The Voice: Working with legendary Irwin was a true privilege

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgDuring the 1989 and 1990 Badger football seasons, I had the privilege of working with legendary announcer Jim Irwin. In those days, Jim did the play-by-play alongside Elroy Hirsch and Brian Manthey. My role was hosting the pregame, halftime and postgame shows.

I certainly knew about Jim. In those days, every sports fan in Wisconsin was familiar with the name. Among his many duties, Jim was the voice of the Badgers, the Milwaukee Bucks and, most notably, the Green Bay Packers. When needed, Jim also would fill in for Bob Uecker on the Brewers' broadcasts.  

He did it all. On Friday, Jim would call a Bucks game. On Saturday, he would be in the booth for a Badgers game, and then he would either head up to Lambeau Field or race to catch a plane to wherever  the Packers were playing on Sunday.

It was quite the schedule, but Jim was the consummate professional. There is a reason he is a Hall of Famer.

Like so many sports fans in this state and beyond, I am saddened at the news of his passing. Irwin died earlier this week in Southern California at age 77.

For many years, Jim Irwin was the voice of teams that had very little success. When we worked together for those two years on the UW football broadcasts, the Badgers' record was 3-19. On the field, those seasons were anything but pretty, but Jim always had plenty of energy, and he was the eternal optimist.

As for your truly, I was a twenty-something kid from Ohio still trying to figure out the business. The next think I knew, I was sitting next to a Wisconsin broadcasting icon.

While those were trying times for the Badgers and their fans, the 1989 and 1990 Wisconsin football seasons are years that I cherish. Why? Because Jim could not have been more welcoming to someone who was still fairly new to the industry.

Someone like Jim could have "big timed" me, but he always offered words of encouragement. In a sense, perhaps he was taking me under his wing. It was only 22 Saturdays, but for me they were important Saturdays, and Jim made me feel as though I was a big part of the Badgers' radio crew. He did not have to be that way, but he was. The same goes for Jim's lovely wife, Gloria, who often joined him in Madison for those home football games.

Jim retired more than a decade ago, and clearly the Packers have a great announcer in Wayne Larrivee. The Bucks' Ted Davis also does terrific work. But I think we all understand that for so many people, hearing Jim Irwin's voice takes us back to so many memorable moments.

From Wes Matthews' half-court heave to beat Michigan State in 1979, when he told his listeners, "Yes! He made it! He made it! He made it, and we win the ballgame! 83 to 81! From mid-court! Wesley Matthews made it!" to the 1981 Badger football team's upset of No. 1 Michigan.

On that September afternoon, Irwin described Matt VandenBoom's three interceptions, including the pick that sealed the game: "Back goes (Steve) Smith. He's gonna throw. He looks. This is the last play of the game. He fires it over the middle. Picked off!  The Badgers win it. With 2 seconds to go, Matt VandenBoom intercepts the ball!"

Then there was the Packers' Super Bowl XXXI victory against the New England Patriots: "The Vince Lombardi Trophy is coming home where it started!" said Irwin that day.

Hearing those calls is like turning back the clock and being a kid again.

I am proud to say that I had the chance to work with Jim Irwin. I was very lucky to have had that opportunity. It isn't every day that one can say he was able to spend time with a Hall of Famer who was gracious, supportive and just a pretty down-to-earth man who loved his craft and performed it at a level that most of us can only hope to reach.

Rest in peace, Jim. Thank you for all of your wonderful calls, and thank you for believing in that young broadcaster.

ON WISCONSIN