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Jim Zabel, Iowa broadcasting legend, dies at 91

[ 0 ] May 23, 2013 |

BY KEN FUSON AND ANDREW LOGUE — DES MOINES REGISTER

A moment of silence, please, for a voice that was rarely still: Jim Zabel, the broadcasting legend whose hyperbolic descriptions of University of Iowa sports teams entertained radio listeners for more than half a century, died Thursday at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. He was 91.

His wife, Jill, confirmed the news.

“He loved everybody, and his world was Iowa and the Iowa Hawkeyes,” she told the Register.

She said Jim was working in his office, preparing for his Sunday evening radio show, “Two Guys Named Jim,” which airs on WHO radio in Des Moines.

Jim Zabel in 2007.

Jim Zabel in 2007.

“He was very peaceful,” Jill said, “making calls for his radio show.”

In a career spanning nearly seven decades at WHO radio in Des Moines, Zabel was the colorful play-by-play voice for more than 6,100 sporting events, including six Rose Bowls, 26 NCAA basketball tournaments and several runnings of the Drake Relays.

Photos: Jim Zabel

He once ran a footrace against Jesse Owens, followed Ronald Reagan as WHO’s sports director and hosted the longest-running bowling show in television history.

But Zabel was best known for his cries of “I love it! I love it! I love it!” that punctuated climactic moments during Hawkeye football and basketball games. “Hug and kiss those radios, folks,” he implored fans when his beloved Hawkeyes faced a dramatic turning point. “Man-oh-man-oh-man,” he groaned when critical fumbles or rim-clanking foul shots put a game out of reach.

He was there in 1952, when Iowa’s Forest Evashevski defeated Ohio State’s Woody Hayes in that decade’s biggest football upset. He was there in 1956, when Iowa lost the title game of the NCAA basketball tournament to Bill Russell’s San Francisco team. He was there in 1968, when Union-Whitten defeated Everly, 113 to 107, in overtime, in what still is called the greatest high school girls’ basketball game in Iowa history. He was there in 1985, when Rob Houghtlin drilled a last-second field goal to lead No. 1 Iowa over No. 2 Michigan.

“If you want to know what to put on my tombstone,” Zabel said in 1994, “just three words: I HAD FUN.”

In addition to his radio work, Zabel was the sports anchor for WHO-TV for many years. He hosted dozens of televised coach’s shows, as well as “Beat the Bear” and “Let’s Go Bowling,” which ran for more than 30 years. He was proud of his seven-days-a-week work schedule.

He was an annual fixture at the Iowa State Fair and the girls and boys high school basketball tournaments. He published three popular cookbooks. He said he knew the words to more than 2,000 songs, including his favorite, “Makin’ Whoopee,” which he happily warbled at closing time in bars throughout the Big Ten conference.

Zabel’s unabashed enthusiasm and unapologetic rooting for U of I teams — he was a 1944 graduate — occasionally overwhelmed the action he was describing. As broadcasters go, he was more Harry Caray than Vin Scully, more passionate fan than indifferent reporter.

But those qualities also made him one of those most popular media personalities in the state, especially among Hawkeye fans. The wilder that Zabel’s broadcasts became, the more his popularity grew. In 1992, he was named the grand marshal for the University of Iowa’s homecoming parade.

“It has been a wonderful and wondrous association filled with magic and memories,” Zabel said.

Many Hawkeye fans protested in 1996, when the Iowa athletic department awarded exclusive broadcast rights to a company that chose a different play-by-play announcer. That ended Zabel’s 49-year streak of broadcasting every Iowa football game.

Friends say Zabel was crushed with disappointment, but he remained relentlessly cheerful in public. He appeared happy as long as he had another game to describe, whether that involved two high school teams or the Iowa Barnstormers.

Although he was no longer the play-by-play voice, Zabel remained affiliated with U of I teams for four more years, working with longtime broadcasters Bob Brooks and Ron Gonder on pregame, halftime and postgame segments. That arrangement ended in 2000, but Zabel still hosted a call-in show after football games on WHO radio.

In recent years, Zabel spent about half his time at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., but he remained the WHO radio’s sports director and a regular presence on the air, giving afternoon sports updates when he was in Des Moines and co-hosting a Sunday night show, called “2 Guys Named Jim,” with former Iowa State football coach Jim Walden.

Quick with a one-liner, Zabel was a popular speaker at athletic banquets and a frequent emcee at I-Club gatherings. He often joked that he preferred to die in the press box, “because it’s closer to heaven.” Referring to Iowa’s string of 19 straight losing seasons in the 1960s and ‘70s, Zabel said he asked to be buried in the Hawkeye end zone, “so nobody would step on me.”

He teased Iowa State fans mercilessly.

“People say I don’t get along with Iowa State,” was one of his favorite jokes. “As a matter of fact, I do. (Ed) Podolak and I went up there last year and we’re walking into Cyclone Stadium. A couple asked us to tailgate, but I said I had a sore knee and couldn’t bend down to the trough.”

But Zabel could take as well as he gave.

Friends constantly zinged “Z,” as he was known, for his reluctance to pick up a check.

“Some men are born cheap, some men achieve cheapness and some men have cheapness thrust upon them,” said Randy Duncan, Zabel’s former partner on football broadcasts, during a 1989 roast of Zabel. “All of these epitomize Jim Zabel.”

Another partner, Ed Podolak, described Zabel’s broadcasting style this way: “He calls them and I see them.”

Enthusiasm, not accuracy, was the Zabel trademark. “It’s an Iowa touchdown! No, wait — interception!” Zabel would shout as bewildered listeners felt like smashing, not hugging and kissing, their radios. He could turn a meaningless late-season game between two lousy teams into an epic of Super Bowl proportions.

“I don’t do a boring broadcast,” Zabel said. “I make it fun. I’m dramatic.”

Frequently kidded for his on-air flubs, Zabel said he was more precise than his reputation would indicate. He often critiqued himself by listening to taped broadcasts.

He got the call exactly right on Nov. 14, 1987, in Columbus, Ohio, one of the great moments in Iowa football history. With Ohio State leading and time running out, Iowa quarterback Chuck Hartlieb hit tight end Marv Cook with the winning touchdown. Zabel’s voice cracked and soared to operatic soprano heights:

Here’s Hartlieb going out…He looks, he throws … It izzzzz …. COMPLETE! AND…IT’S…AN IOWA TOUCHDOWN! IT’S AN IOWA TOUCHDOWN! IT’S AN IOWA TOUCHDOWN! MARV COOK! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT…ED PODOLAK IS HUGGING AND KISSING ME!

Zabel’s call was included in the book, “Heart Stoppers and Hail Marys: 100 of the Greatest Football Finishes.”

When Hayden Fry rebuilt the Iowa football program in the 1980s, Zabel went from sports broadcaster to cult figure. He was named the medium-market “Personality of the Year” in 1993 by the National Association of Broadcasters, receiving a Marconi Award. A year later, he was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame. A scholarship at the U of I is named for him.

“I’m like the clown on the diving board,” he once said. “You want to make it look easy and fun, but it takes a lot of work to get there. I’ve worked my tail off.”

Although he received job offers from larger stations, Zabel said he couldn’t imagine leaving Iowa. Born in Davenport, he graduated from Davenport High School in 1939 — he was the co-captain of the state championship track team, and once ran in an exhibition race against four-time Olympic champion Jesse Owens. “I get closer every year,” Zabel joked.

Zabel was writing radio scripts in Chicago when WHO offered him a job as a news reporter in 1944. He was named sports director in 1950, a job once held by Ronald Reagan. Zabel interviewed the former president 18 times, including this exchange in 1950:

Zabel: “If we talk any longer the station may want to hire you back and I’ll be out of a job.”

Reagan: “That’s all right, Jim. You stay out of Hollywood and I’ll stay out of Des Moines.”

In a life filled with describing the games that others played, Zabel considered himself the winner.

“I can honestly say that I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it,” he once said. “I think that’s the mark of a full life, don’t you?”

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Memorable call

Rob Houghtlin’s game winning field goal as time expired gave No. 1 Iowa a 12-10 win over No. 2 Michigan in Kinnick Stadium on October 19, 1985. Here is Jim Zabel and Ed Podolak’s radio call from this great Hawkeye moment.

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And another one

The legendary Jim Zabel calls the famous Marv Cook TD against Ohio State in 1987.

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