Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
Verne Lundquist will not be on our televisions on autumn Saturdays starting next year, but we will know where to find him just the same: at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, watching college football.
“I’ll be sitting on my deck, yelling at the announcers,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll be tweeting. If I’m not tweeting, I’ll be filling up Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook.”
That last part was a joke, another way for Lundquist, 76, to deflect some of the emotion of his season-long farewell to college football, with the last two stops the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3 and Army-Navy a week later in Baltimore.
And emotional it has been for one of sports television’s most well-liked people, both on and off the air.
“It’s hard to express the sentiment, the nostalgia, as we get this close,” he said on a call with reporters to promote the Alabama-Florida SEC title game. “But it’s time and I’m ready and we’re going to enjoy these last two weeks.”
This is not the same as other announcer retirement tours, such as Vin Scully’s with the Dodgers last season. That is because Lundquist is not retiring; he will continue working college basketball and golf for CBS.
But since 2000, his most visible regularly scheduled gig has been the “SEC on CBS.”
The conference’s football speaks for itself on the field. But it was not until this century that it reached its full flower as a national brand, thanks in part to a guy who has spoken for it off the field.
“Not too many announcers can you say when they speak their first three words, you know exactly who they are,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “There’s a certain resonance that applies to those words and the association is: big event, incredible call, always saying the right thing. I think all that has played into the SEC.”
Since Lundquist’s departure was announced in May — at the same time as the announcement that Brad Nessler will replace him in 2017 — he and CBS have sought to avoid making him a bigger story than the games.
That has not always been easy, given the attention he gets from schools, fans, journalists and friends. Former Alabama quarterback Joe Namath visited the booth during the Iron Bowl last weekend and gave Lundquist a farewell kiss. Namath was wearing a fur coat at the time.
“My career is complete!” Lundquist exclaimed on the air.
He has done it all over more than a half-century, including a stretch as radio voice of the Cowboys during their original glory days.
That gig prompted a long, entertaining digression during which Lundquist displayed his storytelling gifts and attention to detail.
Among other early Cowboys memories, he recalled where coach Tom Landry always would sit (seat 4D), his drink of choice (chardonnay, but only one) and favorite plane-ride paperback author (Louis L’Amour).
And then there was running back Duane Thomas, who in 1971 famously gave the silent treatment not only to reporters but to teammates and coaches — for the entire season.
Lundquist recalled how on charters players would get a window or aisle seat, with the middle seats left open. “But Duane would climb on the plane first, grab a middle seat, pull his stocking cap down about his ears and then either sleep or stare silently for however long the flight would last,” he said. “It would be an interesting thing to see.”
So it goes with Lundquist, who is even more fun to listen to off the air than on it. But even for those who do not get to experience the former, he remains widely popular despite the occasional social media grumbling from passionate SEC partisans.
“I must say the reaction of the fans has been such that I will remember it for the rest of my life,” he said. “The warmth that has been expressed, say when we travel from our compound to our elevator to the broadcast booth, the shouts of ‘thanks for the memories,’ the Bob Hope line, and the shouts of ‘thank you!’ and the occasional ‘yes, sir!’
“It’s just been overwhelming.”
Lundquist has grown close to his longtime analyst, Gary Danielson, who became emotional when discussing Lundquist.
“This is very hard to put into words; it really is,” he said after a long pause. “I don’t let people get inside of me, only people I really, really trust. So it has been really hard.”
Danielson, a former NFL quarterback, said he wanted to be part of a team and found one in CBS’ traveling SEC crew of 75, and especially in Lundquist.
“It’s been a thrill,” he said. “It’s been a great 11 years. My success as a player has been checkered, but I’ll match my last 11 years against anybody.”
The dwindling days have been a struggle for Danielson.
“It’s almost been like an earthquake hitting me,” he said. “It’s geometric. As we get close, going from five games left to four games left, it’s not just one game, it feels like 10 times the amount of emotion each week. But we’ll do our job.”
Lundquist will call the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and The Masters in the spring, then the PGA Championship in August before undergoing back surgery in September.
The rehabilitation period is six months, giving him plenty of time to watch the SEC. It will not be the same experience for him, or for the rest of us.