Legends in the booth
By now, after 18 years in the booth together, the pregame routine has become second nature.
For an afternoon kickoff — such as the TaxSlayer Bowl, set for 2:30 (CST) on Jan. 2, 2015 — Gary Dolphin and Ed Podolak will arrive at the stadium about 10:30 a.m. Dolphin will then find the opposing radio network and chat with them about Iowa’s opponent. He’ll ask about anything he may have missed during his preparation and maybe a couple of questions about that team’s better players.
Then, depending on who’s calling the game on TV, Dolphin and Podolak will head to the field, find the talent, and talk about the matchup and what they’ve learned about Iowa. The national guys normally only see Iowa once or twice a year, Dolphin said, “so we’ll go down and visit with those guys, have a cup of coffee and get their perspective.”
It varies by the game, of course, but Dolphin said he’s got a plan for Iowa’s upcoming bowl game against Tennessee. He, Podolak, and Rob Brooks will spend two hours doing a pregame radio show, in which the goal is more for entertainment than complete in-depth coverage.
“It’s not like we’re worried about a Big Ten championship or a divisional crown here,” Dolphin said. “This is more of a featured game. We try to make it more entertaining than real, serious football.”
With 20 to 30 minutes before kickoff, Brooks will head down to the field while Dolphin and Podolak will grab something to eat. They don’t normally get to eat during the games, so they’ll chow down while going over some last-minute details and facts they should both be aware of during the game.
Then, just as the Florida sun spins toward the west side of EverBank Field, Dolphin and Podolak will be back to the booth, calling their 13th bowl game together as the two most-trusted voices of Hawkeye football.
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The stories that brought Dolphin and Podolak together aren’t going to wow anybody. In fact, as Dolphin recalls, people were more upset than excited when it was learned that he would replace the legendary Jim Zabel as the voice of the Hawkeyes.
Before joining Learfield Sports, Dolphin worked in both radio and TV. He called Northwestern men’s basketball games in 1990. Six years later, he was chosen from a pool of 63 applicants who applied to replace Zabel.
Podolak, of course, starred as a Hawkeye football player in the late-1960s. He started at quarterback and running back from 1966-68, during which the Hawkeyes posted an abysmal 8-21-1 record. The Kansas City Chiefs selected Podolak in the second round of the 1969 draft as a running back, and he spent nine seasons as a running back, receiver, and kick returner.
The Chiefs won Super Bowl IV during that 1969-70 season. But perhaps the biggest highlight of his career came in 1971, during a playoff loss to Miami. In the longest game in NFL history, Podolak managed a playoff-record 350 all-purpose yards. He was inducted into the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame in 1989, and his name and No. 14 are displayed in Arrowhead Stadium’s Ring of Honor.
After his retirement, Podolak began working as a color guy for NFL games on NBC in 1978. Four years later, he took his color talents to WHO in Des Moines and worked alongside Zabel until Dolphin was named his replacement.
“Chemistry’s huge, and it doesn’t just happen,” Dolphin said. “You have to get lucky, with a guy like Eddie. First off, he trusts me. That first year, in 1997 or whatever, was kind of an adjustment period. We still had Ron Gonder and Bob Brooks and Jim Zabel as a part of the broadcast team. They did the pregame and halftime shows, and were a part of the postgame shows.
“Eddie and I were like, OK, the game’s going on, now it’s our turn. So we kind of adjusted, and rolled with the punches, and got to know each other that first year.”
Aside from creating chemistry in the booth, Dolphin had to weather the storm that came with replacing a legend such as Zabel. He said there were chat rooms that ripped him, that questioned his credibility after certain games. It bothered him sometimes.
In response, Podolak always publicly defended Dolphin — there was once, on Zabel’s WHO call-in show, when Podolak said Iowa fans will learn to love Dolphin. He said Dolphin did his homework, that he’s learning, and, with time, he will grow on the fans.
“I’ll never forget,” Dolphin said. “Podolak told me, that first year — when I got the job, he was one of the first people who called me, and he said, ‘I’ve been working with Jim Zabel for 20 years. I know Brooksie, and I know Gonder, and I know who you are.’ He said, ‘You know, I’m kind of partial to Jim, so forgive me, but buddy boy, I’ll tell you one thing: You’ll never have to worry about me ambushing you. I’ll always have your back.’
“That always stuck with me.”
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Dolphin is quick to point out that, after working together for 18 years, he’s learned a lot from Podolak.
His greatest asset, Dolphin said, is his ability to easily share his football knowledge with the listeners. That comes from his playing days, in which Podolak learned to read the field and to diagnose plays from the offense’s two most-important positions.
“I learned the game as a quarterback,” Podolak said earlier this year. “When I went to the NFL and played as a tailback, I had Len Dawson as the quarterback [in Kansas City]. I used to study the offensives and defenses with him to help our understanding of what we were doing in the passing game.
“Learning it as a quarterback, where you have to know everyone’s position, helps you understand more about the overall assignments of people than if you were playing another position.”
Dolphin shared similar sentiments.
“If you’re a great player, that doesn’t always carry over to the broadcast booth,” he said. “He’s the best I’ve been around, seen, or heard at transferring what he did and learned on the field to the broadcast booth. I have the greatest respect for him for that, and I’ve told him that, because of that, he’s made me a better broadcaster.
“[Podolak has] told me that football is not life or death. Yeah, we all want to win every game, we all want to look good and win Big Ten championships and win every bowl game. But it doesn’t always roll out that way, so he said we need to try to make [the broadcast] as entertaining and as informational as we can.”
Most Iowa fans, and even players and coaches, have appreciated Podolak and Dolphin’s contributions to the Hawkeye football community. This season, Podolak was surprised with a cake in honor of working his 400th Iowa football game from the booth. (Iowa lost to Minnesota that day, Nov. 8, 51-14.)
“It’s kind of like continuing your years of college, because you get to hang out with the athletes, knowing that they’re going to school as well as playing football,” Podolak told HawkeyeSports.com before the game. “They are living the life I remember as being some of the best times of my life. To see them enjoying it and to be part of it as they enjoy it is very rewarding.”
Those players — including those who listened to Podolak and Dolphin growing up, or didn’t hear their voices until they set foot on Iowa’s campus — hold both of the radio legends in high regard.
“It just proves that this is a special place — the fact [they] love this university so much, and this program so much,” Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock said earlier this season. “I don’t want to speak for [them], but it’s pretty much home.”
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For this year’s bowl game, Dolphin and Podolak won’t get the luxury of a mini vacation that might come with traveling to Florida during the holidays. Podolak has been in Costa Rica working on a building project since the end of the regular season, and Dolphin won’t get down to Jacksonville until Dec. 30, after the Iowa men’s basketball team plays Ohio State in Columbus.
But their form of paradise doesn’t involve spending time on the beach with a daiquiri. They’d rather research and prepare to call an Iowa football game — and this year’s game piques their interest more than normal.
“I’ll say this,” Dolphin said. “The season ended on a sour note with two really close losses. … That’s just a matter of four or five executed plays, and we could be talking about a nine- or 10-win Iowa team. I bring that up because I think the team was really close this year, and they just couldn’t execute in key moments.
“Trust me: They are a really motivated football team. They wanted to end the season the right way.”
No matter the result, Iowa fans can expect the same thing they’ve been listening to all season long: great play-by-play and eloquent commentary in the form of two “broadcasting brothers” who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“If I got to the beach, it’s usually for a jog or walk or exercise. I’m not a big vacation guy,” Dolphin said. “When I go down there, I’m looking to go down there and work.”
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