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Sports

Johnny on the spot

The first time I heard Johnny Holliday broadcast a University of Maryland basketball game was the winter of 1982. I was driving through some Eastern Shore backwater at night, and it was freezing cold, and the only light inside my little Toyota was the glow of the radio dial.

I was bored and turned on the radio and suddenly this voice came out of the ether, vibrant and smooth, like it'd been soaking in baby oil: Adrian Branch from the top of the key ... jumper is no good ... he's fouled!In radio, the gods either give you the voice, or they don't.

And I knew one thing: Johnny Holliday got the voice. It wasn't the deep, booming voice-of-God that some in his business get, maybe in exchange for a pound of flesh. But it was the perfect sportscaster's voice, clipped and resonant and full of passion, and I thought: Whoever this guy is, he sure as hell isn't bored.

Now, all these years later, Johnny Holliday is in his 24th season as the voice of the Terrapins' men's basketball and football teams, and boredom still isn't one of his problems.

Long synonymous with Maryland sports - he'll be on the air again tomorrow night when the Terps play Hampton - he's been through the good times and the bad times: the Peach Bowl win in Atlanta for Ralph Friedgen's team last week and all those football Saturdays when Byrd Stadium was as quiet as 3 in the morning; the national championship season for Gary Williams and the Terps last year and all those sad years at Cole Field House after the great Len Bias snorted cocaine and dropped dead, when it seemed Maryland basketball was buried in the cold ground along with him.

And the thing you notice right away about Johnny Holliday every time he puts on the headset and does play-by-play is this: He still has the passion.

"Every call that he makes ... you would think it was the most important game on the planet that day," says Chris Knoche, the color analyst on Terps basketball broadcasts who has worked with Holliday the past four years. "Whether they're playing Duquesne or whether they're playing Duke. And that's very difficult to do."

"Well," Holliday laughs, "if this was work, it'd be one thing."

But it is work, although few love their work - or make it look easier - than Johnny Holliday.

At 65, he's still the James Brown of sportscasting, the hardest-working guy in the business. Besides calling Terps football and basketball games and serving as co-host for TV and radio shows with Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen, he's up at 4:30 every morning to tape daily sports reports for ABC Radio. He's also the co-host of a syndicated show called Catholic Radio Weekly.

As the Terps director of broadcasting, he also handles all sorts of speaking duties for the university, such as sports banquets and golf outings, and cuts commercials. Until recently, he also did announcing gigs for TV shows - including ABC's This Week With David Brinkley and This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

Did we mention he also covered the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics for ABC Radio, as well as the Winter and Summer Olympics in '84, '88 and '94? And he does musical theater work in the off-season? (He played Harold Hill in The Music Man last year.) And raises a ton of money for charity?

It's a hefty resume for a guy who spent the early part of his 45-year career in broadcasting as a Top 40 DJ with the coolest name on the airwaves (he was born John Holliday Bobbitt), a guy who openly admits to leaning into a microphone in those days in Cleveland, New York and San Francisco and spewing such now-cringe-inducing AM patter as:

Welcome into the Johnny Holliday glass cage with the old refugee from the Sunshine State to serve up our cream of the pop crop, here's Bob and Earl, shakin' a tail feather, doin' the monkey time with "Harlem Shuffle" on the Fabulous 50 Tunedex tune spot at No. 2 ...

Hoo, boy. Anyway, it's all in his new book, Johnny Holliday: From Rock to Jock, which came out late last year.

Except, OK, it's not all in his book, because the book is only 231 pages long. And to properly chronicle Holliday's career - pitching in Yankee Stadium in a celebrity media game, introducing the Beatles at Candlestick Park in '66, cutting a jeans commercial with Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane and playing basketball with Sly of Sly and the Family Stone, the move to sports and WMAL radio in Washington, this incredible run that spans three decades at College Park - you'd end up wiping out 30 acres of forest for the paper.

"I've been blessed," he says of his colorful career, which he somehow managed to pull off while raising three daughters with his wife, Mary Clare.

But the point is, Johnny Holliday has never seemed happier - or been more popular - than at this time in his life. He still loves doing Maryland play-by-play, and this winter he gets to do a lot of it from the gleaming new Comcast Center, college basketball's latest Taj Mahal.

As he'd be the first to tell you, that ain't exactly like breaking rocks in the hot sun. And it may help explain why Holliday - at an age when other men are thinking about quitting the rat race and working on their golf handicaps - remains unburdened by any thoughts of hanging up the mike.

"Oh, God, no!" says Holliday when asked if he ever thinks about retirement. "Doesn't even cross my mind. I don't look forward to it, I'll tell you that."

Some sportscasters, you get the feeling you'd have to pry the mike from their cold, dead fingers before they quit the game.

But not Holliday.

With Holliday, he'll give it up as soon as it stops being fun.

A calm approach

It's a little after 7 on a chilly weeknight at Piv's Pub in Timonium. The WBAL-Radio radio broadcast of The Gary Williams Show is about to begin, except there seems to be a slight problem, the slight problem being Gary Williams is nowhere to be found.

A call to Williams' cell phone reveals the Terps coach is stuck in rush-hour traffic. The Washington beltway was a parking lot and the Baltimore beltway is its usual charming, traffic-choked mess. He says he's about 15 minutes away.

Unfazed, Holliday smoothly starts the show, recapping the Terps' recent fortunes, analyzing their embarrassing loss to surprising Notre Dame and taking a call from a listener.

When Williams finally arrives to a warm hand from the audience, he looks like a man who is seconds away from a major aneurysm.

But after a few sympathetic remarks about the traffic, Holliday calmly steers the conversation back to Maryland basketball with a couple of innocuous questions, and they take another call. Soon, Williams is refocused on the show, and his blood pressure begins inching down from its previous vein-bursting levels.

The moment illustrates the comfortable relationship between Holliday and Williams, who have known each other since the latter, a guard for the Terps in the mid-'60s, returned to College Park 14 years ago to rebuild a program still reeling from the death of Bias.

"Johnny's part of the program," Williams says. "He's been through the tough times as well as the good times, and I respect that. It gets to be more than an announcer and coach - we're friends.

"We kid each other. There's not a lot of things sacred between the two of us, which is good. John's earned it all on the sidelines."

Friedgen also calls Holliday a friend and says: "It's an honor for me to work with him."

But the moment at Piv's Pub also highlights the fine line Holliday walks calling games and doing radio and TV gigs with the coaches at Maryland, which, after all, pays his salary.

Don't be too critical, is the unspoken message broadcasters receive from coaches and fans alike. Don't tick off the coach, stay on his good side, or the next broadcast you sign off on may be your last. It leaves broadcasters like Holliday open to charges of being "homers" who unquestioningly support the home team and never give credit to its opponents.

"I think Johnny does a really good job - almost a perfect job - of support for the home team, support for the school colors, but ... he's not afraid to say it like it is," says Knoche. "And if things are going poorly, it doesn't get sugar-coated."

Williams agrees. He says most listeners think "it's OK if Johnny roots for Maryland a little bit. But they want to know what's going on out there, too. They don't want just a one-sided deal. And I think Johnny gives that.

"You know he's a Maryland guy. He wouldn't deny that. But at the same time, if the other team plays well, I think the people know it out there."

Calls it as he sees it

"I don't want to be a homer," Holliday says. "I don't think anyone has ever questioned any game that I've done, that I've been unduly unfair to Maryland or the other team. I call it the way I see it. If the other team has a kid that's got 45 points, he's doing something right. You gotta give him credit. If you don't do that, I think you lose any kind of credibility with the audience."

"Aw, I think everyone knows he's biased, just by the enthusiasm in his voice," says Friedgen with a chuckle.

Gerry Sandusky, sports director at WBAL-TV and Holliday's partner on Maryland football broadcasts for four years until 1996, says Holliday has increasingly learned to rely on his color analyst for any pointed criticism of the Terps.

Sandusky recalled a game the two were working during the dreary tenure of head coach Mark Duffner, when Maryland was getting its brains beaten out every weekend and a controversy arose about the lack of production from the Terps' offense.

"Johnny said: `I can't rip this guy for not replacing his offensive coordinator,'" Sandusky recalls. "I said: `Yeah, but I can."

One thing that's endured over all these years is the irreverence Holliday can bring to a broadcast, the sense that, OK, maybe this is a big game - Maryland vs. Duke in basketball, say, or the Terps against Florida State in football. But it's not the invasion of Iraq.

"One thing that's very evident to anyone who listens to him is that he wants to have fun," says Knoche.

Sandusky and Holliday had an on-air routine going years ago where each man would accuse the other of bizarre fashion sense.

"John," Sandusky would say, "I'd never imagine a man your age could pull off a green Spandex thong. But you've done it."

"Yeah," Holliday would reply, "but as good as I look, it's not nearly as snappy as you look in that blue velour tank top."

The great Howard Cosell tormented Holliday similarly when the two worked at ABC Radio years ago.

Holliday would be preparing his report when Cosell, in his trademark nasally, melodramatic voice, would demand, apropos of nothing: "Does Mary Clare know you're the father of Sally Quinn's child?"

"What's that, Howard?" Holliday would answer, engrossed in his work.

"YOU'RE THE FATHER OF SALLY QUINN'S CHILD!" Cosell would roar. "DOES YOUR WIFE KNOW YOU'VE BEEN MESSING AROUND WITH SALLY QUINN?"

"Um, I don't think she knows," Holliday would deadpan.

Without another word, Cosell would finish his work and leave the room.

But when he saw Holliday the next day, he'd start right in: "You and Sally Quinn, still a twosome?"

Often, Holliday is at his funniest - and best - as a sportscaster during lopsided games.

"Blowouts are much harder to do," says Brett Bessell, who has worked as Holliday's statistician for 19 years. " 'Cause you have to keep the crowd, and that's tough."

Such a blowout occurs on a recent night at Comcast Center, where Maryland is beating undermanned UMBC like a rented mule. A few minutes into the second half, the score is 63-32 Terps, and Holliday and Knoche are free-wheeling their way through the broadcast.

Holliday is still giving all the play-by-play basics - the score, who took the shot, who got the rebound, etc. But the rest of the time, he and Knoche are discussing, among other things, the '60s rock band Country Joe and the Fish, referee Duke Edsall's haircut, and whether a particular UMBC player, who blows kisses to the Maryland fans after hitting a jumper while his team is getting whacked, has completely lost touch with reality.

A thunderous dunk by Jamar Smith interrupts the stream-of-consciousness musing: Nice pass to Smith ... and he jams it home! That's what the fans are looking for!

But the fans are already heading to the exits. With five minutes left, Williams empties his bench and what follows is "garbage time," as the scrubs from both teams ugly it up.

Still, when the final buzzer sounds, Johnny Holliday is smiling.

Maybe it's a meaningless game against an outgunned team on a frozen winter night.

But it's Maryland basketball and he has the best seat in the house and they keep paying him, too.

After all these years, that's still not hard to take.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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