Former Notre Dame broadcaster Tony Roberts reflects on Michigan series

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

The voice sounds just as crisp and articulate and authoritative and engaging and smooth as it did nine years ago, when Tony Roberts called his last Notre Dame football game. The knowledge and passion that were evident during Roberts' 26 years in the ND broadcast booth haven't waned. The appreciation for the job, which stood at a high level every time he signed on, is still there, perhaps greater.

“I miss it,” said Roberts, now 85 and living in Virginia. “I would never take another job. Once you’ve done Notre Dame, there is no other job. The campus is special. The people are special. The whole atmosphere is special. The Lady on the Dome is special. Everything is special. There’s nothing else like it. I’ve been on a lot of campuses around the country, and there’s nothing else like it anywhere else.”

That quarter century-plus of soaking up all that special from the broadcast booth included a number of memories from the storied Notre Dame-Michigan series, a series that hits a stop sign Saturday at ND Stadium because of Notre Dame’s arrangement with the ACC. And like a lot of those who have touched the series as a fan or coach or player, Roberts has an opinion.

“There’s that old saying, it’s only a game,” Roberts said, “but you hate to see it end. I’m 85. Let’s face it – I’m a traditionalist. And there’s a lot of ways to look at tradition. Sometimes you have to break away from tradition and other times you wish that you could keep it going because it’s a good thing. This is a great rivalry. It’s always been good for college football. Look at the interest it has evoked among football fans. Everybody gets interested with Notre Dame and Michigan.

“I’m not going to be sad. I just feel that it should have never happened. I don’t see how you can let a rivalry like that get away.”

Roberts was at the epicenter of the series when some of the most magical memories were made. He called 20 Notre Dame-Michigan games, and the only difficulty coming up with his top three moments seemed to be in paring it down to that number.

“Well obviously Harry Oliver. The Rocket’s two returns,” he said, and when the words ‘The Rocket’ rolled off his tongue, it was like it was 1989 all over again and the car radio was tuned in to Roberts’ broadcast from Michigan Stadium. “The one I’d like to forget, but I can’t because I’ve got a picture of it -- and I’ve got to get him to sign it one of these days -- is Desmond Howard’s leap into the end zone, the catch. That one’s a killer. Those are probably my top three memories in the series. I just hate to see it end.”

Roberts is a historian of sorts on how the series, which Michigan leads 24-16-1, has evolved. He’s got statistics at his fingertips about how close the games have been. He has thoughts on why there have been pauses in the series. And he can tell you about an underlying animosity that existed between the two schools.

“They were like two neighbors who were always fighting each other,” Roberts said. “And there’s this whole story and it’s like a little bubbling cauldron. It’s just simmered all through those years.”

All through those years, though, fantastic games often unfolded, and Roberts’ calls have been part of them. In fact, a few years ago, while working at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Roberts wandered into an antique store.

Near the back of the store, he spotted a 4x6-inch picture of Oliver’s 51-yard field that beat the Wolverines in the 1980 game. Upon further inspection, Roberts found a button on the base of the stand that held the photo, and when he pressed it, he heard his call of the kick.

“I bought it,” he roared. “I’ve still got it.”

A few years later, while at an antique shop in Lawrence, Kan., Roberts spotted a similar photo of ND’s Snow Bowl victory over Penn State. That one also became his, at a reasonable, slashed price.

“Ten bucks, something like that. They were trying to get rid of them. What does that tell you? That’s my career,” he joked.

His career was nothing short of special. Roberts loves to tell the story about how his mother would attend Mass and sit in the back of church, earplug in, listening to her son call the Irish.

“And people would come by and say, ‘What’s the score?’” he said in his best hushed church voice.

While Roberts, who was let go after calling the 2005 season, misses the booth, he hasn’t stopped keeping tabs – close tabs – on the program. His mornings include scanning the websites of four or five newspapers that cover the Irish, and that’s followed by printing off stories for daily consumption.

“You can’t get it out of your blood, you know?” Roberts said. “Once it’s in there, it’s in there.

“That’s all there is to it.”

Nine years after he left the broadcast booth, former Notre Dame radio announcer Tony Roberts still keeps close tabs on the program. (SBT File Photo)