MORGANTOWN — The young graduate, just seven weeks out of Syracuse University, was on his way to his first professional on-air adventure, filled with all the dreams young graduates have as they make their way into the real world.
He had thought, at first, that his phone call with Hoppy Kerchaval, would land him in York, Pa., doing sports but that changed. He was Morgantown bound as a newsman, which was fine with him.
After all, as Tony Caridi said the other day, “I came here thinking I’d be here six months.”
That certainly didn’t change as he pulled off the interstate for the first time.
“When I first came to town, I got off on the Sabraton exit on a Sunday afternoon in July. I thought the Sabraton area, where the Kroger is, was downtown Morgantown. I took one look and said, ‘I’m getting out of here,’” Caridi said.
It’s 38 years later and Caridi is still here, having established himself as a broadcast star with West Virginia University, the man who managed to fill the big shoes that the legendary Jack Fleming left behind when he retired.
No one ever wants to replace a legend. It is the recipe for failuire in any business, especially sports, especially broadcasting.
Don’t believe it, think of Milo Hamilton who tried to replace Bob Prince in Pittsburgh with the Pirates. He was a Hall of Fame broadcaster, but was despised in the ‘Burgh.
Who now sits in Vin Scully’s seat in Los Angeles? Has there ever been another Howard Cosell? Harry Caray?
Jack Fleming, who somehow managed to be not only “The Voice of the Mountaineers” but also the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the man who called Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception,” was in that same class.
This is the story of how Caridi pulled it off and made his own name a part of WVU broadcast lore.
“I never thought I would stay. I thought I had a job in York, Pennsylvania, when Hoppy Kerchaval called me back. I started as a news reporter on WAJR, before MetroNews. They had only WAJR, WVAQ because the government had not deregulated so you could buy multiple stations,” he said the other day while trying to get through this coronavirus pandemic with the rest of us.
That day in 1984 Caridi drove by the Kroger on the empty Sabraton streets and got to the Greer Building, hesitantly went inside unsure of his future in Morgantown.
But things would quickly change as Caridi went to the broadcast studio.
“They had off-the-chart, top-of-the-line equipment, which was kind of interesting,” he said. “I also recalled a letter I’d gotten from Dick Stockton, the national sports broadcaster, who had listened to one of my tapes.
“He’d written one of the great places you could go coming out of college was to a college town because things change often.”
And so Caridi began his career in Morgantown.
After a couple of months, things changed. Caridi talked the powers to be at West Virginia Radio into doing sports and, around that same time, West Virginia Radio began discussions about creating MetroNews.
“That was another opportunity and then Hoppy Kerchaval found he was too busy to do television and to do feature reports for the Mountaineer Sports Network TV shows and the coaches shows so they gave those to me and that was another reason to stay.
“Then, Mike Parsons was using me as a color analyst on our delayed football broadcasts with Tom Mees and that turned into me doing play-by-play, so there was always a reason for me to stay.”
Caridi was doing a whole lot, and more was to come.
“Then Dale Miller, who was running the operation, was good enough to allow me to freelance while I was here, so on weekends I’d go do Mutual College Game of the Week, which turned into Westwood College Game of the Week and I was doing syndicated stuff like the Atlantic 10 and the Big East,” Caridi said.
“Before you know it, I’m doing all that plus the Mountaineer Sports Network TV stuff, so I was doing what I wanted to do, play-by-play … then the kids were born and then Jack got sick in ’96.”
Jack Fleming, as anyone who ever heard him do games, was king of the hill. He was WVU football and basketball broadcasting, which stood in Caridi’s way of fulfilling his dream of becoming a play-by-play broadcaster.
“No way did I ever think it would be at West Virginia or be the next person after Jack, but that’s just how it worked and it made sense for a bunch of different reasons,” he said.
“There’s a combination of answers to it. The way it worked, I’d been on the air for 12 years since 1984 in some form or another,” Caridi said. “I started doing Sportsline in 1986, so I had been on the radio statewide.
“Add that to the TV broadcasts on the Mountaineer Sports Network and the delayed football broadcasts,” Caridi said.
Ah, the delayed football broadcasts. We’ve come a long way, baby, since then.
“We would air it at 11:30 at night on the day of the game, five or six games a year because those games weren’t carried live on television then,” Cardi said. “Those games would run on stations across the state and they would pack them with commercials. They wouldn’t get over until about 3 in the morning.”
And so it was the state was familiar with Caridi, especially the insomniacs.
“They’d heard me do football. They’d heard me do basketball and at that point West Virginia radio was doing their extensive pregame, two or three hours of it, and I would host ‘The Point After’ after the game, so there were a series of programs I was already doing with which people were familiar.”
Caridi had never done WVU games with Fleming on Mountaineer Sports Network.
“Occasionally I would be his spotter. I spotted him during the Fiesta Bowl when Major Harris got hurt in 1988. His daughter was normally his spotter,” Caridi said.
And there were on-air times when he would work with Fleming.
“I would be his color man when he did the state high school tournament,” Caridi said. “I would also run the board when he hosted the Gale Catlett talk show. That’s how I got to know who he was and he got to know who I was.”
Fleming’s health forced him to retire in 1996, which led Mike Parsons, the assistant athletic director at WVU then and the man who ran the broadcasting side of the department, offered Caridi the job and he would find out quickly that it truly was difficult to replace a legend.
“I can’t say I was instantly accepted because I was replacing a guy who was named Jack Fleming,” Caridi said.
Like the listeners, Caridi understood Fleming’s place in WVU lore.
“He was the Voice of the Mountaineers. I never have laid claim to that title, not only because it was retired for him, but he was the broadcaster of Mountaineer sports when there was no TV,” Caridi said.
The idea of being the Voice of the Mountaineers could have been an issue had Caridi not handled it with such class.
“Mike Parsons came to me when he offered me the job and said ‘I can’t call you the Voice of the Mountaineers,” Caridi said.
Perhaps Parsons expected some ego to emerge from Caridi at this point, but that wasn’t his way.
“I don’t have any care whatsoever,” Caridi said of his response. “I don’t care about titles or anything like that. A lot of that was respecting Jack and knowing who he was. Respecting him was the key to doing it from then until now. He was one of the all-time great announcers, not only at West Virginia but nationally he was one of the all-time great guys.
“The second part of it is you have to be confident in your ability. I knew I wasn’t going to be Jack but I knew I would be able to do the job at a high level and I prided myself on that.”
It isn’t unusual to have an announcer find himself in the position of replacing legends.
Someone has to do it when legends leave.
“Oklahoma play-by-play man Toby Rowland replaced Bob Barry, who was their Jack Fleming. At Kansas, Brian Hanni replaced Bob David, who had done KU sports for 32 years,” Caridi noted. “Doing play-by-play is a unique job because most people hold it for a long, long time and when that switch happens there’s a period of adjustment that everyone has to go through.”
Caridi had to go through his own period of adjustment. Just how long did it take him to feel he’d been accepted?
“Honestly, years down the road,” he said. “I think a play-by-play announcer becomes accepted when the school or the team he is announcing has unforgettable moments. I think the acceptance started happening in those high moments.”
Certainly, Caridi built a resume around such moments.
“When you do Don Nehlen’s last game and he beats Ole Miss, you become part of the fabric of that,” Caridi said. “The ’98 Cincinnati win [When Jarrod West’s buzzer beat Bob Huggins’ Bearcats in the NCAA Tournament] was a piece of it and then John Beilein’s run to the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 the next year and then Rich Rodriguez’s victories in the BCS bowls and Bill Stewart’s win in the Fiesta Bowl and the Orange Bowl over Clemson.
“My perception is when you stay around long enough and are part of those moments, that’s how you become accepted.”
But Caridi says there is even more to it than that.
“This is something I didn’t realize until not so long ago, since I’ve been doing it now since 1996, everyone born since 1996, people who are 24 to 28 years old or younger, really don’t have a solid memory of anyone else doing the games.
“That happens, too, and it really didn’t come to me until people started coming to me and saying ‘I grew up listening to you.’ Time also passes and that kind of makes you the people’s voice, so to the speak.”
You ask Caridi if he has any favorite calls and he runs through a few of them.
“I liked the end of the Kentucky game [that got WVU to the Final Four in 2010], I like the Phil Brady fake punt [which clinched a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia], I like the end of the Wake Forest game [a two-overtime 111-105 victory in the NCAA Tournament], winning the Big East Tournament [over Georgetown, 60-58] because I knew the significance of that,” Caridi said.
How does a great call sound. Here’s Caridi on the Brady fake punt.
“Lindsay the snapper. Sends the ball back. Brady is going to fake it. Brady is running. First down West Virginia. Phil Brady on a fake punt ran the football inside the 40 of Georgia and the Mountaineers, with 1:48 to go in the game and a three-point lead, will have the ball first and 10 on the Bulldogs’ 38-yard-line.
“OH, MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS!”
Caridi says he runs across these calls every so often on social media.
“Those are all kind of … Dick Enberg was always searching for the perfect broadcast and that’s what keeps you going,” Caridi said. “You try and you strive for it, but like everything else, you are your own worst critic. Those are all right but you are always trying to get the best one, though.”
It was Al Michaels who accomplished it with his Miracle on Ice call and he has always maintained that the words just come out, that the word “miraculous” just popped into his head.
“Do you believe in miracles? YES! UNBELIEVABLE!” Michaels roared when the U.S. beat Russia in the 1980 Olympics.
That’s how it goes, Caridi agreed.
“I think if you try to rehearse it or plan it, it comes out like it’s been rehearsed or planned,” Caridi said. “I think the truly great calls of all-time are the ones that are spontaneous yet put it all in the proper perspective.
“I don’t think Al Michaels went into the booth that day thinking ‘Hey, if they win this game today I’m going to say do you believe in miracles.’ It was spontaneous. Jack Buck’s call on Kirk Gibson was the same way. That’s why those guys are magical.
“The greatest of the greats, in my opinion, are playing chess and everybody else is playing checkers. I put Vin Scully and Enberg and Michaels in that category. They are like the concert pianists of the profession.”
Now, Caridi is waiting for his great call, the one he can make when West Virginia football or basketball finally wins its first national championship in those sports.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel