Full of stories and emotion, college football bids farewell to Verne Lundquist
Lundquist's storied career at CBS will continue, but he will leave the pageantry of college football behind
ATLANTA -- There have been enough tears on this Verne Lundquist farewell tour to fill a production truck.
"I'm an emotional guy," said the 76-year-old face of the SEC on CBS. "I cry at the opening of a refrigerator door -- especially if there is a ham sandwich inside."
As the moment draws near when we will no longer hear and see Lundquist on football Saturdays, the inevitability has sacked us.
On the eve of his last SEC on CBS game with Lundquist -- the two will link up one last time for the Army-Navy game on Saturday, marking a record-setting ninth call of the game by Verne -- producer Craig Silver began the usual Friday production meeting last week with a lump in his throat.
"You are a treasure," Silver said, pointing to Lundquist in front of about 50 staff preceding last Saturday's SEC Championship Game. "You got me. You always had me."
The night before, seemingly everyone who ever cared about Merton Laverne Lundquist Jr. gathered at Bones, an upscale downtown Atlanta restaurant, to say goodbye. Poems were read, toasts were offered. Memories relived.
Someone gave Verne a cowboy hat because, well, that just seemed to be the thing to do.
He had already accepted every other kind of knickknack at various stops on what has unabashedly been a grand goodbye for the voice and face of the SEC on CBS.
Texas A&M gave him a pair of cowboy boots. Peyton Manning came up to the booth. At Georgia, 92,000 folks at Sanford Stadium turned to the booth and yelled, "Yes sir!" in reference to Lundquist's signature call of Jack Nicklaus' birdie putt at No. 17 during the 1986 Masters.
At Alabama, Joe Namath, clad in his famous fur coat, laid a kiss on Uncle Verne as they went to commercial break.
"My career," Lundquist said, "is complete."
Verne isn't leaving, he's just cutting back. It was mutually decided with CBS in May that this would be his last season calling college football. But those pipes haven't been silenced. We'll just hear them less.
Lundquist will continue calling college basketball, the NCAA Tournament and golf events including the Masters and PGA Championship. While last Saturday was his final SEC game, this Saturday will be his last college football telecast.
But it's possible a grand 50-plus-year career will be remembered most for these past 17 SEC seasons. Somewhere in that span, a respected broadcaster defined his career.
If the SEC became a CBS franchise as the conference rose to power, Lundquist became The Franchise -- the first voice you heard at what has become the hallowed 3:30 p.m. ET broadcast window.
"I think the branding of 3:30 Saturday and Verne Lundquist being from outside the footprint helped the brand," said Gary Danielson, who has provided the color to Lundquist's play-by-play for the past 11 seasons.
Instead, the SEC got a guy who had come up doing the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, golf, even Olympic figure skating.
"It's been the greatest boost in my professional life," Lundquist once said of the SEC.
CBS typically has the first choice of the best SEC game for that 3:30 slot. That meant the likes of Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel grew up before our eyes.
Les Miles ate grass on CBS's air. Nick Saban's sideline rants -- directed at Lane Kiffin and others -- became legend.
Both LSU and Alabama became national powers -- again -- since Verne started in 2000. The Prayer in Jordan-Hare, the Kick Six. Whatever that was at Georgia this season when Tennessee won on a Hail Mary.
"You knew, by God, 3:30 [was here]," Lundquist said. "We truly did have the best game in the best conference."
It's true. If tears were touchdowns, the SEC would've had a much better season on the field. High above it, though, Verne made a graceful departure.
Here's a glimpse behind the scenes as Verne walked away last weekend ...
The Terry Bradshaw story
This one comes courtesy of Lundquist as he MC'd the SEC Legends Dinner, the night before his final SEC game.
In 1984, Lundquist was paired with Terry Bradshaw calling the NFL.
"There were eight announcing teams doing the NFL. We were a decisive No. 8," Lundquist said.
Bradshaw had the brilliant idea of inventing an imaginary player to insert into the broadcast. Somehow the idea made it through the producer and the filter of, you know, truth.
For that entire season, Willie Anderson, a free-agent defensive back from Colby College, was always in on a tackle or a block on special teams.
He never existed.
"And we never got caught," Lundquist said.
The SEC story
Lundquist was famously asked by CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus to take over on the SEC in 2000. At the time, it was perceived as a demotion from the NFL, where he was part of the No. 2 announcing team.
But Lundquist soon fell in love with a part of the college game that just wasn't that significant in the pros. The bands.
"As silly as it sounds, I got sold on the bands. I love the atmosphere they provide. I love the respect for tradition," he said.
"It was about 12 years ago, early in this thing," Lundquist added. "We were doing the Iron Bowl. Both bands play at halftime. [My wife] Nancy was standing with me on the lower level of the booth. We were basking in all this pageantry.
"I leaned over to her and said, 'OK, tell the truth. Would you rather be doing this or Cincinnati and Detroit?'"
The conductor story
Lundquist's love of music doesn't stop at the drum major. At a head table Friday night sat David and Julie Coucheron of the Atlanta Symphony, guests of Verne.
David, 32, plays violin. His sister Julie, 30, is a pianist. They are natives of Norway. The met Verne and Nancy while playing concerts on a Norwegian cruise.
It turns out Verne really loves classical music.
"We thought they were a couple that just wanted to have dinner with us, which happens all the time," David said. "We developed a really keen friendship.
"Verne wanted to be a conductor originally. We'd like to see if there was a way to have him as a narrator for the Atlanta symphony sometime. That would be awesome.
"It's not often you see someone in sports so interested in music. It reveals part of his character, I think."
The Doak Walker story
That character was revealed in 2001 before Verne's second season on the SEC. Skeeter Walker, wife of beloved friend Doak Walker, had died.
Lundquist and Doak Walker were as tight as they come. The former Heisman winner at SMU bonded with the broadcaster as neighbors in Dallas, then in Colorado.
For 15 years, they sponsored a golf tournament for their friends in Steamboat Springs.
"College football for me was Doak Walker," Lundquist said. "I just adored the guy. I began playing tackle football in blue jeans and tennis shoes in 1947, listening to him on the radio."
Doak and Skeeter were both skiers. Verne once counted 276 skiing awards in Doak's home along with that 1948 Heisman Trophy above a fireplace.
During the first year Sports Illustrated was published (1954), Doak (then with Detroit Lions), Skeeter (a world-class skier) and her brother Buddy all appeared on the cover.
Doak died in 1998. At his sister's funeral, Skeeter's brother Loris asked Verne to take one of his family's most treasured heirlooms -- those three covers in a frame.
"I've got it hanging up in Nancy's office," he said. "I look at that and tear up almost every time."
The Kick Six story
Milton recalls driving back from Auburn that fateful night three years ago following the Kick Six that pushed the Tigers to the SEC title and eventually the final BCS national title game.
Lundquist's call of Chris Davis' return is considered a modern masterpiece of sports broadcasting.
"It was just he and I in the car," Milton said. "We got back to the hotel. We went down to the lobby. I'm sitting next to Verne Lundquist after that game, just the two of us having a drink. I was thinking, 'Who's got it better than I do?'
"All this year, I think of those times. It's making me sad. I'm not saying I took it for granted, but now I can't take it for granted anymore. The window is closing really fast."
Gary Danielson's stories
Danielson joined Lundquist as CBS analyst in 2006. That's when they became a couple, the golden throat and the former Purdue quarterback. That's when the whole thing became a franchise.
Danielson loved his time at ABC having previously worked with Brad Nessler and Brent Musburger, but ...
"Something was [missing]," Danielson said. "It just felt like I would do a game in the Big Ten and then I go to the Big 12 and then the ACC. It just felt like I was helicoptering in on games.
"I really thought the SEC was going to take flight with all the money being spent. I really didn't know what I was looking for. When I got here, I realized I wanted to be part of a team."
With Verne and Gary, the SEC on CBS became appointment television. They were the out-front guys as the SEC rose to prominence. It was different, really, than everything else.
Different than ESPN, the Big Ten Network, Longhorn Network. This was the best game in the best conference on broadcast television. You didn't need a cable subscription. All you needed was a remote.
Danielson noticed how big it had become "when social media started to break out. It wasn't always easy."
That's when the concept of Uncle Verne was born. Lundquist not only rolled with it, he owned the fun being poked at him.
"This league will eat you alive if you're not ready for it," Milton said. "I know they've embraced him. The rabid fans will always be outspoken. The people that go on Twitter ... do it to get somebody, but they're going to miss this guy."
The story of the end
Silver's crew produced a fitting tribute video. Instead of one shining moment, there were several.
In and around the Georgia Dome, others had weighed in that weekend.
"We will hear him for eternity on the rebroadcast of SEC games," Sankey said.
"He's not telling you what happened, he's enjoying it with you. That's an unbelievable skill," Danielson said.
"Verne is 70-something-years-old and there's not a lot of them that can take instruction. He is one of the most prepared, if not the most prepared, [I've seen]," Milton said.
"Did I ever expect this in my life?" Verne reflected. "No, not at all. To have it come along so late in my life professionally just makes it all that much more meaningful."
So meaningful that it became very weepy in that CBS broadcast booth last Saturday night. You can hear them -- the crew, the Coucherons, Nancy -- clapping in the background as Verne and Gary signed off for the final time together on an SEC game.
Danielson reminded Verne what he said after Joshua Dobbs threw that Hail Mary at Georgia.
"I'm really going to miss this."
"College football," Danielson said, "is going to miss you more, my friend."
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