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August 21, 2012

Pitch Perfect

By: Jimmy Robertson

Entering their 25th season broadcasting football games, Bill Roth and Mike Burnop have called nearly 300 contests and captured the hearts of Hokie Nation

When you sit at a table with Bill Roth and Mike Burnop, you better get your stomach muscles ready. You’re going to be laughing. Probably so hard, in fact, that your abdominals painfully begin contracting, and your face eventually contorts into a glee-induced agony.

Their stories flow so naturally, most dealing with their love of food – hence their nickname, “the Buffet Buddies” – or their highway mishaps on road trips.

There was the time after a basketball game at West Virginia when Roth wanted Burnop to get a bag of popcorn for the return trip home. Burnop brought back a trash bag so full of the stuff that it barely fit in the front seat of the car. They ate nearly every bite.

There was another time when Roth took a wrong turn into Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston. Rather than go through the tunnel and turn around, he kicked the car into reverse and backed up through one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world, earning himself the lovable nickname “Wrong-Way Roth” from Burnop.

Those two tales barely scratch the surface of the yarns that these two friends and colleagues could spin. After all, they have nearly 25 years worth to tell.

The 2012 football season will mark the silver anniversary for Roth and Burnop as football broadcasting buddies on Virginia Tech’s broadcasts. They became a tandem in 1988 and haven’t missed a football game since, using professional tones, thoughtful analysis, and when appropriate, humor to provide a vision of Tech athletics for the legions of Hokie Nation listening around the world.

To celebrate their astounding run, the Virginia Tech athletics department commissioned a commemorative print of the two of them. Also, the athletics department is conducting a contest entitled “Bill and Mike’s 25th Season Countdown Presented by The Legends of Blacksburg.”

Starting Aug. 13, Roth and Burnop will release two of their top-25 favorite football moments on the athletics department’s website,, and each week, they will release two until Oct. 23 when they start releasing one a week. The top moment will be released the Tuesday before the Tech-UVa game.

After that, fans can register and vote to pick their own top moment, with the grand prizewinner of a drawing getting a free dinner with the duo at the Virginia Tech athletics sponsor recognition dinner next spring, along with an assortment of other prizes.

It’s the perfect way to celebrate with these two, who love food, love laughing and love the Hokies.

The Beginning

Many may not know this, but Burnop actually got a five-year jump on Roth in the broadcasting world. In 1983, then head football coach and AD Bill Dooley tabbed Jeff Charles to handle the department’s TV, radio, marketing and promotions responsibilities. Looking for a partner and wanting a former player to team with on radio broadcasts, Charles called Burnop, a former Tech tight end.

“I met with him, and I didn’t know anything about it,” Burnop said. “I thought it was the campus station, and he’s like, ‘No, no, no, we have a network through the state of Virginia. We have about 60 stations.’ I was like, ’Whoa, 60?’ I had no idea.”

Charles ended up hiring Burnop over a few other candidates, and Burnop helped Charles for the next five seasons. Charles then decided to take a job at East Carolina as the radio voice for the Pirates – a position he still holds.

At the same time, Roth had just concluded his first season at Marshall as the voice of the Thundering Herd after being hired fresh out of Syracuse University by then Marshall AD Dave Braine. Braine got the AD’s job at Tech in 1988, and Roth decided to call Braine after hearing about Charles’ departure.

“I said, ‘I understand Jeff Charles left to go to ECU,’” Roth said. “He said, ‘That’s right. Are you interested in coming down here?’ I said, ‘Sure, of course.’ He said, ‘Okay, it’s yours. Here’s who you call.’”

It wasn’t a tough decision for Braine.

“When I hired Bill at Marshall, he had a tape, and it was an NCAA lacrosse match,” Braine said. “It was by far the best tape we heard, and then in the interview, he sold himself.

“So at Tech, we decided to take a chance on a young kid. He went to Syracuse, which has the best reputation among broadcasting schools. It’s like the ‘Cradle of Coaches’ that Miami of Ohio used to be for football coaches. His pedigree was good, and he turned out better than we thought.”

Roth, all of 22 years old at the time, came to Blacksburg that spring. When he got to town, he made a call to the guy who would ultimately be his partner in the broadcast booth for more than two decades. The two met for the first time in the Jamerson Athletics Center.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this guy [Roth] is young,’” Burnop said. “I wasn’t up on Syracuse’s broadcasting school and all that stuff, but I thought he was okay. I thought, ‘Hey, they [the Tech athletics department] added this young buck, and we’ll just go and do Clemson [the 1988 season opener].’”

Roth and Braine decided they wanted to keep Burnop in his current role as the color analyst. Braine said that, too, was an easy – and smart – decision.

“Mike is such a likable and jovial guy,” Braine said. “I don’t know what the ramifications would have been if we hadn’t kept him, but they wouldn’t have been worth it.”

The duo opened the season at Death Valley, and though Tech lost, the game kicked off an unprecedented run.

Through the years

As most Tech fans know, in the early years of the Frank Beamer era, the Hokies weren’t particularly good. That made for some interesting broadcasts and forced Roth and Burnop to walk a fine line. Get too critical, and you alienate your audience. Be overly optimistic and run the risk of being called a “homer,” a tag that no one in the world of media wants.

Yet these two balanced it beautifully, particularly Burnop, who, as a former player – a Tech Hall of Famer after a great career from 1970-72 – could have become overly emotional at what he witnessed back then.

“We weren’t going to be homers,” Burnop said. “We weren’t going to use ‘we’ and ‘us’ and all that. We were going to give the other team credit, and we weren’t going to jump on the officials. We’ve never done that.

“Bill and I had to get a feel there at first. We got thrown in there against Clemson, and it wasn’t a very good game. You just have to get a feel for each other as you go. I don’t think it took too long for our chemistry to develop.”

The two ultimately used humor as a way of making broadcasts a little more interesting to listeners during those lean times. Most of their jabs came at each other’s expense, with their love of food and Roth’s driving habits being common topics.

“Our teams weren’t winning a lot back then,” Roth said. “So there had to be some entertainment.”

Over the course of time, the Hokies developed into a football powerhouse, and more Tech fans, from Norfolk to Richmond to Washington, D.C., and gradually throughout the world, started listening to the network either on radio or Internet. Roth and Burnop became household names among Hokie Nation, with the radio network blanketing the state and the web providing access worldwide. They have evolved with their broadcasts over the years, embracing new technology and keeping in tune with the ever-changing interests of their listeners.

They have become immensely popular, too, largely because they play off their contrasting styles so well. Roth comes from outside Pittsburgh and is the smooth, polished play-by-play graduate from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. This past year, he received the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association’s Virginia Sportscaster of the Year honor for the ninth time. In contrast, Burnop is the southwest Virginia native and a former athlete, with quick wit, wholesome charm and deep insight of the game.

They simply mesh perfectly.

“They are good because they understand what the listeners want,” said Jack Bogaczyk, who now works at Marshall as the Director of Publications and Editor of Herd Insider, but has covered television and radio topics for nearly four decades, including during stints at The Roanoke Times and Charleston [W.Va.] Daily Mail.

“They understand their audience bleeds Chicago maroon and burnt orange, but they are not blatant homers. They do not – and never have – avoided controversy if it occurs. And because they’ve been around so long, they can relate what’s going on with the Hokies today back to when Frank Beamer first returned. They know the subjects (players and coaches) as well as the subject (football or hoops).

“They have solid reference points due to that. Some of what they do is historical. Some is hysterical. That’s why they’re good.”

Looking ahead

The Georgia Tech game will mark the 299th football game that Roth and Burnop will broadcast as a duo. In addition, the two of them are roommates on the road. Factoring in basketball games – Burnop became a full-time part of basketball broadcasts during the 1996-97 season – the two have shared a hotel room between 600 and 700 nights.

“That’s almost two years of our lives – and I haven’t gotten the remote yet,” Roth joked.

They are the best of friends and have shared a lot over the years. Roth often goes on vacation with the Burnop family and watched as Burnop’s three children grew up. They shared laughs and cries, as Burnop’s wife, Ellen, and Roth’s sister, Linda, battled lung cancer. On a basketball trip to Anaheim, Calif., in 2010, Burnop – despite of being saddened about his wife’s struggles – went with Roth to Laguna Beach on an off day to visit with Linda and offer some much-needed humor and support.

This summer, Ellen Burnop passed away from lung cancer. Two weeks later, Roth’s sister passed away.

They share that bond. But more importantly, they share a mutual admiration and respect for each other, both as friends and colleagues. That, too, comes across on the air.

“Mike’s got one of those personalities that, as soon as he walks into a room, everyone gravitates to him,” Roth said. “Mike also works really hard. He studies game notes and video and talks with our players and coaches. He’s gotten to be an excellent analyst. Sometimes you don’t recognize it until you go back and listen. It’s like, ‘Wow, Mike was right on that!’ He can see it and articulate it to our fans, and I think they enjoy that.”

Burnop shared similar thoughts about his cohort.

“Bill’s popular because he’s daggone good,” he said. “People want to shake his hand because they see him on TV and hear him on the radio. He’s ‘the Voice,’ and everyone wants a piece of the action. They can relate to him.

“He’s so talented and creative that he can come up with things, and it sticks forever. It’s like ‘Touchdown Tech!’ Everyone knows it and talks about it. It’s his signature call. You hear that and you automatically think, ‘That’s Bill Roth.’”

They figure to stay in their current gig for quite some time. Burnop plans on running his business, New River Office Supply, and keeping his side job as a color analyst for the Hokies. Roth grew up as a Pirates fan and used to want to get into baseball. But Blacksburg and Hokie Nation would be hard to leave.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do at a great place,” Roth said. “Mike makes it a great place. One of my best friends in the world is my on-air analyst. I work with the winningest coach in college football who’s as great to get along with as anyone, and we’ve also got the most amazing, passionate fans.

“I’m just so blessed.”

Tech fans, too, have been blessed and can expect it to continue. When they hear Roth open a broadcast with his now-famous montage, “From the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the hills of Tennessee, the Virginia Tech Hokies are on the air,” they know they’re about be taken on an entertaining journey for the next few hours.

“I don’t get to many games these days because I’m often fishing on Saturdays in the fall,” said Braine, who is retired and lives in Blacksburg. “But I take my radio with me, and when I hear those words, that gets my heart pounding.

“Those two have a way about them. They get everyone going – and they keep them going.”

They have for almost 25 years. It’s a run that hopefully won’t end any time soon.