Eli Gold and the Crimson Tide Sports Network crew are just as superstitious about University of Alabama football as many of its fans. Through the 31 seasons as the voice of Alabama football, they’ve had plenty of time to build a bunch of them.
For Gold, one of them is walking the same path from place to place, often talking to the same security personnel, event staff and others. All of them break into big smiles at the sight of Gold, but these conversations are more than greetings to the local broadcasting legend: in many cases, Gold has gotten to know these otherwise anonymous faces in the UA gameday experience to the point he can ask about their families.
“It’s easy to be nice,” Gold said.
Gold and the entire broadcast crew allowed The Tuscaloosa News to shadow them through their broadcast of the Western Carolina game, from the time Gold and engineer Tom Stipe arrived at 6:19 a.m. until Gold left at 2:55 p.m. In those hours, Gold called a game, worked a pregame and postgame show, but also issued at least a dozen hugs and spent another Saturday with some of his dearest friends, some of a few years and some of 40.
Gold and Stipe getting to the stadium an hour and 41 minutes before going on air — and over four hours from kickoff — is, “fudging it a little bit,” for them. They’re usually in the booth two hours before the pregame show at home, three hours before on the road.
Stipe did almost all of the setup work on Friday night, before the crew got together for dinner. Color analyst John Parker Wilson was absent from this week’s dinner, as he and his wife Tyler welcomed their second child, Peyton Wiles Wilson, to the world on Tuesday. The name was not set in stone until the birth, so the baby had yet to be named when John Parker sent a picture of the baby boy to the crew’s group text on Tuesday.
Gold’s response: “Little Eli looks so handsome.”
Rashad Johnson, the sideline reporter and a UA teammate of John Parker Wilson’s chimed in: “Eli Rashad Wilson.”
Stipe’s biggest job before the pregame show was to set up the outside wiring from the booth, since he couldn’t do that with the windows closed Friday night. Once he does that and moves back to his base of operations on the back row, Gold gets set up in his seat.
Seven pages of sponsorship material — which Stipe called War and Peace, a reference to its thickness — are in Gold’s bag as he unpacks it. He keeps it in front of him for the entire game, checking off sponsorship reads as he goes, or in the event one has to be done multiple times in a game, crossing off the numbers printed on the sheet for that promotion.
Then there’s the board. He has FedEx print big template sheets for each team’s offense and defense, putting them on a board spotter Butch Owens makes ever year out of two pieces of fiberboard and a bunch of masking tape wrapped around them. The sheets — filled out with information on each player, the teams as a whole and color-coded in spots — are tacked onto the board with red thumbtacks. (More on the thumbtacks later.)
Some broadcasters spend the entire week filling out their cards, but Gold gets his done by Thursday so all of his preparation is done in time for the Hey Coach Show with Nick Saban. Maybe he’ll have a nugget of information that proves useful during that show.
The Alabama offense card and the Western Carolina defense card go on one side, and vice versa on the other side, so Gold flips the board when possession changes. The color coding includes orange when a UA player is a native of the state the opponent hails from, green for Alabama natives on both teams, injured players in pink and others.
By now, all of Gold’s material for the game and his screen for the live stats are up. If the ball was being kicked right then, he probably could’ve started calling the game right then without the listener knowing things are out of routine.
This is when Gold and Stipe would usually huddle around a television and watch the games going on elsewhere. With no games on, Gold takes some time to discuss all the help he has.
There’s Stipe, who claims to have seen more Alabama basketball than anyone alive — and is probably right, given his role in broadcasting the team over decades — plus more football games in the Bryant-Denny press box than most. Stipe is the voice in Gold’s ear, be it going into breaks, coming out from breaks, or the go-between between him and Johnson on the sideline.
Owens, the spotter, has known Gold since 1977 and worked with Gold more or less ever since. He doesn’t do it for the money, which isn’t significant: “I do it because Eli asks me to.” They’ve been together so long they basically have their own sign language to communicate while Gold is on air.
Roger Hoover is in the role usually occupied by Chris Stewart, a fact that gets mentioned every time Gold names the people helping out on the call. That nod is one of many cues that make it clear they miss having Stewart around, even though they thoroughly enjoy giving Hoover a hard time off air. They’re asked about Stewart frequently — at least twice on this day — and they’re thrilled to tell them Stewart has made enough progress to move from an intensive care unit to a rehabilitation center.
Ethan Carabin runs the live stream on the Crimson Tide Sports Network Facebook page, where people can watch a camera aimed at Gold, Wilson and the crew. They’re all baffled by the fact that sometimes thousands of people tune in to watch them.
Then there’s statistician Jimmy Bank. Bank was a traveling secretary in Major League Baseball for over 30 years and works this gig as a retirement job. His father, Bert, is the reason this job exists in the first place: when Paul “Bear” Bryant decided there needed to be a radio network for Alabama football games, Bert Bank is the one that founded it. He did so only after serving in World War II and surviving the Bataan Death March, and also making time to serve two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives and one in the Alabama Senate.
Most of them get to the booth shortly before or after the pregame show starts, three hours before kickoff at 8 a.m. In the final 30 minutes before it started, Gold got a cup of coffee and texted Wilson to find out the name of the baby. Gold wrote it down, and in Wilson’s first segment on the pregame show, Gold brought it up, giving Wilson the platform to tell the audience the baby was named after his late mother-in-law.
They also discuss the logistics of the next week’s show: Hoover will be in the Bahamas with the UA men’s basketball team, so they discuss logistics off and on up until 7:58, two minutes before going on air. Right up until, as Stipe called it, “the obligatory five minutes to air issue.”
Something is wrong with one of the boxes Gold is using; he can’t hear anything in his headphones. It’s quickly fixed.
The last thing Gold says before going on air: “Here we go, sports fans.”
Gold greets the listeners for the first time: “It is a 63-degree morning in Bryant-Denny Stadium, it’s been raining since about 6:15 but not with the intensity it was earlier.”
Owens walks in and immediately tapes a chart onto a box to Gold’s left. The chart has every number 1 through 100 in a grid. It’s a must-have, because Gold does not hide the fact that he is mathematically challenged.
“Fourth-grade math was the six longest years of my life,” Gold jokes.
Whenever a big play or a punt occurs, Bank points to the number of yards gained and Gold says it.
“Bennie And The Jets” by Elton John is playing through the Bryant-Denny speakers as someone else is speaking on the pregame show. Gold uses the moment to pantomime playing the piano and mouthing the lyrics. Owens pulls a dollar bill from his wallet and throws it in front of Gold, as if Gold were a street performer from his native Brooklyn. Gold immediately puts the dollar bill in his wallet, Owens knowing well that dollar won’t be returned.
Gold exits the pregame show to go to the locker room, where he tapes his pregame interview with Saban. He usually takes a long route just to be on the field for a brief moment before going to the locker room, but on this day, the event staff had the gate locked. Gold goes around and gets to the locker room entrance over 30 minutes before Saban will be ready for him.
Gold knows Saban is meticulous in his time management: when Alabama plays on CBS, with advertised kickoff times of 2:30 but actual kickoff coming at 2:39, Saban doesn’t begin his pregame field walk at 12:30, he begins it at 12:39. On this day, the official kickoff time was 11:02 a.m.; Saban emerged from the locker room at 9:02 a.m.
But Gold refuses to risk the prospect of Saban waiting for him, so he waits for Saban. If nothing else, it allows him to catch up with another friend made over hundreds of fall Saturdays: Lonny Boshell.
Boshell is a police officer whose work includes homicide investigations for the Tuscaloosa Police Department, but also standing guard in front of the entrance to Alabama’s locker room. Boshell and Gold most often talk about food. Boshell is quite the cook, and in experimenting with flavors earlier in the week he made a whiskey walnut raisin bread. (Boshell was nice enough to warm up two slices, one for Gold and one for the reporter along for the ride. It was delicious.)
Gold and Boshell know many of each other’s stories — and probably share some in their own life experiences, as both have daughters — but somehow Gold had never told Boshell his Bananas Foster story. Gold and his wife were in New Orleans and went to a restaurant famous for Bananas Foster prepared tableside. The Golds ordered it and were shocked: it was terrible. The waitress called the maitre’d over, who tasted it himself and also deemed it terrible. It was discovered shortly thereafter: the cart taken to the table to prepare the Bananas Foster did not have brown sugar, it had beef bouillon. Gold and Boshell shared a big laugh over that one.
Right on cue, at 9:02 a.m., Saban busts through the locker room doors for his pregame field walk and an on-field interview with ESPN. While Saban is doing that, Gold pulls an index card from his pocket to go over his preparation for the interview. They enter the locker room together at 9:05 a.m.
Gold emails the recorded interview to the crew as he’s walking out of the locker room, pausing to take a picture with a fan. He takes a path back to the press box that strategically takes him past the visitor’s radio booth, so he can say hello to the broadcasters covering Western Carolina. Some of them are fans of Gold’s from his days calling NASCAR on the radio. They request a group picture with Gold and get one.
After a few more hugs with security personnel in the press box, Gold sits down for breakfast with Owens and Bank. The pregame show is continuing on, interviewing the honorary captains for the day.
Gold is back in his seat — where he’ll be almost nonstop until an hour after the game ends — and marking off advertisement reads as he goes.
“Ninety percent humidity, which means I can do nothing with my hair — either one of them,” Gold quips.
They alter their pregame show format to broadcast the senior day festivities live, with help from the public address announcer. Gold says something about every senior honored, even the scout-team players, with Wilson chiming in on some, as well.
Four minutes before kickoff, Owens goes around the booth for pregame fist bumps with everyone.
11:02 a.m., kickoff
The sign language Owens and Gold have created for each other is put to the test immediately: on the third play from scrimmage, Alabama running back Najee Harris spins around a Western Carolina defender and eventually gets tackled by another. Owens points to one defender’s name on the card and spins his finger in a circle, then immediately moves it to another defender. Gold translates with no hesitation, knowing the first defender was the one that Harris spun around and the second is the one that brought him down.
Earlier in the drive, Owens put two fingers on two UA offensive linemen’s names and looped his fingers down the card, signaling to Gold that those two linemen pulled on the play as lead blockers.
Owens leans over in a stoppage of play and cracks a joke: “It’s amazing: I point to it and he says it.”
When UA’s drive enters the red zone (the Chick-Fil-A red zone, as War and Peace tells Gold), Bank hands Gold a sticky note telling him UA is 40-for-47 in the red zone this season. On the next play, Bank flashes him seven fingers and points in the direction of the end zone; Gold then tells the audience this is the seventh play of the current drive.
11:27 a.m., 5:33 left in the first quarter
Sometimes when delivering his trademark Touchdown Alabama call, as he did on Xavier McKinney’s pick-6, Gold gives a little punch with his left hand. He’s left-handed, but his right hand is also occupied: he wears the most recent national championship ring during broadcasts. The rest of them are in his permanent display at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham.
Stipe recognized how lucky they are before the game. Famous former Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson did Georgia football for 42 years and got one national championship ring; Jack Cristil did Mississippi State for 58 years and never got one. This crew has gotten five in the last decade.
11:45 a.m., 13:13 left in the second quarter
The commercial breaks for the radio broadcast and the television broadcast are not always lined up, and sometimes the television broadcast takes more, but they are the ones that dictate the pace of play. Thus, the radio broadcast is forced to gamble at times: when to take a commercial break, when to talk through one in case play comes back quickly, while also balancing their obligations to get all the advertisements in during a broadcast.
This was a worst-case scenario type of day.
While the officials were reviewing a McKinney forced fumble, Gold and co. decided to not go to commercial break because Johnson had a chance to speak with Tua Tagovailoa. Gold and Wilson filled the break by discussing the play, on which Western Carolina quarterback Tyrie Adams was credited with catching his own pass after McKinney batted it back to him. Wilson tells the story of the time he did the same thing in the 2006 game against Arkansas.
Gold gets another item checked off by reading a promotion for a vision company tied to officiating reviews, then they throw it to Johnson for an interview with Tagovailoa. After the interview, Gold mentions the Honolulu affiliates of the Crimson Tide Sports Network, who were likely thrilled to hear from their native son.
The crew knows they’ll have to squeeze that commercial break in somewhere, so they do it after the Western Carolina punt with 4:18 left in the first half.
Unfortunately for them, the television broadcast doesn’t take much time between the punt and the ensuing possession. Mac Jones throws a screen to Jaylen Waddle, who takes the first play 54 yards for a touchdown. Gold and Wilson don’t get back on the air until the extra point is about to be snapped. Gold spent the pause between the extra point and the kickoff explaining the situation and the crew’s decision-making process, and did so well.
12:24 p.m., halftime
Gold stops to have a word with Regina Byrne, UA Director of Athletics Greg Byrne’s wife, and some of their guests before heading for his halftime snack: the chili dogs that are always in the press box at halftime.
He can’t remember the last time the broadcast crew missed a touchdown call. He’s not pleased with it, but he’s also OK with the decision-making process that got them there: getting an interview with Tagovailoa was valuable, and it wasn’t something that could wait. It was a one time only opportunity and they took it.
12:48 p.m, 13:41 left in the third quarter
The substitutes start coming in after Alabama makes it a 45-0 lead. Owens is pointing on Gold’s board to the names of players entering the game, sometimes moving the red thumbtacks down to help Gold see the names.
The story on those thumbtacks: a long time ago, when UA was playing a game at Vanderbilt, Gold forgot the thumbtacks he uses to pin his cards to the board. The hotel was well-placed in terms of businesses nearby, so Owens walked out to find some. Two office goods or general supplies stores came up empty, but there was a funeral home next door. Owens entered and was transparent with the funeral home staff, telling them he was in town for the Alabama football broadcast and needed thumbtacks to borrow or buy. Those thumbtacks from the Nashville funeral home are still in use today; the fact that they’re all red is nothing but beautiful coincidence.
Later in the quarter, there’s a penalty after another UA extra point that no one in the booth saw well. Johnson’s microphone is always going into Stipe’s ear, so whenever he has something to add, he can tell Stipe. As the penalty is discovered, Stipe tells Gold that Johnson has something on it, so Gold immediately goes to him. Johnson said there was some, “extracurricular activity,” on the play, and he was right: an unsportsmanlike conduct call was charged to Western Carolina.
1:25 p.m., 14:56 left in the fourth quarter
Owens and Gold are working hard to keep up with the rapid substitutions as UA brings its walk-ons into the game. With roughly six minutes left, Hoover leaves to go to the postgame show, which will pick up after Gold and Wilson do their Fifth Quarter Show.
1:56 p.m., game goes final
Gold spends the next hour going through the postgame show with Wilson, while organizing highlight of the game and other sponsored content, crossing off every obligation in the sponsorship sheets.
Gold sees Western Carolina players coming back onto the field and staying there, up to and beyond 30 minutes after the end of the game, taking pictures and greeting family. Gold uses it as a way to bring to life the magnitude of Alabama football and the significance of the day for Western Carolina players, getting a chance to take the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
This will not be a normal sign-off, because this is more than just the final home game of the season.
This was also the final game from that broadcast booth: the renovations to Bryant-Denny Stadium taking place this offseason will move the press box and radio broadcasting booths to the opposite side of the stadium, to be replaced with suites and boxes.
The booth has been in that place and unchanged since the last major renovation to Bryant-Denny Stadium decades ago, and Gold, Stipe and Owens are the only ones to have been a part of every game called in that booth.
“Of course now on our broadcasts, this booth is sponsored by KS Services and all of our friends at Royal Furniture, but for all of us who have got a few gray hairs on our head and have been around here for a while, remember when this was dedicated as the John Forney broadcast booth, the 30-year voice of the Crimson Tide,” Gold said on the broadcast. “Much has gone on in this booth over the years. Some great football has been witnessed.
“This John Forney broadcast booth has stood us some good stead and we’ve seen some great championship football over the years.”
When the mics power off, Gold, Stipe and Owens get together for a final picture in their booth. Stipe will return tomorrow to completely disassemble the booth for the construction starting immediately. In a normal offseason a lot of the wiring will stay, but that won’t be the case this year given the move.
Only Stipe is left in the booth when Gold rides the elevator down and heads for his parking spot west of the stadium. He’s enjoyed reminiscing over the decades in that broadcast booth today, but as each member of the broadcast crew left, they made it clear to their partners what was on their minds: the Iron Bowl.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson