Play-by-play man Bob Rondeau has seen the highs and lows of UW sports and is not afraid to tell it like it is
By Derek Belt
SEATTLE — In October of 2000, the football game between Washington and Stanford was put on hold late in the third quarter while paramedics attended to downed Husky safety Curtis Williams.
Silence crept over Stanford Stadium following the helmet-to-helmet collision that 18 months later would claim the life of the 22-year-old senior. And though time itself seemed to stop, the radio broadcast did not.
Bob Rondeau was just as dumbfounded as everyone else as he kept a watchful eye on the action from the press box high above the field. With no television coverage that day, he was well aware listeners were glued to the radio, thirsting for every last drop of drama and detail.
And as the veteran broadcaster watched the tragedy unfold through a pair of binoculars, there was only one thing he could do—just keep talking.
The game eventually resumed and, despite a fallen teammate in the hospital, the Huskies pulled out an improbable 31-28 victory on Marques Tuiasosopo’s last-second touchdown pass. It was an amazing comeback for the UW and an unforgettable experience for its play-by-play announcer.
“When I got to the end of the game, I was ready to cry,” says Rondeau. “It was emotionally the most memorable game I’ve ever been involved with.”
From the Curtis Williams tragedy to the magical 1991 national championship season, Rondeau has seen it all in his 20 years with the Huskies. He can’t wait to see what else the Huskies have in store, having signed a five-year deal with Action Sports Media to serve as director of broadcasting for the Husky Radio Network.
From kickoff to tip-off, touchdown to technical, radio is a perfect fit for the effervescent Rondeau. “I get paid to watch sports,” he says. “It doesn’t get much better than that. And if you love going to games, there’s no better way to do it than going to call one. It’s way more fun at the end of the day to be able to call the game from start to finish.”
It’s one thing for a broadcaster to be a fan, says Rondeau, but getting too close to the team you cover can definitely have its drawbacks. The most important thing to do is try and remain a journalist first and a fan second.
“I love the games for what they are,” he says. “I love the individual chapters and stories they bring to the table. But at the end of the day, if they get beat—then so be it. I don’t want the fact that they get beat to ruin the experience for me.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped him from showing his emotions every now and then. “Bob is very passionate about the games,” says Chuck Nelson, ’82, a former UW place-kicker and Rondeau’s current broadcast partner. “He certainly gets fired up when things go wrong, and sometimes manages to hit his binoculars against the desk real hard. The look on his face when he picks them back up and realizes they’re not right is just great.”
Busted binoculars aside, Rondeau’s top priority has always been putting out the best radio broadcast possible. And as long as everything goes smoothly, the game’s outcome can take a backseat. “I don’t live and die by the winning and losing,” he says. “Some of the best games I’ve ever seen are ones they lost. I’d like to think that win, lose or draw, I’m still pretty good at what I do.”
“People in the broadcast business are often criticized for being prejudicial toward their team,” says Bruce King, who worked the1978-79 Husky football seasons with Rondeau on KOMO radio. “Sure, you’d like to see them have success, but that’s just not what it’s about. Bob is a professional, and he’s always been fair and honest with everyone.”
Growing up in Denver, Rondeau had visions of a newspaper or magazine career long before broadcasting came along. Unable to find work as a print journalist after graduating from the University of Colorado in 1972, the only job he could hang on to was driving a forklift in a Denver produce warehouse.
Then he came across an opening for a news director at a small radio station in Cortez, Colo. “I had taken a broadcast sequence in college, but had never really aspired to radio or television. Then I thought about it and realized anything sounded better than driving a forklift,” he says.
After less than a year in Cortez, Rondeau bounced around a bit before landing what he believed to be a steady job at KRUX radio in Phoenix. Unfortunately, the station folded a few months later.
“When that happened,” he says, “I started thinking about getting out of the business for good. But I did some nosing around and found that KOMO radio in Seattle was looking for a sports director. Until my job interview I’d never even been to the Northwest, but I was very impressed with what I saw to say the least.”
Rondeau met with KOMO executives in May 1977 at a restaurant called Francisco’s on 1st Avenue. They explained that it was an exciting time for sports in Seattle—the Mariners were in their first year and the Seahawks had just wrapped up their second—and KOMO was looking to expand its roster to meet the growing market.
“It was fun coming to Seattle,” says Rondeau. “I’d never done any play-by-play before, but I knew enough about sports and was a good enough reporter that I was confident I could handle that. I guess I was just excited to make a change.”
Less than a year after he arrived in the Emerald City, Rondeau was thrust into the spotlight when KOMO secured the rights to broadcast Husky football. Being the new kid on the block, he served as color commentator while King handled the play-by-play.
“At first Bob would just listen to me and put his hand out when he wanted to talk,” says King. “But he had a terrific voice, and there was no question in my mind that he was going to be very good. It was a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet, and we both had a terrific time with it.”
“I remember the first game we ever did,” recalls Rondeau. “I was terrified. The Huskies played UCLA in the 1978 conference opener and Bruce spent half the week trying to learn how to pronounce Tuiasosopo because Manu was playing for UCLA then. But we somehow managed to get through it, and the buzz I felt afterward was remarkable and still one of the best feelings I’ve had professionally.”
After two seasons under King’s tutelage, Rondeau was more than prepared to tackle the play-by-play when King left for WABC radio in New York. Over the next few years, Rondeau spent countless hours with defensive coordinator Jim Lambright watching game film, asking questions and taking notes in an effort to improve his understanding of the game. It was there in the bowels of Husky Stadium that he truly learned the ins and outs of college football.
“I was impressed as a coach that he would want to come in and study the game with us,” says Lambright, who developed a close relationship with Rondeau during their time together. “There’s an awful lot of reporters out there who don’t take the time to get to know the game, but Bob had a great curiosity about him and always asked a lot of good questions.”
Rondeau’s enthusiasm for the job and willingness to learn helped him hone his skills throughout the Don James era. And as the football team improved, so did Rondeau.
He eventually caught on as play-by-play announcer for the men’s basketball games, too, and swapped Lambright’s guidance for that of legendary Husky hoops Coach Marv Harshman.
As Lambright had done for his knowledge of football, Harshman was able to do for his grasp of basketball. “Marv was a genius,” says Rondeau. “And in this business, there’s always room to learn. I’ve never stopped that process, which is part of what keeps me fresh.”
Staying fresh is essential to staying on top, which wasn’t always clear to Rondeau as a young and seemingly invincible journalist.
“I smoked cigarettes when I first started,” he says. “I even used to smoke during the games, which was awful. I really needed that cough switch on the microphone to clear my throat, and that’s not exactly conducive to doing good work on the radio. In the end, that was one of the main reasons I quit smoking.”
Despite the smoker’s cough, Rondeau never lost his voice during a broadcast. In fact, he’s never even missed a game due to illness or injury (“Knock on wood,” he says). His perfect attendance record over the past two decades has allowed him to take part in many of the Huskies’ highs and lows—from national championship football and Sweet Sixteen basketball to NCAA sanctions and perpetual last-place finishes.
Unfortunately, it’s been the hardships that have struck a chord in Rondeau despite the thrill of Washington’s successes. “The most difficult time I can recall is when Don [James] resigned. He was just an unbelievably gifted football coach and I will always have tremendous respect for him. But to see his character questioned was really difficult. I could understand it, but I hated to see it.
“Having to cover that story and try to be objective was hard, but it was my job to function every inch as a journalist. I wasn’t bothered to be in that position because I was just doing my job. But it was hard to see the program held up to that kind of scrutiny and get slapped around like it did.”
Things didn’t get any easier on Rondeau when Lambright was fired following a mediocre 1998 football season. Likewise, he was saddened by Rick Neuheisel’s termination after the former coach admitted to gambling on college basketball tournaments.
“I feel bad for Rick, he’s a very good coach and a dynamic individual. But sometimes you don’t want to get too friendly with people in this business for that very reason. They can rise so high and fall so fast.”
Nevertheless, working with the Huskies over the years has been rewarding in many ways. He enjoys the constant turnover of players and coaches and the ability to travel to new places and meet new people on a regular basis.
“I remember going back to Colorado in 1990,” says Rondeau. “It’s one of my favorite games ever. The Dawgs lost, but it was the first time I’d been back to Boulder in ages. I had watched games in that stadium while I was going to school there, but to go back in and actually call one was special. It’s been a real treat to go to these places and have that turn into your work environment.”
Nowadays, with more than 20 years of experience, radio has become more or less Rondeau’s home away from home—a place where his inhibitions are laid to rest and his voice can reign supreme.
“From day one I’ve always enjoyed radio,” he says. “I really like the intimacy and immediacy of it all, and I certainly can’t imagine a better situation to be in with a college program. The UW is first class in terms of its national exposure and the way it’s embraced by the community.”
There was a time, however, when Rondeau considered testing the waters of television to find out how good he really was as a broadcaster. And in 1986, when KOMO lost the Huskies to KIRO radio, Rondeau¹s opportunity arose. He turned his attention to television for several years, but when KOMO took back the rights in 1989, the “Voice of the Huskies” was ready to go home.
“The studio stuff just wasn’t for me,” he says. “I was never as comfortable doing TV as I was with the radio because I didn’t think I was all that good. Plus, I was always a little self-conscious with the camera. In radio you don’t have to dress up or have your hair in place, which I think is really nice.”
A similar situation arose in 2002 when the Huskies moved to KJR radio. Rondeau’s contract with KOMO was up at the same time, but it wasn’t clear whether he would follow the team or not. Luckily, it didn’t take long for the two parties to reach an agreement.
“I think they would have had a community mutiny had they not brought him back,” says Nelson, who went with Rondeau to KJR. “If you look around the country, and not just from a longevity standpoint but a quality standpoint as well, he’s as good as it gets.”
“Bob’s as much a part of the Husky tradition as anyone else,” says Lambright. “You can listen to his broadcasts and actually see the game. He just has a marvelous voice and paints such a good picture.”
Today, at age 53, Rondeau has found harmony mixing radio with family and fun. If he’s not working on something Husky-related in his Westlake office, he’s either at home with his wife and three children, out on the golf course or off on some wild fly fishing adventure with friends.
“I just went to Argentina to fish for sea-run brown trout,” he says. “It was an amazing trip and we did very well. We also spend a week in Sitka, Alaska, each year and make an annual trip to the Skagit River for steelhead as well.”
Whatever Rondeau decides to do with his time, you can be sure he’s enjoying every second of it. After all, not everyone gets to watch the Huskies for a living. “I can’t even contemplate leaving the UW,” he says. “And as long as they’ll have me here, I’m happy to have them.”