ATHLETICS: Signing off
In his 56th and final season in the broadcast booth, Morry Mannies reflects on his career at BSU
The half-light of early morning awaits Morry Mannies as he hears Jeff Weller's SUV pull into his driveway. Inside the house, Mannies and Mark O'Connell have been expecting Weller. They grab their briefcases, head out the side door and climb into Weller's SUV, settling into the leather seats for their road trip to Kalamazoo, Mich.
Mannies watches as Weller backs carefully out of the driveway, and once his SUV is in first gear and headed down the street, the two men recount the story of the time Weller hit a parked car while pulling out of the driveway.
Their story has become something of a tradition for it seems impossible to be in a car as Weller backs out of Mannies' driveway without hearing it.
In the years Weller and Mannies have teamed to broadcast Ball State football and men's basketball games, this story has been told hundreds, if not thousands, of times as the WLBC radio crew gathers at Mannies' house before road trips.
Soon, however, the requisite starting point won't be Mannies' place.
Last August, Mannies announced he was retiring. His 56-year career as the voice of Ball State sports will end once the men's basketball season does. Mannies has called 540 Ball State football games on the radio, making him the nation's leader for a college football play-by-play man, according to a survey by the Florida State Sports Information Department.
Mannies, a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, has become such a fixture at Ball State sporting events that the home radio booth at Scheumann Stadium is named after him. Yet, were it not for a few happy coincidences and lucky breaks, Mannies' voice might never have been broadcast.
The story of how Mannies' broadcast career began is so implausible it seems better to call the story a myth -- a creation myth, even. Because to a student 50 years Mannies' junior, the story of how he got his start is as fanciful as anything Homer wrote.
One afternoon in the fall of 1953, Mannies dropped back to pass at football practice in Peru, Ind. He was the JV quarterback and they were scrimmaging the varsity team that day. Mannies was hit from behind by a defender, the blow separating his shoulder and spraining his wrist. Mannies' season was over.
A few weeks later, with plenty of free time on his hands, Mannies rode his Schwinn two miles outside town to
WARU, a radio station that had only recently begun broadcasting in Peru. There, Mannies completed a tour of the station, which was interrupted when the disc jockey abruptly quit and left the building with WARU on the air but no one at the controls. The station's manager, who was giving Mannies the tour, didn't know much about the technical aspects of the operation and needed a replacement quickly. He turned to Mannies.
Mannies' broadcast lasted four hours that afternoon and evening; he learned how to spin records on the fly. The station manager's assessment was that it didn't sound too bad. Not too good either, but good enough to offer Mannies a job as a DJ after school each day.
Mannies raced home on his bike to tell his father the good news.
"Dad, guess what?" Mannies said.
"You got a job," his father responded.
"Yeah. But guess where."
"The radio station."
"Yeah. But guess how much an hour I'm making."
"How do you know?"
"I heard it on the air like everyone else."
Before quitting, the previous DJ didn't turn off the in-studio microphone. Mannies and the station manager never thought to shut it off, so the whole town knew of his new arrangement.
Despite the inauspicious start, Mannies' role at WARU continued to grow. He hosted "Teen Canteen" with his girlfriend, Nancy, before spending a few more hours playing records. At one point, he also hosted a morning show and served as the station's janitor. In all, Mannies wound up working 40 hours a week at the station by the time he was a high school junior.
Mannies was beginning to spend so much time working at WARU that his father handed down an ultimatum: Either get straight A's or quit the job. Mannies became an excellent student.
Not only did Mannies' work ethic allow him to keep his job, it helped bring him to Ball State. As a member of the Peru High School debate team, he came to Muncie to compete in a debate tournament hosted by Ball State that drew 2,000-3,000 people.
Mannies won the humorous declamation category. His prize was a Ball State fountain pen and a campus tour. He also caught the eye of David Shepard, Ball State's debate coach and a speech professor. Shepard offered Mannies a full scholarship – worth $150 for tuition – that sealed his decision to attend Ball State. Nancy had a scholarship offer of her own at Ball State and, at 70 miles from Peru, it was relatively close to home.
Mannies was even able to line up a radio job in Muncie as a freshman. He would work at WLBC – the same station still broadcasting Ball State games today. He started doing football play-by-play immediately, despite never having announced a football game before. Mannies had been asked in his interview if he had experience doing sports and he said yes. No one asked him to elaborate on his experience and he didn't volunteer the information that his play-by-play experience was limited to junior league baseball.
And so, when Ball State played Hanover College on Sept. 15, 1956, Mannies broadcast his first football game. The Cardinals played across from Ball Memorial Hospital then, on the opposite end of campus from where Scheumann Stadium stands today. They served cold ham sandwiches on white bread in the press box at halftime and Ball State won 12-7.
Nearly 60 years later, Mannies' most vivid memory of that first season is not his first game but instead a 66-0 beating delivered by St. Joseph's College, the eventual NAIA national champions. The game remains Ball State's worst-ever home loss.
Mannies' career steadily pushed forward that year. Ball State finished 4-4 in football and 19-7 in basketball, winning three games in the college division of the NCAA Tournament. Feeling comfortable at Ball State and economically secure thanks to their scholarships and Mannies' job at WLBC, Mannies and Nancy decided to marry after their freshman year. Their first son, Jeff, was born the next year.
Mannies graduated from Ball State in 1960 and became a teacher at Muncie Central High School. By convincing the administrators in the Muncie school district to hire him despite their aversion to hiring recent college graduates, he turned down his first chance to leave Ball State behind. He had a job offer in Grosse Pointe, Mich., an upper-class suburb of Detroit. He would have been paid more in Grosse Pointe than in Muncie, but he figured with the extra income he earned announcing games, he would come out ahead.
On the way to Kalamazoo, talk turns to a highlight tape Weller is putting together for later in the season, closer to the end. Mannies has called so many historic games and memorable upsets that it is not an easy task. How do you shorten a career that spanned seven decades to just a couple minutes?
One game unlikely to make the cut is the first time Mannies and Weller worked together as a broadcast team. It was a local baseball game, the teams and the score long forgotten. But Mannies and Weller both remember what transpired in the booth well. Things were going well until one manager began making repeated trips to the mound.
"They have went back to the bullpen," Weller said.
Mannies elbowed him in the chest.
Because they were on the air, Weller couldn't ask Mannies why he had elbowed him. And why he kept elbowing him intermittently.
After the game, Weller finally was able to ask.
"Why were you hitting me the whole game?"
"It's have gone," Mannies said. "It's not have went."
Mannies never missed a teachable moment, and as a former English teacher, he doesn't abide poor grammar on his broadcasts. He has countless stories similar to that of Weller's first broadcast, though he has become more subtle with his corrections.
In his classroom at Muncie Central, Mannies was just as tough on his students. Being the junior teacher on staff, he was assigned a 300-seat study hall largely believed to be uncontrollable because of its size. It wasn't the kind of situation he had been prepared for at Ball State. So he did what came naturally.
"All right, shut up and sit down," Mannies yelled.
To his amazement, the students did as they were told and sat down. Mannies now calls it the most successful class he's ever taught.
Mannies spent eight years teaching at Muncie Central before returning to Ball State in 1968, where he taught in the communications department. Two years later he started work on his doctorate in speech education at Purdue. For three years he split his time between Muncie and West Lafayette, continuing to broadcast Ball State games while he worked on his degree. But after three years at Purdue, Mannies decided he didn't want to teach for the rest of his life after all. He was about six months shy of receiving his degree.
Some people didn't understand the decision, including Mannies' mother. She couldn't believe he was choosing to become an insurance salesman instead of a professor.
"You're giving up being a college professor to be an insurance man?" she asked.
"Yeah, Mom, that's what I want to do," Mannies said. "That's the way I can provide my family. I'm good at it; I can keep doing the broadcasting."
By that time Mannies already had been working part time selling insurance for a decade and was already making twice as much in insurance as he was teaching. Once he went into insurance full time, that disparity only would grow.
As Mannies' insurance career began to take off, Ball State sports was beginning an upward trend as well.
The Cardinals joined the Mid-American Conference in 1975 and local star Ray McCallum led the basketball team to its first MAC championship in 1981. Mannies had announced McCallum's games when he was at Muncie Central as well, giving the two a special bond.
Mannies still considers McCallum to be Ball State's best-ever basketball player, despite watching as McCallum's scoring records fell to Bonzi Wells, who was recruited and coached by McCallum.
But neither McCallum nor Wells provided Mannies with his favorite moment from his 56-year career. That would come in 1990 when coach Dick Hunsaker and forward Paris McCurdy led Ball State to the Sweet 16, the farthest the Cardinals have ever advanced in the NCAA Tournament.
Along the way, Ball State beat Oregon State and Gary Payton, and forward Chandler Thompson created the Cardinals' signature basketball highlight with a putback dunk against Louisville.
Throughout Mannies' career, his wife Nancy was there with him. She would have been waiting for Weller's SUV to pull back into the driveway on Saturday night after the three-hour drive home from Kalamazoo.
Nancy was a regular at home games and during basketball season, she could be found just behind her husband in the stands at midcourt wearing a pair of headphones, listening to Mannies on the radio.
For the last 20 years of her life, Nancy came to Ball State home basketball games with a portable radio so she could listen to her husband's commentary. She wanted to know when he was getting excited or when he and his broadcaster partner cracked a joke.
Though Nancy died in 2003, she is the reason Mannies didn't retire earlier. She knew how much he liked his job and made him promise to keep broadcasting Ball State games after her death. Broadcasting also helped his grieving; it gave Mannies something to focus on other than Nancy's absence in his life.
But lately the job has become too much. The travel he used to love is too difficult. Mannies, held back by various health concerns, went to just one football game on the road last fall. Even when Mannies was able to broadcast the games, he relied more on his analysts, Mark O'Connell for football and David Eha for basketball.
But Mannies isn't ready to give up broadcasting altogether.
Even after his retirement, he plans to announce a few high school games for WLBC. He said he will still be around Ball State athletics next year; he just won't broadcast games on the radio.
Mannies, whom then-Gov. Evan Bayh awarded the "Sagamore of the Wabash" in 1989, the highest honor given by an Indiana governor, isn't sure what he'll do once basketball season ends and especially once football season starts next fall. In some ways, the unknown is unsettling. He has no hobbies, owns no second home in Florida or Arizona and has no desire to leave Muncie.
As the end approaches, he seems at peace with his decision. At 74, he recognizes his physical limitations. He also believes life holds more than traveling to what he calls the "garden spots" – DeKalb, Ill., and Mount Pleasant, Mich. – and is ready to test the theory.
Worthen Arena is empty. The fans started leaving with six minutes left in Ball State's xx-xx loss to Akron, but even all the die-hards are gone now. Mannies and Weller sit with their headsets around their necks so they can talk as they wait through a commercial break during the postgame show.
The final stretch is here. Ball State is reeling, in the midst of a month-long swoon in which the team will win once in nine tries. Its season appears to be headed for an unremarkable finish. But Mannies will be there no matter.
He has seen worse. Only this time … this time there is no next season for Mannies. Like every fan, he wishes for better, but tonight as he waits to come back from break, he is optimistic. The Cardinals, somehow, someway, will turn this around. He is sure of it.
A co-worker walks by the duo on his way to the parking lot. Hurriedly, they shake hands and say goodnight just as Weller puts his headset back on to bring back the show from commercial for the final segment of the night.
In five minutes, it is over, Weller and Mannies sign off the air.
"Good night and good sports," Mannies says.
The line to the station goes silent. Mannies removes his headset and puts it on the table in front of him. His night is over.