THIS WEEKEND, our state is saying farewell to a broadcasting icon, Woody O'Hara, who died Wednesday at age 70.Woody will always be remembered as the longtime broadcast partner for legendary WVU radio play-by-play voice Jack Fleming. In fact, the well-known three-man crew for MSN radio of Jack, Woody and engineer John McKinney are all now gone. It is the end of a tremendous era in sports play-by-play in West Virginia.When Woody and Jack were calling the games, it was a different time from today. You didn't see all of the Mountaineer games on television as you do today. You might see two or three football and six to eight basketball telecasts a season. Everything else you got from the radio listening to Woody and Jack. They were all you had for eyes and ears. The rest was up to your imagination.I never worked regularly with Woody, although we did do the telecast of the 1980 Marshall-WVU basketball game together. But everyone has a Woody O'Hara story, and I have mine.
As a young broadcaster, I did the radio play-by-play for West Virginia State basketball in 1974, when the head coach was a young Curt Price and his assistant was Rance Berry. Among the local players were former Charleston High stars Charles "Dickie" Russell, Dennis Harris and Jimmy Smith, former Northfork star David McDaniel and former East Bank standout Ron Calloway.One Saturday night, after a game in December, I was driving from Institute to Huntington on Interstate 64. As it so happens there was a wreck that night, and I-64 West quickly became a parking lot.The WVU basketball team was playing a late Saturday night game out in Salt Lake City, the championship game of the Utah Classic. Woody called the play-by-play that night as Jack wasn't there, probably because of a Steelers conflict the next day.
We sat on the interstate for so long that people began to slowly get out of their cars. Many of us were listening to the WVU game on the radio, and we took turns turning on our car radios so that we could save our batteries. There we sat on the clogged interstate on a chilly December night and listened to Woody call the game.It was an interstate version of a sports bar today. It was almost like being in the arena as the listeners reacted to every missed and made shot.The Mountaineers lost that night as Utah star Luther "Ticky" Burden had a big game. He was named MVP of the tournament. Woody said his name so often that for years later, whenever I ran into Woody while I was working at Penn State, I thought of Ticky Burden. It took a long while to clear the interstate and get traffic moving. What would have normally been a miserable, frustrating delay actually wasn't that bad as we talked on the road and listened to Woody call the game on the radio.I never told Woody of that story, but now I wish I had. I think he would have appreciated it. Reach Frank Giardina at firstname.lastname@example.org