Wisdom from Dick Enberg, via 1987 interview in Iowa

"You don't fool your audience."

Dick Enberg (USA TODAY Sports)
Dick Enberg (USA TODAY Sports)

It was 30 years ago, and an Illinois-Iowa men’s basketball game was a big deal in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The main reason was both teams were very good. Illinois was 19-5 overall, 9-3 in the Big Ten. Fourth-ranked Iowa was 21-3 and 8-3.

But a second big reason was NBC was televising the Saturday afternoon affair, and the broadcast duo calling it was Dick Enberg and Al McGuire. The day before the game, I got to interview each man separately during a Hawkeyes practice. When I learned of Enberg’s death Thursday, I immediately recalled the time he was so gracious to a young sportswriter from Cedar Rapids. I asked him about how he approached his work. Here are some of the things he (and McGuire) said:

“I can only do the best I can. I’m proud of my profession and I love what I do. Personal recognition is something I don’t take lightly, but I also don’t take it so seriously that my ego needs to be fed. The game is still the thing.

“The one part of me that I think always comes through is I am a fan. I really do get excited. At a football game, what would be better than picking the brain of someone like (his NBC football broadcast partner) Merlin Olsen? Or at a basketball game with a crazy guy (McGuire) from Milwaukee.

“I get excited about that. To me, the sports star was my hero, and I’ve never lost that. I’m 52 years old, and it’s still a thrill to meet Wayne Gretzky or to have Joe DiMaggio recognize me at a banquet.” … “In many ways, the best officiating is when the official didn’t interfere. Likewise, sometimes we don’t know why we had a good game. But maybe it was because Enberg didn’t say anything ridiculous.” … “As a general rule, you spend at least a day preparing for every hour you’re on the air. It’s more than that when you haven’t seen a team. I always try to get in two nights before the game.

Al and I really benefited by seeing the (Purdue-Iowa in Carver) game last night. It was nothing you could write down, but I just got a feel for the crowd, the team, the coach.

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“You don’t want to be surprised by anything. I feel when we’re on the air Saturday, I’ll know the Iowa team. I know the crowd will yell like hell. I’ll know how (Iowa coach) Tom Davis will react in a game. I’ll get a sense of the place, and hopefully, I’ll be able to communicate that.”

McGuire said this about Enberg: “He’s the ultimate teacher. He’s always prepared. There’s no buffalo chips with him. He’s remained on top by working harder than most people do. He came in here at 11:30 today and he’ll be here at 9 when Illinois ends practice.

“Dick’s been a great joy to me. I look forward every weekend to being with him. He’s a security blanket for me and any producer or director who works with him. He’s constructive and can communicate. He’s not a hard rock, not dictatorial in any way at all.

“I think someone with that many years at the top would get a little puffy. But not him.”

What Enberg told me about preparation and knowledge should be said in the first five minutes of any journalism or broadcasting class.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Some people never learn that you don’t fool your audience. A lot of people out there know more about the game being played than you do. It won’t take long for them to know if you’re real or a phony.”

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