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Jim Irwin

DM: Today is December 1, 2011. I am David Max, the cofounder of HuskerMax.com. and I am interviewing Jim Irwin. Jim was the broadcaster for the Green Bay Packers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Milwaukee Brewers and the University of Wisconsin for several decades. Jim, can you tell us where you were born and raised?

JI: I was born in Jefferson City, Missouri and raised in Linn Creek, Missouri, which was a little hole in the wall town. They always laughed and joked that the population never changed in Linn Creek. It was 152 people and every time some lady got pregnant some guy left town so it was always 152 people. That was my town where I grew up and I went to school in Camberton, Missouri and graduated from high school there.

DM: Where did you go to college?

JI: I’m a Mizzou graduate – sorry about that. As was my wife.

DM: Did you get a degree in broadcasting or something else?

JI: I got a degree in Speech because at the time I went to school after I’d already gone to the Army, I’d been working in radio and television. And in those days in the early 60’s the radio and television departments weren’t very advanced. I could’ve taught the classes that they were trying to teach at that time. So I took a speech degree and I’ve never regretted it.

DM: What was your first broadcasting job?

JI: I was in Osage Beach, Missouri at a small day time radio station. We taped the basketball games at night and played them back the next day. It was really good that we could do that because you could critique yourself. You could listen to the playback the next day and say I didn’t like what I did there or I liked what I did. You know, you could actually hear yourself over and over and then try to improve that way and it worked out really well.

DM: You’ve done broadcasts for the Packers, Brewers, Bucks and the University of Wisconsin and some of those at the same time. How did you balance all of those?

JI: I told my wife several times I ought to be a travel agent because I kept all those little airline guides where I could figure out wherever I needed to get to. I never ran into any real problems except the Detroit game which was recent. I had to do a Bucks game on a Wednesday night and then fly to Detroit the next day for the Packers-Lions game and it was an early game. I got to the airport and the flight was cancelled. How am I going to get there and I caught a puddle jumper from Milwaukee to Muskegon. Now I’m over a hundred miles away and I rented a car, it was about zero temperature at the time. I arrived at the Super Dome in Detroit with about 30 minutes until game time and I had to find Forrest Gregg who was the coach at the time. He said, where in the hell have you been? I said, you wouldn’t even believe it. And I taped that recording, ran it upstairs to the booth and we played it within five minutes. That was as close as I ever came to missing a flight. Because I knew my way around flights I knew how to get from one place to the other without any trouble.

DM: During your whole career you didn’t miss a broadcast because of travel complications?

JI: The only broadcast I missed, I only missed one, during all of that time was when my father died. His burial was on a Saturday so I missed the Wisconsin game but we got back in time on Sunday for me to do the Packers game. I did that a lot and sometimes I would do a Bucks game in Philadelphia on a Friday night, fly to Madison for a Saturday afternoon game, back to Milwaukee that Saturday night for a Bucks game and out the next day to wherever the Packers were going to play. In those days we sometimes played three basketball games in a row. When we were playing one again back in Milwaukee, I would try to get back to do that game that night. I always thought there was no one that could replace me, but I was probably wrong.

DM: Were you getting checks from all three different entities?

JI: I worked for the same company. I had a set salary from this company and these were my duties. It worked out really well that way because if you lost a franchise, if the company lost a franchise, you didn’t lose any money because you were in a contract that paid so much per year but then we lost one contract and it didn’t affect my salary because the contract called for me to be paid a certain amount and I was.

DM: You got paid the same for doing less.

JI: And that was one thing I learned about sports. It took me a long time to figure it out. I used to live or die with the teams. If they lost it was a downer. Then I suddenly realized I was getting paid the same whether they won or lost so I was just wasting my time by getting into these funks when they lost. But it was always easier to do a winning team than to do a losing team.

DM: Let’s focus on the Packers. What memories do you have of Vince Lombardi?

JI: Kind of a shy man. He could lash out but in reality was kind of a shy man. One of my favorite stories is he and I were going to a dinner one night. I’m coming up one street and he’s coming up another and he gets there first and he waits for me, we have about a block to walk where we were going to this dinner and he said how are you Jim and I said fine Coach, how are you and he said fine. We walked the next block and never said another word. But listen to what he would do. In training camp he had a cocktail party at 5:00 and members of the media were invited for a cocktail and hors doevres with his coaches and we didn’t talk about football. We were just being friends which was a great thing to do. If you wanted to stay for dinner at training camp, that was perfectly alright too. That was the kind of person he was. Sometimes on the road he always had a cocktail party in his suite. Let’s say at 5:00 on Saturday before the Sunday game and on more than on one occasion, maybe eight or nine occasions, we would all gather there and he would say, we’re all going to dinner which meant you’re all going with me. And we would go wherever, nobody ever said Coach we can’t go. Oh sure, Coach, we’d be glad to.

DM: He was pretty much of a social animal within his inner circle, then.

JI: Yes he was. What was interesting about him was that he was a great coach because in those days football was a lot simpler. It’s very complicated today. You know, you change three or four people on every down just about during situational downs. In those days you put eleven guys out there and they pretty well stayed. It didn’t change very much. If you ran a play, everybody knew what play you were running. I knew what plays they were running nine times out of ten. If Coach Lombardi was going to run, they executed so well that even if you knew exactly where he was going to run, you still didn’t stop it. That was what great coaching was. He had those guys really working well.

DM: What do you remember about Bart Starr?

He and I looked alike in those days, believe it or not. You might find that difficult to believe. I have a picture at home that shows me standing by watching him warm up on a snow laden field one day and we do look alike so when we would fly into a city and we’d get off the plane some people would say to me, Bart sign, will you sign, will you sign. And I got to the point where I didn’t want to turn down anyone else, because I didn’t want anyone to think that Bart wasn’t signing. He was the most accommodating person that you ever met in your life. And so I started signing Bart Starr so somewhere out there in the universe there are a lot of autographs that say Bart Starr that are really Jim Irwin. But you’ve heard of his reputation and he’s better than that. He’s even better than that great reputation people have of him.

DM: I had the opportunity to speak to him once in Phoenix. He was actually sharing an office with another guy that had a company called Star Rare Coins and I would enjoy meeting him some day. Tell me about some of your broadcast partners. I know early on in your Green Bay career, I think Lionel Aldridge ………..

JI: I started as the analyst. Gary Bender was the play by play guy the first four years. I was the analyst and then when Gary left and went to the network I took over as the play by play guy and we needed a partner. Lionel Aldridge who had just retired and was working at WTMJ in Milwaukee, the same place I did and everybody said let’s give him a try and Lionel and I became partners, probably for four or five years and Lionel had depression problems and we had to go looking for somebody new and that’s when we found Max McGee. We tried out several people on broadcast, a new guy every week trying to get him to fit your style and you to fit his style. We called Max and he went with me out to Los Angeles, actually Anaheim, to do a game with the Rams against the Packers and it really went well, really went well, so when I got back the bosses were asking me what did you think. I said a lot of the stuff I didn’t understand what he said but I really liked him. We worked together for twenty years after that on the Packers games. Max was my real second partner. I only had two real partners for any length of time, Lionel Aldridge and Max McGee.

DM: I’m old enough to remember when those guys were playing. I remember the first Super Bowl and all the stories about Max McGee and Paul Hornung and all of the partying that they did.

JI: Let me tell you something about that. Max was a great athlete. Max liked to embellish a lot of stories. He liked that Huck Finn kind of attitude. I always said to him, you were too serious an athlete to have been out all night before the most important game you ever played in your life, even though you weren’t starting. I don’t believe any of that story. He never denied it and never said yes that I was wrong or right. I never believed that he was out all night, but I made a lot of hay out of that since that time in speeches that I give. When Bart Starr was in the audience I was telling the story about Max staying out all night. What Max told me was he knew this was an important game. Paul wanted to go out. He didn’t want to go out and he went to bed about 10:00 and woke up about 6:00 and went downstairs to get a newspaper and looked over at the door and coming in the door was Bart Starr staggering in, all out of shape. And Max said to me well I hope I don’t have to catch any passes from him today, and Bart was on the floor just laughing so hard. He thought that was the world’s greatest story.

DM: It seems like great teams like that, that the players have great mutual respect for each other and they play for each other.

JI: And the sad part about that is many of those players have died or have serious illness, you know they’re crippled. This was a long time ago. We’re talking about 45-50 years ago that they were playing. We lost Nitschke, a lot of great players off that team. We lost Max. We still have Jerry Kramer around, we still have Forrest Gregg. Forrest is having some physical problems. We lost a lot of people.

DM: Let’s talk about some former Huskers. When you did some broadcast of Wisconsin games, you actually did two Nebraska games in 1973 and 1974 and the quarterback on both those teams was a guy named Dave Humm who went on to play for the Raiders for a lot of years.

JI: I know of him, but I never knew him. Just think how my life would have changed if I’d taken the job in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had the opportunity to take the job in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1964. And I might have turned out to be the football and basketball broadcaster and I probably would have been there for 30 years doing all of those games. Because I thought it would be terrific to associate yourself with the University and do the play by play of all the sports at that university. I could’ve been that guy with all those great years at Nebraska but it happened to be that I would be the guy at Green Bay. It certainly was an opportunity to go to Nebraska.

DM: If you had taken the opportunity to go to Nebraska, would you have been partnered up with Lyell Bremser or do you remember?

JI: I might have been his guy, his assistant. I did know the Nebraska coach at the time, because Sparky Stalcup at Missouri was a friend of mine and he and Sparky would go out to a private club out there and they’d invite everybody to come out and have a few drinks. The guy from Nebraska enjoyed himself. Don’t tell that guy from Nebraska I said that.

DM: You were talking about Bob Devaney, I assume.

JI: No, no. I’m talking about the basketball coach. I know Dennis Claridge. Dennis was a draft choice of the Packers. It was interesting. Dennis and a guy named Bob Long from Wichita University and a guy named Tom Brown who played major league baseball for Washington and then he became a football player. I asked Tom why he became a football player and he said because they started throwing the curve ball and so he became a football player and Tom was a key member in the first victory down in Dallas that sent them to the Super Bowl. Bob Long played a long time before he was injured in a car wreck. He could fly. We auditioned him, by the way, when Lionel was having his difficulties. And Bob Long knew everything the wide receiver did. He knew every route but didn’t know everything else that went on. We needed a little wider range than that.

DM: What do you remember about Ahman Green?

JI: You know what, Ahman Green was the kind of guy that could get you the necessary yards. Anybody who wins in pro football has to be able to close the game out if you’re ahead by being able to run the football. And if you had Ahman Green, you could do that and that led to many of the Packer victories by being able to run the football. He was a little bit after my time. My last game was ’98 but I was aware of who he was and saw a lot of the games. The Packers always had that ability, once they go the lead late in the ballgame that they could take the ball and generally run out the clock.

DM: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the Bucks players. Do you remember Kent Benson?

JI: Oh I do. I was there the night Kent got hit by Kareem Abdul Jabaar in his first game. They were making a big deal out of it. Kareem had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers at his request. Kent Benson was a big strong kid from Indiana and he wasn’t as physically as tough as we would like. It was a duel between him and Kareem and so the very first game there was a lot of pushing and shoving going on down low and suddenly Kareem just turned and cold cocked him and got kicked out of the ballgame. I think that affected Kent’s game somewhat having had that happen in his first game. He was an interesting guy. He always wanted to go home on the midnight special. If we played a game in Denver and back in those days they had a lot of midnight planes going places. If we played in Denver and didn’t play the next day, he always wanted to get home. He had a good career. He went from there to Detroit and had a decent career and he was as nice a person as you’d ever want to meet. Part of his problem was that he was too nice. If he would have been a little meaner, it would have been good for his career but it wouldn’t have been good for his life.

DM: What about his coach at Indiana, Bob Knight?

JI: (Ha ha) I did Wisconsin basketball for five years and I didn’t have any problems with Knight at that time because I was a broadcaster for the other team and we didn’t do a pregame show together. I didn’t like the way he acted at times. I don’t think anybody who was opposing his teams did like him because he was always winning. That gave them a reason not to like him. Then when I was no longer doing the games, I mc’d a couple of banquets when he was training the Olympic squad. They came in to play an exhibition game and they put in some pro players and Bob Knight brought his players, I think Jordan was on that team. I wasn’t very bright on that one because I said I don’t think Michael Jordan can shoot well enough to make it in the big leagues. Yeah, very bright on my part. Anyway, I came in and Knight acted up as far as I was concerned and afterwards I asked him what he thought would happen at the Olympics if he acted that way. That just sent him into a tirade. What did I know about basketball. I didn’t know diddly squat. How many games have you ever seen? The guys around me started laughing because I had been doing the Bucks games all those years and I had probably seen a lot more games than Bob Knight had at that point in his career.

DM: Shifting to baseball, tell us a Bob Uecker story.

JI: How many would you like? He was for one year my color analyst for basketball for UWM (Milwaukee). Uecker and I travelled and did the games for UWM. He was my analyst on the basketball games. Interesting story, we went to BYU for a game and there’s no alcohol in Provo. You could have it in a private club or if you were in a group you could have it there, but you just couldn’t bring it in. So we were sitting there eating dinner and Uecker had been on the Tonight Show several times, sent a message in to them – send us out a couple of drinks and I’ll come in and do five minutes for you. They sent back out a note saying they never heard of him. I don’t think that bruised his ego but he is just as funny a guy when he gets started on telling stories. He and I have been friends for a long, long time because we’re in the same business. I think we were inducted into the Wisconsin Broadcasting Hall of Fame at the same time. We’ve been good friends. In fact, he went through a lot of problem with his heart and I called him and actually got him in a hospital room. I hadn’t planned on doing that, but I talked to him in his hospital room. He’s durable. He’s the most dedicated baseball guy you’d ever know. He’s been with the Brewers for at least forty years. He’s like Vin Scully or Chick Hearn or somebody like that. I was listening to him when the Brewers made it into the National League Championship Series this last year and he was just an enthusiastic today as he was at the very first. Two guys I really liked in broadcasting. I liked him and I pattern a lot of the stuff I do after Harry Caray. Not the crazy stuff that he did later but in the early part of his life when he was a really good solid broadcaster. I met him when I was about 22 or 23 years old. Got a picture at home with him shaking hands at that age. So I always liked those two guys really well.

DM: I agree – Uecker is a very entertaining individual.

JI: Yes, he really is. There’s no question about that.

DM: Tell us about another Brewer. What do you remember about Robin Yount?

JI: A great player obviously. You don’t get into the Hall of Fame unless you’re a great player. Two time most valuable player – I remember that. They called him The Kid. He came to the Brewers when he was 19 years old. He was always the kid. He loved the game, he played hard every day, played every day. You couldn’t get him out of the lineup. He was a solid person, still is today. You see him on a plane or somewhere and he is the same old Robin. So he never changes.

DM: In all of your broadcasting career you’ve had a lot of broadcasting partners. We talked about Lionel Aldridge and Max McGee. I think a couple more were Elroy Hirsch and Ron Vander Kelen.

JI: Ron Vander Kelen was the quarterback at Wisconsin when they were down 42-7 and he almost got them back to 42-35 and just ran out time. But it was a great performance. He was also the last guy who went to the All Star game and beat the Packers in an All Star game. I remember that about him but he and I were broadcast partners probably ten years together. We would fly into a city and we’d go to dinner, the two of us, and the first thing he would always order was a cup of black coffee and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. He had a Harvey’s Bristol Cream and a black coffee and that was all he every drank. He never drank anything else. Other than one time we went to dinner in Wisconsin when John Jardine was the coach and we started 5-0, and somebody wrote that we may be the worst 5-0 team in history. We had begun to convince ourselves that Wisconsin was a pretty good team and we went to Michigan to play and they had their annual party. We went over and had a few drinks and John Jardine joined us and between John, myself and Ron Vander Kelen we convinced ourselves that we could beat Michigan the next day at Michigan, in the big bowl. We were wrong. We lost I think it was something like 61-0. It was terrible and not only that but we lost the remaining five games after that. So we finished 5-6 so whoever said we were the worst 5-0 team in the world was absolutely right and Jardine was fired at the end of the season. Vandy was doing okay but he was getting tired of the travel. He’d had a good pro career. He hadn’t been a starter very often but he’d been a backup and been a valuable member of the team. He worked for General Mills during the off season. Most players worked somewhere during the off season and he worked at General Mills.

DM: What about Elroy Hirsch?

JI: Elroy was the Athletic Director at Wisconsin. In those days you had to bid for the rights to the broadcast at Wisconsin. Most places you do now. But for a lot of places in the early days there would be sometimes three or four originations for the game. I know there were three of us for Wisconsin. You go down to Iowa and they’d sometimes have six or seven guys originating broadcasts of the Iowa game. Then they went to bidding for single rights to the games. Elroy had just kind of become Athletic Director Emeritus. It was his job to be the glad hand which was basically his job most of the time. He had other people running the business end. It helped. He did a terrific job. Everybody loved Elroy Hirsch. My bosses got the idea that if maybe we made Elroy the color analyst on the games that that would help us get the rights to the game. Which it did. We got a two or three year contract.

DM: You were named Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year, I think ten times. What would you say was your most embarrassing moment during your broadcasting career?

JI: I’m not sure anybody caught it. We did a Wisconsin game late down in San Diego. I think we were playing San Diego State or something like that. The game didn’t start in Wisconsin until 10:00 and we weren’t winning and they weren’t either so there wasn’t a lot of interest or people listening. San Diego State scored the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter and I had the wrong guy scoring it. Nobody corrected me and I never caught it. The writers all knew I was wrong and never said anything. Then when I found that out afterwards I thought, gosh what an idiot. You’ve got enough people to help you out. I always said the best broadcast I ever did was Wisconsin against Purdue and we were trailing in the ballgame and Purdue had to punt with about 20 seconds to go and they had to punt from about mid-field so they were in great shape and finally Jimmy Milka from Wisconsin blocked the punt and grabbed it and Wisconsin ran it into the end zone and I kept telling everybody that was probably the best call I ever made in my life except nobody ever heard it because everybody in my booth was yelling like crazy. They were going absolutely wild over the fact that we had scored a touchdown. But it was always we against them, wasn’t it?

DM: What advice would you give to young people today that want to have a career in sports broadcasting?

JI: First of all, you’ve got to learn how to talk. They need to take speech courses. The problem with so many people now is they want to start high. They don’t want to work their way up. I think you need to start at a small station in a small city and learn the trade, learn how in radio and television commercials come in the back door and go out on the air. They need to know how your business operates. But I run into people into my business that have no clue about so many things. And I have a friend who lives here in Dana Point, he and I worked together for 25 years at WTMJ-TV. We both agree that the worst thing that ever happened to us in broadcasting was when we turned the airwaves over to the listeners. Because every listener you have says why don’t you trade so and so for so and so and you know it could never happen. The station lets those people keep doing that and Hank and I have always said that we got out at the right time because the business is getting away from us. Now you got all of these wild talk shows. I watch some of the guys on TV, guys like Skip Bayless. They’ve got an answer for everything that’s going on and they really don’t know. They are not insiders like they’d have you believe. But that’s the way it is these days.

DM: Do you think broadcasting today, with all of the apparent monopolies like the ESPNs of the world……

JI: It’s different. It’s just evolved that way. I’m not saying it’s totally wrong. But everybody who’s beyond his ability to do very much, says that’s not the way we did it and I suppose they’re saying this is not the right way, but it could very well be the right way.

DM: Jim, I want to thank you very much for sharing memories of your broadcast career with the HuskerMax readers and others and we wish you the very best going forward. Thank you very much.

JI: Thank you – it was my pleasure.

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