Georgia football won't sound the same without Munson

Editor's note: This feature on Georgia play-by-play announcer Larry Munson, who announced his retirement on Monday, was originally published on Sept. 21, 2007.

ATHENS, Ga. -- The plan has been in place for more than 10 years.

On the day legendary radio play-by-play announcer Larry Munson finally walked away from the microphone, he would jump in a boat, cast a fishing line in his favorite lake and listen on the radio as his beloved Georgia Bulldogs played football.

"I've always had that plan because do you realize I've never heard a Georgia game broadcast?" Munson asked a reporter earlier this week.

Generations of Georgia football fans have never listened to a Bulldogs game on the radio without hearing Munson's raspy, excitable voice. Whether Munson was begging for "Old Lady Luck to show her face" or complaining that the "stupid clock isn't moving," he often had fans sitting on the edge of their couches and usually expecting the worst.

But when the No. 22 Bulldogs kick off against No. 16 Alabama on Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Munson won't be there. For generations of fans who have relied on Munson to be their eyes and ears -- and, more importantly, their voice -- there might as well be silence.

"It's going to be an adjustment for all of us," said Loran Smith, radio sideline reporter during Georgia games and executive secretary of the school's Bulldog Club. "It's going to be like coming home one day and your wife has rearranged the furniture. Whether you like it or not, you've got to adjust. It's going to be different because people haven't heard anybody's voice but Larry's for so long."

Because of failing health, Munson announced before the season he would work only Georgia's home games this year. Munson, who turns 85 next week, is undecided whether he'll do any games next year. Munson is plagued by arthritis in both legs and has an ailing back. He recently fell in an Athens restaurant and injured his hip. Munson shuffles his feet to walk and struggles to use a cane, because of pride more than anything else, he says.

Understandably, riding in the team's bus and airplanes to road games and climbing steep stairs to radio booths in opponents' stadiums is too difficult for him now.

So on Saturday, Munson will do what legions of football fans who have relied on him have done for so long. He'll turn on the radio and listen as his replacement paints the scene. Scott Howard, his color commentator the past 14 seasons, will take over play-by-play duties. Former Bulldogs quarterback Eric Zeier will debut as the color analyst.

"Why it has to be a story that I'm going fishing, I don't know," Munson said.

Munson won't even get to go fishing on Saturday. He blames network TV for thwarting his long-time plan; the Bulldogs' game against Alabama won't kick off until nearly 8 p.m. on ESPN, too late for Munson to be in his boat.

"I don't know what I'll do," Munson said. "I'll miss the hell out of the football, sure."

What will listeners do without him? Munson has been a fixture on Southern radio airwaves for more than 60 years. After working at Vanderbilt, he began calling Georgia football games in 1966 and has missed only one game in 42 seasons. He was absent from Georgia's 34-3 loss to Clemson on Oct. 6, 1990, while recovering from back surgery (ESPN's Dave O'Brien called the game). He has called 201 consecutive Georgia football games and 487 in his career.

Along the way, Munson became as much a Georgia icon as its lovable Bulldog mascots and the delicately pruned hedges that surround the Sanford Stadium playing field. In fact, it even could be argued Munson is more popular than any man who has coached or played there.

"I'd say he's right up there with any of the Georgia legends," said Neil Williamson, senior executive producer of Georgia radio broadcasts.

Bob Kesling, who replaced legendary John Ward as Tennessee's radio announcer, said Georgia fans will be in for quite an adjustment.

"The toughest thing I had to deal with was everybody was so accustomed and used to the way John would call a game," Kesling said. "His mannerisms and format for calling the games and how he called a touchdown. I couldn't go in there and do everything the way John Ward did it. I'd have people come up to me in the grocery store and say, 'Bob, you're doing a great job, but we sure miss John.' They missed hearing his voice. You've got to have thick skin."

Georgia fans grew to love Munson because he loved the Bulldogs from the start. He has long been described as an "unabashed homer" and readily admits to being one.

"Hell, I'm a homer," Munson said. "I guess you always wanted to win too hard and win emotionally when the time came. You let it all hang out."

With Munson, it has always been about "us" versus "them." He has always worn his emotions on his sleeve -- a red-and-black sleeve, of course.

Jim Minter, retired editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, once wrote: "In some quarters that's considered a cardinal sin. That's about as foolish as expecting a World War II battlefield correspondent to have no preference between our side and theirs, between FDR and Hitler. I want our radio folks to bleed red and black, like the rest of us and Munson does, thank God."

Munson's overtly partisan style is what makes him so unusual.

"He's a homer," said Wes Durham, the Georgia Tech radio play-by-play announcer and North Carolina announcer's son. "Larry does a game in a way that's unique. Nobody else in the country and nobody else in this business does a game like Larry. That's what makes Larry a treasure. With that unabashed homerism comes the built-in pessimism that comes every year. He'll say, 'We don't have this and they've got that.' That's what I think makes him so unique."

Williamson said Munson calls a game the way fans watch it. Munson calls his audience "you guys" and constantly tells them, "Get the picture now," before describing the scene.

"It's always 'us' against 'them' and it's always 'us' with a capital 'U,'" Williamson said. "When Georgia's winning, it's like the clock is always stopped. When Georgia's losing, it's like two seconds are ticking off for every second. There's never enough time when we're losing."

Now that time is running out on Munson's career, Georgia fans are listening to his unmistakable voice a little more intently. Munson is one of a few longtime radio announcers left in the South, where college football always seemed to matter most. Only Jack Cristil, who has broadcast Mississippi State football games for a remarkable 55 seasons, has been at a school longer. Woody Durham has called North Carolina games for 37 seasons. Bob Harris has worked at Duke for 32 years. Gene Deckerhoff has been at Florida State for 30 years, and Eli Gold has called Alabama games for the last 20 seasons.

Most of Munson's contemporaries -- South Carolina's Bob Fulton, Clemson's Jim Phillips, Alabama's John Forney, Auburn's Jim Fyffe, LSU's John Ferguson and Tennessee's Ward -- are gone. They were the voices our grandparents dialed through interminable static to find.

"I'm the last of the Mohicans," Munson said.

And among the last of a generation of radio announcers who, before the proliferation of TV, were the voices of record in college football. Whether it was Georgia Tech's Al Ciraldo telling listeners "toe meets leather," Ward telling Volunteer fans it was "football time in Tennessee" or Fyffe shouting "Touchdown Auburn," they created the phrases that became legendary in the sport.

"We all have to understand that this is it," said Wes Durham. "We're kind of sitting on the fourth quarter of a certain kind of radio announcer. We're sitting on the fourth quarter of the end of an era."

Munson started calling games in a different era. An Army medic during World War II, he took his $200 discharge check and enrolled at a radio broadcasting school in his native Minnesota. His mother, Esther, a homemaker, had no formal music training, but made sure her children learned to play the ivory keys. Munson's father, Harry, was a life insurance salesman who left home Monday and returned Friday. During the week, he traveled the back roads of the state, trying to make a living and fishing and hunting whenever possible.

Munson's first broadcasting job was as a ring announcer at boxing bouts and professional wrestling matches. He took a job in Cheyenne, Wyo., broadcasting Wyoming football games, replacing the legendary Curt Gowdy. When Gowdy wrote Munson a letter telling him to try broadcasting baseball games, Munson moved to Nashville in 1947 to work Vanderbilt football and basketball games, along with minor league baseball.

Nearly two decades later, the Georgia job fell in his lap. He was hired to work as a color commentator on radio broadcasts during the Atlanta Braves' inaugural season in 1966. When he reported to West Palm Beach, Fla., for the start of spring training, Munson read in the newspaper that Georgia announcer Ed Thilenius was leaving to take a job with the Atlanta Falcons. Munson called Georgia athletics director Joel Eaves and was hired over the phone.

Munson has been the voice of the Bulldogs ever since, and many Georgia fans recall the team's greatest plays for his calls as much as anything else.

When Georgia trailed Florida in the fourth quarter of a game in 1975, then-Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley called a trick play. Tight end Richard Appleby took an end-around, stopped and threw a touchdown pass to Gene Washington to win the game, 10-7.

"Washington caught it thinking of Montreal and the Olympics and ran out of his shoes right down the middle! Eighty yards! Gator Bowl rocking! Stunned! The girders are bending now!"

Three years later, Munson's description of Georgia kicker Rex Robinson's game-winning field goal at Kentucky became instantly memorable.

"He puts it up. It looks good. Watch it. Watch it. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Three seconds left. Rex Robinson put them ahead, 17-16. The bench is unconscious."

Smith, who long ago became the target of Munson's "Loran, whatdaya got?" call for sideline reports, said the fact Georgia started winning when Munson went into the booth helped his popularity as much as anything.

"I think it was a combination of things," Smith said. "Georgia winning and his unique style, more than anything else. He's got sort of an unusual style. I've heard he violates some of the rules of broadcasting, but I don't think it matters as long as your friends and fans like it. But the most important thing is winning."

Munson is perhaps most remembered for two calls he made during Georgia's national championship season in 1980. In the opener that season, the Bulldogs trailed Tennessee by 13 points in the second half on the road. Then freshman tailback Herschel Walker came off the bench.

"We hand it off to Herschel. There's a hole. Five, 10, 12. He's running over people. Oh, you Herschel Walker! My God almighty! He ran right through two men. Herschel ran right over two men. They had him dead away inside the 9. Herschel Walker went 16 yards. He drove right over orange shirts just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman!"

Two months later, when the Bulldogs trailed Florida 21-20 in the fourth quarter in Jacksonville, Fla., Munson became so excited describing quarterback Buck Belue's 92-yard touchdown pass to Lindsay Scott that he broke the metal chair he was sitting in.

"Florida in a stand-up five, they may or may not blitz. Belue third down on the 8. In trouble, he got a block behind him. Going to throw on the run, complete on the 25 to the 30. Lindsay Scott 35, 40. Lindsay Scott, 45, 50, 45, 40. Run Lindsay! 25, 20, 15, 10, 5 Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! ... Well, I can't believe it. 92 yards and Lindsay really got in a foot race. I broke my chair. I came right through a chair. A metal steel chair with about a five-inch cushion. I broke it. The booth came apart. The stadium. ... Well the stadium fell down. Now they do have to renovate this place. They'll have to rebuild it now. This is incredible. You know this game has always been called the World's Greatest Cocktail Party. Do you know what's gonna happen here tonight? And up at Saint Simons and Jekyll Island and all those places where all those Dog people have got those condominiums for four days? Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight! 26-21, Dogs on top! We were gone. I gave up, you did too. We were out of it and gone. Miracle!"

Perhaps Munson's most beloved call came nearly six years ago, during coach Mark Richt's first season. With the Bulldogs trailing Tennessee 24-20 with 10 seconds to play at Neyland Stadium, the Bulldogs called timeout. Quarterback David Greene led Georgia onto the field, and Munson hoped for another miracle.

"Ten seconds. We're on their 6. Michael Johnson turned around asked the bench something. And now, Greene makes him line up on the right in the slot. We have three receivers. Tennessee playing what amounts to a 4-4. Fake and there's somebody. Touchdown! My God, a touchdown! We threw it to [fullback Verron] Haynes. We just stuffed them with five seconds left! My God almighty, did you see what he did? David Greene just straightened up and we snuck the fullback over! Haynes is keeping the ball! Haynes has come running all the way across to the bench. We just dumped it over, 26-24. We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose. We just crushed their faces!"

Ironically, Munson didn't even know what a hobnail boot was at the time (the boots have short nails installed on the soles to increase durability and often are used in the lumber industry).

"I was thinking of the Jack boot, which the German army wore during World War II," Munson said. "That's what I was thinking about. I didn't know anything about a hobnail boot."

Neither did Georgia fans, but they loved the call no less.

"It has become the fans' favorite call," Munson said. "It has become my favorite call, too. It took a while. A lot of people say, 'You came up with funny sayings and came up with catchphrases.' But after all these years, 62 years in the SEC, there are only about a dozen sayings that people remember. That's not too many. They were great plays and great moments. You wind up hollering and probably hollering too much."

Georgia fans have put Munson's calls on T-shirts and license plates. His legendary calls have become cell phone ring tones and the best ones are sold in a four-DVD collection. There's a Larry Munson drinking game (every time Munson says "whatchamacallit," each player drinks three times), and he'll even do a voice-over for fans' weddings. Two or three times a month, Munson records an announcement for a wedding reception for a fee. He recently introduced 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen in one wedding.

"We've had recruiting classes that weren't that big," Munson complained.

Saturday night, the voice booming from the radio won't sound quite as big for Georgia fans.

"People have to understand it's not going to sound like it sounded," Wes Durham said. "It's going to be different. He's the dominant figure of that broadcast and has been for 40 years. That's 2½ generations of people who will hear a different kind of broadcast of a Georgia football game for the first time in a long time."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.