Zemek Blog: The Other NBC Broadcaster

Staff Columnist
Posted Jun 18, 2008

The National Broadcasting Company didn't just lose Tim Russert this past week. The Peacock also lost one of its pioneering voices from the sports world. Charlie Jones's decorated and versatile announcing career included a very significant contribution to college football.

If you're not old enough to remember Charlie Jones, you need to know that this legendary sportscaster's career enriched college football in a very meaningful way. You need to go back to January 1, 1982, and then follow along for a few years before connecting the dots.

Jones, who died of a heart attack this past week at the age of 77, was in the press box at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., on that first day of 1982. It was to be a significant moment in the life of college football because it marked the first time that the Fiesta Bowl was played on New Year's Day. NBC Sports used the Fiesta Bowl as its opening game on New Year's Day, before giving Dick Enberg the call of the (mid-afternoon) Rose Bowl and Don Criqui the call of the (nighttime) Orange Bowl. When the Fiesta Bowl became a bigger event, New Year's Day loomed larger in the college football cosmos.

Bowl games are obviously enhanced by ticket sales and publicity, but they're sure not hurt by top-flight broadcasters who lend even more cachet and status to the proceedings. From the moment that Curt Warner and Penn State faced off against Marcus Allen and USC on that first day of 1982, the Fiesta Bowl steadily increased in popularity, with Jones calling the action for NBC. Five years later, Jones--still in the Fiesta Bowl press box--would make history.

With Miami and Penn State not attached to any conference, the increased prestige of the Fiesta Bowl made it possible for college football to stage one of the rare 1 vs. 2 bowl matchups of the pre-BCS era. The confrontation between the arrogant Hurricanes and the clean-cut Nittany Lions, two teams from two totally different subcultures, was so appealing that--in a rare but thrilling move--the contest was moved out of its normal New Year's Day slot to January 2, 1987. The ballyhooed battle occupied an uncontested prime-time slot, without having to compete with ABC's Sugar Bowl. NBC, instead of reshaping its broadcast teams--Enberg and partner Merlin Olsen were, after all, the network's top NFL announcing crew--stuck with Charlie Jones for the call of that national championship showdown.

What's instructive to note, then, about the meteoric rise of the Fiesta Bowl in the 1980s--a development witnessed and helped along by Charlie Jones--is that by generating enough interest for a January 2 kickoff, the bowl game enabled the sport's power brokers to envision the BCS era we have today. Now, make no mistake, the BCS is a mockery of a travesty of a sham. But at least the sport has the assurance that if two great teams stand apart from the rest, they will play the final game of the season... not on New Year's night, but later in the first week of January. The 1987 Fiesta Bowl--a game called with distinction by Jones, who used the same understated style of older broadcast legends such as Keith Jackson and Pat Summerall--catapulted college football into a new era that would finally take shape in the Bowl Alliance and, soon afterward, the BCS.

He wasn't quite the NBC icon that Tim Russert was, and he wasn't quite the big dog that Dick Enberg was in his heyday, but Charlie Jones proved to be a very distinguished and consequential NBC broadcaster in his own right. He might not deserve the most credit for making the Fiesta Bowl into a marquee event in the 1980s, but let's put it this way: Without a broadcaster as polished or as respected as Jones, it's entirely possible that the Fiesta Bowl would have lacked the street cred it needed to turn into the championship showcase it eventually became.

You might not have remembered him the way you remembered other college football broadcasters, but you need to know that Charlie Jones, the original New Year's Day voice of the Fiesta Bowl, left a considerable mark on this sport. The bowl game that started as a New Year's event in 1982 and became special in 1987 is now a championship fixture in the college football world. An NBC announcer had a small but real part in that very momentous process.