You'll read in the obituaries that Jim Simpson, as one of the first established play-by-play men to jump to ESPN in 1979, gave the fledgling network instant credibility, and that is true. It's not why I remember him, though; in the Twin Cities, we didn't even get cable until the mid '80s. No, when I think of him, I remember his smooth voice, the controlled way in which he called a game, how he could engender a sense of urgency and excitement to the closing minutes without having to scream to do so.
His was a long and rich career; in the early '60s he was part of CBS' college football team, along with Lindsey Nelson and Terry Brennan, and the three of them were in New Haven to call the Harvard-Yale game on November 22, 1963 when word came that President Kennedy had been assassinated. As Nelson remembered it in his autobiography, while the men walked from Yale Bowl back to the hotel, Simpson said, "We will remember this walk and this moment for a long, long, time." If you ever listened to Simpson on television, you'll agree that it sounds just like him - understated, yet able to encapsulate the moment with dignified eloquence.
According to those obituaries, Simpson called 14 Orange Bowl games; no wonder my memories of sitting in front of the television watching New Year's nights unfold in Miami are so vivid. Like many great announcers, he was versatile - he could do football, golf, basketball, the Olympics, and wherever else he was needed. At ESPN, he not only did college football but basketball as well, and mentored Dick Vitale in the art of when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut, threatening to pull the cord on his mic if he didn't follow his instructions.
You can learn why Simpson was a broadcasting legend from this terrific tribute to him at Awful Announcing. Tonight (Friday, January 15), can hear his NBC radio call of the first Super Bowl on the NFL Network's broadcast of the game, taken from NFL Films. Or you can just do what I did, and call up that 1968 Orange Bowl (or many others) on YouTube.
I've written in the past of the "Big Game" announcers, mostly in their obituaries - Curt Gowdy, Chris Schenkel, Pat Summerall, Jim McKay, They were the voices I grew up with and the voices that made the biggest impression on me. When I was young I thought of becoming a sports announcer (I eventually decided against it when the call of politics became stronger*), it was because of them as much as it was the drama of the game. They were the best kind of announcers, the ones who seemed to be talking directly to me. Whenever you heard their voices on television, you knew you'd tuned in to a big game.
*You fool you.
They're pretty much all gone now; most of them have passed away, a few (Keith Jackson, Dick Enberg, Vin Scully) have either retired or are about to. The men who call the Big Games today - Jim Nantz, Joe Buck, Al Michaels, others - all leave me cold to one degree or another. They're smarmy, or they project too much ego, or they call attention to themselves rather than the game, or they sound like they're auditioning for open mic night at the Improv. The Big Game announcers from the day didn't strike me that way then. Jim Simpson didn't strike me that way then, and he doesn't now. I miss them. Boy, do I miss them.