Robertson, iconic WSU broadcaster, dies at 91

Washington State football announcer Bob Robertson watches team practice Dec. 27, 1997, from at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Robertson, who was the voice of the Cougars for more than 50 years, died Sunday at 91.

Bob Robertson, whose inimitable voice and painterly style of radio sportscasting became synonymous with Washington State Cougar football for decades, died Sunday at age 91 at his home in western Washington, the school announced Monday.

A member of the broadcast division of the College Football Hall of Fame, Robertson served as a WSU sportscaster for more than half a century and was play-by-play announcer for Cougar football from 1964 to 2011, with the exception of a three-year period ending in 1971. He continued as an analyst until midway through the 2018 season.

“That voice is Cougar football,” longtime former Wazzu coach Mike Price once said. “It gives people goose bumps when they hear his voice. There’s nothing like it.”

At once crackly and mellifluous, by turns bemused and dramatic, Robertson’s voice became iconic for generations of Cougar fans, many of whom live far from the Pullman campus and rely on the media to paint a game-day picture for them.

“He always said he doesn’t have a good voice, and that’s why he hasn’t gone to a larger market,” former WSU sports information director Dick Fry once said. “But it’s kind of a June Allyson-type voice. You get used to it, and you learn to appreciate it.”

Surrounded by family, Robertson died at his home in University Place, on the Puget Sound, according to a WSU news release.

“Today is a sad day for Cougs all over the world,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said in the release. “Bob Robertson is an iconic figure in the history of Cougar athletics and sports radio broadcasting. His ability to vividly paint a picture of our football and basketball games brought generations of Cougs together for over half a century. We are thankful for his impact on WSU.”

In some ways Robertson was a throwback to the days before broadcast hyperbole and specialization. He emphasized accurate description, objectivity, historical context, human interest and a thorough knowledge of multiple sports. He was personable and level-headed, signing off his broadcasts with a signature maxim, “Always be a good sport. Be a good sport all ways.”

For years he worked solo, without a color commentator or a statistician. He kept stats on an abacus, which he continued to use during the early days of the digital age.

“He does more things in a broadcast booth than anyone I’ve seen in my life,” former Oregon State broadcaster and LaCrosse, Wash., native Darrell Aune said in 1994. “In our profession, most everybody has a color man, an engineeer, someone who keeps stats, a spotter. He has an engineer for the first time this year. It’s amazing to some of us.”

It was in that year, 2004, that Robertson received the Chris Schenkel Award for broadcasting as part of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.

“All you have to do is listen,” former WSU radio analyst Paul Sorensen said in 1994. “I used to commute back and forth from Seattle, and on those drives you can pick up a lot of stations. You hear a lot of announcers. I would always compare the guy doing the play-by-play with Robertson, and it was never close. I can’t think of anybody in his position who does it as well as he does, especially as long as he’s been doing it.”

Robertson’s wife of 59 years, Joanne, with whom he had four children, died nine years ago.

Robertson was born in Fullerton, Calif., grew up in British Columbia and graduated from Blaine (Wash.) High. He began his 70-year broadcasting career while a student at Western Washington, and his early gigs included one with Notre Dame football and basketball. He called Pacific Coast League baseball and pro soccer in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, Ore., as well as some Seattle Mariner games.

He also spent 23 years as play-by-play announcer for WSU basketball before the school relieved him of those duties in 2003. The move was surprising and unexplained, but away from the broadcast booth Robertson wasn’t always known for diplomacy. He could rub people the wrong way.

“It hurt me,” he said a year after losing the basketball job. “It was like it took away a part of my life. I still don’t feel good about it, but fans were very nice to me. They don’t understand the thing any more than I do.”

In Cougar football, though, he was a fixture. According to the school, he was behind the microphone for 589 straight games, save for a 1981 Holiday Bowl that disallowed team-affiliated radio coverage.

“I’ve been with the Cougars a lot of years, more than half a century, calling basketball, football for the fans around the Northwest and elsewhere around the country and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Robertson said when he retired two years ago. “It’s been great to be with you Cougars at your meetings and get-togethers, and I hope we can do it again and I’m sure we will.”

Dale Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (2080 848-2290.

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