Launching Pad: Many alums have cut their teeth covering SU sports on the way to major careers

By John Nicholson

June 16, 2014

They were riding down the road in Andy Mac Williams’ beat up car with a hole in the floor and a non-working heater. “We’re driving through a Central New York winter and it just freezing cold,” Bob Costas recalls four decades later. “You don’t think you can get frostbite in a car but we feared that we might. We somehow made it but it was all on a wing and a prayer.” They were two young broadcasters for WAER-FM on their way to cover a Syracuse University basketball game.

There was no budget.  “We’d pool our money for gas and we’d drive down to New York City and broadcast Syracuse-Fordham or we’d drive to Philadelphia and broadcast Syracuse-Temple or there’d be some tournament game and we’d drive all the way to West Virginia to do West Virginia vs. Syracuse.” Looking back now from his position at the top of the sports broadcasting world where travel tends to be in a corporate jet, Costas smiles.

He is part of a line that already included the legendary Marty Glickman, Dick Stockton, Marv Albert and Len Berman when he showed up.  It has continued with Mike Tirico, Sean McDonough, Beth Mowins, Carter Blackburn - so many that just to list them all would take a page or more.  In one way or another they cut their broadcast teeth covering SU sports.

Bob Costas

They were three guys who, as coincidence insisted on having it, shared the same birthday – March 22.  Costas, who’d practiced his play-by-play as a kid on Long Island, MacWilliams, known for wearing duct-taped loafers year-round and “Coney Island” Dave Cohen, who came to Syracuse from Brooklyn planning to major in pre-med, connected through WAER, the campus station then in a Quonset hut across from Archbold Gym. “We practically lived there,” Costas says. “We were sort of intoxicated by it, I think.”

MacWilliams went on to a long sports broadcast career in Cincinnati and Cohen to a diverse local and network career that continues.

In the early 1970s, they pushed and pulled each other along to jobs calling Syracuse Blazers hockey and doing sports and news and even “Bowling for Dollars” for WSYR radio and TV3. And there were those SU games. Costas, who remembers almost everything, professes to remember no specific game he called, but is clear as day on working with Bob Neumeier, now a horse racing expert for NBC, as he called a game-winning shot against Fordham by Chuck Wichman. Fordham’s Ken Charles missed the front end of a one-and-one. Bob Dooms rebounded and threw it to a streaking Wichman who tossed up a floater.

“Neumeier’s call reached a level of excitement where I think some of what he said could only be heard by cocker spaniels with especially sharp ears in Manlius somewhere,” Costas says.”  It was like, “It’s goooood! It’s goooood!’ That became a point of legend.”

Like the legend of Costas bombing from outside in a halftime game at Manley Field House between the WAERwolves and the DO Chickens. The print guys won the game, 20-12 but Costas scored all 12 points for the broadcasters on six-for-seven shooting, mostly on what would today be three-pointers, then heaved in one more hook shot as he left the court after the game. “I remember that more fondly than anything I ever said or did on the air,” he says.

Jayson Stark was on the winning team that day.

Jayson Stark

Now a senior writer for who also does radio and television, Jayson Stark arrived at SU in the fall of 1969 with a passion for sports. He became a news editor for the Daily Orange but covered Syracuse teams whenever he could.  “Never until I got to college and worked at the Daily Orange had I ever gone to a game, interviewed the coach, interviewed the players, learned what it meant to ask those questions and to gather what you’d seen and what you’d heard and turn it into beautiful English,” he says.

He hung out with news-oriented guys: Bob Heisler who would eventually write and edit for the New York Daily News, Jerry Bodlander who became an Associated Press reporter and Dennis Deninger, who after starting in news joined ESPN in its infancy and became a coordinating producer, running event coverage around the world. They all lived on the same floor in Brewster Hall.

Stark learned what it’s like to incur the wrath of a sports icon when he wrote a Daily Orange column that Syracuse Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder did not care for.  “You learn by going through those real life experiences about stuff that is going to happen to you, guaranteed in the real world,” he observes. “There is nothing that you can simulate in class that even remotely duplicated the legendary head football coach calling you on the phone to scream at you for twenty minutes.”

Being from the Philadelphia area, he especially recalls basketball games against Big Five teams.

“I can really remember sitting there at press row at Manley Field House and thinking that ‘wow, this would be a great way to make a living.’”

After he graduated Stark started out in news, but within a year-and-a-half knew sports writing was what he was meant to do.

Jayson Stark, Gerry Bodlander, Dennis Deninger and Bob Heitsler at The Daily Orange in 1983.

Sean McDonough

Sean McDonough is the son of a sportswriter who became a broadcaster too, later in life.  When Dick MacPherson was introduced as SU’s head football coach, Sean followed his father’s advice and made a point to meet him. “’If you’re Will McDonough’s son you must know something about football,’” Sean recalls Coach Mac saying. He was looking for a work study job and at 6:30 the next Saturday morning the phone in his room at Day Hall rang.  “I’m going to pick you up in twenty minutes, we’re going to go to Mass and then we’re going to go to breakfast and we’re going to talk about what you can do to help get this football program on track,” the coach told him.

McDonough worked for the coach for three years, licking envelopes and gathering film among other things. “I learned a lot about football and how a whole football operation works and that’s really helped me to this day in the way I go about preparing for football games,” he says.  But there was more to it. “More than anything else, I learned from him how easy it is and how important it is to treat everybody well.”

McDonough credits his stint calling Syracuse Chiefs baseball games with launching him into the professional career that took him to the Boston Red Sox, CBS Sports and now ESPN. But he fondly remembers calling SU games for WAER as well.  “When you’re sitting in the Carrier Dome with a headset on, broadcasting a game with 30,000 people sitting in the stands that was an exhilarating experience that I’ll never forget.”

He cites an SU-Georgetown game at the old Cap Center and says, “We lost,” then corrects himself saying that’s not what a good journalist says. “That was part of the fun back in those days too.  It really was ‘we.’ You’re a student and this was your university’s team that was out there playing and you were so much more emotional about the results than you wind up being later in your career,” he laughs.

Bill Bonnell

Bill Bonnell was a kid from North Syracuse who got hurt playing basketball and became the public address announcer for his high school team. He got a shot to do graphics on WCNY-TV’s statewide broadcasts of SU football.

“I remember going to Penn State and Syracuse playing Joe Paterno in Happy Valley. A small group of us would go to these events and take private charters and stuff like that. For a kid who is like 18, 19 years old taking little charters on the weekends was just above and beyond anything I could imagine.”

He later interned for Dave Cohen at WIXT-TV, Channel 9 and worked on early cable TV sports coverage, working out of “a bread truck.” He graduated in 1985. “By the time my four years were up at Syracuse I had four years of experience,” he says.

As a kid he’d sit in snowy Central New York watching the Rose Bowl game on TV and dreaming of being there.  This year he produced ESPN’s coverage of the Rose Bowl for the ninth time and its coverage of the BCS Championship game.

Ed Placey

The senior coordinating producer for all of ESPN’s college football coverage is Bonnell’s classmate at Syracuse, Ed Placey.  He came to SU from the small high school in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania and soon found his way into TV sports production.

“What I found was they were a group of students like myself who were given opportunities based on our interest in it and it was  run by adult professionals in the area and they took advantage of motivated labor force at Syracuse University I guess. They introduced me to some people and next thing I knew I was doing a lot of work in a very short amount of time.”

He started operating a handheld camera at a women’s basketball game at Manley Field House. Four days after graduation Placey was working for New England Sports Network.  Among the people he worked with were Sean McDonough and Dave Cohen.

See a list of Syracuse University alumni in sports media>>

Dave Cohen

So here’s the thing about “Coney Island Dave” who has done some big-time sports broadcasting, including a couple of years with the New York Yankees on MSG – his vision has opened doors not only for himself but for a couple of generations of broadcast people and for Syracuse University sports. He convinced Athletics Director Jake Crouthamel to let him record Syracuse games and place them on regional sports networks around the country for next day playback. What became SUper Sports gave the Orange a nationwide profile as well as giving Cohen and others recognition and a few bucks.

“It feels good to know a lot of the things that I did or instituted or had a part in making happen …just don’t show up in the box score to use a real sports piece of parlance… but they moved the runners up and they advanced the industry,” Cohen says from his home near Atlanta where he bases his freelance broadcast and talent coaching operations.

Dan Hoard

Dan Hoard gave up his spot as an alto sax player in basketball pep band, the Sour Sitrus Society, to broadcast Syracuse games.  The truth is that he joined so he could go to away games.

He wrote for Sean McDonough at WAER and counts him and Greg Papa, who now does the Oakland Raiders’ games as his mentors.

Jim Jackson, now the Philadelphia Flyers’ play-by-play man, was his roommate.  Tony Caridi, the voice of the West Virginia Mountaineers and Miami sportscaster Craig Minervini were among his contemporaries.

As a senior he called the game when Pearl Washington beat the buzzer and Georgetown with a 15-foot jumper. “As the game was approaching the finish the students began to line up behind us it was obvious that they were going to rush the court so I said close to the end of the game, ‘If you hear me begin screaming and suddenly you hear total silence you can assume that Syracuse won the game and we’ve been knocked off the air by the student section’ and that’s exactly what happened. It was the greatest bit of Nostradamus guessing that I’ve done in my life.”

Hoard succeeded McDonough as voice of the Syracuse Chiefs and now is the play-by-play man for the Cincinnati Bengals and University of Cincinnati Bearcats football and basketball.

Carter Blackburn, Alyssa Tomback, Marc Penziner and Andrew Catalon at an SU lacrosse game in 2000.

Mike Tirico

It may be hard to believe now but the play-by-play voice of Monday Night Football and so much more for ESPN and ABC, Mike Tirico says he wasn’t sure about his opportunities as a freshman in 1984 so he volunteered for the Daily Orange and WAER. His first assignment was covering a field hockey game for the DO.  At WAER Hoard was his first mentor. “He was the senior I was assigned to, to learn the blocking and tackling of doing a radio sportscast and Dan was a tremendous resource and a great help,” Tirico says.

He bonded with his roommate Charlie Pallilo, now a veteran Houston radio sports talk host, Bill Roth, who became the sports voice of Virginia Tech and Paul Peck, who went on to a long sportscasting career in Buffalo.

When he was a junior Tirico called NCAA tournament games and was WAER’s on-site reporter in New Orleans as Roth and Peck called the game where Keith Smart broke Orange Nation’s heart with his winning jumper in the NCAA final.  He had his picture taken with ESPN’s John Saunders and Bob Ley. “To this day I still have the picture and 25 years later the three of us are still colleagues.”

But what Tirico says broke him into TV was an SU-based imitation of Larry King’s USA Today column that he and his pals put together and sent off. Tirico, Roth and Pallilo were invited to King’s radio show and wound up on-air. “(Newhouse Professor) Rick Wright called in and it was written up in the paper.  Channel 5 was looking for a weekend sportscaster, I got the job and I’ve been on TV ever since.”

Beth Mowins

Beth Mowins was a basketball star at Cicero-North Syracuse High School and grew up on SU sports. “I still recall very fondly our whole family we were up in the nosebleed section behind the basket when Pearl Washington made his half-court heave to beat Boston College,” she says.

She went on to star for Lafayette in college before coming home to pursue a master’s degree at Newhouse as well as pursuing every opportunity to get on air. Sports Director John Eves and Tirico took her on as an intern at WTVH-5 and happily sent her out to cover events on frozen winter nights. “To be able to have the opportunity and to have their insights from time to time…they were more than willing to point out strengths and weaknesses and help me get better every time out,” she says.

SU undergrads Derrin Horton, now sports anchor at KTLA in Los Angeles and Ian Eagle, CBS network play-by-play man and voice of the Brooklyn Nets were also among that same WTVH-5 intern corps who got started covering SU.  

Eves hired Mowins as his news director when he started a radio station in Homer and she worked her way into the cable sports operation in Syracuse too.  “I was working with them kind of part-time anyway pulling cables and working behind the scenes in the truck and I just kept bugging them. ‘Hey you know I played the game.’ I practiced my play-by-play calls sitting up in the stands and I was sitting at home on my couch in front of the mirror watching games. ‘I’d love to have a shot at it.’  And ultimately they gave me a chance.”

“The first time she does play-by-play the guy gets the ball and goes ‘right up the gut,’” Eves says, mimicking Mowin’s energetic call. “And I thought, ‘Man, she knows this game.’”

While Coney Island Dave Cohen was off working the Olympics, Mowins filled in on an SU women’s basketball game at Manley Field House. She later called the Orange women’s upset of top-ranked UConn.  And much more.

“It launched my career because it gave me the opportunity to call play-by-play at a top notch school with really good sports but not on the national scene where if you fail everybody’s going to see it and your career’s going to be over before it starts,” Mowins says.

She has become one of ESPN’s top play-by-play talents, calling college football and women’s and men’s basketball.  “She has broken the glass ceiling of people saying women shouldn’t call men’s sports,” Tirico says. “She is as solid as any sportscaster in America. She kicks butt.”

Carter Blackburn

Carter Blackburn says he was a member of “the radio dork fraternity. It’s like the Sig Ep house but instead of John Perkins on the wall it’s Mike Tirico and Bob Costas and those are the guys that you want to grow to become.”

He was a kid from Kerrville, Texas and his “pledge brothers” included Damon Amendolara sports talk show is on CBS Radio and Andrew Catalon, who now does college football and basketball for CBS Sports.

Now calling college football and basketball across the country for ESPN, Blackburn’s first game for WAER was a men’s lacrosse game against Cornell with Cory Provus, who has become the play-by-play voice of the Minnesota Twins.

“I just remember the nerves especially for a lacrosse game although I tried to become as expert as I possibly could on the sports it was not in the nature of a small town South Texas kid to know what was going on, on the lacrosse field.”

In their senior year he and Mark Penziner called an SU-Pitt football game that went into overtime. “I’ve listened back to that several times,” he says. ”Penziner is still of the best color guys I’ve ever worked with.” When they graduated in 2001 Penziner went into finance. Blackburn followed Provus to ISP Sports and started up the sports broadcast ladder.

Adam Schein

“We thought we were on top of the world covering Jim Boeheim, covering Donovan McNabb,” Adam Schein says, fitting in a phone call among his multiple sports jobs in New York City. He's a daily host on SiriusXM's Mad Dog Sports Radio and SNY, hosts "NFL Monday QB" and "That Other Pregame Show" on CBS Sports Network, and a columnist for

“We” were among others Schein’s sidekick John “The Senator” McCarthy who produced his talk show in Syracuse, as well as Provus and Catalon.

Schein started the Double Overtime postgame show on WAER and it led to a talk show on WHEN Radio as an undergraduate. Newhouse’s Dr. Rick Wright recognized Schein’s talent early and saddled him with the sobriquet “Prime Time Adam Schein.”

He remembers getting into hot water with Jim Boeheim during a weekly radio show on when he suggested that SU center Etan Thomas should be getting the ball more often, but Schein treasures his relationship with Boeheim. ” I don’t think I could find enough words to describe how much I respect Jim as a coach, as a person. “ He says Boeheim listened to the show, sometimes calling in to offer opinions off the air. “He just got it,” Schein raves. “My experience with Jim Boeheim was nothing but amazing. I consider him to be the epitome of class.”

Jason Chandler, Carter Blackburn and Cory Provus at the Carrier Dome for SU vs. Central Michigan in 2000.

Jason Benetti

He is the current voice of the Syracuse Chiefs and does basketball play-by-play for ESPN – seen as the next potential rising broadcast star from SU.  Jason Benetti was a senior when SU drew Vermont in the NCAA Regional in Worcester and he won a coin flip with Loren Knaster to see who would call which half on WAER. He “deferred” figuring he’d call the second half in the regional final against Michigan State. Of course that game never happened.

Benetti was analyst as the Orange season ended in overtime. “I used the phrase ‘absolute garbage’ in describing the call by the officials (a backcourt violation by Gerry McNamara) which was not the most professional thing I could have done. 

“We drive home through the night – sleep five-six hours. Went to Turning Stone and played blackjack and went to Denny’s.  You want it to end on a happy note,” he says.

“We sort of felt like the players.  The players have their college is over feeling and the emotion came out and it was the same for us.”

The Same Road

From the wing and a prayer ride in Andy MacWilliams’ freezing car to Benetti’s gloomy trek back from Worcester, so many accomplished people in sports coverage have been on the same road with more getting in line to be next. For many, covering SU sports was the starting point; for others an important part of the trip. They sum it up in different ways, but we’ll finish with Adam Schein’s take.

“The experience covering the SU teams with lifelong friends…they’re the most amazing memories. We still talk about it to this day. There was absolutely nothing like it.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of bE magazine, the magazine of Syracuse University athletics. John Nicholson is the director of the Newhouse Sports Media Center.