To most, longevity represents the ultimate test in any endeavor.
At this stage of his career, Bill Baker of the Huskie Radio Network has passed with flying colors.
From his opening “Hello, everybody...” to his closing “goodbye (fill in the opponent)” when Northern Illinois University emerges victorious, from Anaheim Stadium in 1980 to the 2013 Orange Bowl, from local outlet WLBK-AM, 50,000-watt WSCR-AM in Chicago, and now WIND-AM, or his new video-streaming duties on ESPN3, if you listen long or often enough, you get it. Baker wants “his” Huskies to win.
Even in between all the Chinese food inside jokes, this is one busy guy.
With every broadcast, cablecast, and NIU athletics event he works, the 69-year-old Baker logs another career milestone. His latest? NIU’s Sept. 1 home opener against Boston College will mark the start of Baker’s school-record 38th season as the Cardinal and Black’s radio play-by-play voice.
Not only does that make Baker the dean of contemporary Mid-American Conference broadcasters but certainly puts his NIU radio predecessors, such as Russ Piggott (1960s), Art Kimball (1960s), Dave McAley (1970s), and Pat Carey (1970s), in the rearview mirror tenure-wise. And nationally? Funny you ask.
By coincidence this spring, Tennessee-Chattanooga sports information director Jay Blackman put together a top 10 list of active NCAA Division I radio play-by-play types on the College Sports Information Directors of America online forum. Topping the list is Ray Goss of Duquesne with an amazing 50 years in the booth, effective at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Baker is tied for 10th in national microphone seniority with UT-Chattanooga’s Jim Reynolds, Wichita State’s Mike Kennedy, and UTEP’s John Teicher, all at 37 years. Impressive, to say the least.
(Interesting sidelight: Four men on that elite radio list have worked in the Huskie Stadium press box.)
“I can tell you for a fact that this sort of thing never crossed my mind when (then NIU marketing director) Jerry Ippoliti hired me in the spring of 1980,” Baker said, adding in jest, “I wonder if this would qualify us for free Chinese food...”
Baker was working at WKKD-AM / FM radio in Aurora when Ippoliti called.
“Jerry was looking for two things,” Baker remembered. “One, for an announcer, and two, for some additional radio stations on the network. And we’ve been fortunate to have WLBK in DeKalb as our flagship station for all these years.”
In that first year, Baker handled his NIU duties using the psuedonym “Bill Henry” since rival station WMRO-AM in Aurora was then on the NIU network. Whatever his name was at the time, Baker will never forget his initial Huskie call in 1980.
“I’m in awe, sitting in Anaheim Stadium, even with a lot of empty seats against Long Beach State,” he said.
That’s when senior flanker Mike Pinckney opened the Bill Mallory era by taking the opening kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown in a 16-9 Northern Illinois triumph. Baker admits to losing track of the number of games he’s worked in his career – probably 1,000 prep contests on WKKD and 2,000-plus Huskie games in various sports and mediums.
“But I’ll never forget that Pinckney kickoff return on that first play, never.”
After 37 years, any thoughts on retirement?
“No, not really,” Baker said. “Some days I feel like I’m only 40 or 50. I think I told you years ago that when it becomes a job, I’ll start thinking about getting away.”
Retired Ball State radio legend Morry Mannies worked 51 seasons in Muncie, any thoughts on that?
“I’m not going to go there,” Baker replied.
Baker did admit that working men’s basketball one night in Buffalo and a NIU women’s game the next in DeKalb on ESPN3 can be taxing.
“Traveling takes it out of you, particularly in the winter with a suitcase loaded with radio gear,” he said. “I really have to be cognizant of the weather. But again, I’m fortunate. I consider myself semi-retired. So this is the best of both worlds.”
Both worlds? Since 1998, Baker has also worked in the marketing arena for the Kane County Cougars in Geneva.
Biggest changes on the beat? On two tech fronts, Baker answered.
“When I started, before computers, your staff would hand me statistical updates and scores at timeouts on paper, then we had the video screens,” he said. “Now at the click of a button you have a wealth of information, the up-to-date box score, other scores, all on my laptop.”
Second would be the 21st century radio platforms.
“We’ve been on Sirius Radio and now with the right app, you can listen to the network on your cellphone or on the internet.”
“That’s tough with so many games and special moments over the years,” Baker said, eventually citing the intense Kenny Battle-Ron Harper hoops match-ups of the mid-1980s at Evans Field House and, of course, the 2013 Orange Bowl with the event’s pageantry and national media attention for the Huskies.
“You know, I’ve been blessed. It’s been a great run for me,” said Baker, a 2009 inductee into both the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame and the media wing of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association HOF. In 1989, he was the recipient of the IHSA’s Distinguished Service Award for Basketball. “I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with talented and dedicated people over the years – Sid Simmons, Mark Lindo, Pat Carey, Casey Kahler, and Andy Garcia, not to forget your staff and now (SID) Donna Turner’s.”
As chair of the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame selection committee, my annual “perk” was always calling the new inductees about their good fortune. In Baker’s case, the only problem was that he was already the emcee of the induction banquet.
The call went like this: “Hi Bill, it’s Mike Korcek. “Mike, what’s up?” “Well, I have good news and I have bad news...” “Oh?” “Yeah, the bad news is that you can’t work the HOF banquet this October...” Bill was a bit shocked. “What?” “The reason is the good news. Congratulations, you will be inducted into the NIU Hall of Fame...” “You’re kidding?” “Nope, congrats.” Still one of my favorite phone conversations.
Baker’s partnership with Lindo, entering its 33rd year – which also might be the longest, current FBS college football radio tandem in the nation, is more friendship.
“We’ve seen each others children grow up. We both have grandchildren. We’ve been to each other’s family events,” said the 59-year-old Lindo, a teacher and coach at Aurora Central Catholic and now Naperville North.
“Bill trained me, he mentored me,” added Lindo who, in additon to his Huskie radio color man duties, has worked the IHSA state basketball and football tournaments as an analyst on Comcast SportsNet.
“For Bill, the Huskies are a labor of love. Other than his family, he loves the Huskies most. To me it doesn’t seem like 33 years working together, more like three. Actually, it’s not really work. Bill’s just a consummate professional,” Lindo said.
How many more times can you guys drive to Ypsilanti or Muncie?
“There’s a lot of driving in the MAC, a lot of memories and goofy stories told in the car,” Lindo remarked. “And a lot of getting home at 4:30 or 5 a.m. And, yes, Bill has his favorite spots to eat on the road,” Lindo paused, adding the obvious, “usually for Chinese.”
Honest. You know Bill Baker’s priorities: Family, the Huskies, the broadcast and, yes, Chinese food.
• Mike Korcek is a 1970 graduate of NIU, and was the school’s head sports information director from 1984-2006. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com.
LONGEST TENURED ACTIVE NCAA D-I
RADIO PLAY-BY-PLAY BROADCASTERS
1. 50 yrs., Ray Goss, Duquesne
2. 49 yrs., Bill Hillgrove, Pittsburgh
3. 44 yrs., Don Fischer, Indiana
4. 42 yrs., Dave Nitz, Louisiana Tech
42 yrs., Joe Starkey, California
6. 41 yrs., George Blaha, Michigan St.
41 yrs., Frank Hoffman, La.-Monroe
8. 38 yrs., Gene Deckerhoff, Fla. St.
38 yrs., Johnny Holiday, Maryland
10. 37 yrs., Bill Baker, Northern Illinois
37 yrs., Jim Reynolds, UT-Chattanooga
37 yrs., Mike Kennedy, Wichita St.
37 yrs., John Teicher, UTEP
Source: Jay Blackman, SID, UT-Chattanooga
To most, longevity represents the ultimate test in any endeavor.