When he got the job, Verne Lundquist thought it was a demotion.
It was early 2000. Sean McDonough, who was calling the SEC on CBS, was being cleared out to make room for Dick Enberg. To replace McDonough, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus turned to Lundquist – then the network’s #2 NFL announcer behind Jim Nantz – to be the voice of his SEC package.
That meant that instead of spending his fall weekends in Chicago, Dallas, and New York, Lundquist would be setting up shop in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, and Knoxville.
As he’d later tell his CBS Sports colleague Dennis Dodd, the commute from his Colorado home would mean roughly nineteen hours of travel each week.
But Lundquist wasn’t exactly given an option. So starting that fall, he became the lead voice of the SEC on CBS.
Lundquist’s first game that year pitted Steve Spurrier’s sixth-ranked Florida Gators against Phillip Fulmer’s eleventh-ranked Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. It’d be a classic. The Gators won 27-23, with Jesse Palmer leading a 91-yard game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes.
The rest, of course, is history.
After seventeen years as the voice of the SEC, Lundquist will conclude his college football broadcasting career with the Army-Navy game on Saturday. He wrapped up his SEC work with the conference’s championship game in Atlanta three days ago.
It’s dimmed slightly in the last few years, but for most of this century, it was impossible to overstate how large the SEC loomed over college football. From 2006 to 2012, the conference won the first seven BCS National Championship games.
The Southeastern Conference did it bigger and better than everyone else. That era of intoxicating SEC success and drama launched countless careers – who had ever heard of Paul Finebaum outside of the South? – but it made Verne a legend.
As has been detailed in the countless adoring profiles of him this year, Lundquist had never been the #1 announcer on anything but Olympic Figure Skating in his entire network career.
But the SEC was his. And what a ride it was.
The SEC on CBS was, and still is, a throwback. In an era in which every game is always televised, the real estate from 3:30 to 6:30 on CBS on Saturday afternoons was coveted. Just one game each week. The ultimate platform.
The SEC on CBS has been college football’s highest-rated program for seven years running. It was, in many ways, the perfect sports telecast: Steeped in color, beaming images of sun-splashed stadiums into the homes of a gray, freezing country.
The man known as “The Golden Throat” provided the soundtrack. Few broadcasters have ever so effortlessly combined geniality and warmth with gravitas and presence.
For 59 minutes, he would be Uncle Verne. Just like you knew him. And then, in the big moments that have made his career, from Jack to Laettner to Tiger, a true master of the broadcasting craft would emerge.
Lundquist is known as a great storyteller, but as a game-caller, he was something of a minimalist. He could tell you more with five words than most announcers can with twenty.
With some of the most evocative images in sports behind him, it was a perfect fit.
Born the son of a Lutheran minister in a place famed for its kindness, Duluth, Minnesota, Lundquist was also something of a humanist. He loved mentioning players’ hometowns.
His most enthusiastic SEC call might have been at the end of the Florida-Tennessee game in 2004, when Vols kicker James Wilhoit – fresh off of missing a game-tying extra point – nailed a 50-yard field goal for the win.
It harkened back to Lundquist’s first famous call, when retiring Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a wide open pass in the end-zone in the Super Bowl and Verne empathized, “Bless his heart, he must be the sickest man in America.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries – Brent Musburger and Keith Jackson come to mind – Lundquist was never about a shtick. He was as authentic as broadcasters come. What you heard on Saturdays was what he was.
He loved what he did. The games and the people who came with them. You could hear it in every belly laugh. And they loved him back.
Lundquist isn’t going away completely. He’ll still call the NCAA Tournament and The Masters for CBS for the foreseeable future. But as he remarked after Tennessee beat Georgia with a Hail Mary in September, “You know, I’m going to miss doing the SEC.”
But this was the right time to go. Lundquist exits at the very height of his popularity, still on top of his game.
Perfect endings are as hard to come by in sports as they are in life. But the sendoff that Lundquist has gotten on his last tour of the South this year has been nothing short of remarkable, especially considering that SEC fans whined about his shortcomings for years.
But even they came around. As far as demotions go, this one wasn’t all that bad. Lundquist will be remembered as the voice of an entire region, presiding over some of the most iconic plays and people in college football history.
You know the names. The Kick Six. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare. The Game of the Century. The Jump Pass. Saben. Miles. Meyer. Spurrier. Tebow. Newton. Manziel.
And, now and forever, the man who brought it all to us with such inimitable joy: Verne.