Monday, April 12, 2010

Catching Up With Dick Crippen

A legend in local sports broadcasting, Dick Crippen has been part of the fabric of the Tampa Bay area for five decades. A familiar face to viewers of both Channel 10 and Channel 8, Crippen’s voice could be heard for 17 seasons as part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers radio team and as the P.A. announcer for the Tampa Bay Rowdies during their heyday. Since 2000, Crippen has served as a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays and has remained involved with the community, serving on various charitable boards throughout the area. Crippen recently sat down to talk about his broadcasting career and some of the memorable people and events he has covered.

Q. Dick, talk about your broadcast roots in the Tampa Bay area and some of your stops along the way.

A. I came here on a partial scholarship to the University of Tampa to run WTUM-FM, which was at the time an over the air broadcast for the university. I guess about three weeks after I got here, I ended up working at WDAE, which back then was downtown and a music station. I did the early morning shift on the air from 6-7 a.m., and then closing the station down at night. That kind of got me into the market.

Dr. Stephen Speronis at the University of Tampa, he was doing one of the public service programs on Sunday morning at Channel 8, and he heard that they were looking for a booth announcer. He put my name in, and next thing I know I had a job there doing booth announcing. You’d literally sit in a booth and when the slide came up, you’d go “WFLA-TV, Channel 8.” (laughs) That was it, and it was ideal for a college student because I’d be able to study in between. But they also trained me to do weather. They had two at the time and wanted a third.

Then I went into radio for a few years, working at WINQ at the old Hillsboro Hotel. I was production manager there when the sheriff actually locked the doors on the place for non-payment, or something like that. I went to work one morning, it was all bolted up and I couldn’t get in, so that was the end of that job. I worked at WILZ on Teirra Verde, and then in 1965 was hired as the first weather man at Channel 10. I worked in weather there for one year. I also owned a semi-pro football team in St. Pete and did the track announcing at Sunshine Speedway, so when the sports director left to run for city council in Tampa, they asked if for $5 more a week I’d like to take his job. I took the $5 and the rest, as they say, is history. I stayed at Channel 10 for 16 years, and then in 1981 moved over to Channel 8 as sports director, where I stayed until New Year’s Eve of 1999. It’s been a blessed career.

Q. What was the sports landscape like when you first came to Tampa?

A. Very, very empty. When I first started doing sports, I would search high and low to find a story. Obviously we had high school, Spring Training, and the University of Tampa, but there was not much going on here. No pro activity, really, until they started holding exhibition football games. Then later on of course, we had done so well in putting on these games that the NFL awarded this area a franchise. That’s the only time that ever happened where a franchise was awarded to an area rather than an owner.

Q. We had the build-up of almost a decade towards getting an NFL team, and then with the arrival of the Rowdies in 1975, it must have made for some pretty exciting times.

A. You know, the Rowdies were to this day the best example of sports marketing I’ve ever seen. If you really study the situation, the kids got so into the Rowdies that they brought their parents. We’d pull 25-30,000 people for a soccer game, and for big games against the New York Cosmos with Pele, we’d sell 55,000 tickets.

Then that theme song, it sounded like it was recorded in an English pub! “The Rowdies run here, the Rowdies run there, they kick the ball around!” You could just see them toasting with their beer mugs and all that stuff. (laughs) Everyone knew that song, everyone responded to it, and we just had a ball.

Living through the Bucs going 0-26 to start made it interesting to watch. I used to tell people that I’d take 5 thesauruses with me to the press box just to try and describe what I was seeing down there. Going through the McKay years, I was fortunate to become a friend of his and enjoyed that friendship tremendously.

To go from 0-26 to within one game of the Super Bowl -- what I still think is the fastest turn-around of any NFL team -- was just amazing. It was an exciting time to put it mildly. Coming home from that first win in New Orleans was one of the most unforgettable moments of my career. We had like 10,000 people at One Buccaneer Place, if you can imagine that.

Q. You mentioned John McKay. What comes to mind when you think about covering him for those years?

A. He’d keep me in stitches in the press conferences. He had the quickest wit of any coach, for sure. Here’s a personal story with him. I learned very early with John that you don’t challenge him. In other words, he’s the coach. What I’d do is say something like, “You know there are a lot of people, and they wonder why you’re not using your tight end more.” I’d frame it third person. One day he’s out on the practice field and signals me to come over. So he’s there and he’s got his floppy hat and sunglasses on, he’s twirling his cigar, and he puts his arm across my shoulder and starts walking towards the locker room with me. He says, “Dickie, I just want you to know something.” He’s twirling his cigar, and takes it out, looks at me and says, “I know who THEY are.” (laughs) That’s the way he was and he was laughing as much as I was at it. He knew where I was coming from. He was very special and it was really a ball working with him.

Q. Can you talk about the way local coverage of sports has changed from your time in broadcasting?

A. It has become very different. At the time I covered, we were trying to get a lot of these franchises in, build the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area, so I think the coverage was a lot less neutral. Let me put it this way. I was accused, when I worked for the Bucs, of being a homer. I always told people this. Let’s suppose the Bucs and Dolphins are playing. Both teams are covered in the market on radio. If you’re a Buccaneer fan, why would you listen to the Dolphins coverage, and vice versa? I’ve always felt that you don’t have to sugarcoat your coverage. You don’t need to misrepresent it, but I also don’t believe that you have to dig and find things that are wrong. I think if the negative is there, fine.

Q. Is there a story or episode that comes to mind?

A. I’ll tell you a real battle for me, and this was tough. When I covered Dwight Gooden, I got to know his parents really well. I knew that they watched my show. Obviously, I liked Dwight and knew the coverage was probably biased because he was a hometown kid. The first time – and I do say now the first time – when he got picked up for drugs in New York, it broke my heart to get on the air and have that footage. I had to do it, but it broke my heart to put that on because I knew his parents were watching.

I was always very careful, when let’s say, a top wide receiver from the Dallas Cowboys -- to pick a team -- got arrested for cocaine. I’d think twice about putting it on the six o’clock news. Not because it wasn’t news, but because it did not necessarily affect the local area. I was also concerned about the example it would set to some kid who was trying to make a football team. He might say, “I know it’s wrong, but this guy is a top receiver, and this is what he did. So maybe that’s the secret.”

I always had that in my mind that there were people watching that could be influenced, especially kids, and tried to frame it in a way that we wouldn’t get that negative message as a positive. It bothers me when I hear a story reported without that kind of thinking behind it.

Q. In what other ways has the business change?

A. Sports casting has really changed on the news side. Channel 8 is down to one guy. They’re stripping back so much that we’re missing the local side of coverage. I miss the inspirational stories, the kids that are overcoming things, kids that are doing great. Those are the stories I loved to do. To be honest with you, I never dreamed of going into sports broadcasting. I really don’t care about stats, but I do care about the makeup of the athlete. I care about what makes the athlete tick. I love the psychology behind it.

I mean 0-26. Do you have any idea what it took for those guys to go out there and play every week? They had it in their minds they could win even when they were losing. In 2008 here with the Rays, as in 1979, I lived through “The Little Engine That Could.” Because sometime in 2008, this Rays team came together – I think it was the result of two fights, one with the Yankees and one with the Red Sox – and decided they could win. To me, that’s sports! That’s believing! “I think I can, I think I can.” So I feel very fortunate that I had all those years covering great sports, and in 2008 got to be part of a team that went to a championship. I had to remind myself that no, I’m not covering this from the outside: I’m a part of it. That’s something I’ll never forget.

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