UGA officials have confirmed that legendary UGA broadcaster Larry Munson passed away Sunday night in Athens. He was 89. He died from complications of pneumonia, according to his son, Michael. Funeral arrangements have not been determined. Following is an obituary written mostly by former AJC staffer Tony Barnhart with some small contributions from me. . . .
From AJC Staff
ATHENS – For a few unforgettable days in 1941, it seemed fate had plans for Larry Munson that had nothing to do with the Georgia Bulldogs. After all, once you’ve shared the stage with Frank Sinatra, it’s hard to dream of night games in Starkville, Miss.
As a high school senior in Minneapolis, Munson was, by his own account, a “decent” piano player who loved jazz. He was in class when the phone call came. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, in town and scheduled to play 28 shows over the next week, had lost its regular piano player to illness.
“I had no idea how they got my name,” Munson once recalled. “I couldn’t believe they were interested in me.”
Soon, he found himself onstage with one of the most heralded groups of the big band era. The lead singer was a skinny kid from Hoboken, N.J.
“The women went crazy over Frank,” said Munson, who played every show with Sinatra for the princely sum of $31 per night. “I had never seen anything like it in my life.”
Munson loved music but, as it turned out, he loved broadcasting more. For that, the University of Georgia and its fans will be eternally grateful.
Today, however, the Bulldog Nation is in mourning. For the gravely voice of Larry Munson, who passionately implored his beloved team to “hunker down” in the face of adversity, has been silenced. Munson, who became the voice of the Bulldogs in 1966 and will be its passion eternally, died Sunday at the age of 89.
“If you ask the average Georgia fan who best represents the spirit of Georgia football, it wouldn’t be a player or a coach,” former Georgia quarterback (1973-76) and head coach (1989-95) Ray Goff said. “It would be Larry Munson. He cared about Georgia and our fans loved him for it. There will never be another one like him.”
In an age when broadcasters attempt to remain emotionally detached from the action on the field, Munson built several generations of adoring Bulldogs fans because one thing was crystal clear when he was on the air: When it came to the Georgia Bulldogs, Munson made no pretense of objectivity. He desperately wanted Georgia to win. Georgia fans watching the games at Sanford Stadium would wear headphones, and those at home would turn down the TV and turn up the radio. Why? Because a Georgia football game was not complete without Munson’s impassioned take on the action.
“Larry’s style made him unique, not only in college but in all of sports,” said Wes Durham, the radio voice at Georgia Tech who was one of Munson’s longtime admirers and friends. “There was only one guy who could do a game like Larry Munson. He was second to none.”
Munson’s journey to Georgia legend began when he was born on Sept. 27, 1922, in Minneapolis. A veteran of World War II, Munson used his discharge pay in 1945 to enroll in broadcasting school. After 10 weeks of training Munson landed in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he worked with another future Hall of Fame broadcaster, Curt Gowdy. When Gowdy left Cheyenne to become a baseball announcer in Class AA Oklahoma City, he recommended Munson for the job of calling University Wyoming football and basketball.
In 1947, Gowdy left Oklahoma City to join the New York Yankees radio crew, then led by the great Mel Allen. Gowdy told Munson that if he were ever going to make any money in the broadcasting business, he would have to get a job calling baseball.
So in 1947 Munson went to Nashville, where he would call minor league baseball in the summer and Vanderbilt football and basketball in the fall and winter. In his spare time he hosted his own televised fishing show.
“I worked all the damn time, but it was a pretty good deal,” Munson recalled in a 2004 interview.
But like his friend Gowdy, Munson wanted to get to the major leagues. He finally got that chance in 1966 when the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta. Munson was hired as part of the first Atlanta Braves radio broadcasting team, which included Milo Hamilton.
Then fate stepped in and put Munson on the path to his legendary career as the voice of the Bulldogs.
Munson was at spring training when he learned that Ed Thilenius, Georgia’s longtime radio voice, was leaving to work for the Atlanta Falcons.
Munson picked up the phone and called Joel Eaves, Georgia’s athletics director, who he knew from his days at Vanderbilt.
“Coach Eaves asked me what I thought of Larry,” said Dan Magill, Georgia’s long-time publicist and historian. “I thought Larry was OK, but I had no idea back then that he would become a legend.”
Vince Dooley was in the third season of his 25-year career as head coach. He knew nothing about Munson when he was hired.
“Coach Eaves and Dan Magill made the hire and they convinced me that Larry would do a good job for us,” Dooley said. “I liked Larry but I never imagined at the time that he would be with us for over 40 years. He had an incredible career.”
Munson, however, did not become a Georgia legend overnight. His Midwestern style was not an immediate hit with the Georgia fans who had grown to love Thilenius. It didn’t help that when Munson first got the job he still lived in Nashville and commuted to Athens for the games. He eventually moved to Atlanta and went to work for the Georgia Radio Network.
“Our fans were used to Ed and they just didn’t know Larry,” said Loran Smith, the longtime sideline reporter and executive director of the Georgia Bulldog Club. “Those kind of things take time.”
Munson’s relationship with the Georgia people began to change in 1973 when the Bulldogs traveled to Knoxville to take on favored Tennessee. When Georgia upset the Volunteers 35-31 at Neyland Stadium, Munson screamed: “My God, Georgia has just beaten Tennessee in Knoxville!!!!”
At that moment Munson showed how much he cared about the Bulldogs. From then on the Georgia fans would care as deeply about him.
“I started hearing some things from folks,” Munson said in a 2004 interview. “I didn’t plan any of that stuff. It just came out. I was just calling what I saw and what I felt.
“The great thing about Larry is that you never had to wonder where he stood or who he was pulling for,” said Rod Bramblett, the current Auburn radio voice who grew up listening to Munson. “The passion Larry has for Georgia, you just can’t fake. It’s real and the Georgia people know it’s real.”
In 1975 the legend of Larry Munson really took off when Georgia upset Florida 10-7 in Jacksonville. Georgia won the game when Richard Appleby, the Bulldogs’ tight end, threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Gene Washington. Washington, who was a track star with world-class speed, was hoping for a spot on the U.S. Olympics team. On the radio replay, Munson’s screams could be heard over the cauldron of sound that was Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl:
“APPLEBY! THE END AROUND! JUST STOPPED, PLANTED HIS FEET AND THREW IT! AND WASHINGTON CAUGHT IT. THINKING OF MONTREAL AND THE OLYMPICS, AND RAN OUT OF HIS SHOES DOWN THE MIDDLE – 80 YARDS! GATOR BOWL! ROCKING! STUNNED! THE GIRDERS ARE BENDING NOW!….
LOOK AT THE SCORE!
From then on, Munson said in a 2005 interview, he had no qualms about putting his feelings on the air for everybody to hear. Magill, sensing something special was going on, began taking the highlights from Munson’s broadcasts and turning them into audio tapes that fans could purchase. It became a tradition at Georgia to listen to tapes of Munson’s greatest calls while tailgating at Sanford Stadium.
“No matter where you went on campus on game days you could hear those tapes playing,” Magill said. “Our fans just couldn’t get enough of them.”
Today, the collections of Munson’s historic calls are a cottage industry with no fewer than four DVDs available.
In 1978 Georgia had one of its most surprising seasons as the Bulldogs won nine games, four of them by two points or fewer. The team had so many close finishes that they became known as the “Wonderdawgs.”
Munson breathlessly called them all. The most memorable fantastic finish came at Kentucky when Georgia trailed 16-0 but then drove the length of the field in the closing minutes down by only two, 16-14. When Rex Robinson made a short field goal with only three seconds left, Munson never said the kick was good. He just screamed “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
In 1980 there were a lot of Munson Moments as the Bulldogs, led by freshman sensation Herschel Walker, went 12-0 and won the national championship. Munson will always be remembered for his call on Walker’s first-ever college touchdown on Sept. 6 at Tennessee:
“MY GOD ALMIGHTY, HE RAN RIGHT THROUGH TWO MEN! HERSCHEL RAN RIGHT OVER TWO MEN! THEY HAD HIM DEAD AWAY INSIDE THE 9. HERSHEL WALKER WENT 16 YARDS! HE DROVE RIGHT OVER THOSE ORANGE SHIRTS AND IS JUST DRIVING AND RUNNING WITH THOSE BIG THIGHS! MY GOD, A FRESHMAN!”
But later that season in Jacksonville, Georgia’s dreams of football glory almost slipped away. The Bulldogs were undefeated and ranked No. 2 but trailed Florida 21-20 with just over one minute left. Georgia faced a third down on its own 7-yard line when quarterback Buck Belue rolled to his right and completed a pass over the middle to Lindsay Scott. A Florida defender slipped and when Scott turned he saw a clear path to the goal line. He outraced the Gators for the touchdown and Georgia won 26-21. In the middle of Scott’s run Munson just yelled “Run, Lindsay!” And when Scott scored, Munson never said “touchdown.” He just screamed “Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!”
After several seconds of silence where Munson let the crowd noise tell the story, he quickly put the moment into perspective:
“You know, this game has always been called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Do you know what is going to happen here tonight and up in St. Simons and Jekyll Island and all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days? Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight!”
“There are a number of things that made Larry special, but I think the most important thing is his ability to rise to the occasion in a big game,” Smith said. “He has the ability to leave the Georgia people hanging on every word.”
Smith said this was never truer than in a 1982 game at Auburn when Georgia was again undefeated and in the hunt for the national championship. A win would give Georgia its third straight SEC championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where the Bulldogs would play Penn State for the national title.
Georgia led 19-14 but Auburn drove deep into Bulldogs territory in the final two minutes. Before each of the final few plays, Munson would beg the Georgia defense to “Hunker down one more time!”
When Georgia finally stopped the Auburn drive, Munson got caught up in the moment as the final seconds ticked off the clock at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Then came the words that will live forever in the hearts of the Georgia people. Larry had his own unique way of proclaiming that the Bulldogs were headed back to the Sugar Bowl:
“Oh, look at the sugar falling out of the sky! Look at the sugar falling out of the sky!”
Munson kept up his historic call despite the fact that an upset Auburn fan threw a drink on him.
Munson called all six SEC championships won by Dooley, who retired as head coach in 1988 and would be followed by Ray Goff, Jim Donnan and Mark Richt. There were a number of changes in Georgia football during those years, but the one constant was Larry Munson.
Munson was 80 years old in 2001, but that season, Richt’s first, he proved that he could still rise to the occasion when the big moment came. On Oct. 6 in Knoxville, Georgia appeared to be beaten when Tennessee scored with 44 seconds left to take a 24-20 lead. But Georgia, behind freshman quarterback David Greene, put together an unforgettable, heart-pounding drive. Greene threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to fullback Verron Haynes with five seconds left and Munson exploded:
“TOUCHDOWN! MY GOD, A TOUCHDOWN! WE THREW IT TO HAYNES! WE JUST STUFFED THEM WITH FIVE SECONDS LEFT! MY GOD ALMIGHTY, DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID? DAVID GREENE JUST STRAIGHTENED UP AND WE SNUCK THE FULLBACK OVER! … WE JUST STEPPED ON THEIR FACE WITH A HOBNAILED BOOT AND BROKE THEIR NOSE! WE JUST CRUSHED THEIR FACE!”
“I didn’t know what the hell a hobnailed boot was. It just came out,” Munson would say in the summer of 2005. “But then Furman Bisher [of the AJC] called and told me guys used to use them to climb trees. Who knew? I guess the Lindsay Scott call [in 1980] will always be No. 1, but I like the hobnailed boot. That would be a close second.”
Munson, like anybody else, had his own personality quirks. On game days he was the eternal pessimist, seeing all the flaws on Georgia’s team and none on the opponents’.
“Usually I would feel pretty good about things on Saturday until I would see Larry,” Dooley said. “After listening to Larry for a few minutes I would get all worried. It finally got to the point where I had to stay away from him on game day.”
Munson had a lifetime love of fishing. Back in his early days in Nashville he would tape 52 fishing shows per year. But going fishing with Larry Munson was not like going fishing with anybody else.
“He would talk to the bait and tell it to hunker down,” Dooley said. “I mean, he was COACHING the bait! I don’t know how we ever caught a fish.”
Munson did a number of other broadcasting jobs. He called Georgia men’s basketball from 1987-96 and also had a stint with the Atlanta Falcons. From 1989-92 he would broadcast the Georgia games on Saturday and then call the Falcons on Sunday.
A huge movie buff, Munson had a regular group of students that he would take to the see the latest releases. Munson would often use his early morning reports on WSB Radio to review movies instead of talk about sports.
In 1983 Munson was honored by the Georgia General Assembly for his “great role in the Georgia championship football program.” The General Assembly honored him again in 1997 when Munson reached his 50th year in broadcasting.
In 1994 he was inducted into the Georgia Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. In 2005 he was named to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
Munson received the Chris Schenkel Award, which recognizes career achievement in broadcasting, from the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
In 2006 Munson was honored in Atlanta with a charity celebrity roast featuring Dooley, Donnan, Smith, Durham, Clark Howard, Neal Boortz, Governor Sonny Perdue (a former walk-on at Georgia) and host of former Bulldogs players. Munson, as he was prone to do, skewered everybody when it came his turn to speak.
But in 2007 Munson’s declining health began to take its toll. After meeting with Georgia officials, Munson announced that he would work only home games. He missed his first Georgia-Florida game, an event he dearly loved, after calling it since 1966, a string of 41 straight games.
After Georgia finished 10-2 and earned a trip to the 2008 Sugar Bowl, Munson said he wanted to make the trip to New Orleans. But on Dec. 28 Munson announced that after a suffering a fall at his home in Athens, he was not physically up to making the trip.
On Feb. 11, 2008, Munson was honored by the Atlanta Sports Council with the Furman Bisher Award for media excellence. Munson was again unable to travel to accept the award.
“What can I tell you?” Munson said in a Feb. 10 interview before the dinner in Atlanta. “It’s hell getting old.”
“The thing I will always remember about Larry is the incredible bond he forged with the Georgia people,” Dooley said. “There was a connection there that was hard to explain. I don’t think we’ll see another like him.”
MUNSON’S GREATEST CALL, IN MY OPINION:
HERE’S A NICE COMPILATION VIDEO PUT TOGETHER BY UGA: