Eric's Heroes: Cougar Gold -- the legend that is WSU's Bob Robertson

    Bob Robertson sits in the broadcast booth at WSU's Martin Stadium (KOMO Photo)

    PULLMAN, Wash. -- I can paint the picture in my mind with ease.

    It's fall. Sunny but chilly. I'm in the garage with my Dad, and we're pulling out an engine, or building something. I'm just a kid, 9 or 10, and I'm handing him tools, or cleaning up, or just hanging out watching.

    There's a bench in his shop, and on the bench is a radio. And coming out of the radio is the most magnificent sound. It's Bob Robertson doing play-by-play for the Washington State Cougars.

    It's a hoarse, raspy voice going a mile a minute, describing formations and plays with an emphasis on the E's. "Jack Thomson, from Evergreeeeen High School... wearing number fourteeeeen on his jerseyyyyy... throws for Pat Beeeech..."

    I was transfixed then by Bob's voice. I still am.

    For some time now he's been locked in a battle of wills against Time.

    "Stay down, you've had enough," said Time. "Not yet I haven't," said Bob Rob. And he kept broadcasting.

    He's walked the planet for 89 years. And when he entered the broadcast booth at Martin Stadium for the final time a couple weeks ago, a sign outside the room bore his name. And if he were to walk into the booth at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, home of the Rainiers, his name is there too. And in Spokane, where the Indians play baseball, the broadcast booth says the same thing. It says, "Bob Robertson".

    He would go anywhere and broadcast anything: college football, minor league baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, you name it. He would take a plane or drive himself. All seasons, all sports. It didn't matter. And he would fire up that engine of his, and he would start talking and telling stories.

    God, but that man could broadcast!

    I sat down with him a while back, partly because I knew this day would come, the day he would retire. But also because any excuse to talk to Bob Robertson is a good one. As always, he was gracious and understated and decent.

    This was his 52nd year of calling Cougar football. "To do anything for 52 years you have to love it," I said. "Do you still love it?"

    "I do." said Bob. "Yes, I do love it. It's special."

    I think I asked the wrong question. The better one would have been, "Do you think you could live WITHOUT it?"

    The Washington State numbers alone boggle the mind: 589 games called, with an astounding 564 of them in a row. But then you throw in 30-years of calling minor league baseball. A couple seasons doing Notre Dame football, and yes, even three years calling games for the Huskies.

    And then you add the Sounders soccer games, and hockey games, and boxing matches and hydroplane races and wrestling matches. And oh yeah, he did WSU basketball games for 23 years, and did it well. Cougar P.A. announcer Glenn Johnson laughs as he recounts the time he heard Bob yell into his microphone at courtside, "These refs stink so bad I can smell 'em from here!"

    But the numbers, the sheer volume of the man's body of work only tells one part of the story, because I'm here to tell you that when Bob Robertson was at the top of his game, he was a thing to behold. An editor here at KOMO, Joe Wren, dug up some old WSU film the other day. It was from 1977, and it is fantastic.

    There is Bob, standing in the old open air press box at Martin Stadium. He's wearing an open-neck shirt with a V-neck sweater. His hair is wavy and beginning to gray and he looks like a Rodin sculpture of what a sportscaster should look like.

    He has a headset on, and a couple rosters on a piece of paper in one hand. And that is all. No color commentator. No spotter. No stat guy. No TV monitor. Hardly any notes.

    He's fidgety and full of pent-up energy. Restless, pacing. He's like a lion in a wheat field, attacking the game.

    "So, this afternoon's football game is the Washington State Cougars and the Idaho University Vandals..." His eyes are scanning, describing what he sees. He spots the home team running out onto the field.

    "And here come the Cougars!" he yells, and the crowd roars and he lets moment breathe.

    There's a surety about him, as you watch the film. A confidence. And that rhythm, like a beautiful engine just idling, purring.

    "Wide side to the left, split backs now, wide men out both ways. Jack Thompson the quarterback... the draw... hit at the 30 yard line."

    But like all engines, he loved to roar.

    "Gillam and Doornik in the backfield, back to pass goes Thompson. Throws over the middle, the man there Levenseller with the catch... at the 10... looking for the end zone... the five... TOUCHDOWN WASHINGTON STATE!"

    You realize watching the film that here is a man with a crystal clear mind, clicking on all cylinders, and that gravelly, raspy roar with the rolling staccato rhythm is like a chainsaw carving Cougar Gold.

    And there's something else the old film reveals. After each play, incredibly, he reaches down in mid-sentence and works an abacus.

    I'm serious. He kept total yardage stats on an abacus.

    "It was so I could have some statistics for halftime and postgame," he says now. "We didn't have computers in those days. We couldn't speed through that stuff."

    Bob didn't go to school at Washington State. In fact, he barely went to college at all. There was a very short stint at Western, and that was it. But during that stint he took a speech class. The teacher asked the students what they wanted to do for their careers. Bob said he wanted to be a baseball player.

    "Besides that." said the teacher.

    Bob thought for a moment and said, "Well, I might like to be a radio announcer."

    A girl in the class, sitting across from him piped up without hesitation, "YOU? With THAT voice?"

    Bob bursts out laughing as he tells the story. "I think that did it," he says. "I hope she's watching somewhere and knows she had a part in it!"

    So, no, he didn't go to Washington State. But if you tell any Cougar that Bob Robertson is no Coug, you might get punched.

    "The more I got to know people, and the more the people treated me well, it got better and better and now I just consider myself part of the family. And I hope they feel the same way."

    In 2011, a fantastic young broadcaster named Matt Chazanow took over as the play-by-play voice of the Cougars. It was the unenviable job of replacing a legend.

    "I didn't know Bob personally," Matt says, "but I knew his work, and he's as good as there's ever been at this."

    Bob, at 82 years, stayed with the team in a reduced role. He was an analyst, and as such he would jump in with historical insight, or interesting side notes. Matt tells the story of Bob asking him where he should sit. His eyes widen as he recalls the moment, as if he still finds it hard to believe. "I said, 'Bob, where do you want ME to sit? This is your broadcast. This is your baby. I'm honored to be a part of it. I mean that so sincerely..."

    Before the Cougars home game against San Jose State this season, two men came to the booth three hours before the game. They were the radio team for the visiting Spartans.

    "Bob Robertson," said one of them, "I'm Kevin Richardson... I do color for San Jose State."

    Before long they are talking like old friends. Kevin tells Bob that after he was finished playing football he started looking on the internet for great radio broadcasters. He says he became mildly obsessed with Bob's style. And then he pulls out his phone.

    "I have the 'Goodbye Shaumbe' call on my phone," he says, and it's like he's telling Elvis, "No, I really AM a fan... look, here's 'Suspicious Minds' on my telephone!"

    He hits play, and sure enough, there it is, Bob calling a play from the '92 Snow Bowl.

    "Shaumbe the running back... Shaumbe Wright-Fair... snap, handoff, Shaumbe up the middle... it's open! GOODBYE SHAUMBEEEE! 20..10...5... Touchdown Washington State!"

    A minute later, Kevin points to his young play-by-play colleague. "Any advice for the up-and-comer here?"

    Bob starts talking, and the two visiting broadcasters lean forward as if an old man on a mountaintop is about to impart the secret of life.

    "Uhm yeah," says Bob, "I always tell young guys when they get into the business, I say that before the kickoff or first pitch or whatever... be sure you go to the bathroom."

    They all bust up laughing.

    Back when he first started doing baseball games, the teams didn't send him on the road trips. Instead, he sat in his booth and read short passages from the teletype machine, and "re-created" the games with the scant information he had. There was a real baseball bat hanging in front of him on a string, and he had butter knife in his hand. And there was a 78-RPM record playing with crowd noise on it. He'd read the tele-type... then rap the bat with the butter knife and turn up the crowd noise, and make the call of the hit, and the play at the plate... and he was making it all up in his head. Theater of the mind.

    Fearless. The man was fearless.

    After WSU's game against Utah this season, Bob had some trouble the next day. And that was it. He decided, perhaps with input from his children, to call it quits. Just like that.

    And so, when ESPN's Game Day showed the world what Cougar spirit looks like, the man who helped keep the flame alive for 52 amazing and heart-breaking years was not there. It was his first weekend of retirement.

    "When you get to be 90 there aren't many people running around asking, 'Do you have a 90-year old sportscaster we can hire?' "

    He smiles, but there is something obvious underneath the smile: He's never been retired, and he's a little scared.

    I asked him a rather obvious question at one point. I said, "Is there a moment? Is there a favorite moment of all... not necessarily the biggest game, but is there a moment that you revere?"

    I can tell you with certainty that I will never, ever forget the way he responded.

    He said, almost casually, "Oh, there's so many... too many I have to go through..." And then something passed through his mind and his voice wavered, and the man fell apart.

    "Are you OK, Bob?" I stammered...

    Bob took a breath and said between sobs, "When I met my wife. She was my life."

    Her name was Joanne. He stole her from a friend who was dating her. They were married in 1952. They spent 59 years together. She died seven years ago, and Bob has never been the same. How could he be?

    Many, many years ago Bob came up with his own signature radio sign-off. As star-struck fans will do, I asked this hero of mine, this pro's pro, this man who became a legend the hard way, to say it one more time.

    He said, "Of course."

    Then he cleared his voice and looked into the camera and said for the millionth time, "Eric, and all you Cougars out there, don't forget to always be a good sport... be a good sport always. So long."

    And just for a second I'm a kid again and I'm in my Dad's garage and he's cussing at the Cougs and I'm entranced by that raspy, hoarse roar coming from the old radio on the bench.

    Like a chainsaw carving Cougar Gold.

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