Catching up with Jock Sutherland, now in his 91st year. Still as funny as he ever was, recently recalling his days as a color commentator for University of Louisville basketball.
Jock never pretended to be a broadcaster, and today admits he would never have made it as a play-by-play man.
Jock and Van Vance were in Knoxville for the Dream Game in 1983 as the broadcast team for WHAS radio. There was static on the air and Vance ducked down under the table to work on the equipment, telling Jock to take it. “I told him I was not a play-by-play guy, but there was no other option,” said Jock. “I was awful. He told me I would never have to do that again.”
Never a dull moment for Sutherland, the long-since retired sidekick of Vance on WHAS radio. Together they were an unforgettable broadcast team for UofL basketball for more than 20 years.
Jock has had a busy year, getting with Van for their annual get-together and adding an electric chairlift so he can navigate the steps at his two-story house in Nicholasville.
Unfortunately his driving days are over, as a result of another motorist slamming into the side of his Chevy S-10 pickup truck. Fortunately Jock was not hurt but the pickup was beyond repair. Through with driving, he now relies on his wife Phyllis for transportation.
Phyllis is still working part-time four hours a day for the local board of education, reducing her hours so she can spend more time with Jock. “We’re there for each other,” she says. “He’s still a lot of fun to be with.”
Jock was recently interviewed again by film producers Renee Collins and Warren Cobb for Room 17 Productions about his experiences with Vance for the University of Kentucky Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History:
Jock Sutherland hasn’t seen a University of Louisville basketball game in person since 2001. That’s a long time for a man who was immersed in the sport for most of his 90 years. But he’s still very much a UofL basketball fan, describing his time with the program as “one of my bonuses in life.”
Since he can’t play golf or travel for basketball games, he relies heavily on his big screen TV to follow the sports he loves. “Being 90 isn’t easy, you have to learn things all over again,” he said. “I see as many Louisville games as I can although it is sometimes a challenge finding UofL games in Central Kentucky.”
Sutherland was a member of the UofL basketball radio broadcast team from 1981 to 2001. He raised the concept of color commentator to another level, entertaining fans with a zany sense of humor, unrelenting candor and folksy stories. A former member of the University of Kentucky coaching staff, he was often critical of UK on the broadcasts.
The Observer caught up with Jock by telephone on Monday at his Nicholasville home that he shares with his wife Phyllis, adjacent to the Lone Oak Golf Course. He played golf regularly until about five years ago, often participating in UofL golf scrambles, before being sidelined with arthritis in both knees.
Sutherland, who coached Lafayette to the state high school championship in 1979, got his start in media a year later as an analyst with Dave Conrad at UofL games on WHAS TV. “We didn’t have replays in those days, and it was tough explaining the technical stuff,” he recalls.
When Conrad left for another job, Van Vance asked Jock to join the Louisville broadcast team. “I had the worst voice in the world and I didn’t know anything about radio,” he said. “I was so bad we made a pretty good team. He just wanted me to talk so I talked. It was wonderful. I had a great time and got to know a lot of Louisville people. I wouldn’t take anything for that experience.”
Sutherland and Vance have stayed in contact over the years, getting together at the Cracker Barrel in Lawrenceburg to rehash memories. “Van was a great guy to work with and quite a character,” he said. “He was the ultimate bachelor, with some quirky habits. He would eat supper at weird hours, nothing for him to go to Kroger at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Jock, who retired from broadcasting the same year when Coach Denny Crum left the program, was obviously disappointed with some of the off-the-court activities affecting Louisville basketball in recent years. “The dorm activity never would have happened with Denny,” he said. “There was no way, we had too many people on campus. We had a coach there (in the dorm) every night. I don’t think Rick Pitino had any idea what was going on.
“That one assistant caused all the problems, and it has cost him dearly. It has cost UofL dearly, too. It’s a shame but the school, the program will recover and come back better than ever.”
Sutherland isn’t fond of some of the changes in basketball over the last few decades. “I have never liked the three-point shot or all the dunking in today’s game,” he said. “I especially don’t like the one-and-done stuff at UK. Fans don’t get to know the players and the players aren’t learning much about the game.”
He says there will never be another Denny Crum and the place will never be the same as when Crum was there. “Denny was a special person. I never heard Denny say a curse word in 20 years. I never saw him embarrass a player in 20 years. Denny never said a word if I was critical during a game.”
He is optimistic about the future of UofL basketball, predicting great things under Chris Mack’s leadership. “They’re coming back, they’ll definitely be back,” he said. “We’ve got a guy here now who has a good reputation and he’s a great recruiter. I guarantee you that in about three years, UofL will back to where it was, competing at the highest levels.”
Sutherland was constantly choking up during the interview, obviously still proud to have worked with the Louisville basketball program, still wondering at times how it was possible.
“I had the worst voice in the world but I did know my subject. When they bury me, I will take some wonderful memories with me.”
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Jock was recently interviewed by film producers Renee Collins and Warren Cobb for Room 17 Productions as part of a documentary about one his former players, Greg Austin. A phenomenal athlete in basketball, football and track, Austin played for Jock’s 1967 team and earned fame as a country music singer. In the interview Jock also reveals how he earned the nickname.
Interesting that WHAS Radio is doing away with the sports talk radio show between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. after more than 30 years, especially at a time when sports talk appears to be enjoying enormous popularity.
The station announced Wednesday that Mandy Connell, who left Louisville last year to do a general talk show in Denver, will replacing Lachlan McLean, who is leaving the station in May. Connell previously held down a 9 a.m. to noon time slot, discussing a wide variety of issues and she will do her new show from Denver. Her new time slot in Louisville will be 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The show was a personal favorite of mine, I rarely missed it during the 15 or so years Van Vance was the host. Van was so easy going, allowing callers to express their views, rarely interrupting them or cutting them off. He was especially knowledgeable about University of Louisville athletics, simultaneously serving as the UofL play-by-play man. He retired in 1999 and was succeeded by Tony Cruise until Tony was picked to be the host of the morning drive host.
McLean became the sports talk personality in 2004, bringing with an often abrasive style that he believed was required for the job. He was often argumentative with listeners, criticizing their opinions, and often resorting to cutting them short and hanging up on them. He also employed an approach intended to deliberately antagonize listeners, especially when it came to the UofL-UK rivalry.
McLean also appeared to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing University of Kentucky sports. I say “appeared” because I quit listening to the show several years ago because he was so negative. He was suspended by the station for two weeks in 2007 for reading a UK fan’s malicious poem about a UofL football player’s legal problems. McLean also had a paid segment of the show devoted to UK sports.
I have no statistics to back this up but it was probably his attentiveness to UK sports, at the expense of UofL, which drove many listeners away from the show. This combined with the growing number of locally-oriented sports talk shows on other stations and the fact that WHAS sold exclusive rights to Kentucky over UofL has never been received well in Louisville.
Mandy Connell is well versed on many topics, including local sports, and should have an entertaining show. But WHAS has lost a sizeable segment of audience for the time slot that may never return.