Welcome to the Pittsburgh Media Report, a new weekly feature on City of Champions.
Some of my favorite childhood memories involve listening to WDVE while a Pittsburgh Steelers game was on television.
As you may know if you’ve ever tried it, the audio is usually a half-second ahead of the video, but a little “clairvoyance” was tolerable as long as I could listen to Bill Hillgrove, Myron Cope and Tunch Ilkin instead of whichever national broadcasters were handling the TV side.
Cope got most of the publicity among that trio, and for good reason. A former feature writer for Sports Illustrated, Cope became a Pittsburgh legend through decades of sports talk radio work and enthusiastic color analysis during Steelers’ games.
But even though the inventor of the Terrible Towel’s squeaky voice dominated the radio booth, I was more captivated by Hillgrove. His steady baritone conveyed authority while he relayed the play-by-play, and his instinctive intonation let you know if a big moment was hatching. In short, he gave you everything you wanted out of a football broadcast.
Now in his 70s, Hillgrove still has those qualities, but something seems off lately. Unless we’re talking about baseball, which is the least taxing major sport to call, play-by-play is usually a young man’s game, and football may be getting too fast for the Lawrenceville, Pa., native.
Last week’s crazy final play between the Steelers and Dolphins left no doubt of that. It was a challenging call, but certainly one that an NFL-caliber play-by-play broadcaster could handle. As the Steelers lateraled several times, Hillgrove was well behind the action, leaving the listener with only a vague idea of what was happening. If not for Ilkin helping out by calling Antonio Brown‘s name as he was ruled out of bounds, anyone tuned in would’ve had to guess who had the ball and where he was on the field.
That type of general narration is acceptable on TV, but radio requires a sharp attention to detail and a rapid-fire delivery. A broadcaster on the radio serves as the listeners’ eyes and ears, and Hillgrove hasn’t been able to do that consistently in the past couple seasons, at least from my perspective.
I take no pleasure in noticing this, but I can’t be alone. Hillgrove has called Steelers games since taking over for the esteemed Jack Fleming in 1994 and he’s been the voice of Pitt football and men’s basketball for more than four decades. As you can hear during his call of James Harrison‘s 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl 43, Hillgrove has performed excellently for many years:
Unfortunately those virtuoso moments are fewer and further between these days. As the Steelers try to rebuild into a championship contender, now could be a perfect time for the organization to find a new voice for the future.
This can be a touchy subject to broach, but Hillgrove himself would likely tell you his best days are behind him. That’s natural in a demanding profession like broadcasting, even if it can be painful for all involved.
Line of the Week: Honoring the best, the brightest and the strangest
“Don’t you love how he protected that puck? He cut in like a…alpine skier!”
An interesting thought, although I think Malkin’s going to be too busy to ski during the upcoming Winter Olympics. Good to know his slalom skills can be put to good use on the rink.