Johnny On The Spot

To the do-it-all radio voice of Terps' football and basketball, work is play-by-play

January 07, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

The first time I heard Johnny Holliday broadcast a University of Maryland basketball game was the winter of 1982. I was driving through some Eastern Shore backwater at night, and it was freezing cold, and the only light inside my little Toyota was the glow of the radio dial.

I was bored and turned on the radio and suddenly this voice came out of the ether, vibrant and smooth, like it'd been soaking in baby oil: Adrian Branch from the top of the key ... jumper is no good ... he's fouled!

In radio, the gods either give you the voice, or they don't.

And I knew one thing: Johnny Holliday got the voice. It wasn't the deep, booming voice-of-God that some in his business get, maybe in exchange for a pound of flesh. But it was the perfect sportscaster's voice, clipped and resonant and full of passion, and I thought: Whoever this guy is, he sure as hell isn't bored.

Now, all these years later, Johnny Holliday is in his 24th season as the voice of the Terrapins' men's basketball and football teams, and boredom still isn't one of his problems.

Long synonymous with Maryland sports - he'll be on the air again tomorrow night when the Terps play Hampton - he's been through the good times and the bad times: the Peach Bowl win in Atlanta for Ralph Friedgen's team last week and all those football Saturdays when Byrd Stadium was as quiet as 3 in the morning; the national championship season for Gary Williams and the Terps last year and all those sad years at Cole Field House after the great Len Bias snorted cocaine and dropped dead, when it seemed Maryland basketball was buried in the cold ground along with him.

And the thing you notice right away about Johnny Holliday every time he puts on the headset and does play-by-play is this: He still has the passion.

"Every call that he makes ... you would think it was the most important game on the planet that day," says Chris Knoche, the color analyst on Terps basketball broadcasts who has worked with Holliday the past four years. "Whether they're playing Duquesne or whether they're playing Duke. And that's very difficult to do."

"Well," Holliday laughs, "if this was work, it'd be one thing."

But it is work, although few love their work - or make it look easier - than Johnny Holliday.

At 65, he's still the James Brown of sportscasting, the hardest-working guy in the business. Besides calling Terps football and basketball games and serving as co-host for TV and radio shows with Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen, he's up at 4:30 every morning to tape daily sports reports for ABC Radio. He's also the co-host of a syndicated show called Catholic Radio Weekly.

As the Terps director of broadcasting, he also handles all sorts of speaking duties for the university, such as sports banquets and golf outings, and cuts commercials. Until recently, he also did announcing gigs for TV shows - including ABC's This Week With David Brinkley and This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

Did we mention he also covered the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics for ABC Radio, as well as the Winter and Summer Olympics in '84, '88 and '94? And he does musical theater work in the off-season? (He played Harold Hill in The Music Man last year.) And raises a ton of money for charity?

It's a hefty resume for a guy who spent the early part of his 45-year career in broadcasting as a Top 40 DJ with the coolest name on the airwaves (he was born John Holliday Bobbitt), a guy who openly admits to leaning into a microphone in those days in Cleveland, New York and San Francisco and spewing such now-cringe-inducing AM patter as:

Welcome into the Johnny Holliday glass cage with the old refugee from the Sunshine State to serve up our cream of the pop crop, here's Bob and Earl, shakin' a tail feather, doin' the monkey time with "Harlem Shuffle" on the Fabulous 50 Tunedex tune spot at No. 2 ...

Hoo, boy. Anyway, it's all in his new book, Johnny Holliday: From Rock to Jock, which came out late last year.

Except, OK, it's not all in his book, because the book is only 231 pages long. And to properly chronicle Holliday's career - pitching in Yankee Stadium in a celebrity media game, introducing the Beatles at Candlestick Park in '66, cutting a jeans commercial with Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane and playing basketball with Sly of Sly and the Family Stone, the move to sports and WMAL radio in Washington, this incredible run that spans three decades at College Park - you'd end up wiping out 30 acres of forest for the paper.

"I've been blessed," he says of his colorful career, which he somehow managed to pull off while raising three daughters with his wife, Mary Clare.

But the point is, Johnny Holliday has never seemed happier - or been more popular - than at this time in his life. He still loves doing Maryland play-by-play, and this winter he gets to do a lot of it from the gleaming new Comcast Center, college basketball's latest Taj Mahal.

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