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Football Analysis: Roberts’ best shot to come back is soon

Ken Fowler | Thursday, October 18, 2007

Almost a year and a half after Westwood One forced him out of the job he loved, Tony Roberts is praying to get back behind the microphone.

The Chicago native who grew up a fan of the Fighting Illini but made his name as the voice of the Fighting Irish said he hopes he can come back to Notre Dame’s national football broadcasts.

“There has never been a day that I haven’t thought about coming back to Notre Dame,” Roberts said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s like being in prison and waiting for your freedom. Right now I’m a captive and I just have to deal.”

For the man who called Notre Dame football games from 1980-2005, his best chance might come soon.

Westwood One, Notre Dame’s radio broadcast partner for 40 years, is ending its exclusive deal with the Irish after this season. The two sides failed to come to terms on an agreement that would have extended the only national contract in college football.

“The Notre Dame relationship was a long and mutually beneficial relationship, but I would categorize it as a mature property with us depending on how one wanted to look at it,” Westwood One CEO Peter Kosann said in an August conference call to discuss the company’s earnings. “It was a low cash flow deal at best and, you can argue, could be unprofitable if we had, quite frankly, agreed to their terms going forward.”

So now, Notre Dame must look for a new radio partner.

In June, several media outlets reported Notre Dame was close to a deal with ISP Sports, but nothing has come of the rumored relationship. Associate Athletic Director John Heisler said the University is engaged in negotiations and would announce a deal once it is complete.

Under the Westwood One contract, Notre Dame games have been broadcast in all 50 states and overseas. The contract also allowed for Roberts’ departure without the University having a say in the decision.

According to terms of the deal, Notre Dame allowed the radio distributor to choose the on-air personalities.

Westwood One replaced Roberts with Don Criqui, a Notre Dame graduate who works NFL games for the company and was the play-by-play man from 1974-76.

And while companies may change, the provision that led to Roberts’ departure is likely to remain. Heisler said Notre Dame wants to have “great faith” in its new radio partner to make content and business decisions in the best interest of both the school and the company.

That seems to indicate that if Roberts were to come back, it would be the result only of Notre Dame’s new partner extending an invitation to him.

That’s an invitation at which Roberts would jump.

Roberts remembers the days when Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail were the speedy return men for Irish teams battling for national titles.

“That was so much fun. It’s wonderful to be there with the best. If it wasn’t for Notre Dame, I wouldn’t have a career. Notre Dame made my career,” said Roberts, who now does work with the Web site Blueandgold.com. “I’ve done a lot of nice things … before I got the Notre Dame job. But Notre Dame was the chocolate sauce, the whipped cream and the cherry on top of the sundae.”

Roberts says he isn’t trying to be greedy, but he firmly believes he will have another shot at the dessert.

“I don’t want to sound pious, but if you can’t pray and you don’t have faith, they might as well dig the hole and put you in the box,” he said.

Before being replaced at Westwood One, the biggest criticism of Roberts had been that he didn’t tell the down and distance or the score often enough. Roberts thinks that perception is, well, hogwash.

“I carry an egg timer with me that goes about 2 minutes and 45 seconds,” he said with a hint of indignation, stressing that he always went through the details by the time the timer went off.

Even among those who had their complaints, Roberts was – and probably still is – a favorite for his emotional outbursts at dazzling plays.

“I’m Italian – you’re supposed to be passionate,” he said.

And he’s still passionate about at least one thing: his belief that he can still call a football game.

Whether Notre Dame’s new radio partner, whoever that may be, believes the same will shape his future.