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In His Own Words: An Interview With Larry Zimmer

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The legendary Colorado broadcaster talks about his influences and memories from a remarkable career

CU Buffs/ University of Colorado

Larry Zimmer recently announced the 2015 season would be his last as the voice of Colorado Buffaloes football. His undeniable presence in the broadcast booth has become a staple for Buffs athletics over the past five decades. Zimmer, 79, is tied for fourth in most consecutive years announcing in major college football. He's called over 1,000 games in his entire career and has only missed 12 games at CU. In 2009, Zim was given the prestigious honor of receiving the Chris Schenkel Award for lifetime achievements. To date, only 20 broadcasters have ever received the award. It's an honor and a pleasure to interview such an outstanding person, who's meant so much to CU. Here's a snippet of Zimmer's career in his own words.

Hauser: In all of your years in broadcasting, what have you found enjoyable and what have you found least enjoyable?

Zimmer: Well.... you know, I honestly felt this is something I've wanted to do since I was 10 years old. I grew up during the war and there was no television then. All the sports I listened to then. I was interested in the local sports in New Orleans where I grew up... the baseball New Orleans Pelicans... I was a big LSU Tigers fan with football. Those are the radio broadcasts I listened to and the network broadcast. At that time, Army was the No. 1 team in the country with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and Notre Dame games were on radio. The games that I listened to... I just sorta fell in love with the art forum of doing sports on radio.

I remember I use to listen to a lot of things with my grandfather, who was a big sports fan and he would want to take me to football games and baseball games. My dad was in the Navy, he was in the South Pacific fighting the war. It was really my grandfather who got me started in sports. From the time I was 10 years old, that's what I told him I wanted to do. And to be honest, I set out to do that with my education and some of the things I did part-time during the summer working with American Legion junior baseball and things like that. The enjoyable part was all of it. I sorta knew what was involved with it and I really wanted to do it. I don't know if I felt that I was truly working.

Going to games and doing the play-by-play when you're in radio, you're the creator of what's going on. It's like one of the phrases I use; it's like painting a word picture. The people listening to you on radio have absolutely no idea what's happening on the field other than what you tell them. The challenge and really the enjoyment of it, is painting that word picture and telling them what's going on. That's what I was striving to do. I don't know that there's anything least enjoyable. Probably the least enjoyable over the last few years is the travel. Although, I really backed off of that a little bit when I gave up doing basketball. I don't know if there's anything least enjoyable though. I guess the other thing is some of the athletes, not in the college level, but in the pro level get a little bit harder to deal with. All the years I did the Broncos that was 26 years and I was blessed to have a lot of great players to deal with. John Elway, Tom Jackson, Randy Gradishar, Barney Chavous-- these people were all terrific, but the players changed. In my latter years of doing the Broncos, I found they were a little bit harder to deal with and I guess that was if you want to say least enjoyable. I was disappointed to see that because I always enjoyed my relationship with the players and still do with the college players. I think it would be very tough to cover professional football today.

Hauser: Being that I grew up listening to you, it's surreal that I'm interviewing you because I would listen to you on radio and wanted to emulate your style and voice. You were one of my original idols and I ask you the same question. You grew up in an era when the big-booming voices were on radio with the personalities. You had stations like WGN in Chicago that would go all over the country late at night. Who were some of your original idols?

Zimmer: A couple of them would be people you don't know because they were local people. There was an announcer from the New Orleans Pelicans, AA Southern Association back during the war that was really good baseball. You only had 16 major league teams, so you had some really good players in double A and triple A. The guy who did those game went by the name of Ted Andrews. I listened a lot to him, never did meet him. John Ferguson did LSU and I got be very good friends with John over the years and he to an extent was a mentor. My family, after the war moved to Baton Rouge and John actually worked for WAFD in Baton Rouge. He did the Baton Rouge Red Sticks. Believe it or not, that was the Class B Avanglion league team that we had there. I sorta hung out and got to know these people and got a lot of advice from them. Once I got into school at Missouri, we had a working journalism school with a relationship with the radio station. We did newscasts and things like that, it was a commercial radio station. The general manager and fifty-percent owner was Mahlon Aldridge, who was the voice of the Missouri Tigers on the Missouri Sports Network. He sort of took me under his wing. He knew I wanted to do sports and everything, so Mahlon Aldridge was really one of my guru's. Later on, he gave me the opportunity to do high school football and basketball. He didn't want to do college baseball, so I did Missouri baseball. As luck would have it, they were pretty good back then. Three straight years they went to the College World Series, I got to do that as a young announcer. It was a pretty good thrill for me!

I used to listen to some of the national broadcasters. The World Series with the Yankees were in it quite a bit, so Mel Allen was sort of a fixture. Ted Husing was one of the great broadcasters of the time. I listened a lot to Bill Stern, who did a lot of the great college football game's of the day. Those were some of the names that I listened to. Oddly enough, the St. Louis Cardinals were the only major league broadcast we could get. You mentioned WGN and KMOX in St. Louis did come into the south, so I listened to a lot of Cardinal broadcasts. As I remember at the time, Harry Carey was not yet the announcer, but Gabby Street was the guy. There was a time when the old Scotchman, Gordon Mclendon, he had the Liberty Sports network. He wanted to do a Major League Baseball game of the day and for whatever reason Major League Baseball fought him on the idea. They wouldn't let him into the ballparks, so what he used to do is go to the city where the game was being televised to rent a hotel room and he would do a radio broadcast off the television set. Ultimately, Major League Baseball yielded and let him into the ballparks, but Gordon Mclendon was the guy who really sort of broke the barrier down where there was a national radio broadcast of regular Major League games, not necessarily the World Series. Following shortly on that was Al Helfer, who did a game of the day on the mutual radio network. Those were some of the names of the people that I listened to and got some idea from. I don't know that I ever actually emulated any one person, but I got a lot of ideas from all of them.

Hauser: How big of an influence or mentor was Bob Martin to your career?

Zimmer: Well......... You know, I don't want disparage Bob, but by the time that I got to Denver, I was pretty well established. I had the career from doing Michigan for five years. I had my own style and I knew what I was doing in the broadcast booth. Bob was more of a colleague than a mentor and was a very good friend. There was some things that Bob did that I saw could make me a better announcer if i did those things. I don't want to say that Bob was a mentor because he really wasn't. We basically did our thing and I learned a lot from Bob. I hope that maybe he learned some things from me. If I hadn't been pretty well established, I don't think I would have ever gotten a job here. They were looking for someone who had experience and I had that. I'm not downplaying Bob at all. We had a great relationship and we worked well together, but it wasn't exactly a mentor situation like it was before I'd ever done a game and would sit in the booth with Mahlon Aldridge at Missouri.

Hauser: What would you say about the up and coming broadcasters? Who would you say as a young broadcaster has the right stuff?

Zimmer: Oh........ I don't know. It's so different today, there's so many jobs out there and most of them aren't in radio. I mean, there's a lot of radio jobs, but the jobs you see..... Gosh, when I was growing up and then frankly when I got started-- college football there was one game a week and that was on ABC. They had college football wrapped up. Now what do you have on a Saturday... what about 30 games? You didn't have NBCSN. You didn't CBS Sports. You didn't have ESPN one, two and 'U'. You didn't have the regional network, like the SEC and the Pac-12. None of that was available, you didn't have all of those jobs. There's a multitude of jobs available to young announcers today. Now I have to say, there are more young people wanting to get into broadcasting and also there are more former athletes taking a job. Back when I first started, there weren't a lot of ex-athletes doing broadcasts. Most of them were professional announcers, both in the play-by-play and the color seats. That's certainly changed over the years.

As far as young broadcasters are concerned, I think one of the real bright stars of today, and I mean he's a star, because he's up on ESPN doing Monday Night Football is Mike Tirico. I've gotten know Mike over the last 10 or 15 years and I love his work. I love the things he does and I do consider him a young announcer because he's in a new generation from Al Michaels and Dick Enberg. I think they're terrific, both Enberg and Michaels, and I've gotten to be friends with them. Beyond that I hear a lot of good, young announcers on ESPN and they're bringing some people along. I don't get to see all of those football games every Saturday because I'm doing a CU game. I might get to see one at night or something like that, but you're concentrating on that. I got a six-hour broadcast, plus the drive back and forth or travel if you're on the road. Actually, when I was in the hospital last fall, I saw more college football on television than I even had before. I didn't have anything else to do but watch.

Hauser: Which would you say was more memorable-- CU winning the National Championship in 1990 or the Broncos getting their first Super Bowl?

Zimmer: I guess I would have to say the Broncos in 1977. There was just so much that went into that. It was a team that had never been to the playoffs and suddenly were going through the season unbeaten. They lose one game and win five more. Just the whole feeling of the city and everything that surrounded that. They beat the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas Eve and then go against their arch rival, the Raiders on New Years Day and won that. The whole city was just on its end. That was very exciting! Unfortunately, the Super Bowl didn't match.

The National Championship was very important. The whole season was exciting, just as the Broncos were. You got to think about the things you had in that season-- The Buffs started out 1-1-1, how many teams to you think will go on to win the National Championship starting out with a tie, a win and a loss? Then, they had a come from behind win against Texas. There were a lot of close games in that '90 season that the Buffs pulled out. The one that comes to mind was the '5th down' at Missouri. If they don't win that game, they don't win the National Championship. I don't want to say it was expected to win it. To be very honest going into that game with Notre Dame for the second year in a row in the Orange Bowl, I expected to win and I thought Colorado was the better team the year before."

They were unbeaten and that was a great team in '89. One of my greatest disappointments is that team didn't win the National Championship and that they lost to Notre Dame. I thought the next year when they went into that game they would beat Notre Dame and of course it was very close with a score of 10-9. The Buffs blew a lot of opportunities. I thought it was tainted just a little bit with Rocket's (Ismail) big punt return that would have won the game for the Irish. There was no question there was clipping on the play. I saw it, I saw it, I saw the flags go down. If you listen to my description I said flags are down, but you never know what the flags are for. I think nationally people saw that and they felt Colorado backed into that. To an extent, I believe that cost them because Georgia Tech won the UPI National Championship and CU won the AP. All those thing combined did not make it the experience you thought it would have been.

Hauser: You talked about the '5th down' play, I recently talked to Bob Stull, who was the coach at Missouri at the time and he says to this day that Charles Johnson didn't cross the plane. He also says that he has pictures with multiple camera angles to back up his claim. You being in the booth that day, what did you see?

Zimmer: That's bologna! Would you take the AFC Championship away from the Broncos because Rob Lytle fumbled the football before he went into the end zone? John Madden raised hell about it, but that's before the days of instant replay. If you would of had replay on that game, perhaps it would have shown Charles Johnson score. I don't know if he scored or not. It was very, very close. Charles says he had the football and his hand was on the goal line. If that's true and that's what Charles says, then it's a touchdown. As far as I could tell, it was a touchdown. the referee threw his arms up and called it a touchdown and put six points on the board. For Stull to go back and say he didn't score, that's bologna. If you want to go back and argue about the '5th down', that's another matter. Stull didn't know it was a fifth down anymore than I did. I'm telling you that a coach, just like an announcer, I look at the downs on the sideline. If the down marker says fourth down, then as far as I'm concerned it's fourth down. I'm not counting down and I don't think the coach on the sideline is either.

Now the guys upstairs might have known, but they didn't communicate that in time to stop the play. That's the only way that could have been resolved for them to get the referee before the play and say hey, they've used up all of their downs and it would have been over. I had no idea until Dave Plati was keeping statistics for me. He wrote on his white board that it was fifth down. Now how can I react to that? The Buffs are lining up on the goal line, they're either going to score and win the game or they're not going to score and lose the game. I've got to have all my concentration on the play and not worry about that down it was. As far as I could tell, it was fourth down. Okay, So I described the play. Johnson scores and CU wins the game. Then we go back and talk about the fact that it was fifth down. I'm telling you that Missouri didn't know. They didn't know on the sideline. If they had they would have gone out and stopped it.

I hear about it all the time even though it was 25 years ago. It's one of those things that will live in football infamy and the fact that it ultimately involved a team that won the national championship. It's amazing but that's what makes college football great. I think we've lost some of that.

Hauser: I agree with you. I think what made college football great was the teams were on a level playing field. I don't think that's the case with recruiting today.

Zimmer: I totally agree, that's not the case. All you have to do is look who's in the Top 10 every year. Maybe every once in a while somebody sneaks into it. The have's continue to win and the have not's don't win and then you have that middle where people are trying to up there. Some of them do and some of them don't. I hope Colorado is one of those school's that ultimately get back up there. No, I don't believe there's equality in college football at all. I also think the instant replay-- I don't dislike it. I also think to an extent it has not ruined the game but it's changed the game. You're never going to have an incident like the '5th down', because they would go back and review it and it wouldn't happen. One of the great stories and we're still talking about it 25 years later. You're not going to have that any more.

Hauser: Out of the five decades at CU, what's your most memorable moment?

Zimmer: That's hard to pick out one, winning the national championship obviously was big once it was done. The miracle at Michigan was special to me because I loved Kordell Stewart and it was a big moment for him. The fact that I had done Michigan, made it particularly big for me going into Ann Arbor and winning that game. I have a lot of friends in Ann Arbor. As a matter of fact, I didn't have to leave right after the game because the Broncos were playing in Buffalo on a Monday night game. I spent Saturday night in Ann Arbor and flew to Buffalo on Sunday. A lot of my friends were having a party, I walked into the party and they threw me out. They had a big screen TV and they were playing my call on ESPN. That was a special moment, but there were others.

That same season, the loss to Nebraska was devastating because that was a really good football team. The '94 team, in my opinion, was the best team I ever broadcast. I have this argument all the time with people like Darian Hagan and Mike Pritchard from the '90 team. You look at the talent, every one of the offensive linemen played in the NFL. Every one. You have Michael Westbrook, Rae Curruth, James Kidd, Rashaan Salaam, Fauria, and Stewart. On the defensive side, people like Russell. There were some great players on that team and that was a great team, but they really, really screwed up that Nebraska game. They had a terrible gameplan going in and they just couldn't recover from it. Going beyond that, one of my thrills was knocking the stuffing out of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Lou Holtz comes out and puts on the green jerseys and all of that and they still beat them. Lou's going to stop Rashaan? He stopped Rashaan okay, but he certainly didn't stop Kordell. That was a special game to me. The 20-10 game when they finally broke the streak against Nebraska. Now that was back in the 70' s and that was a big game. I didn't feel comfortable in that game until....good lord.... until Barry Remington intercepted that pass and there was no way Nebraska was going to get the ball back. I thought well we're finally going to win this. The 62-36 game over Nebraska. Any time you beat Nebraska that was a big moment. Frankly, when Rashaan went over 2,000 yards, that was a special play. We all knew he would go over 2,000 in the Iowa State game and I was just hoping it wouldn't be a on 2-yard run. It was on a 40-something yard run for a touchdown and I had a lot of fun calling that play.

Hauser: With the Buffs now going on five years as being part of the Pac-12, what's it going to take for them to create a winning nature? Also, what's it going to take for MacIntyre to turn the corner?

Zimmer: Well, obviously better recruiting. I think he's recruiting better and I see they just got a hot shot cornerback from Atlanta. I don't think I did, or anybody else realized how far down the program was. How it really, really fell under Dan Hawkins and never really came back and only got worse under Embree. I'm sorry about that. You know, they're both good guys. Dan is a good guy. I think to be honest, he was a little bit over his head when it came to recruiting Big 12 caliber players. He could probably get players at Boise State that he probably couldn't get in here. I know that's the case because he said so. Jon with all of his experience in the NFL along with Bieniemy-- that whole hierarchy, none of them had ever been even a coordinator let alone a head coach. They were in a bit over their heads.

Mike has really had to start from scratch and he's done a really good job with that. How long it that going to take? I don't know. I think they were better last year. They took most of the games into the second half and some into the fourth quarter, before they found a way to lose. I think that's the attitude that has got to change. Rather than finding a way to lose, let's find a way to win. That's a mental thing and Mike's going to have to get that across to them and I know he works on it all the time. The addition of Leavitt is going to help them. I thought their defense needed to be tougher. I haven't met him yet, but from what I read and what I hear from the players is there's a whole different attitude about that. That's the next step, not only to get better in recruiting and getting the mental attitude of winning. Let's face it, the year before how many times were we out of the game at halftime? Even the last year under Embree it was the same thing. Mark and I would say "geez, we've got to do another half of this?" I don't think you saw that last year. For the most part, they were competitive into the second half. That's improvement, but you still have to get the 'W'. They've got to learn how to win and quite frankly this year's schedule is set up for them to do that.

Hauser: What would you say when everything is said and done. When you call your final game against USC on your 80th birthday. What do you want your legacy to be at CU?

Zimmer: Oh I don't know..... I guess it's already established. If you read some of the comments that Chancellor (Phil) DiStefano made and (Rick) George made, the legacy is there. I always tried to be fair. Obviously, I was pulling for the Buffs to win, but I was fair in my description.  I think that's probably it. The longevity of being able to on the broadcast as long as I was and to be working for a pretty darn good radio station as well.

Hauser: Do you really think the game in November will be your final broadcast against USC, or do think in a couple of years you'll be doing the Michigan/Colorado game.

Zimmer: Rick George has talked about that. I doubt that I will do the game, but Rick said he wants me to be there. So we'll see, that's too far out for me to worry about. I'm worried about this year, but I'm not sure that's going to be the last game. We've also talked about if they go to a bowl game, that I might do the bowl game as the last game. We're not counting on that because I'm not sure I'm going to be able to travel. Maybe by then I can. Right now, we're looking at the USC game (Nov. 13) as being the last game. It might not be.

Zim's last season at CU will be bittersweet to say the least, but his lasting impact will carry on for many generations to come.