FORMER SUBWAY ALUMNI LEADER REFLECTS ON HIS "NOTRE DAME ODYSSEY"
THE IRISH FOOTBALL NETWORK
The news began to spread like wildfire through the Notre Dame campus. South Bend was going to have a television station. The South Bend Tribune Company, which already monopolized the market with its only daily newspaper and its most powerful radio station, had received a permit from the Federal Communications Commission to commence operation of an ultra high frequency television station.
When I received the news from a student friend, who added that the Tribune was in the process of putting together a staff, I immediately thought, "This is the kind of excitement I can live with." "Maybe, just maybe," I thought, "there might be something for me in the sports department."
Pretty brash thinking for a young man whose only exposure to television thus far had been to take a group of small boys from Hammonton, N.J., winners of the Little League World Series title in 1949, to Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia for a brief pre-game TV salute. I never realized when I boarded a bus for downtown South Bend one day in 1951 that, not only would I be hired to assist the late Joe Boland, "the voice of Notre Dame football," in the operation of his Irish Football Network, but that it would be the beginning of an exciting and rewarding life in television and sports.
I went to work with Joe Boland in 1951, about a year after my arrival at Notre Dame. For the next six and a half years I worked side by side with him, whether in the Notre Dame press box atop the football stadium, helping with Irish Football Network broadcasts, or in our small sports office at WSBT-TV, helping to prepare daily radio and television sports shows. In those days, five days a week, Joe was given a full fifteen minutes each on radio and television for sports news and interviews. Always, the middle five minutes were reserved for an interview and, through the years I worked with him, I was privileged to meet celebrities from every field of sports endeavor. Sooner or later, it seemed, everyone who was anyone in sports was seated in our small office waiting for air-time to summon them into the studio. They included Willie Hoppe, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Ned Garver, Bob Rush, Frank Leahy, Terry Brennan, Ralph Guglielmi, Johnny Lattner, Paul Hornung, Eddie Arcaro and others too numerous to mention.
Many of these people you met once and never saw in person again, but some, like Ralph Guglielmi, remained friends. I still recall going to Rocco's Italian Restaurant with Ralph, who, after eating a spaghetti and meat balls dinner, would then order his pizza dinner. No wonder after leaving Notre Dame, he went into the production of "Guglielmi's Spaghetti Sauce."
In the years I worked with Joe Boland, I saw him angry only twice; once when the son of a dear and famous friend and coach asked for one handout too many, and the other when Notre Dame's Executive Vice President, Father Edmund P. Joyce, called to inform him that Notre Dame was abandoning its "open door" radio policy and awarding exclusive broadcast rights of its games to a major network. This, of course, spelled doom for the Irish Football Network which Joe had built from scratch and which had proven, by tilling virgin grounds, that Notre Dame football broadcasts were marketable anywhere in the country, even in predominantly Protestant areas.
Joe Boland was a man of deep character who had the courage of his convictions. As is said in the Kipling poem, he could "walk with kings and keep the common touch." To this day-thirty years after his death-whenever I am confronted with a problem, a tough decision or a challenge, I still ask myself, "What would Joe do if he were in this situation?"
From its humble beginning in 1947 to its final year in 1955, the Irish Football Network had grown by leaps and bounds to over 220 stations, the largest specialized radio sports network in existence. In addition to the national circulation of Boland's descriptions of Fighting Irish grid battles, Armed Forces Radio carried the bulk of his broadcasts around the world to the U.S. military. This extremely rapid development of a major broadcast system was a tribute to both the Notre Dame team's great appeal and to the organizational and broadcasting ability of Joe Boland. In competition with the older and larger football hookups of the big networks, the Irish Football Network gained top spot in radio pulse ratings in major markets across the country season after season.
Boland first conceived the idea of a nationwide, independent radio hookup for the Notre Dame games before the 1947 season. Through the urging of midwestern fans, he signed a handful of willing stations and sent through them the verbal picture of the 1947 battles. What enabled Joe to describe each game so vividly was his years of experience in playing and coaching the Fall sport. A native of Pennsylvania, Joe was a high school athletic star and was influenced by his high school coach, a Notre Dame graduate, to further his education at Notre Dame under a coach named Knute Rockne, just attaining maturity as a national football power. He broke into varsity football at Notre Dame as a tackle on the Four Horsemen team in 1924. He played regularly as one of Rockne's "shock troops" and, on January 1, 1925, played fifty minutes in Notre Dame's first and only appearance in the Rose Bowl, as they defeated Stanford, 27-10. He spent most of his senior football season in a hospital with a broken leg he received in that season's second game.
And Joe Boland was no stranger to the big time. In addition to broadcasting all Notre Dame games, home and away, he was play-by-play announcer to Chicago Cardinals football in the professional ranks. Even today, few announcers can top his 27-games-a-year pace in broadcasting football.
To say the least, it was a memorable experience sharing the broadcast booth with Joe Boland, to send the story of the Fighting Irish to the radio's of the world. Perhaps the most memorable incident occurred during the Georgia Tech game at Notre Dame Stadium in 1953 when Frank Leahy collapsed at half-time.
We were minutes into the second half. Boland was busy with play-by-play. Howie Murdock, Joe's color commentator, noticed that Frank Leahy was missing from the sideline. "Where's Leahy," he asked Joe through connecting headphones. "I don't see him," replied Boland. "It looks like McArdle's in charge," continued Howie. "It sure does," agreed Boland. Then, turning to me, "See what you can find out, Herb."
At that time the elevator had not yet been installed to the press box and there were 95 steps to the ground. Making my way toward the locker room I was passing the first aid room and noticed an attendant dressed in white guarding the entrance. "is something going on?", I asked. "There sure is," he replied. "Coach Leahy collapsed after the first half. Doctors are tending to him right now. They do not know yet if it was a heart attack, but he is conscious and talking. The doctors are continuing to check him over."
I thanked him for the information and started to walk away. "Wait a minute," he said, "this is not for publication, you know." "I know," I said, and headed for the steps to the press box. Ascending four steps at a time I reached the press box in short order and wrote what I had heard on a pad, handing it to Joe. At the earliest opportunity, he read it over the network, "scooping" all other broadcasters by twenty minutes. Needless to say, around the studios I was the Monday morning hero.
In 1954, Irish Football network broadcasts of Notre Dame football rated quite favorably in the following major markets:
Number ONE among eight stations.
These were PULSE football ratings for October-November, 1954, by 'The PULSE,' Inc., New York, N.Y. In 1955, these ratings were the same or better, as the Irish Football Network served over 220 radio stations in over thirty states, the District of Columbia and the Territory of Hawaii. After that, Notre Dame lowered the boom and the unique network was forced to close its operation.
As soon as the Irish Football Network settled into history, I conceived the idea for what I believed was a feasible alternative with at least good potential. Why not, I thought, a STARS AND STRIPES FOOTBALL NETWORK, featuring weekly broadcasts involving one or two service academy football teams? Even Joe Boland thought the idea was excellent, but when the Mutual Broadcasting System, about to begin its coverage of the Notre Dame games, hired Joe to share play-by-play of its broadcasts with Harry Wismer, any participation by Joe in my brain-child would have to be postponed.
Still undaunted, I continued to develop my idea, all the while thinking of other possible play-by-play announcers. In 1958, Notre Dame came to my rescue. They fired Terry Brennan at the end of the football season and cleared the way for me to contact him. After all, I thought, hadn't Joe Boland and I been the first to congratulate him after his appointment to succeed Frank Leahy in 1953? And hadn't Terry and Joe and I posed for a photo together in our sports office on the very day of that appointment?
I received Terry Brennans reply to my letter in March of 1959 under the Cincinnatti Baseball Club Co. letterhead. He said in part:
"I think your idea for the Armed Services Network is a very good one. I am definitely interested in checking on it. My weekends would be free next fall and I would be able to take part in this venture if it is workable. Let me know what transpires. We can work from there."
Unfortunately, nothing more transpired. I became occupied in other areas and the Stars and Stripes Football Network was never hoisted to the top of the transmitter.
Those years with Joe Boland at WSBT-TV were a truly broadening experience. I learned to write and produce radio and television news broadcasts. I learned how to market a radio sports network. I gained studio production skills. I worked countless hours on both sides of the camera. And I was tapped by Oliver Parcher, producer of the area's most popular television show, "Hoosier Favorite," to become one if its stars.
During the decade of the 50's, the "Hoosier Favorite" television show became a household name in South Bend and surrounding areas. Even in competition with the big network programs, it rated remarkably high, second only to Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners." In those days, if I might indulge myself, I was a dashing, handsome young man with hair and teeth all in proper array, and in short order became somewhat of a celebrity. I soon began to accept invitations to make personal appearances at Boy Scout jamborees, at mother and daughter banquets, at the crippled children's hospital, and at the Oliver Hotel, where George Gipp often appeared at a poker table.
Once I accepted an invitation to entertain in the living room of Mrs. Robert Manford at a pre-Christinas gathering of neighbors and friends. Twenty years later, in 1973, I was a sports announcer at WNDU-TV, the Notre Dame station. Busy putting together my sports show one afternoon, I was interrupted by a newsman who entered with a guest. "Herb," he said, "Have you met Mayor Miller?" Rising with outstretched hand, I said, "No, I haven't. Mister Mayor, it's a pleasure." "Oh," replied the mayor, "But we have met." "We have?" I asked, and added, "Am I forgetting something?" "Remember that night you entertained in Mrs. Manford's living room," he said. "I was there with my parents in the audience."
There were other aspects of this new-found fame that could be put to good use. I began to get myself invited to high schools in the area to speak to assemblies of students. My talk was entitled "The Student Vocation" and had as its underlying theme Christian Charity. Once the editor of the South Bend Tribune decided to commend me, in print, for these talks and referred to me as "Little Bishop Sheen."
In 1976, the University decided to add a small section to its Cedar Grove Cemetery and offered a limited number of burial lots to its faculty and staff. I always felt I wanted to be buried at Notre Dame, and so I wasted no time in purchasing one of the new lots. Much to my joy, the lot assigned to me is but a few feet from the place where Joe Boland rests. I'll be seeing you, Joe.