For generations, Hawkeye fans like myself, who couldn’t make it to the games in Iowa City had really only one other option – flip on a radio and tune in to our favorite broadcaster for Hawkeye sporting events. Here in Iowa, unless for some miraculous reason a Hawkeye game was on network television, there were, basically, three choices for listening. In Des Moines and central Iowa, it was WHO-1040 with Jim Zabel (below left) and his eccentric and unabashed passion, and over here in eastern Iowa, our allegiance was split between KCRG-1600‘s Bob Brooks (below center) and WMT-600‘s Ron Gonder (below right) – both of whom originated from Cedar Rapids. Collectively, these three sports personalities were as quintessential Hawkeye as their voices.
As we discuss on another post, radio came into its own, long before Zabel, Brooks & Gonder hit the airways, and there were two Iowa radio personalities who were well known in their day as the Voice of the Hawkeyes. One name, I believe, you will quickly recognize – while the other might be a little less known, but certainly no less a talent. Allow me, here, to introduce to you…
Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932, when jobs were tight because of the Depression. Luck was with Reagan when he landed a broadcasting job at Davenport’s radio station WOC, which needed an announcer to broadcast University of Iowa football games. Reagan’s first assignment – for $5 and bus fare – was the Hawkeye’s Homecoming game in Iowa City against Minnesota (1932). In the spring of 1933, partly because he had covered the Drake Relays so skillfully, Reagan was chosen to become chief sports announcer for WOC’s sister station, WHO in Des Moines. “Dutch” – a childhood nickname because of his “Dutch boy” haircut – gained national media exposure covering Iowa Football and recreating Chicago Cubs baseball games from the WHO studio in Des Moines via telegraph. Read more here.
Lawson ‘Tait’ Cummins was born in Ute, Iowa in 1906, and skipped so many grades in country school, he graduated when he was only 14 years old. Tait got his journalism degree from the State University of Iowa and went to work as a news reporter at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. In 1939, he was named Sports Editor, just in time to become good friends with Nile Kinnick and the Ironmen. In 1948, Cummins became Sports Director of WMT Radio, and later, WMT TV – until his retirement in 1970. Tait passed away on November 26, 1984, and, one year later, the City of Cedar Rapids dedicated their new softball complex on C Street South to his memory. For me, growing up a Hawkeye fan in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa in the 1950’s, all of my earliest memories of Iowa football and basketball include the comforting, baritone voice of Tate Cummins.
So, with that foundation laid, let’s now explore the big three radio voices in Hawkeye sports that followed greats like Reagan and Cummins – from the late 1940’s until the 1990’s.
(BS-010) Picking up right where Ronald Reagan left off, WHO Radio‘s Jim Zabel just might have been one of the best-known sportscasters in the Midwest. Not one to hide his emotions, Zabel, in his fits of excitement, would often tell Hawkeye fans to hug and kiss their radios whenever there was big play on the field or on the court. Zabel was born in 1921 in Davenport, Iowa and attended the State University of Iowa where he became the student editor of The Daily Iowan, graduating with a degree in journalism in 1944. Jim joined WHO in Des Moines as the sports director that same year, and over the next 70 years, called more than 6,100 sporting events, including Iowa football and basketball, the Drake Relays, and the Iowa state boys and girls basketball tournaments. Read more about WHO Radio here.
In all, Jim Zabel made his mark calling Iowa football and men’s basketball for 49 seasons, retiring in 2000, but still hosting weekly radio shows until his death in 2013.
While in school at Iowa during World War II, Bob Brooks began working at WSUI – the University’s student-led radio station. Bob covered Iowa athletics from 1943 until his death in 2016, and nobody was more recognizable than “Brooksie” – from his navy suitcoat & signature fedora on a 90-degree day in August to his old-fashioned tape recorder that Illinois basketball player Dee Brown once called a VCR. As one historian said it, “When Bob Brooks’ deep baritone belted “Hello everybody, how ya doin’,” his voice was as recognizable as thunder and as welcomed as a father’s verbal embrace.”
A graduate of the State University of Iowa School of Journalism in 1948, Brooks started attending Iowa football games in 1939 when Nile Kinnick & the Ironmen donned the Black and Gold. A lover of all sports, Brooks was the first one to broadcast high school sports in Cedar Rapids, and was named Iowa Sportscaster of the Year a total of 10 times throughout his career.
Ron Gonder is the youngest of our three sportscasters, and this straight-talking radio man grew up in upstate New York and called Northwestern University and University of Illinois games until moving to Iowa in 1965. In 1969, Ron took over for Tait Cummins as Sports Director at WMT – Cedar Rapids – the state’s second-most powerful radio station – staying put there until retiring in 1999. A tall fellow who loved basketball, Ron was often nicknamed ‘The Big Shoe’, and was famous for his closing line whenever the Hawkeyes were headed for an obvious victory – “Well, fans, I think we can pass in the songbooks on this one!”
Jim Zabel – Ron Gonder – Bob Brooks. According to former Iowa Sports Information Director Phil Haddy – a Cedar Rapids native who worked at Iowa from 1971 until 2011…
Zabel, Brooks, and Gonder all had their own following – all had their distinct styles. Jim was, obviously of the three, the most, you’d call, a homer. Ron was, I’d say, not a homer. He was totally unbiased, although he wanted us to win. I’d say Bob was right in the middle. Everybody, and I’m not using this word lightly, loved all three of them because they meant so much to Iowa athletics through the years.
In the early 1990s, Iowa was the only Big Ten school that had not consolidated its radio rights. With Zabel, Gonder and Brooks headlining radio networks throughout the state, plus other individual radio stations calling football and men’s basketball games as well, space was at a premium, especially at road venues. Out of loyalty to its big three broadcasters, Iowa’s Athletic Department held out as long as it could against the wishes of the Big Ten, but finally, in 1990, when Bob Bowlsby replaced Bump Elliott as Iowa’s AD, a decision to reduce costs, cutting the Iowa broadcasts down to one, had to be made.
“The world was changing in terms of how media rights were packaged and sold,” said Bowlsby, who was Iowa’s Athletic Director until 2006. “Ultimately, in order to maximize the value, we felt like going to an exclusive carrier was the right thing to do.” On August 2, 1996, Iowa announced that Learfield Sports was chosen as the sole radio provider of its athletics programs, but now came the hard decision. Three popular sportscasters – Zabel, Brooks & Gonder – with, now, only one position open. While no one at the university wanted to even slightly offend any of the three, the public pressure increased as fans weighed in on their favorites, often at the expense of a different hall-of-fame broadcaster.
“First of all, I don’t think you can replace those three guys – Gonder, Brooksie and Zabel,” Bowlsby said. “They’re all, in their own right, iconic broadcasters and great people. Beloved people. All of them have great senses of humor and they love people and they just were so committed to the Hawkeyes.”
“I think at the end of the day, we decided we’re just going to have to start fresh,” Associate AD Mark Jennings said. “We had to get all those flagship stations on board. I think the process took two or three years to accomplish all this. Eventually, they all agreed that was the best thing to do, kind of wipe the board clean and start with somebody new. We went through the process of interviewing some people.”
Bowlsby and his staff opted for a King Solomon-type solution. While none of the Big Three would handle play-by-play duties, Bowlsby wanted all three – beginning in the fall of 1997 – to become part of the broadcast and participate in pregame and postgame duties. Gonder would handle sideline duties with Brooks and Zabel in the Learfield booth along with Podolak and the new voice – Gary Dolphin. Zabel opted out for men’s basketball, but Gonder and Brooks also would participate in both sports. “This plan worked for one, maybe two years,” Phil Haddy said. “It got to be almost a laughable deal. Each one is fighting to get the microphone. So from that standpoint, that’s what went on.”
“The new process went well, and it was to Gary’s credit that it went well,” Ron Gonder said. “To put him in the position he was in with three old-timers looking over his shoulder and then having him to coordinate it and everything, he made it go. He made it with his personality, and he made it work. As far as I was concerned, once I agreed to be part of it, I was going to do whatever they wanted me to do over that period of time.”
As it turned out, Ron Gonder provided sideline reports for a couple of years, then retired from WMT in 2000. Zabel and Brooks – both less than thrilled with the new situation – also left the booth around the same time, and it all became Gary Dolphin’s domain. Gonder mostly has stayed out of the public eye, while Zabel hosted the Sunday night talk show “Two Guys Named Jim” on WHO until his death in 2013. Bob Brooks attended every football game until he died in 2016, and was the only media member to cover all six of Iowa’s Rose Bowl appearances! What an amazing run for these three giants in Iowa Hawkeye Sports Broadcasting!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Tait, Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 12, 1983, p 17
Tait Cummins Softball Complex, Cedar Rapids
James Frederick “Jim” Zabel, Find-A-Grave
Iowa’s WHO Radio – The Voice of the Midwest, Jeff Stein, Arcadia Publishing, 2011
Longtime Iowa broadcaster Bob Brooks dies at 89, The Daily Iowan, June 25, 2016
Robert Craig “Bob” Brooks, Find-A-Grave
Eastern Iowans make Gonder their clear-cut favorite for radio job, Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 29, 1996, p 25, 43
‘Touchdown, Touchdown Iowa’: How Gary Dolphin became the unlikely voice of the Hawkeyes in an era of radio icons, Scott Dochterman, TheAthletic.com, May 19, 2019
U-of-I press box at Kinnick to feature Wall of Fame for media & PR, RadioIowa.com, July 4, 2006
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