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Voice of the Wildcats

Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting

Alan Sullivan
WITH Joe Cox
Foreword by Tom Leach
Afterword by Billy Reed
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Voice of the Wildcats
    Book Description:

    As one of the first voices of the University of Kentucky men's basketball program, Claude Sullivan (1924--1967) became a nationally known sportscasting pioneer. His career followed Kentucky's rise to prominence as he announced the first four NCAA championship titles under Coach Adolph Rupp and covered scrimmages during the canceled 1952--1953 season following the NCAA sanctions scandal. Sullivan also revolutionized the coverage of the UK football program with the introduction of a coach's show with Bear Bryant -- a national first that gained significant attention and later became a staple at other institutions. Sullivan's reputation in Kentucky eventually propelled him to Cincinnati, where he became the voice of the Reds, and even to the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome.

    In Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting, Claude's son Alan, along with Joe Cox, offers an engaging and heartfelt look at the sportscaster's life and the context in which he built his career. The 1940s witnessed a tremendous growth in sportscasting across the country, and Sullivan, a seventeen year old from Winchester, Kentucky, entered the field when it was still a novel occupation that was paving new roads for broadcast reporting. During the height of his career, Sullivan was named Kentucky's Outstanding Broadcaster by the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters for eight consecutive years. His success was tragically cut short when he passed away from throat cancer at forty-two

    Featuring dozens of interviews and correspondence with sports legends, including Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones, Babe Parilli, Cliff Hagan, Ralph Hacker, Jim Host, Billy Reed, Adolph Rupp, and Cawood Ledford, this engaging biography showcases the life and work of a beloved broadcast talent and documents the rise of sports radio during the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4705-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Tom Leach

    John Calipari refers to University of Kentucky basketball as the “gold standard” in the game. That phrase also applies to legendary voices such as Claude Sullivan, who brought the Wildcats’ games into the homes of the Big Blue Nation via the radio airwaves.

    Cancer claimed Claude in the prime of his career at the age of forty-two in 1967. I was six years old, so I don’t remember listening to his calls of the Kentucky games. However, I was given a 1970 vinyl album calledGreat Moments in Kentucky Basketball,and it included audio clips of famous plays from the...

  4. Introduction: Memories . . . and the Wheel
    (pp. 1-8)

    It was a warm September evening across the rolling pastures of Kentucky’s bluegrass region. In Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky, more than 60,000 fans had gathered on a pleasant Saturday evening to cheer on a scrappy University of Kentucky (UK) Wildcat football squad, which was in the process of defeating ole Miss en route to a 2006 season culminating in the team’s first bowl victory in twenty-two years. Those fans had also gathered to honor six new members of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.

    At halftime, the selected inductees, along with family members, journeyed onto the beautifully manicured field...

  5. 1 Building a Life
    (pp. 9-30)

    Claude Howard Sullivan announced his own entry to the world four days after Christmas of 1924. He was born in Winchester, Kentucky, the first child of Claude Ishmael and Ethel Mae Sullivan. As a child of the Great Depression, Claude Sullivan lacked extensive luxury in his young life. He shared the top half of a duplex with his parents, his younger brother, Charles “Buddy” Sullivan, and his German shepherd dog. The bottom half of the duplex was occupied by Claude’s maternal grandmother and his uncle.

    The wheel seems to have always been a central motif in Claude Sullivan’s life. The...

  6. 2 The Best of Times
    (pp. 31-46)

    Although broadcasting high school sports had been a pleasant and productive step in Claude Sullivan’s career, his sights were set much higher when he was twenty-two. When he settled in at WKLX, Claude was given his next great opportunity—although few would have appreciated the magnitude of that opportunity. The next spoke in Claude’s wheel was UK football. Then, as now, Southeastern Conference (SEC) football was some of the best in the nation. The name “Kentucky” did not yet put fear in the hearts of many foes at the time, but that began to change in 1946, when Bear Bryant...

  7. 3 Glory Days
    (pp. 47-74)

    In mid-1949, Claude Sullivan was twenty-four years old. He was married and had a young son. He had climbed to the top of his profession—calling his second consecutive NCAA basketball championship game and broadcasting Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Wildcats gridiron exploits. Where could things possibly go but further up?

    Not everyone was as optimistic. At least one person didn’t think much of the 1949 football squad’s chances, and that was Coach Bryant himself. In 1948, Claude had begun conducting a weekly coach’s show with Bryant on WKLX. Claude and “the Bear,” becoming fast friends, discussed the previous week’s games and...

  8. 4 The Fall
    (pp. 75-98)

    By mid-1951, the previous few years of Claude’s career had left him wondering how much better his professional life could get. A national position had not yet come his way, but the basketball and football Wildcats had reached unparalleled success; he had established the Standard Oil Network; and away from work he had become a father twice. However, adversity was preparing to rear its head again. If the rise of the past few years had been sudden and amazing, the fall of those to come would be even more drastic and unexpected. Fortunately, Claude’s wheel plowed through the difficult times,...

  9. 5 A Return to Normalcy
    (pp. 99-110)

    In the winter of 1953, Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats prepared to play their first game since the disappointing NCAA Tournament loss to St. John’s twenty-one months earlier. The team was anchored by Hagan, Ramsey, and Tsioropoulos, as well as by a head coach with something to prove. Rupp yearned for another NCAA Tournament Championship, and with a year of practice he had assembled perhaps his best squad yet.

    Thirteen thousand fans turned out in Memorial Coliseum to see Kentucky’s opener with Temple. Kentucky led by 17 at the half and routed Temple 86–59. The big story, however, was an individual...

  10. 6 Kentucky Broadcaster, International Man of Mystery
    (pp. 111-128)

    In August 1956, on his Pan American flight Claude Sullivan crossed over eastern Europe from Sweden to Helsinki, Finland. He had hoped to travel with the UK players to Helsinki as part of the 1952 Olympic Games. Those plans were canceled when St. John’s upset UK in 1952, but now, four years later, he found himself with his first tour group headed on a train from Helsinki to Leningrad, Russia. The full itinerary of the 1956 trip is in Claude’s diary, the details telling us the six members of the first WVLK tour group visited twelve countries. Claude worked the...

  11. 7 Fiddlin’ and Travelin’
    (pp. 129-148)

    The 1957–1958 UK basketball team was not very highly regarded—even by its own coach. Bert Nelli and Steve Nelli recount inThe Winning Traditionthat when Rupp was asked about the squad before the season began, he said, “We’ve got fiddlers, that’s all. They’re pretty good fiddlers; be right entertaining at a barn dance. But I’ll tell you, you need violinists to play in Carnegie Hall. We don’t have any violinists.” Although Rupp thought his team was short on talent (figuratively and literally—as, again, only Ed Beck was taller than six foot four), he could not deny...

  12. 8 When in Rome
    (pp. 149-164)

    The 1959–1960 season was the season that Kentucky’s detractors had forecast for a long while. Johnny Cox had graduated, and the basketball team found itself relying on Billy Ray Lickert and a trio of seniors—Don Mills, Sid Cohen, and Bernie Coffman. The junior class was decimated as Bobby Slusher had transferred, and Dicky Parsons’s shooting and scoring stats inexplicably dropped from his sophomore to his junior year (he repeated the pattern again the following season). Another talented player, Roger Newman, who had scored more than 16 points per game for the freshman team two years earlier, was expected...

  13. 9 Cotton, Bradshaw, and a “Dream Deferred”
    (pp. 165-182)

    Following the disappointing 1961 football campaign, there were some whispers that Blanton Collier’s time in Lexington would not be long. However, in late November the University Athletic Board announced that his contract (with three years remaining) would be honored, and this statement appeared to put an end to the speculation. In reality, the university was simply biding its time.

    On January 2, 1962, the university bought out Collier’s contract, relieving him of his further coaching duties. His 41–36–3 mark had not equaled Bryant’s, it was true. However, as Shannon Ragland writes inThe Thin Thirty,the players “knew...

  14. 10 Moving on Up
    (pp. 183-200)

    As Claude Sullivan spent the winter of 1963 wondering if his big break was coming around the corner, he had plenty to occupy the cold winter weeks. Cotton Nash was back for his senior campaign, and the 1963–1964 basketball season was poised to be special. Rupp’s sophomore class, the “Katzenjammer Kids,” promised to bring depth to the team again. Forward Mickey Gibson, from Hazard, showed plenty of promise. A tall guard, six-foot-five Tommy Kron, provided some much needed size and toughness. But the biggest name of the group was six-foot-four guard Larry Conley. Conley was one of the most...

  15. 11 The View from on Top
    (pp. 201-222)

    As soon as basketball was finished, Claude hurried off to the warmer climates of spring training, where the Reds were busy preparing for the 1965 season. With the team faring so well in the 1964 pennant race under Dick Sisler’s guidance, Sisler returned for a full season as manager of the team. The Reds’ personnel was much the same as in 1964. The team again fielded a squad with no starters older than thirty—only first baseman Gordy Coleman had attained that mark, although right fielder Frank Robinson was infamously noted as being “an old twenty-nine” by owner Bill DeWitt....

  16. 12 Tragedy
    (pp. 223-240)

    The 1966 season for the Cincinnati Reds was Claude’s first as the number one announcer following Waite Hoyt’s retirement in 1965. The sponsorship changed from the longtime Burger Beer to the Wiedemann Brewing Company. Waite had been very loyal to Burger and could not think of aligning himself with another competing sponsor, but Wiedemann had sponsored Claude’s showWiedemann Sports Eyefor ten years on WVLK, and he was a known entity to the company. Jim McIntyre of Indianapolis was added as the number two announcer and had known Claude from Kentucky sports, having worked in Louisville at WAVE. The...

  17. 13 Aftermath of a Tragedy
    (pp. 241-258)

    Claude’s life ended suddenly in December 1967, but his peers, contemporaries, and family eventually had to move on, trying to cope with the deep void his loss left in their lives.

    David and Alan had just returned home from Ann Arbor, Michigan on December 3. Shortly thereafter, on December 6, they heard the news that their father had died on the operating table in Rochester, Minnesota.

    Claude’s death was a huge emotional loss to his family, but Alyce, David, and Alan also had to meet Claude’s broadcasting commitments to UK, already two games into the 1967 contract for the UK...

  18. Afterword
    (pp. 259-264)
    Billy Reed

    To this day you can find old-timers such as yours truly who will insist that Claude Sullivan was such a superb radio play-by-play announcer that he could hold his own with anybody who excelled at calling a game. Yes, I’m including the likes of such golden-throated icons as Graham McNamee, Ted Husing, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Vin Scully, and Jack Buck. Trust me, Claude was that good.

    I doubt seriously that he would like the way that the craft has been commercialized. It’s tough for today’s play-by-play announcers to paint lovely word pictures when they’re required to relentlessly plug this...

  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 265-270)
    Joe Cox
  20. Appendix: The Claude Sullivan Collection in the University of Kentucky Archives
    (pp. 271-290)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 291-294)
  22. Index
    (pp. 295-306)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-314)