Bob Smizik on the air: Hillgrove, Goss don't run out of gas

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It's November, which means Bill Hillgrove is, as he likes to say, balancing three balls at the same time. It's not an easy trick, but it's one Hillgrove makes look easy.

Hillgrove is in the midst of his 38th season of doing Pitt basketball, his 34th of doing Pitt football and his 13th of doing Steelers football. In a four-day span beginning Saturday, he did all three -- Pitt football Saturday, the Steelers Sunday and Pitt basketball Tuesday. He had to miss a Pitt basketball game Sunday because the Steelers, his prime commitment, were playing.

Hillgrove is in his 83rd, 84th and 85th broadcasting seasons. That probably would rank high anywhere, but it's unquestionably a record for a Pittsburgh announcer. Somewhat amazingly, though, he doesn't have the longest Pittsburgh tenure in his longest-tenured sport.

When Hillgrove was breaking in as the Pitt basketball announcer in the 1969-70 season -- while his main gig was as a night-time disc jockey on WTAE Radio -- Ray Goss already was in his second season of doing Duquesne basketball.

These two gentlemen have become Pittsburgh institutions. Both are immediately identifiable with the teams they represent. For a long time, Hillgrove was all Pitt. But now in his 13th season with the Steelers and the senior man in the booth with the retirement of Myron Cope, he is almost as well known as the voice of the Super Bowl champions as he is as voice of the Pitt Panthers. Goss has been the only constant in Duquesne basketball five decades.

According to an unofficial survey done by a Southeastern Conference official, Goss ranks fourth in seniority among active college announcers and Hillgrove fifth.

Both have astonishing attendance records. Hillgrove has never missed a Steelers game and missed only one Pitt football game. A conflict with the Steelers in 1999 caused him to miss a game against Bowling Green. Goss has missed one Duquesne basketball game, and that was in 1977 when the Dukes played Penn State. Stan Savran filled in for him.

"CBS had the NBA television contract, and they were doing regional games and were looking for new talent," Goss said. "Beano Cook was at CBS, and he arranged for me to get an audition. It was the Los Angeles Lakers against the Indiana Pacers at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. They paid me $500 to do a game no one ever saw.

"When it was over, I said to myself, 'That's as good as I can do. Let's see what they say.' A couple of days later we talked. They said they were going to send me a contract for next year. It was nothing definite but, if they called, they were going to pay me $1,500 a game. I was told I'd probably be doing some New Orleans Jazz games. It looked pretty good.

"As it turned out, Philadelphia and Portland were in the NBA Finals that year, and the ratings were terrible. CBS dropped the idea of regional telecasts, and I never signed that contract. I still have it, in fact."

At the same time he began doing basketball for Pitt, Hillgrove also became color analyst on Pitt football beside Ed Conway. Conway died in 1974 and Hillgrove was offered the play-by-play job and soon was working with the man who was to be his long-time partner, Johnny Sauer.

Hillgrove was thrilled and honored to call the Super Bowl in February, but it wasn't his biggest moment in the booth. That came almost 30 years earlier in 1976 when Tony Dorsett broke the NCAA rushing record at Navy.

"That was as emotional as it gets," Hillgrove said. "The brigade doffed their caps, and they shot off the cannon, which they never do for the opposition. Dorsett's parents came out of the stands, and all the Navy fans were saluting as well. I kind of lose it in situations like that.

"When the Bus [Jerome Bettis] played his last game at home, I kind of lost it a little bit and needed Tunch [Ilkin] to talk until I recovered. At Navy, I had tears on my cheeks, and I looked at Sauer for help and he's got tears. That was pretty emotional. You realize you're seeing a once-in-a-lifetime player."

Hillgrove kept his emotions under control at the Super Bowl.

"Of course, nothing can surpass the Super Bowl. It's so special. I didn't get as emotional because I said to myself, 'This is just another football game. It's still four downs, it's still 100 yards.' That's how I kept it in perspective."

This is Hillgrove's busiest month. "By the time it's over," he said, "I will have done three Pitt football games, four Steelers games and five Pitt basketball games.

"But I wouldn't have it any other way."

Hunt for best Super Bowl champion

The NFL Network will begin airing an ambitious, 41-episode series at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 24 featuring each Super Bowl winner. It's part of a project that will determine the best Super Bowl champion. A 53-person panel, composed of players, coaches, administrators and media members, will determine which team is the greatest. Included in the panel is Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

"Fans should not expect to see a Super Bowl highlight film," said NFL Films president Steve Sabol. "Rather each episode will be a personal portrait told by the men who lived it and felt it, not by analysts or journalists who watched it and reported it."

All about Steelers fans

At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, the NFL Network will carry a show titled: "NFL Films Presents: Steelers Nation." The 30-minute show examines the far-reaching fan base of the Steelers and is produced by Keith Cossrow, a Mt. Lebanon native.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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