Johnny Majors was asked to comment on his relationship with John Ward, the former University of Tennessee play-by-play announcer who enjoyed great popularity with his audience and was often introduced as "The best sportscaster in the United States'' at Volunteers pep rallies.
Majors gave a short answer about Ward. Then, without prompting, he talked about Bill Hillgrove.
For the next several minutes, the veteran football coach -- who worked on a daily basis with play-by-play announcers as prestigious as Lindsey Nelson and Jack Cristil during his career --effusively praised Hillgrove, the longtime "Voice of the Panthers.''
That shouldn't be a surprise. Hillgrove has an every-man quality mixed with technical broadcasting knowledge that will endear him to Panthers fans for his 40th season next fall. And he has no signs of slowing down.
"As long as my health holds up,'' the 68-year-old Hillgrove said. "I'm having too much fun to stop.''
This is the 50th year Hillgrove has been a professional announcer. During that time, he:
• Took perhaps the first step in establishing WTAE-AM as one of the country's premier sports radio stations by creating the "Musical Scoreboard'' in 1967.
• Worked alongside premier football analysts Johnny Sauer, Mark May and Myron Cope, among others.
• Became arguably the definitive Pittsburgh television sports anchor in an era where he was surrounded by and competed against many other talented television sportscasters in the market, then reinvented himself as a full-time play-by-play broadcaster when in his mid-50s.
• Won the Chris Schenkel Award in 2007 for "enjoying a long and distinguished career broadcasting college football at a single institution.''
• Also, Hillgrove won $540 for St. Anthony's School For Exceptional Children in Oakmont in 1979 on Nick Perry's legendary "Bowling For Dollars'' program. A "You Tube'' short -- http://youtube.com/watch?v=KcO-27Y6CH -- actually links to how Hillgrove got his start.
Hillgrove played a self-described "13-year-old brat'' for a charity skit called "Morning, Noon and Night'' for the Pittsburgh Diocese Radio & TV School, which would appear on local stations such as WDUQ, WMCK and WEDO.
Hillgrove had youthful ambitions to be a major league baseball player, but by his late teens Hillgrove was able to secure a position as an announcer at WKJF-FM (now B-94) in 1959. It wasn't a position that allowed him great freedom to ad-lib on the air.
Before making an announcement for news, public service announcements or commercials, Hillgrove was required to push a button that muted his voice to the receivers in stores that carried the station's programming.
"It was elevator music, but because it was hi-fi a lot of people listened to it,'' Hillgrove said. "The only time I was able to push the envelope was when I hosted a 'Saturday Night Dance Party.' That's when I could announce the records. We played mostly big bands at the parties, but that gave me an appreciation of American popular music.''
Six years later, after graduating from Duquesne University, he moved into television as a staff announcer at WTAE-TV, reading station identifications and giving an occasional weather forecast.
"It was boring to tears,'' Hillgrove remembered.
But after a couple of years, his sports work helped begin WTAE's status as a premier sports radio station, as well as establish his identity as a sportscaster.
"Del Taylor wanted to come up from radio, and I was asked if I wanted to go to radio and do an evening show,'' Hillgrove said.
The idea was to compete with KDKA broadcasts of the Pirates with Hillgrove giving scores between records. The show began in August, 1967, a year before Myron Cope was hired to provide commentaries. Two years later, WTAE secured the rights for Pitt broadcasts from WWSW, which paved the way to Hillgrove's current status as "The Voice of the Panthers.''
"I was asked 'Have you done play-by-play?' I did some at WDUQ in college and (some) high school football,'' Hillgrove said.
Thus began one of the most recognizable associations between team and announcer in college sports history. Hillgrove first worked men's basketball games alongside Ed Conway, a popular television sports and newscaster. Pitt's award for the most-improved football players each spring is named after him.
"I think the public just expects (former athletes to be color commentators) today,'' Hillgrove said. "It's just the way it's done. Former players can be more analytical.''
When Conway passed in 1974, Hillgrove began calling play-by-play for the football team as well with Johnny Sauer as his partner. Hillgrove also was paired with former Pitt wideout Billy Osborn and currently works with former Panthers offensive lineman Bill Fralic.
Hillgrove's most memorable moment during that time was the day Tony Dorsett broke the NCAA rushing record at Navy in 1976.
"The 20, the 15, the 10,'' Hillgrove said. "Dorsett on his feet into the end zone. He goes in for a 32-yard touchdown run. And the Panther bench is down there. Everybody has run into the end zone, risking a penalty, but they're going to congratulate Tony Dorsett. Even the Navy cannon has gone off. Tony Dorsett has become the all-time leading rusher in the history of football.''
In the emotion of the moment, even the Navy brigade doffed its caps. Hillgrove and Sauer were both in tears.
"Think about that,'' Hillgrove said. "Sauer had coached at Army and The Citadel. He coached with Red Blaik and Vince Lombardi (and) never developed an allegiance to any team, but he developed allegiance to Pitt.''
Hillgrove eventually succeeded Jack Fleming as the Steelers' play-by-play voice and worked with Cope until his retirement a few years ago.
"He was so full of color,'' Hillgrove said. "Cope related to the fans because he was one of them.''
Hillgrove never applied for the position, but Steelers owner Dan Rooney compared resume tapes to clips of Hillgrove's Pitt broadcasts and lobbied for the club to hire him for the position.
The Steelers job allowed Hillgrove to leave the grind of 6 and 11 p.m. sports anchoring and focus on being a full-time play-by-play announcer. As the voice of an NFL franchise and two major college sports teams, Hillgrove matches Wes Durham, Gene Deckerhoff, Bill King and Jack Buck as announcers for three major sports teams. This is Hillgrove's proudest achievement.
"There are about 100 Division-I college football announcers, 300 Division-I college basketball announcers and only 32 NFL announcers,'' Hillgrove said.
There were many milestones in those years announcing three sports. For Pitt basketball, Hillgrove said working with his boyhood idol, Dick Groat, in the Big East title game in 2001 was the best.
"Walking down to the corridor at Madison Square Garden to press row was something you don't forget,'' Hillgrove said.
Hillgrove calls Fralic "quietly loquacious,'' added that "his energy isn't the same, but listen to what he says. He knows the game.''
Hillgrove doesn't know how many more special moments are ahead for him, but he's certainly optimistic about the 2008 Pitt football season.
"I'll be disappointed if they don't win nine games,'' Hillgrove said. "The defense is terrific.''
Hillgrove Has Historic Career
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