ATHENS – Technically, Verne Lundquist was supposed to be in Athens on Monday because he was promoting his new book. And he was doing that. But the truth is that he was here because Athens and the university remains one of his favorite places to visit.
And this man visits a lot of places.
Athens also happens to be home to one of Lundquist’s dearest friends. Loran Smith has become somewhat of a best buddy to Lundquist. By association, so have their wives. The Lundquists, Verne and Nancy, often stay at the Milledge Circle home of the Smiths, Loran and Myrna. They were doing just that Monday and Tuesday nights this week. More on that later.
Lundquist was featured speaker for the Atlanta Touchdown Club at lunch Monday and was to speak to the TD Club of Athens Monday night at Athens Country Club. In between, Lundquist graciously did a private book-signing for Smith at his house.
The irony was that Smith himself couldn’t be there. He was undergoing rehabilitation for the recent hip-replacement surgery that became necessary after getting run over by two players at a Georgia football practice two weeks ago. Lundquist himself remains somewhat in recovery mode. He’s still smarting from back surgery last November.
“Getting old hurts sometimes,” said Lundquist, who turned 78 in July. “Loran’s tougher than I am.”
Lundquist is selling his autobiography, aptly titled, “Play By Play.” But it has an interesting and extensive subtitle, “Calling the Wildest Games in Sports – From SEC Football to College Basketball, The Masters and More.” It was published by Harper-Collins on Oct. 4, which put Lundquist in New York City for a whole week. Two and a half weeks later, Lundquist is on the Georgia leg of his book tour, and couldn’t be happier about that.
“Nancy and I have always loved it here in Athens, and obviously we’ve become quite close to Myrna and Loran,” Lundquist said.
Some of the best stories in his book are about calling SEC games, which Lundquist did as lead broadcaster for the CBS Game of the Week from 2000 until his retirement in 2016. It’s with that regal football conference that Lundquist is most closely associated.
But we’re reminded within the book’s 480 pages that he has done so much more than that. Like being in the center of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal at the 1994 winter Olympics.
“I’m probably the only guy around who knows both Tonya Harding and Terry Bradshaw,” Lundquist quipped.
Back in one of his favorite towns at his favorite time of year, Lundquist was jovial and loose on Monday. It was well-deserved, as everything up until now has been a bit of a grind.
Asked what about his new home he was proudest, Lundquist cracked, “That it was completed – and almost on time!”
That was followed by Lundquist’s trademark chuckle, making it clear that age has done nothing to dull the famous sense of humor of the man affectionately known as “Uncle Verne.” And he is truly proud of his book.
“I think it’s an easy read,” he said. “Because I’ve been so fortunate with so many different opportunities, it covers a lot of ground. So, these are stories about my career and my life. The process was more difficult than I thought, and the demands from the publisher were pretty severe. So, I really am proud of it, glad that it’s out, and it seems to be well-received.”
Something Lundquist knows a lot about is Georgia football. He never made it a secret that Athens was among his favorite stops. It’s a town that reminds him a lot of his hometown of Austin, with its music and culture and, of course, passion for college football. But as the play-by-play man for CBS’s featured Saturday broadcast, Lundquist never controlled his own schedule.
Nonetheless, the network’s coverage of the league had Lundquist sitting in the booth for more than 50 Georgia games since 2000. That included the Georgia-Florida game every year in Jacksonville.
After missing out on “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” last year, Lundquist wasn’t about to miss it again. He and his wife will be accompanying the Smiths for a long-planned and long-awaited journey down to Jacksonville to take in Saturday’s game between No. 7 Georgia and No. 9 Florida.
“On Wednesday we’ll begin to make our way south to Jacksonville,” Lundquist said. “We’re going to take our time. He’s going to show me the back roads of Georgia. Then we’ll stay in Ponte Vedra.”
That’s a pretty ambitious undertaking for a pair of octogenarians, one with new hip and the other with steel in his spine. But neither would miss it for the world.
While Lundquist has been retired from college football broadcasting, he remains a fervent fan of SEC football. He said he has missed only one of the CBS games of the week since retirement, and that was back in September when he and Nancy took a river cruise from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam.
Even then, he couldn’t escape recognition from SEC fans.
“A guy on the boat comes up and says, ‘Ain’t you, Verne?’” Lundquist said, doing his best to imitate a Southern drawl. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m Verne.”
So Lundquist remains acutely aware of everything that’s going on in the SEC, including the stakes surrounding Saturday’s matchup on the St. Johns. He said his longtime broadcast partner Gary Danielson called him a few weeks ago to check in on him.
“He said, ‘so how are you spending Saturdays?’” Lundquist said. “I said, ‘we’re like millions of Americans now. Nancy and I at 3:30 Eastern put our feet on the coffee table, get a Diet Coke and watch you and just rip the hell out of you.’ And (Danielson) laughed, because he knows what I’m talking about.”
Lundquist was talking about the partiality that almost every fan base accuses the broadcast crew of having. Alabama’s is probably the worst among them, Lundquist said. But he and Danielson strove most of all for objectivity and impartiality.
Lundquist wouldn’t say for what team he’ll be rooting on Saturday, though he is traveling with bulldogest of Bulldogs in Loran Smith. But he said he’s most looking forward to seeing all the members of the CBS Sports broadcast team.
This will be the first CBS game that he’s attended since hanging up the mic at the end of the 2016 season. Brad Nessler succeeded the author of “Play By Play” as the play-by-play man.
“I just didn’t want to get in Brad’s way,” Lundquist said. “That’s why I stayed away last year. He’s a good guy and a good friend, and Gary and I are so close, very close. And, so, it’ll be emotional for me. These guys are 75 strong, production and technical, and I gave 17 years to the conference. It was, by far, the most significant thing that ever happened to me.”
That’s certainly saying something for a legendary broadcaster who has called dozens of Masters and NFL and college basketball games. Don’t be surprised if CBS asks Lundquist up to the booth to take a bow one more time.