Bob Rondeau took a chance more than 30 years ago, moving from news to sports.
It was never about becoming the Voice of the Huskies. Not in the beginning.
Long before Bob Rondeau thought twice about the University of Washington, it was about making enough money to put food on the table and gas in the car. It was about surviving, finding your calling and, quite literally, finding your voice.
And that’s why he climbed to the roof of the press box at Turf Paradise Race Course, a horse racing track in Phoenix, with a tape recorder in the summer of 1977.
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He was 27, unemployed and disillusioned after the all-news station where he was news director suddenly folded.
“I was a little sour on the whole game and wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep doing news,” Rondeau said. “I didn’t understand fully why that didn’t work. I thought it was a great product and we did great work, so maybe this isn’t the place you want to be.”
Things weren’t going according to plan. For starters, Rondeau figured he’d use his degree from the University of Colorado to land a job as a newspaper reporter.
And when that didn’t work, he turned to radio. And when that fizzled, he flirted with his first love.
An avid outdoorsman, Rondeau considered opening a fly-fishing store and toyed with the idea of getting involved in horse racing with his father, Bill, who’d retired and bought a horse farm near Phoenix.
But something drove him to the top of the roof at Turf Paradise, where he called a couple of races beneath the hot Arizona sun.
“I went up there just to see if I could do this,” Rondeau said. “That was probably my first experience at sports broadcasting, and it was a joke. It was hard. Really hard. I had no idea what I was doing.
“When I got done with that I said, ‘I can’t do this. No way I can talk fast enough to do this.’ Fortunately, it wasn’t my last try at it.”
Later that year, Rondeau received job offers from two radio stations in Seattle. KIRO was looking for a news reporter and KOMO needed a sports director. He chose KOMO, which allowed him to work as an engineer and halftime host with legendary Sonics voice Bob Blackburn.
“That was my first real exposure to play-by-play, sitting next to Blackburn and listening to him do games,” Rondeau said. “I learned the mechanics of the game, the emotion of it. How these guys handled themselves.
“I never thought I could talk fast enough to do play-by-play. For some reason I had it in my mind that you had to be able to talk 9,000 mph. But listening to these guys, I thought if the chance were to ever come along, I might be able to do this.”
That chance came along in 1978 when KOMO landed the broadcast rights for Washington football and men’s basketball. The station hired Bruce King as the play-by-play announcer and paired him with Rondeau, who provided analysis.
Two years later, King left for a job in New York and Rondeau took over play-calling. He had found his calling.
“I can’t say growing up I dreamed about this job, but once I got in and once I started doing it, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “It felt right. It felt like this is what I was supposed to do with my life.”
Growing up during the 1950s and ’60s, Rondeau listened to broadcasters Dick Enberg, Lindsey Nelson, Jack Buck and Keith Jackson on the radio. But he didn’t pattern himself after them, instead developing his own style. His on-air presence is so deft, easy and quintessentially Northwestern — even if he is a Denver native — that he’s often taken for granted.
Long the underappreciated talent in a city saturated with Hall of Fame announcers, Rondeau is a broadcaster’s broadcaster, whose gift is the ability to disappear into the big moment and let the action tell the story.
Kevin Calabro can’t do that. Neither can Dave Niehaus or Bob Robertson, for that matter. Their personas can overpower the play-calling.
Rondeau gave voice to the most prominent period in UW football during the Don James era, understanding he wasn’t the star of the show Saturdays. No catchphrases and no gimmicks. Naturally quick-witted, he deftly mixes storytelling and play-calling with a skill honed by hours of preparation. And his knowledge of the Huskies is encyclopedic.
“From the technical aspect to how the broadcast sounds to the way the commercials are read and to the rundown in how the show is supposed to go, he’s very meticulous about those things,” said UW men’s basketball analyst Jason Hamilton. “He’s also very critical of himself. And for a guy that’s been doing it as long as he has, it shows he still cares.”
Looking back, Rondeau laughs when retelling the story of that first day as a play-by-play announcer.
“If I could go back and tell that kid on top of that roof anything, I’d tell him don’t be afraid of that tape recorder,” he said. “I’d tell him you might be better at this than you think you are. Give yourself a break. You can do this. Just hang with it.
“Some of the best things are what you didn’t plan on. Sometimes you can make your own breaks and sometimes you get very lucky. I’ve sure had my fair share of both. It’s been a fabulous ride and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org