Brian Jeffries estimates he was 13 years old, maybe 14, when he and a childhood friend from Tacoma began gazing into the future, mapping out what they wanted to do, who they wanted to be when they grew up.
Dreaming, fantasizing, imagining as young kids do.
A sports fanatic and radio nut who’d grown to idolize the man, and voice, behind the broadcasts of the local minor-league baseball team, Jeffries had this answer on the tip of his tongue.
“I told my friend, ‘Gosh I’d love to be a sports announcer like Bob Robertson,’ ” he recalled.
To which the friend responded, “Well, he’s my next-door neighbor.”
“You’re kidding me,” Jeffries answered.
So for weeks Jeffries pedaled a bicycle to his friend’s house, always crossing his fingers Robertson would return home at the same time he arrived. Of course, knocking on the front door was too daunting a proposition for the young boy, given his admiration. But one day the timing finally lined up.
“From there on, I was just infatuated and he kind of mentored me at that point, encouraged me,” said Jeffries, who enters year No. 34 as the radio voice of Arizona football, baseball and basketball. “He used to recreate baseball games, the Triple-A team there in Tacoma and he invited me down to the studio one time to watch how he did it. I was a young kid, I was just amazed watching it and he was kind of my young idol and I made up my mind that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
“He just always encouraged me.”
Robertson, who spent more than half of his life presiding over Washington State football broadcasts, died Sunday at his home in University Place. He was 91 and surrounded by family at the time of his death, according to a school news release.
A specific cause of death is unknown and a date hasn’t been set for Robertson’s memorial service, though The Spokesman-Review has learned his family intends to wait until the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic ends.
For legions of WSU fans, Robertson’s name, more than that of any coach, player, broadcaster or writer, is the one that comes to mind when considering the last half-century of Cougar football. Robertson’s association with the school began in 1964 and culminated 52 years later in October 2018 when he announced his immediate retirement prior to No. 25 WSU’s upset of No. 12 Oregon.
“He’s the most popular Cougar in the state of Washington,” former WSU coach Mike Price said Monday over the phone. “… I just loved him to death and he was just as great off the field as he was on the air. … He was the most popular person, the most popular Cougar, that I’ve ever known.”
Over the years, one of Price’s favorite hobbies has been rummaging through boxes that contain cassette tapes of historic WSU football games, and memorable Robertson calls. It’s a way for Price to relive the most successful stint of his career and replay broadcasts he was never able to consume as a coach.
“I do a lot of fishing up here in Coeur d’Alene on my boat and I’ve got my stereo and I’ve got a bunch of old cassette tapes that I listen to some of the old games he did,” Price said. “Just for the voice and the expressions and everything.”
When Jim Walden took over at Washington State in 1978, he clung to a piece of advice from a former coach, Bob Devaney.
“He told me, in no uncertain terms, ‘One of the most important people you’ll ever have on your side is your radio play-by-play person,’ ” Walden said. “He said, ‘Because, it doesn’t matter how many people come to the games. You may get 50,000 people in the stands, and they’re not listening to the radio, but you can have a million people over a three-hour broadcast that he can have some influence over the job you’re doing.’
“So, when I got my first job here at Washington State,” Walden said, “I made sure Jim Walden and Bob Robertson were always going to be good friends.”
Former coach Mike Leach, at the helm of the WSU football program for the last segment of Robertson’s famed career, said Monday in a text message, “Bob Rob was maybe the most prolific broadcaster for any school, the most respected, and the most loved. He has had a huge impact on WSU. I cherish the fact that I had the honor to know him.”
For more than five decades, Robertson’s voice and WSU football games were one in the same. For the vast majority of that, he was in a play-by-play role, only shifting to the analyst for the final seven years of his career. From 1964 to 2016, he called 589 consecutive games. There was one absence, at the 1981 Holiday Bowl, but only because local radio was not permitted to broadcast. Robertson also called Cougar basketball games for two decades.
Up until Robertson gave up his headset for good, he was a pseudo celebrity in the press box, drawing visits from opposing announcers, team officials and writers who all made it a priority to pop in and greet the broadcasting giant before kickoff.
In the mid-1990s, Jerry Kyllo began working on WSU’s football broadcasts as an engineer/producer.
“He was one of these guys you’d probably put up on a pedestal,” Kyllo said, “but once I got to know him, he was just another friendly person. … He loved the Cougs, he loved being with people, he loved talking to them and greeting people. He would’ve been the best greeter of Walmart of anybody.”
Robertson was deep into the home stretch of his career, a WSU and College Football Hall of Famer, a 12-time Washington Broadcaster of the Year and in just about every respect, a living legend, when Matt Chazanow arrived in Pullman five years ago. So, the then-30-year-old new play-by-play announcer was admittedly thrown for a loop when Robertson arrived in the booth and asked Chazanow where he preferred to sit. This in a booth that’s held Robertson’s namesake since 2009.
“I was like, ‘Bob, it’s literally your booth. I’ll sit on the roof if you want me to sit (there),’ ” Chazanow said. “I’m forever calling games in the Bob Robertson Suite. Like, ‘You tell me where you want to sit. How about that?’ But he loved it. He always talked about his wife, too. I always knew I was living in special moments when I was starting this off, by doing it alongside him and in some ways with his legacy in mind.”
Robertson is survived by his four children, Hugh, Janna, John and Rebecca, along with his seven grandchildren. He and his wife, Joanne, were married for 59 years before her death in 2011.