Monday, January 3, 2011

Catching Up With Mark Champion

Mark Champion, the current radio play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Pistons, is fondly-remembered locally as the radio voice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1979-1988. Since leaving Tampa in 1989, Champion has served in the same capacity for the Detroit Lions from 1989-2004, the Detroit Pistons from 1992-1996, then rejoined the Pistons in 2001. He recently took some time prior to a Pistons-Magic game in Orlando to reflect on his time in Tampa and the special relationship he formed with Buccaneer head coach John McKay.

Q. How did you end up getting the job with the Bucs?

A. For the first two years, they had the former announcer for the Green Bay Packers, a guy named Ray Scott, who was legendary. In 1978, Dick Crippen did it for half the season, and I don't know exactly what happened. The guy who owned the broadcast rights -- Jim Gallogly -- did the other half of the season. The next year, CBS got the rights and they hired me.

I had actually auditioned for the job in 1978, but did not get it. For my audition tape, I went up to a spare booth in Tampa Stadium during a pre-season game. A buddy of mine helped me out because I didn't have any football tapes at that point. So that's what I used to get the job. By 1979, they knew who I was and had a good relationship Bob Best and Rick Odioso in the media relations department. That's kind of how I got it.

Q. So you got the job just in time for the most exciting season in team history to that point.

A. Yeah, unbelievable. First season out I thought, "Wow. This is pretty good." Of course, Doug Williams was our quarterback. We knocked off Philadelphia to get to the NFC championship game. It was exciting and a lot of fun.

Q. Did you know early on that the Bucs were going to have a season like that?

A. No, I don't think going into the season anyone really knew. Doug came to us in 1978, and we knew he was a good athlete, but we didn't know if he could lead the team. If you look at his stats, he only completed about 47% of his passes, but he made big plays, huge plays to win games. And the defense, we had the number one defense in the league that year. I don't think anybody realized how good our defense was, and that's really how we got to the championship. That particular team was pretty awesome.

Q. What is your fondest memory from that season?

A. Well that Kansas City game was the one that was just a monsoon. I remember the rain cascading down the steps of the old Sombrero. We could have played eight quarters and nobody would have scored a touchdown in that game. I just remember big plays that Doug made that season.

There was one he made a few years later, though, that really stands out. We were playing the Chicago Bears at home during the last week of the '82 season. We had the ball around the Chicago 10-yard line. Doug got sacked and fumbled the ball. Steve McMichael, a defensive lineman for the Bears, picked it up and he had such a head start -- I swear it must have been a 50-yard head start -- and Doug Williams caught up with him and tackled him before he could score. They did not get a touchdown, had to settle for a field goal, and we ended up winning that game by three points. That kind of play stands out when I think about Doug's athleticism.

Q. What kind of relationship did you have with John McKay?

A. We got to be really close. In fact, my best buddy all the years I lived there was his son-in-law, a guy named Bob Florio. I did a TV show in 1979 with McKay, got to know the family, and it got to a point where my family would go over to his house there on Bayshore around Christmas time or for the Gasparilla parade. I loved John. I know he had a rough edge to him with the media, but if you really knew him he was one of the funniest guys. If you were loyal to him, he was loyal to you. We got along great. Now he's gone, his wife Corky is gone, and she was such a great person, and I remember when Richie was just a snotty-nosed high school quarterback at Jesuit. It's amazing how time flies.

Q. Is there a personal or professional story you'd like to relate about John McKay?

A. Off the top of my head, there was a period of time where he really got into it with Tom McEwen. I don't remember what the issue was, but I was over at his house one night after a game. He was talking about the whole thing with McEwen, and he came to me and said, "Marky, I need your help. Are you with me?"

I said, "Coach, I'm always with you, but you can't win that battle. He's always got the last word on you." That was the kind of open and honest relationship we had.

Q. Going back to Doug Williams for a minute, when you look back on how the team's fortunes changed after he left, do you think it all goes back to that move or where there other factors that contributed to the slide?

A. Well, I think it had a lot to do with it. He was our guy, and when he left, it was like cutting the heart out of the team. You know, back then the league was a little bit different. Today, teams spend their money and are all fairly competitive. Back then it was kind of different, plus you had the USFL coming along. Whatever the issue, I know Coach McKay definitely didn't want Doug to go, but it was a thing between Doug and Mr. Culverhouse that didn't work out. That just ruined the team.

Then after McKay left, Leeman Bennett came in and we had back-to-back 2-14 seasons that were just horrific. No question when Doug left it cut the heart out of the team, and Dougie was such a great guy, too.

Q. How was your relationship with McKay's successors, Bennett and Ray Perkins?

A. Good, good. Leeman was a terrific, really nice guy. He had been out of football running an RV dealership in Atlanta or something, and Mr. C. just kind of talked him back into coaching. You could just see it -- and I hate to say it -- but he had a terrible coaching staff. The team had no identity. It was just a bad situation, but it's kind of interesting because at quarterback we had Steve Young.

I felt bad for Steve. We went up and played Green Bay in 1985 and it was just awful. The worst weather I'd ever seen. In fact, it was that game where they ended up using footage for that Alka-Seltzer commercial. We had like 60 yards of offense that day, Steve got drilled play after play, and Lynn Dickey threw for over 300 yards in a blizzard for Green Bay.

I was only with Ray for two years. He could be ... his personality was a little different than Leeman's, let's put it that way. I got along with him fine for what I had to do though.

Q. What led to you leave Tampa in 1989 for a job with the Detroit Lions?

A. The Lions had been on WJR, which at the time was the top station in Detroit. They lost the rights to CBS, and the guy who had been doing the games did not want to leave WJR. He had a very good financial situation that they could not match at WWJ. So they were looking for somebody. I had moved over to Q105 for the 1987 and 1988 seasons, and prior to that I had been at WSUN, a CBS station. The general manager put in a good word for me up there.

They had just hired Wayne Fontes as the head coach, and we were close friends from the time he spent on John's staff. I'd gotten to know their media relations staff over the years as well, so it was a combination of all those things that led to a better job opportunity. Not just financially, but within a year or two I was also doing Pistons basketball.

Q. It so happened that 1989 was the rookie year for Barry Sanders.

A. Yeah, we came to Detroit at the same time. I was fortunate enough to call every run he ever made, which was just amazing. It's neat to know that you've done that with someone like Barry, a Hall-of-Famer, and I really feel the same way about Lee Roy Selmon. I didn't call all of his games, but I called a majority of them. It's kind of special to know you broadcast games for Hall of Fame players, and Lee Roy was such a great guy. Just a prince of a guy.

Q. You're also well-known for being the voice-over in the post-Super Bowl Disney World commercials. How did that role come about for you?

A. Phil Lengyel, who was the head of marketing for Disney in the mid-1980s, went to school with me at Ball State University. He called me up, said we have this marketing idea, and would I be interested in voicing it. I said, "Absolutely." That's how it started. The first one we did was with Phil Simms after Super Bowl XXI. In fact, I just talked to my guy at Disney because we have the 25th anniversary coming up, so they're going to be doing something special for it.

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