Bob Robertson's radio audience on fall Saturdays stretched across Washington and into every demographic: the hunter in Asotin driving home from the duck blind, the gardener in Port Angeles covering her rosebushes, the cabbie hustling fares in Seattle, the kid throwing the football with his dad in a Spokane backyard. As the radio voice of Washington State University football for 52 years (and basketball for 23), he pulled them all together and took them into stadiums up and down the West Coast -- and to some of college football's most storied settings -- with his distinctive, flowing baritone, a devotion to detail, and an artist's imaging. At the microphone for 589 Cougar football games through seasons both dreadful and delirious, Robertson became as identifiable with WSU as the school's unique logo, and fans who felt that connection would seek him out on his visits to campus or while following the team on road trips, chatting him up with the familiarity of a relative. But Robertson built connections beyond WSU and football with a myriad of assignments, notably as the voice of the original Seattle Sounders soccer franchise and minor league baseball -- befitting the son of a former player -- in Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane, and Wenatchee. It was the rare listener who didn't stick around to the end of each broadcast for Robertson's signature sign-off: "Always be a good sport, be a good sport all ways."
From Ballplayer to Announcer
Robert Hugh Robertson was born on March 14, 1929, in Fullerton, California, where his father was in spring training with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League. Graham Robertson would spend that season with the Santa Ana club in the California State League, but the family would eventually move to Canada -- his father served in the Canadian Air Force during World War II -- and finally to Point Roberts, the U.S. exclave south of Vancouver, British Columbia. Robertson attended high school 37 miles away in Blaine, requiring two trips across the border each day. A good athlete like his father, Robertson played football and baseball for Blaine High School and usually had to hitchhike home at night because there was no bus for students in activities after school dismissal. Waiting at Canadian customs for a random driver bound for Point Roberts was a regular occurrence.
Robertson went on to study at Western Washington College of Education, but was already inching into what would become his career. He had whet his performing appetite as a child actor for the Vancouver Repertory Company on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation programs, and in college did some sports reporting for KVOS Radio in Bellingham. "I practiced doing play-by-play on a wire recorder and I got to do the regional basketball tournament," he said ("Robertson Rules Air Waves ...").
Robertson was also having some success as an outfielder in baseball, playing on semipro teams in Bellingham and Wenatchee. In 1948 he signed a contract with Portland of the Pacfic Coast League to play with its Salem affiliate in the Western International League, certain that his "career was going to be professional baseball," he said. But when KPQ called in 1949 with an offer to be sports director and do play-by-play of Wenatchee Chiefs games, Robertson had a change of heart and quit baseball before playing a single pro game ("The Voice ...").
To Notre Dame and Back
Broadcasting careers often involve as many moves as trying to climb the baseball ladder. Robertson spent a year in Wenatchee before being wooed by KMO Radio in Tacoma, where his duties included calling high school games. He broadened his reach to television when KMO launched its station in 1953, with Robertson serving as its first sports director. It was also in those early years in Tacoma where he met and married his wife, Joanne, a Lincoln High School graduate. In 1955, they moved to South Bend, Indiana, where Robertson called Notre Dame football and basketball on a new school-operated television station. Then came a one-year stint doing Fresno Cardinals baseball in the California League before the Robertsons returned home to the Pacific Northwest.
His "day job" was sports director at KTNT-TV, the second of three anchoring stints that covered 25 years in the Seattle-Tacoma market. But his evenings were busy, too -- first doing television play-by-play for the PCL's Seattle Rainiers. When minor league baseball returned to Tacoma after a decade's absence, Robertson was in the booth at new Cheney Stadium in 1960 for the debut of the Giants. For a time, at his station's behest, he did double duty on both teams' telecasts. It was becoming clear that Robertson's calling -- his passion -- was doing play-by-play, and not just of baseball.
Live programming was as important to stations in filling hours and selling advertising back then as it is now with hundreds of channels and streaming services bidding for events. So Robertson proved himself to be a quick study and settled in behind the microphone for Seattle Totems hockey, small-college basketball at Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound, hydroplane and auto racing, boxing, and much more. Seattle University had become a national power in basketball, and Robertson did those games, too -- including one night when future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor poured in 60 points in a victory over the University of Portland. In fact, he almost called the game twice. "I got a speeding ticket going home because the director of the telecast and I were discussing the (game) and we got going too fast and a trooper pulled us over," said Robertson. "He starts asking about the game and I go on, I give him a really nice description of the game and the excitement and I'm finishing and he goes, 'Wow, that must have been great -- sign here' " ("The Voice ...").
Voice of the Cougars
As part of his KTNT programming, Robertson hosted a weekly "Cougar Huddle" football show, showing films of Washington State's game of the previous Saturday and providing analysis and a preview of the next opponent on the schedule. It was a lifeline for west-side WSU fans who couldn't make the drive across the state to Pullman or Spokane on game days. That connection with the school was made more formal in 1964 when Robertson was hired to do the Cougars' radio broadcasts, which aired on a statewide network.
Though many college football programs across the country could be readily identified with prominent and longtime radio "voices," it wasn't always the case. Announcers could also bounce from school to school at the whim of rights holders, as when Tidewater Oil sponsored Pacific Coast Conference broadcasts in the 1950s. Bob Curtis, who would become as big of a fixture calling University of Idaho games as Robertson became at WSU, actually did Cougar games for Tidewater before moving across the stateline to the rival college. But Robertson's association with the Cougars was pretty much an immediate hit; between 1964 and 1967, he won the first four of his 12 Washington Sportscaster of the Year awards.
It also put him in demand -- and when KVI in Seattle was looking for an announcer to do University of Washington games in 1969, the station cast its net for Robertson. So he opted for the shorter commute and did Huskies games for three seasons. It didn't get him any closer to experiencing the thrill of a Rose Bowl, however; the Huskies were 1-9 his first year as the program began a dip in fortunes for Coach Jim Owens. But Robertson did call three wins over Washington State during his time with UW.
Later on, Cougar fans would consider Robertson simply "out on loan" those three years. When KIRO became the Huskies' flagship in 1972, he came back to do WSU games, and passed on a return to UW the next time there was a change in rights ownership. "I figured if I jumped around every time the bid was up, I'd just be for sale or rent," he said. "I decided to stay with the Cougars, and I did. I never regretted that. There are great people at the University of Washington; I worked there long enough to know that. But I found my extra family with the Cougars. I'm just a small-town guy, anyway. I was part of a family from the start when I arrived there" ("Legendary Broadcaster ...").
A Marriage Made in Cougar Heaven
It's hard to believe anyone imagined he'd be part of the family for another 47 years, especially when it meant having to make his way across the state for every home game. But Robertson had found his fit, and the university had found a pro with an on-air style that resonated with its followers -- and with some old-school qualities that further endeared him to a more-with-less athletic program doing battle in a conference with greater-resourced rivals.
To begin with, there was the abacus. In his early days before spotters and statisticians were provided, Robertson might have one of his four children assist with the record-keeping -- sometimes in the booth, sometimes listening back at home and phoning in at halftime. But he also borrowed one of their toys, an abacus, to keep track of yardage, and kept with it even after schools started bringing printed updates during the game or having them displayed on a computer monitor. "That was amazing to watch," said Jerry Kyllo, who served as producer-engineer with Robertson for the last 26 years of his Cougar affiliation. "It was beads on a bar, two colors. The upper part was the Cougars, the lower part was the visiting team. He wouldn't even think about it. He'd be talking about stuff and just reach down with his pencil and swipe the beads. It was like second nature to him" ("Legendary Broadcaster ...").
Old school or not, Robertson was also adaptable. For years he worked without a color analyst, soloing for three hours of game action as well as pre- and post-game shows with no apparent strain. From the late 1970s, when it was decided to add a second voice in the booth, Robertson saw a rotation of sidekicks -- former players, moonlighting TV anchors, talk show hosts, ex-coaches. Whether a steady Eddie like Tom Hutyler or a screamer like Paul Sorensen or the homespun Jim Walden, whose entertaining flights were hard to squeeze in between plays, Robertson was the perfect traffic cop. "He knows how to relive a minute, squeeze the most out of a situation," said Walden. "He's one of those guys who doesn't need a color guy, even though he has them and has worked with everybody from soup to nuts" ("When He Speaks ...").
For most Cougar fans, though, Robertson's audio appeal was wrapped up in his delivery -- familiar but not cloying, covering all the bases without getting bogged down in minutiae. If his broadcasts became more Cougar-colored as the years went on -- and a large segment of his listenership expected that -- they never devolved into over-the-top cheerleading that made other team announcers of his era (and often his color men) parodies of themselves. His connection with the team allowed for insights that fleshed-out players fans knew only as names and numbers. His long service provided historical nuggets and perspective. The eruptions of excitement were genuine and flowed naturally, the drama never over-wrought. The voice itself -- not too deep, a little breathy with a slight and endearing rasp -- was distinctive, and itself became a comfort. "He always said he doesn't have a good voice and that's why he hasn't gone to a larger market," said former Washington State sports information director Dick Fry. "But it's kind of a June Allyson-type voice. You get used to it, and you learn to appreciate it" ("Calling the Cougars").
Fellow broadcasters around the state loved to do saucy impersonations of Robertson -- on and off the air -- but they were done with respect and gentle humor, and Robertson grasped the flattery. Bill Swartz, once a WSU communications student and later a member of the University of Washington broadcast crew, was the most noted mimic and remembered sharing an elevator at Husky Stadium with Robertson -- with trepidation that was quickly eased. "Hey, you're that guy who imitates me," Robertson said. "If I go down in the fourth quarter and I pass on, nobody will know the difference. You come up from the sideline, grab the microphone and start talking" ("The Man Who Never ...").
Among WSU fans, admiration for Robertson was universal. Players cycled through the program, and head coaches came and went -- four in as many years in the mid-1970s. Robertson was the constant, and a connection that would come to span generations -- and until the era when every game was on television and travel was more accessible, he was often the weekly link between players and their families on the other side of the state. At home games or wherever the Cougars traveled, parents and fans gravitated to him in hotel bars and lobbies -- he could hold court for hours on a Friday night -- and dads would bring their young sons to make introductions. "He remained your friend from college, and he's just like you remember him as opposed to your other college friends who all seem to change," said Dave Grosby, a one-time color man. "You come back for a game or a reunion and there he was, looking the same and sounding the same" ("The Man Who Never ...").
This love affair crested in 1997, when the Cougars ended a 67-year drought by winning the Pacific-10 Conference championship and returning to the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. Anyone who identified as a Coug had lived through some near-misses and some true nadirs, and the trip to Pasadena was not to be missed -- and an estimated 40,000 alums and fans didn't, many who didn't have game tickets but just wanted to be there. For Robertson, who was mobbed at any public appearance, it counted as a career highlight. "It was just a great thrill to be part of it because it meant so much to everybody," he said. "Finally, we were there. We were the center of attention at the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena" ("Fond WSU Memories").
Have Microphone, Will Announce
As Robertson became ever more identifiable with Washington State, it got lost that he was probably the most versatile sports broadcaster the state had ever seen -- and possibly the least picky about assignments. Hockey, basketball, motorsports, and boxing have been mentioned, but that was barely a start. In his early days on Tacoma television, he did a bowling show for kids -- and later called the pro tour when it came through town. He did table tennis for ESPN, rowing regattas out of a helicopter over the Montlake Cut, and rodeo. He even confessed to announcing telecasts of pro wrestling and Roller Derby, amusements in which no one followed Robertson's getaway advice about being a good sport.
He was also the radio voice of Seattle's first professional soccer franchise, the original Sounders of the North American Soccer League, who in 1974 birthed a love affair with the sport that continues in Seattle today. Robertson had played the game as a youth in Canada and, with the backing of KVI, was determined to treat soccer as a major league endeavor -- a feeling apparently endorsed by the city, with turn-away crowds showing up at Memorial Stadium. "He was very knowledgeable in soccer -- still foreign to the professional media," said former Sounders general manager Jack Daley. "The players liked him and so did the fans." He spent a two-year hiatus commuting to Portland to do the games of the rival Timbers, then returned to the Sounders' booth from 1979-83. Robertson later called Tacoma Stars indoor games, and his Sounders -- and even baseball -- experience came in especially handy when he had to do recreated broadcasts of road games from the studio ("A First and Lasting Impression").
Indeed, Robertson may have been the last radio announcer -- certainly in a major market, on a regular basis -- to do recreations of away games, once popular among stations that couldn't (or wouldn't) justify the cost of sending an announcer on the road. In 1985, he began a 14-year run as radio voice of Tacoma's Triple-A baseball teams, and recreations remained a part of the job. The basic box-score details were transmitted to the station from other PCL ballparks by Western Union. Armed with that information, some canned background crowd noise and other sound effects and, ultimately, his own flair and imagination, Robertson would skillfully reconsruct the action from his seat in the studio. "I fooled the owner one time," he once said with considerable pride. "George Foster was listening to the Tacoma game on the radio on the way home from the airport and they didn't tell him until he got to the ballpark that the game wasn't at Cheney Stadium. He grumbled about how we fooled him on that" ("Remembering R Beloved Broadcaster").
After his first television run with KTNT ended in 1970, he returned to the station, rebranded as KSTW, for seven more years beginning in 1976, and also did a weekend anchor stint at KIRO in Seattle for a time, plus daily radio reports with KJR. It didn't even have to require a microphone for Robertson to be involved. He refereed football and basketball in his younger days -- even working the first exhibition game of the Seattle SuperSonics -- and spent a year as general manager of the Seattle Rangers, a minor league football team.
The Cup of Coffee
There was, however, one job that got away: "I always wanted to do major league baseball," Robertson said. When Seattle landed the Mariners for the 1977 season, he thought he might have his chance. "It came down to whether they were going to have a team of an established No. 1 guy and a young No. 2 guy, or have two guys who were equals," he recalled. "They went the first route with Dave Niehaus and Ken Wilson, and Bill Schonely and I were the runners-up." Robertson's small consolation came in 1993, when Niehaus had some days off written into his contract and Robertson was summoned to be his fill-in for a series in the old Kingdome -- the announcer's equivalent to a player's "cup of coffee" in the big leagues. "It's like they say it is," Robertson said. "When there's 30,000 people there and somebody hits a grand slam, it's a little different than a cold evening in Tacoma with 475 people in the stands. It's the place to be" ("Robertson's True Calling ...").
Radio and television can be a heartbreak, with as much roster churn in the booth and the studio as you'll see in some locker rooms. Even legends like Robertson aren't immune to cruel cuts. That baseball play-by-play job in Tacoma ended abruptly in 1998 when he was replaced without so much as an explanation or thanks from Foster, the owner, after 14 years of service. Robertson was unemployed "for about 30 minutes," he said, after putting in a phone call across the state to Bobby Brett, owner of the Single-A Spokane Indians, who had been advertising for a new announcer. After being warned the job didn't pay Triple-A wages and Robertson allowed that "I'm not looking to make all that much -- I just really like baseball," Brett leaped at the chance to land a legend. "How many times can a minor league team have a broadcaster more popular than the players?" Brett reasoned. Robertson did a full schedule with the team through the 2010 season ("Robertson's True Calling ...").
Robertson was similarly upset when Washington State took him off basketball broadcasts in 1993 -- again, without much in the way of an explanation or any suggestion to him that his work wasn't meeting expectations. "It hurt me," he admitted. "It was like it took away a part of my life" ("Calling the Cougars").
In 2012 -- a year after the death of his wife, Joanne -- WSU and its broadcasting partner decided to make a wholesale change in the radio team for football. Robertson, by this time 83, was moved into an emeritus role offering occasional observations, with new announcers to do play-by-play, color, and sideline reporting. If he didn't seem altogether comfortable in this new, crowded configuration, he tried not to upset the chemistry of the booth, which continued to see major personnel changes through the next six years. "The way he was in the booth with me, his blessing, meant everything," said Matt Chazanow, who took over play-by-play in 2015. "It was literally his booth" ("Lengendary Broadcaster ....").
It actually was. In 2009, the home radio suite at Martin Stadium was named in his honor. The Spokane Indians did the same thing at their home ballpark in 2011. So did the Tacoma Rainiers at Cheney Stadium in 2018. Along with a half-dozen hall of fame inductions, including the Chris Schenkel Award in 2004 at the College Football Hall of Fame, these stand as concrete reminders of both his stature in the profession, and with his audiences.
It was midway through the 2018 season that Robertson finally had to step out of that booth for good. After working a WSU game in Pullman, he awoke in his hotel room dizzy and disoriented. He recovered enough to be driven back to Tacoma, where his family urged him to retire -- to which he acknowledged, "They're right. It's time." Not quite two years later, he died at his home in University Place at the age of 91 ("He's a Legend ...").
Those Final Words
It's impossible to know how many sporting events Robertson closed his broadcast by saying, "Always be a good sport, be a good sport all ways." Nor could he peg the exact date of origin. He just knew that many announcers in the era in which he was growing up had a signature, and that he should, too. "Probably it was back in Bellingham when I first used it," he said. "I decided I'd better have a good one. Often I realized, though, that I was being steered by ones I'd already heard on a network. So I experimented and hit on the always/all ways thing." Later in his career, he actually applied for a trademark -- though by then, he hardly needed to ("He's a Legend ...").