Bob Robertson is officially retired, and he’s not quite sure yet what to make of it. Neither are Washington State football fans, for whom Bob-Rob is an institution.
While the world descends upon Pullman – or so it seems – one man will be home this weekend in University Place, watching the festivities on television.
It won’t be quite the same without him. It never will be again.
“I’m not sure whether it will be, ‘Boy, I’m glad to have the weekend off,’ or ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing here?’ ” said Bob Robertson with a laugh. “I guess I’ll sit with my feet up and watch the little guys run back and forth on my screen.”
Robertson is officially retired, and he’s not quite sure yet what to make of it. Neither are Washington State football fans, for whom Bob-Rob is an institution, as a friendly voice and weekend companion for more than 50 years. You sort of get attached to someone after five decades.
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That formal association ended Monday, when Robertson announced he was stepping down from the Cougar football broadcasts. It’s not a total shocker – Robertson is 89 years old, after all. But it still hit hard. And Robertson sounds somewhat befuddled himself, as if he can’t quite believe it yet.
“I was beginning to slow down, and that’s not good,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to go out with a year of bad performances. It was time to do it. The kids were pushing me. I have four of them, and they were out-voting me 4-0.”
When last I talked to Robertson, back in January, he mused that his wife of 59 ½ years, Joanne, would have been able to tell him when it was time to hang up the microphone. But she died in 2011, and “so I have to sense it for myself,” he said wistfully back then.
Robertson says now, “I think Joanne would have agreed with the kids that it was probably time to take off. I’d like to think she would have.”
That conclusion came into strong focus after the Cougars’ home game against Utah on Sept. 29. Back at his hotel room afterward, Robertson felt dizzy and disoriented, which he says is not the first such episode he has had.
“I spent time trying to figure out who I was, where I was, and why,’’ he said.
Rather than get on the plane as he usually does, Robertson was driven by a hotel employee to Vantage, where his son, John, picked him up in his truck and drove him home.
Robertson missed the next game in Corvallis against Oregon State – an extremely rare occurrence for a man who called 568 consecutive Cougar football broadcasts from 1964 to 2016. He then called up Bill Stevens, Washington State’s vice president of communications, to tell him he was retiring.
“It wasn’t that I got sick and tired of the whole thing,’’ he said. “I was getting rusty. It was better to go that way. That (the dizzy spell) shouldn’t be happening after a football game. We said, ‘Let it end there.’ My kids will speak to me again. They feel I’m on their side now.”
But he added, “It’s a hard thing to do. If you’re 40 years old and decide to retire, then change your mind a year later, there’s a good chance someone will hire you back. If you’re 90 and quit, you don’t think about coming back. You think about holding on.
“I’ll tell you in a year if it worked. I might be looking for a spot to crawl back in.”
Robertson sounded robust and alert when I talked to him Wednesday, though he realized he needs to get a handle on his health
“I’ve had a few illnesses in the last couple of years that made me worry a little, but it never turned out to be something,’’ he said. “Sooner or later at this age, it will materialize into something real, I suppose. I can’t expect to be clean another century.”
What a glorious century it has been for Robertson, who was born in Fullerton, Calif., while his dad, a baseball player with the Seattle Indians, was in spring training. He graduated from Blaine High School and Western Washington University, and got his first professional broadcasting gig with the Wenatchee Chiefs of the Western International League, 71 years ago.
In those early years, Robertson happily broadcast anything and everything that needed an announcer, from roller derby to hydroplane races, wrestling, hockey, soccer and boxing. He called Pacific Lutheran basketball and all manner of high-school sports.
“I charged after it, like all sportscasters in a smaller market,’’ he said.
Baseball was his passion, though, and the one lament of Robertson’s life is that he didn’t get a major-league gig. He came close when the Mariners started up in 1977 but instead they chose Dave Niehaus – whom Robertson filled in for three games in the late 1990s.
“I hope to get to the major leagues; I got a cup of coffee, three Mariner games,’’ he mused. “That was my taste of the big leagues.”
Robertson quickly amended that to point out that he did the Seattle Sounders in their early days, and that was the big leagues, too. I subscribe to the theory of Pacific Lutheran football coach Frosty Westering (whom Robertson befriended during a stint doing PLU hoops) that you make the big-time where you are. And anything Robertson called instantly became big time.
After a two-year stretch doing Notre Dame football and basketball, Robertson heard that Washington State was expanding its radio and television presence. He knew the athletic director and got the gig, for the princely sum of $100 a game.
This was 1964. Robertson called Cougar games for five years, then switched over to be the voice of Washington football for three years, 1969-71. When that contract expired, he returned to WSU and made a decision. No more hopping back and forth.
“I figured if I jumped around every time the bid was up, I’d just be for sale or rent,’’ he said. “I decided to stay with the Cougars, and I did. I never regretted that.
“There are great people at the University of Washington; I worked there long enough to know that. But I found my extra family with the Cougars. I’m just a small-town guy, anyway. I was part of a family from the start when I arrived there.”
That’s never going to change. Don’t be surprised if Robertson shows up for a game this year, and he said, “If they make it to a bowl game, I might be scratching on the door to see if I can get to it as fan.”
Added Robertson: “I have a life over there. I was Grand Marshall of the Lentil Parade. I have my star in cement in downtown Pullman. It’s like having a home somewhere you can drop in on.”
He hasn’t decided yet if he’ll continue his gig calling the Sunday home games of the Tacoma Rainiers with Mike Curto. But as for WSU, “It’s over and done with. I don’t know what it will lead to. I don’t know if I’ll do anything for a while. It won’t be much of a test if I took another job by tomorrow afternoon. I wouldn’t do that to the Cougars, anyway. I’m not looking for work.”
Three of Robertson’s four children live in the area, and he has friends to keep him company. But he ruefully admits that he doesn’t have any real hobbies.
“I tell people this, and believe this, my vocation and avocation are the same thing. Both are sports broadcasting,” he said. “As result, I have nothing to relax to. I don’t play golf. I don’t want to try UFC boxing. That scares the hell out of me, so I don’t think I’ll do that. I don’t fish or hunt. My wife is gone. There is a gap there. I don’t know how I’ll fill that.”
This may sound sad, in transcript form, but actually, Robertson came off as upbeat. He certainly has kept his sense of humor, as you can pick up on.
“I’m getting ready for my next adventure,’’ he said.
Classy to the literal end, Robertson remains supportive of the current Cougar broadcasting crew – play-by-play man Matt Chazanow, analyst Alex Brink and sideline reporter Jessamyn McIntyre.
“They have some good young people who could have long careers like I did,’’ he said. “I don’t knock it. I’m glad they went out and got someone good. I’d have hated it if they hired the first person that walked by the stadium. That would have been insulting.”
McIntyre said that Robertson’s professed faith in her ability helped build her own confidence early in her tenure. If Bob-Rob gave his stamp of approval, well, you were OK among the Cougar faithful.
“He provided me credibility before I had earned it,’’ she said.
McIntyre and the rest of the crew will soon amass at Martin Stadium for what looms as an epic day Saturday. It will begin with ESPN’s GameDay and culminate with a huge contest against Oregon – the kind of event that won’t feel quite right without the Robertson stamp.
But his presence will most definitely be felt, on Saturday and every Saturday to come.
“He built the Cougar broadcast,’’ McIntyre said. “We are standing on his back. He will forever be the voice of Cougar football. It will never go away.”
I’ll give Robertson the final word: “As we say in the Northwest, Go Cougs.”