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Reunion in the booth

Posted Sep 16, 2013

This is why you treat people the same way on the way up as you do on the way down.


ESPN's Mike Tirico

This is why you treat people the same way on the way up as you do on the way down.

This is why in a business so brutal and petty and small it is nice to hear about a long friendship and mutual respect when a day or a career or a life can be ruined in 140 characters.

This is why this is a good morning to talk to Dan Hoard, class of 1985, and Mike Tirico, class of 1988.

Later Monday, 8:40 p.m. to be exact at Paul Brown Stadium, Hoard and Tirico take the mike in the latest episode of America's longest-running prime-time reality TV show called Monday Night Football.

Tirico, just the fourth play-by-play announcer in the five decades of the series, calls Bengals-Steelers for the country on ESPN. Hoard, who has announced everything from balls and strikes to Cats and Dawgs to building codes as the voice of the Bengals and the University of Cincinnati, calls the game for Who Dey Nation on the Bengals Radio Network.

"I'm still learning from him," Hoard says of Tirico, the kid he mentored at Syracuse University back in that first fall of Monday Night Football without Howard Cosell.

"His grasp of the rule was a great reminder that you ought to pull out the rule book once a year and read it," Hoard says of Tirico's dissection and autopsy of the simultaneous catch in last season's Green Bay-Seattle fiasco that settled the officials' walkout.

So last month during the preseason when Chris Jones of the Cowboys scraped the monstrous scoreboard in Dallas with an equally monstrous punt, Hoard immediately informed Bengaldom there would be a re-kick.

"There was no hesitation in my voice," Hoard says. "Because I looked it up."

Hoard has been looking it up since he was a kid in the small town of Lakewood in Western New York talking into tape recorders in front of his TV while his beloved Bills were flailing through the '70s, hoping to one day join the press-box blazers. By the time he was a senior at WAER, the SU student station's fabled network assembly line, Hoard was well on his way when Tirico showed up from Queens, N.Y. with his microchip-memory-Dolby-Sound-voice-can't-miss future.

"I'll give you all the details," says Tirico, who always does.

"At WAER, all the wannabe sportscasters are assigned to an upper classman, at that time usually a senior, to learn the ropes. How to make sound bites. How to write your sportscasts. How to turn the microphones on and off. I was assigned to Dan."

Which for Hoard was a little like being Joe Cronin getting handed Ted Williams all those spring trainings ago in Sarasota, Fla.

It wasn't like Tirico was grabbing gofer coffees and lunches for his elders. But there were nightly sessions at the venerable your-wings-are-ready Varsity over pitchers and pizza.

"It was college," Hoard says. "We'd work at the station, go down to the Varsity and do what any sports-obsessed kids would do and talk and watch sports.

"Later on when he was still in college, Mike was a TV weekend sports news anchor in Syracuse. For most of us that was still several years away and we still stunk. But he was doing it when he was a college student while his classmates were out on weekend nights going crazy. And he was the best guy in town. You knew very early he was a supernova destined to go places."

Hoard knew because when he was a freshman he was assigned to a kid whose Boston accent purred like he'd been around the business a Hall of Fame 50 years. My God, thought Hoard as he listened to Sean McDonough, do I have to be this good now?

"You can tell," he says.

First semester, 1984. The Carrier Dome still smelled like Carrier Air Conditioning and the freshmen broadcasters sat in the stands doing their audition tapes on cassette recorders as big as a football. Hoard taught Tirico how to make sound bites with a razor blade slicing up tape and putting it back together.

"Just the basics of delivery. Dan always delivers uncomplicated, clear, simple thoughts," Tirico says. "I remember from a writing standpoint, there's a fine line between when you're creative, humorous and entertaining and you have to deliver the facts. Those are lessons still put into practice every day."

Tirico wonders if Hoard hadn't been the guy he went to most mornings, colder and darker than the next as he trudged to the AER studio for another lesson. At the same time he was covering field hockey for the Daily Orange, the student newspaper.

"Without an example like Dan, I guess you can wonder where my path would have gone," Tirico says. "You'd walk inside out of the cold and the dark and there was Dan with that tremendous attitude and Western New York warmth. As we all know those first three months you've never been away are tough and I was the first person in my family to go away for college. It's full of unknowns. Dan was a known. He was a great comfort, great to be around. Which are the traits that I'm sure whether it's the Bearcats or the Bengals, Cincinnati listeners would list about Dan now. He's fun to be around, he makes everyone feel comfortable. When Dan's voice is in the room, it's just a better room."

If Tirico is the kid who won every sports trivia contest on your dorm floor, intense and enthusiastic, Hoard is the affable and informed R.A. who can tell you a story about it or anything else. Usually a funny one. Like when he was on a cruise once in the middle of nowhere-man land and looked up and saw his buddy's face on the big screen TV covering one of those major events (NBA, NFL golf), where he's become a staple.

"When he took over for Jim McKay at the British Open, I really felt like a proud father," Hoard says. "I mean, Jim Freaking McKay. That was one of the times I texted him. Usually I'll text him about work if I see something that was really good. I could do it every week."

The kid from Queens was taking notes. Especially that first summer he stayed on campus and took a class. Hoard, a fast-track guy himself, was a year out of school and the lone voice in the Syracuse Chiefs Triple A baseball booth.

"We were helping out in the press box with P.A., and stuff like that and we were right next to his booth," Tirico says. "It's the only time I've been around baseball for a full season. I got a chance to watch him work and how he pursued stories on players for the other team when it was a lot harder to do that before the Internet. The great baseball announcers are people you want to be with every night of the summer. Dan is exactly that. There aren't many people that are great at three sports (baseball, football and basketball) on the radio."

In this era no one is more versatile than Tirico. From the British Open to the Monday Night open to the NBA playoff opener, he doesn't miss. Hoard chalks it up to his "photographic memory" that not only allows him to spit out encyclopedias of information, but also helps him form bonds with athletes and coaches across such a diverse landscape.

It's that memory that Hoard thinks is at the heart of what he calls The Call. Seattle-Green Bay. Utter chaos on the final play.

"If you went back right now and watched that tape and tried to write out what happened with no time left and how exactly you wanted to word things, that would be his live play-by-play," Hoard says. "It's one of the most confusing plays in NFL history. Think about how difficult that was. To have that grasp of the rule, to understand the significance and he gets every minute detail right on the fly on national TV. It's one of the most incredible sportscasting moments in history. I don't know if it tops Al Michaels's 'Do you believe in miracles?' but it was pretty damn impressive."

Tirico has his Hoard moment. He was watching Inside the NFL a few days after Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson flipped his entire body over a defender to get into the end zone with a 10' landing late in the 2011 season on a play your grandkids will see on the highlight shows. 

"It was Dan's first year and when I heard his call I thought, 'Awesome,' because you just never see something like that," Tirico says. "You get by repetition 50 or 100 different ways to say the same thing. But that play, in that spot on the field, never happens. Never happens. And Dan called it so crisply and cleanly. He was all over it right away."

There is no time for a mutual admiration society blowout. There is this game to call and another plane to catch and another game on the sked. Last year before the Monday Nighter in Baltimore they had lunch and they could have been back at the Varsity, except the pitchers were replaced by sodas and iced tea, and then it was off again, texting here and there through the calendar.

As Hoard and analyst Dave Lapham jam on their headsets Monday night around dinnertime, Tirico and Jon Gruden are going to be doing the same a few doors down. Gruden, the brother of Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, knows all about Hoard.

At some point last season, Tirico mentioned his friendship with Hoard.

"Gruden's mom will listen to Dan on the radio sometimes if she doesn't have access to the game on TV," Tirico says. "Jon said, 'Damn, my mom thinks he does a good job.' That's high praise coming from Mrs. Gruden, football wife, a football mom. When she says he's doing a good job, that might be the highest praise he can get."

The red light is on for the kids from the fall of '84 looking for those college basics.

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