both guys are articulate in different ways. They allow me to make fun of them and they make fun of me."
Low moment: "The U of M not being included in the Big East."
How good is this year's basketball team? "It could be a Final Four team."
Where will DeAngelo Williams be drafted? "I wish I knew. If you look at the mock drafts, you see anywhere from 4 to 22." -- FM