Sunday, November 20, 2011

Behind the Scenes with Larry Munson

The following article was written by Mike Floyd several years ago after a lengthy interview with Larry Munson. The article is about 8 pages printed out, but it's really good.

Georgia legend Larry Munson reflects on life beyond the broadcast booth
By Mike Floyd

Larry Munson arrives alone each Sunday, careful to beat the crowd that will pour into the Athens movie theatre an hour later. Often, the lights are not yet on and the popcorn machines stand silent. The manager expects him.

Armed with a list of participants for his weekly movie group and enough custom-made towels to reserve seats for everyone, Munson makes his way into the viewing area and drapes them over the backs of approximately 20 chairs.

His carefully chosen group of movie buffs – most of them stunningly pretty college girls and their occasional dates – will begin arriving just minutes before the film begins.

“They have the timing down to a science,” says an admiring Munson. “I’ll be sitting in there with all those seats, and three minutes before the show starts I can hear them coming all the way from the back of the theatre. They all pour in there, just chattering up a storm.”

The movie itself is just a small part of what has turned into a major – and extremely enjoyable – project for the legendary University of Georgia play-by-play announcer.

“This is one of the best things I’ve ever done,” says Munson. “It’s so rewarding, a project that doesn’t get done without a total effort on my part. I organize the group, reserve the seats, make sure the theatre manager has all the tickets, work with the doorman so that he’ll know how many we have coming, and then take care of the voting afterwards.”

After a critique and review following the movie, voting results are tallied for broadcast the next morning. Munson’s film commentary, paired with a wide range of topics that are usually sports-related, can be heard on radio stations across the state.

The best movie so far this year?

“Cinderella Man, hands down,” says Munson. “I think Eastwood may have ruined the box office for Cinderella Man when he made Million Dollar Baby last year because the public doesn’t want too many boxing movies, but that Cinderella Man sure is a good one.”

Movies aren’t the only passion for the 83-year-old Munson, although they clearly rank near the top. A walk through his home in Athens provides insight into a life and career that extend far beyond the Bulldog broadcast booth.

Sure, you’ll see a host of Georgia memorabilia adorning his walls, much of which showcases a player or event that may have long been forgotten if not for Munson’s distinctive voice burning an indelible soundtrack into the collective mind of the Bulldog masses.

Kevin Butler, Michael Johnson, Lindsay Scott and, of course, Herschel Walker are just a few of the Bulldog greats with a place of honor in the Munson collection. Highlights from each player’s career – “Run Lindsay” or “There Goes Herschel” being just two of many examples – are forever cemented into Bulldog lore thanks to Munson’s unique, excitable style and a rabid Bulldog fan base that replays his greatest calls time and again on compact disks that sell by the thousands each year.

“Lindsay Scott once told me he can’t even walk across the grocery store parking lot without somebody yelling ‘Run Lindsay’ at him from across the way,” laughs Munson. “The play against Florida made Lindsay a hero, but he tells me that call is what really made him famous.”

A conversation with Munson is just as likely to involve his love of music, fishing and movies as it is the incredible array of sporting events his voice has brought to life for millions of fans during a remarkable broadcast career that spans nearly 60 years.

These days, it’s not lost on Munson that many of his friends and contemporaries – memorable voices like Caywood Ledford of Kentucky, Jim Phillips of Clemson and Auburn’s Jim Fyffe - have been silenced in recent years, leaving him as the lone torch bearer for a generation of broadcast legends that have all but disappeared.

“Caywood and Fyffe and I were the closest of the whole group,” Munson recalls. “As the years went by, Caywood would say “Geez, Muns…I can’t see. And it’s getting so much harder to climb the steps on that bus.”

“Well, it’s funny, because I never thought about having trouble getting on the bus until Caywood started talking about it, and then those steps started looking a whole lot steeper to me, too.

“We travel a lot more by bus than we did in the old days,” Munson adds. “I really enjoyed doing basketball, but the bus travel and late weeknights just became too much.”

In another rare concession to the aging process, Munson – an avid bird hunter - recently had to quit the sport altogether due to chronic knee problems that make it difficult for him to keep up with the dogs.

Even so, Munson won’t put a timeline on when he may step away from the microphone. His contract with WSB is renewed annually, and Georgia fans don’t care to ponder what listening to a game will be like without Munson’s distinctive sound. Everyone, including Munson, is content to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the gravely-voiced Munson, who was recently inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, is his “us against them” approach to calling the game. One could argue that Munson is among the last of the old school “homers,” and if that’s the case then it’s a badge of honor he wears with pride.

“You don’t hear many of the new guys showing favoritism to the home team,” says Munson. “That’s something just the older guys did, it seems. Nobody wants to act like they’re biased anymore. Me, I think people like it when they know what side you’re on.”

Munson leaves no doubt, a trait that has long endeared him to Georgia fans while frequently infuriating those whose loyalties lie elsewhere. None would debate, however, that Munson is among the most colorful and distinctive voices in the history of the college game.

And he’s got the stories to prove it.

“Back in the early 80s, when Georgia-Clemson was a big game every year, we were staying over in Greenville and eating at a local restaurant,” recalls Munson. “Call comes in, and it’s a guy I knew who used to be at Georgia but was over at Clemson. He tells me they aren’t going to let me into the stadium the next day.”

It was a time when the Georgia – Clemson rivalry was among the nation’s most red hot gridiron battles, with the outcome setting the tone for national championship seasons at both schools. Tensions ran high.

“He said they were sick of me being a homer and saying bad things about Clemson and they’d had enough of it and the students were going to block the gate so that I couldn’t work the game. Man. It sounded serious.”

Munson responded with an early wake-up call the next morning and drove to the stadium at 6 am, where he cruised through the gates without a problem.

“Man, I beat everybody there,” laughs Munson. “Even the concession people hadn’t set up yet. So I went up to the press box and sat back for awhile, and a couple hours later I looked down and saw a few thousand people outside the press gate, waiting on me. I beat them to the punch that day.”

More bus travel is just one of the many changes that Munson has seen since taking over for another well-known Bulldog announcer, Ed Thelanius, in 1966. The game today is noticeably faster, with more substitutions and player rotation making it tougher than ever for Munson and his five-man team to call the game.

“The offenses have changed, sure, but the biggest change is the press boxes,” insists Munson. “They’ve made all these stadium expansions and the press box always ends up miles from the field, especially at Tennessee and South Carolina. Auburn isn’t much better.

“We’ve got five guys on field glasses, plus me with the naked eye. And there’s no television screens in the visiting booth. They don’t make it easy on us up there, I’ll tell you that.”

Munson laments the loss of scholarships, less practice time due to NCAA rules and the pending 12-game schedule as other changes that haven’t been for the better.

“The schedule is so much tougher than it used to be, and the new thing with 12 games is going to be bad. It’s not fair to the players or coaches.

“They took away our off day and we don’t have the manpower to play it due to fewer scholarships. There’s less time for film. No time to practice. Coaches today are really handicapped.”

Clearly, Munson’s reputation as a world-class worrier is well-earned. He’s concerned about South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s return to the SEC, believes that Florida’s new coach – Urban Meyer – “might eat our lunch”, and that the upcoming season looks “a little scary.”

“I always think 8-3 should be considered a really good season, but I understand the fans never feel that way,” says Munson. “But I’ll tell you this - Mark Richt is perfect. Sensational. Absolutely just sensational.”

With his 40th year as voice of the Georgia Bulldogs quickly approaching, Munson’s not opposed to looking back on a career that has seen more than its share of breathtaking plays, legendary characters and defining moments – not all of which have taken place on the football field.

“I was a musician when I was young, although my mother and sister had the real talent,” says Munson, a native of Minnesota. “They were brilliant. I had three aunts who were the same way.”

Yet it was Munson who found himself playing piano behind one of the world’s most famous entertainers, if only for a short time, as a member of Tommy Dorsey’s Pied Pipers.

“When Japan hit us, the draft had already started and it took away a lot of very talented musicians,” says Munson. “I was still too young and that’s probably how I landed the gig in Dorsey’s band, playing behind Frank Sinatra. We played five shows a day for seven days and seven nights in this big place in Minneapolis that sat about 4,000. It was the greatest experience of my life.

“That Sinatra. Man. The ladies loved the guy,” continues Munson with a smile. “He’d come out on stage and they’d all stand up and rush to the front, swooning and screaming. You’d have thought they were faking it if you didn’t know it was real.

“He was a small, skinny little guy and his shoulder blades stuck way out. Sinatra shared the bench with me a few times while I played and Dorsey hated it because he’d found out I only read guitar music, not piano music. But we were a nine-piece set, so it sounded fine.”

Today, a commemorative gold record hangs on the wall in Munson’s dining room, a gift of thanks from Sinatra’s family when he passed away in 1998.

“It just arrived in the mail one day,” says Munson. “The family apparently gave one to everybody who ever played with Frank during his entire career and I was surprised they remembered me. He was a real class guy.”

It wasn’t long before the draft claimed Munson, as well, and he served his time as an Army medic in Texas until the war ended in 1945.

“That was the last great war, with adventure and people falling in love and the entire country behind the effort,” says Munson. “You know, it’s easy to forget in war time, that there are always twice as many people stateside, working behind the scenes, as there are people in the battle zones. It takes an enormous effort from so many people.”

After the war ended and Munson was discharged, his interest in radio was sparked by an ad he heard about the shortage of radio personnel across the country. With his $200 discharge pay, Larry went to radio school in Devil's Lake, ND.

Upon graduation, Munson landed his first job with the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he replaced another broadcasting legend, the great Curt Gowdy. His work at Wyoming led to a long-term gig in Nashville as the voice of both football and basketball for the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Yet it was as the host of a local fishing show that Munson garnered his first taste of personal fame. For 27 years, “Fishing with Larry Munson” was a staple item on Nashville television, where Munson played host to local and national stars while fishing the lakes and streams of Tennessee, Northern Arkansas and Southern Kentucky.

“We shot our own film, silent and on 16mm,” says Munson, who pulls the old camera from a case he stores in the closet. “Then we’d drop in the sound on live television, narrating it as we went along.

“This thing was dropped on the steps of The Kremlin,” continues Munson, pointing at the camera with a chuckle. “The station manager at WSM out of Nashville borrowed it for a trip to Russia, and he was walking backward while filming some Russian diplomats walking toward him. He tripped over a step and knocked himself out cold.”

Jerry Reed, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner and many characters from the hit TV show “Hee-Haw” were frequent guests on Munson’s show. But for him, he insists it was mostly business.

“When you’re doing a show like that, it’s not about fun,” says Munson, although he spends much of his spare time these days fishing his own private pond near Mansfield, far away from the glare of cameras.

“I was covering football and basketball for Vandy, along with baseball for the local minor league club. Our goal was to catch fish and go home. What you wanted to do was take a guy who was a really good fisherman and let him catch fish while I ran the motor.”

Trophy fish, including largemouth bass, king salmon and a huge sauger, hang from nearly every wall in Munson’s home, testament to the fact that he’s a significantly talented fisherman in his own right.

Munson’s show, the first of its kind, was a huge regional success.

“During the oil embargo back in 1973, we’d go fishing and everybody along the way would save us a gallon of gas or two,” says Munson. “A lot of people really enjoyed that show and gave us a lot of help when things were scarce.”

By then, Munson had been the voice of Georgia sports for seven years, although he still lived in Nashville and commuted back and forth to Athens due to the success of his outdoor show.

“The 6:30 flight out of Atlanta to St. Louis would always stop in Nashville, so I’d do everything I could to be on that flight,” says Munson, who moved to Athens permanently in 1997. “I picked up a lot of speeding tickets, but I knew every shortcut there was from Sanford Stadium to the Atlanta airport.”

Once, when leaving Clemson after a late game, Munson was pulled over for speeding by the South Carolina Highway Patrol. As usual, Munson did what he does best.

He talked.

“I told them I had to get to the Grand Old Opry for the last show and poured it on pretty thick,” says a laughing Munson. “I even told them to give me a call if they ever needed tickets.

“Well, you don’t think they’ll call, but they did. I got a call a few months later from one of those cops, and he said they’d lined up a trip. Man, you talk about scrambling. A big group of them came up there with their wives and everything, expecting tickets to be waiting on them.”

Thankfully, many stars at The Opry were also fishing buddies, so things worked out fine for all involved.

“I fished a lot with Porter and Dolly – he taught her how to fish,” says Munson. “That guy was some kind of worm fisherman, one of the best I’ve ever seen. We found a thermo-cline one night on one of those deep Tennessee lakes and Porter was catching fish on a worm in about 120 feet of water. Man. You should have seen what we caught that night.”

Today, Munson’s status as a Georgia icon means the occasional knock on his front door from strangers with footballs and cameras, requesting autographs and pictures. He politely complies, and is a bit surprised to find so many kids among his devoted followers.

“They mean well,” Munson says, “and they don’t bother me when I’m eating or on a date. It’s usually nice to be known, to be recognized.”

It’s clear that Munson has plenty of social outlets, in addition to his movie group. He hosts pre-game parties at his house on Friday nights during football season, complete with a three-piece jazz ensemble and friends in such numbers that the party often carries over into the lawn.

And as the years pass by, Munson has become a little more prone to reflection.

The best road trip in the SEC?

“Probably Ole Miss,” says Munson. “The night life, pretty girls and The Grove are all hard to beat.”

The harshest environment for Georgia football?

“When it comes to the most hostile place to play, there have been a lot of changes,” observes Munson. “Used to be that Clemson in the early 80s was probably the worst, but then their football dipped and South Carolina became one of our tougher places to play.

“Auburn is bad. And Tennessee is no picnic, I’ll tell you that.”

His favorite Bulldog players?

“Well, you gotta go with Walker and (Terry) Hoage,” says Munson after a short pause. “That’s a tough one. Man. The third has to be David Pollack, and after that it might be Champ Bailey. There have been a lot of really good ones.”

And how about his favorite call of all-time? Does the man who described so many exciting moments to Georgia fans over the last forty years have a favorite of his own?

“Tennessee in 2001 ranks up there as one of the best I can remember,” says Munson, who famously screamed into the microphone that “Georgia has stepped on Tennessee’s face with a hob-nailed boot and broke their nose” after fullback Verron Haynes caught a short touchdown pass in Knoxville to cap a memorable last second Bulldog rally.

“You know, I bet everybody thinks I’d say the 1980 Florida game with Lindsay, but there have been so many good games through the years, a lot of incredible moments.

“The 1984 Clemson game was a good one, too. Man. I didn’t even realize until later that I never even said the kick was good.”

Instead, Munson repeated yelled “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” as kicker Kevin Butler knocked a 60-yard field goal through the uprights to beat the 2nd-ranked Tigers.

In that regard, perhaps Butler’s inscription on an autographed photo of him making that memorable kick is the perfect summation of Munson’s remarkable broadcast career.

“My name never sounded better,” it reads.

Countless Georgia players could say the same.

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