Field sport & friendship

Every day I am recognized — on the streets of cities and small towns, in airports, restaurants and shops. Wherever I go strangers approach, asking for my autograph, and while I sign they recall a television event of which I was a part. Seldom, however, is that event one of the thousands of baseball, football and basketball games I called over four decades on national television.

Nor do they usually remind me of one of the many dramatic events from the winter and summer Olympic games that I anchored for NBC. Nope. What they remember, very often as clearly as the Sunday afternoon they saw it, is one of the fishing and hunting episodes in which I appeared as host of The American Sportsman.

For a while this was a puzzling phenomenon. My appearances on The American Sportsman — which ran on ABC from the '60s into the '80s — amounted to a fraction of the time I spent broadcasting general sports. What was it about that granddaddy of all outdoors series that has so endeared me to so many people?

A writer I know provided one answer. "Oh, they remember you as a sports broadcaster, too," he said. "They heard you call the 715th career homer by Hank Aaron, and the so-called "Immaculate Reception" — Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris — and all the other historic sports moments carried to them on the wings of your voice."

"But what they have held dear," he concluded, "are those times in the field or on the water with a shotgun or a fly rod in your hands. That's where they got to know you, and that's why they respect you so much and want to say hello when they see you somewhere. On those shows, they saw you doing what they have done, laughing as they have laughed, feeling the thrill of a big fish on the line or the flush of a cock pheasant in a Nebraska cornfield. In a way, they were with you on those trips. So, they remember."

It seemed almost too simple an answer, yet it made a lot of sense. I never thought of myself as anything more than an ordinary guy who has been extraordinarily lucky. How many of us get to watch sports, or go hunting and fishing all our lives, and get paid for it? None of it is as easy as it looks, certainly. But it isn't that hard either, if you do your homework.

On those American Sportsman shows, I met a lot people from show business who became my friends. Among them: the gracious Bing Crosby, the hysterically funny Phil Harris and the outrageous Gypsy Rose Lee. Then there was a steady parade of my friends from the sports world, many of whom I got to know better on a week's trip for the Sportsman than I did in many seasons on the job. Ted Williams, Terry Bradshaw, Bud Grant, Brooks Robinson, Maury Wills, Carl Yazstremski, Pete Rozelle, and others — all became good friends, even confidantes, after we went fishing or hunting on the The American Sportsman.

Among the cavalcade of memories stands a tall, handsome man who left an indelible mark on the rich and varied fabric of our national sports. His name was Bear Bryant, my vote as the best college football coach I ever saw — and I saw most of them, including Bud Wilkinson, whose Oklahoma games I covered for years.

Anyway, Bryant and I went quail hunting back in the early 70s, near the end of his reign at Alabama where he was revered as something close to a god. Known as a taskmaster by all who played for him, Bear was the epitome of grace and warmth as we hunted together. That feeling we shared somehow was transmitted to the audience, because it is one of the shows people remember most when they approach me for an autograph.

What is it about the outdoors that makes friends for life?

It was on a trout stream where I really got to know my friend Bobby Knight. I want to say something here that is important. If you believe that I tell the truth, believe this: no coach in any sport ever cared more about his players than Bobby Knight. Winning is big to Bobby, very big. But what has always been bigger is that his players put forth their best effort. What happened at Indiana is really very simple. Bobby Knight just stayed too long at the dance.

I remember a night we spent with basketball guru Pete Newell in Hawaii, when Pete and I tried to convince Knight, who had won three national championships, to move on. A new administration had taken over at the school, and we felt that the altered atmosphere would not be hospitable to Bobby. He understood the logic of what we were saying, but he said he wanted to win one more championship.

As things turned out, it was one bridge too far for Bobby, and he was defeated in one of the most humiliating battles any coach ever faced. In my opinion, the university didn't acquit itself well in its campaign to get rid of the man who brought it so much fame.

But delayed endings are never easy — and often bitter.

Not too long ago, after he had found new employment at Texas Tech, he called me and said, "Curt, I should have listened to you." I said nothing, except to offer encouragement in his new job. Then, he asked me to be the master of ceremonies at a fund raising dinner. I agreed, of course.

It will be great to see Bobby again. Maybe we'll make a date for another fishing trip before the night's over.

CITGO In Search of Flywater airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET and Thursdays at 6:00 a.m. ET during the months of July, August and September. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.