With all due respect to our 40th President, Jim Zabel is the biggest name in Iowa sportscasting history.
Yes, Ronald Reagan spent some time at WHO Radio before heading to Hollywood in 1937 and spearheading a political revival in the 1980s.
But he never hosted “Let’s Go Bowling,” never did play-by-play for the state girls’ basketball tournament.
He never made generations of Hawkeye fans hug and kiss their radios.
“Ronald Reagan becoming President of the United States made him an icon at WHO,” said Jim Walden, the former Iowa State football coach. “Jim Zabel made himself an icon by being at WHO.”
Walden and Zabel spent 16 years co-hosting the weekly “Two Guys Named Jim” radio show on Sunday nights.
They talked on the phone for the last time Thursday, less than 2 hours before Zabel died, peacefully, at age 91.
“I had kind of a bad feeling for about three weeks, in terms of Jim’s health,” Walden said Friday. “For the first time, I got a little nervous. Of course, I was hoping I was wrong.”
For nearly seven decades, Zabel seemed indestructible.
He began his career in the 1940s, during television’s infancy, and remained on the airwaves in the age of Twitter.
“His legacy will go on and on,” said Bob Brooks, another sportscasting luminary who was a friend of Zabel’s. “He was an Iowa treasure. No question about that.”
Zabel’s true value was measured in an era when fewer games were shown nationally, when a distinct voice was the primary link to your favorite team.
“I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone who is under the age of 40 to understand just how big of a broadcasting star Jim Zabel was in the state of Iowa,” said Keith Murphy, the current sports director for WHO Channel 13. “Media and how we get our information is now so splintered.
“When he was at his peak — and his peak was 50 years long — he was ‘The Man,’ and there weren’t all these options.”
In other words, there can never be another Zabel — a local media personality whose presence elevated a sporting event, whether it was the Drake Relays or a high football game.
“I’m standing in an enormous shadow,” Murphy said, “where you can barely even spot me, compared to what Jim Zabel was like when he was the sports director at Channel 13.”
When the spotlight on Zabel began to dim in the 1990s, he found new audiences.
Instead of the Hawkeyes, Zabel began covering the Iowa Barnstormers.
It was part of his DNA.
“If kids playing sandlot football invited Zabel over to stand on the side of the grass lot and hold a pretend microphone, he would do it,” Murphy said. “Because he just loved it.”
Some have debated whether Reagan belongs on Mount Rushmore. But to the millions who hung on Zabel’s every word, no single landmark is big enough.
“I think icon is not too strong a word,” former Iowa basketball coach Tom Davis said. “I don’t know if I’d put him up there with Ronald Reagan. But in Jim’s mind today, he’s up there with Reagan.”
Andrew Logue has been with the Register for 17 years and covers Hawkeye football and sports media. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLogue.
Category: Hawkeye news