The news that CBS will not renew its contract with the Southeastern Conference didn’t make anybody’s day in the SEC family.
While the contract has five years to run, and I suppose negotiations could begin again, the word from a network insider is that the league and the network will no longer be partners.
I can remember when the network and the conference began a relationship in 1996 that sent hurrahs and hallelujahs across the SEC landscape. CBS didn’t have any football programming at the time and was anxious to find a partner. They appreciated the conference’s reputation for exciting football and made the landmark decision to showcase SEC games to the nation as national games.
The league puffed out its chest with unadulterated pride. Then all of a sudden, the SEC began winning the national championship on an annual basis. You would have expected the partnership to last forever.
For Verne Lundquist, it was not what he had preferred. Most in the industry would have advised him that it was something of a step down in the profession. It turned out to be different. It became considered a plum to do play-by-by play for the SEC each week in the fall.
Verne’s first partner was Todd Blackledge, the one-time Penn State quarterback with whom he shared a genial rapport. They enjoyed the social scene around the league where Southern food and hospitality soon overwhelmed them. Todd eventually wrote a book about his favorite haunts around the SEC cafes and kitchens.
Verne never made a trip without his pretty wife, Nancy, joining him. It was a nine-plus hour commute from their home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., but they enjoyed the travel time together. The network would later provide Verne with an apartment in Atlanta. Suddenly, they could drive to most of the game sites.
Blackledge had young children and would bring one or more with him until he got the idea to travel by motor home which allowed his wife, Cherry, to homeschool their children.
Jill Arrington, whose father, Rick, once was a UGA quarterback, was the first sideline reporter for CBS, followed by Tracy Wolfson and Allie LaForce. Today it is Jamie Erdahl. When broader opportunity came about for Todd Blackledge, he took a job with ESPN and Gary Danielson succeeded him.
It was a family atmosphere all around. When the network scheduled games in Athens, the CBS gang often had dinner at our house. They enjoyed our friends who found them about as downhome as if they lived down the street. One they particularly had fun interacting with was Bill Griffin, who grew up in Rutledge, 30 minutes south of Athens but settled in Pittsburgh.
Griffin is one of the most hospitable fellows anybody will lever meet. Early on in his career, he used golf to accommodate his business interests. He became President of the Oakmont Country Club, which has hosted more U.S. Open championships than any club in the country.
Warm friendships soon developed and before you knew it, many who showed up for dinner on SEC/CBS Friday nights in Athens, if they were golf aficionados, were finding their way to Pittsburgh to play Oakmont.
If there has ever been a network personality who was more engaging that Lundquist, I can’t imagine who it would be. Verne had time for everybody and never tired of pedestrian questions. When Verne retired, he was followed by Brad Nessler whose domicile was in suburban Gwinnett County. A fine announcer followed a fine announcer.
Todd was always checking out the tenderloin on the grill. You would have thought he had grown up on a South Georgia farm when we served field peas and butterbeans. He was never bashful about going back for seconds.
The trail boss for the group, Producer-Director, Craig Silver, has strict discipline when it comes to eating healthy. We had to always “fix” salmon for him.
Drinks flowed, laughter peaked and a good time was enjoyed by all. When relationships and friendships are peaking, that is when they are the most fun. Now it is all coming to an end.
The memories, however, will remain forever.