Bill Hillgrove winner of Schenkel Award
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In the summer of 1968, Bill Hillgrove did what few young men seeking a career in broadcasting would do: He graciously and gratefully accepted a demotion. Hillgrove walked away from a job as an announcer at WTAE-TV to take a job playing records at sister-station WTAE-Radio.
J. Monroe Butler II, Post-GazetteMyron Cope and Bill Hillgrove at a 2005 event honoring Cope.
It proved to be a move of utter brilliance.
Almost 40 years later, Hillgrove is equally well known as the voice of Pitt football and basketball and the play-by-play announcer for the Steelers.
It is in his Pitt football role that Hillgrove has accumulated his latest and probably most prestigious honor. He is the 2007 winner of the Chris Schenkel Award, which is presented by the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame.
The award will be presented Dec. 4 at the organization's 50th annual banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Hillgrove will be honored along with 14 inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame, including Joe Paterno. At the same ceremony, former Steelers and Notre Dame running back Rocky Bleier will be honored with the Distinguished American Award and Roger Staubach, Navy, and Pete Dawkins, Army, will be co-recipients of the organization's Gold Medal.
The Schenkel Award, named in honor of its first recipient, "recognizes a sports broadcaster who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career broadcasting college football at a single institution."
The description fits Hillgrove perfectly.
"I got emotional when I found out," Hillgrove said. "It means a lot to me. I got to know Chris Schenkel. He was a humble guy. He didn't have any airs about him. And, of course, he was one of the giants of our business."
Hillgrove, who later in his distinguished career went back to television as sports director at WTAE, is the 11th winner of the award. One of the previous winners was Jack Fleming, who Hillgrove succeeded with the Steelers. Fleming, of course, was the long-time voice of West Virginia athletics.
After four television auditions, while he worked for a small radio station, Hillgrove landed a job at WTAE-TV in 1968. But he soon found the work bored him. He was rarely on the air and, when he was, it was announcing station breaks or adding tag lines to commercials.
"One day my boss called me," Hillgrove recalled. "Would I be willing to switch to doing a disc-jockey show on radio? I was happy to make the change, even though it would mean I was making less money."
As Hillgrove looked back on that time, he remarked, "I've been in the right place at the right time."
Within a year, the radio station, beginning a trend that would lead to its greatest glory, took a turn toward sports. It went after the rights to Pitt football, which had been held by WWSW. Pitt was agreeable, but only if WTAE would also do the basketball games, which had not been heard on radio in years.
Ed Conway, WTAE-TV's popular sports anchor, was the natural to do the football play-by-play, but his television duties did not permit him to follow the basketball team.
"The general manager came to me," said Hillgrove, a Duquesne graduate, "and asked if I had any basketball experience. It just so happened I had."
Hillgrove had done play-by-play of Duquesne games for almost two years.
Not only was Hillgrove doing Pitt basketball, but he was the color analyst for Conway on football. When Conway died in 1974, Hillgrove was the obvious choice to succeed him.
He has seen the good times, the bad times and the great times with Pitt. He was there when the Panthers were 1-10, when they were 12-0 and won the national championship and when they reeled off three consecutive 11-1 seasons. In 37 years of doing the Pitt games, Hillgrove has missed only one broadcast.
How fitting that the humble, classy guy who grew up in Garfield, who attended Central Catholic and Duquesne and who made his name at Pitt would win an award named for the humble and classy Schenkel.
First Published May 16, 2007 11:33 pm