By Teddy Allen
Written for the LSWA
An innocent action by my colleague Dave Nitz convinced me he was so delighted with living in the past that at any moment he might morph into a man wearing a leisure suit, drinking a Tab, and thumbing through the latest TV Guide.
I know things.
For the past eight autumns, I’ve done what passes for “color commentary” on Louisiana Tech football games for the Tech Sports Network and Learfield IMG College.
The star of the show is that same sepia-toned Dave Nitz, play-by-play broadcaster, LA Tech Athletics Hall of Famer Class of 2010, and now a Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Class of 2019.
June 8 in Natchitoches, he steps alongside many of Tech’s greats who have gone on to Hall of Fame enshrinement. The sold-out Saturday evening induction ceremony, live on Cox Sports Television, wraps up induction festivities beginning June 6 (visit LaSportsHall.com for details).
August 31 in Austin, Texas, he’ll begin his 45th season broadcasting Tech Football, which puts him in the Top 5 of guys broadcasting one college program’s football games for the most seasons. In February, he began his 44th season of broadcasting Tech baseball, the longest streak with one team of any other broadcaster in America.
Of course he had no idea about any of this until I asked him.
“Dave, how many seasons have y…?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask somebody.”
Dave’s not big into counting.
He also does Bulldog Basketball. He used to do that and Lady Techsters Basketball, but he gave the Lady Techsters up and has done only men’s games for the past couple of decades. For some reason, he figured one team a season was plenty and that trying to call the games of two teams at the same time might be a bit of an overload.
Some guys just don’t want to work.
And we should mention, although it has nothing to do with Tech, that Nitz called 35-plus summers of professional baseball at various levels until he hung it up last summer and became a slave to cutting grass at his Haughton home and watching the MLB Network.
Guy gets around more than the flu.
“Dave’s been awfully good at what he does for a long, long time,” said fellow Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Leon Barmore. “Paints a picture where I feel like I’m there; I can shut my eyes and feel like I’m at the game just by listening.”
He’s very good. When Dave’s calling a game, listeners, whether they realize it or not, know that the guy on the radio would rather be no place else than at the ballgame.
For all the reasons there are to praise “the Nitzer,” his talents as a wide-ranging conversationalist and his refusal to live in the present — not counting his very present broadcast of whatever game he’s calling—are not two of them. His life experiences, mostly by choice, limit him to knowledge about baseball, the United States Interstate System, bland food, “real” pre-1985 country music, and West Virginia, his home state and probably where most of the blame lies for his present condition.
It’s not all his fault. But some of it is.
He’s seen three movies in his life. Coal Miner’s Daughter. Urban Cowboy. And the outlier, Goldfinger.
“Can’t remember why I watched that one,” he said.
He promised his wife of 50-plus years, Marlene, when he was finishing his college degree as an early-30-something at Tech that if he graduated and passed English Lit, he’d never read another book in his life.
So far, a promise kept.
So you want to talk to Dave about the team he currently broadcasts? You’ll get plenty of info. But do you want to talk about current events? Cultural references? Please.
Some of us know.
I already knew Dave’s weak spots. I’ve known Freeway Dave (yet another story; we’ll get to that) since I was a Sports Information student assistant and then graduate assistant when he was less than 10 years into his remarkable string of 45 seasons in Ruston. But I was gifted with an exclamation point one fall Saturday night not so long ago.
The Bulldogs were playing football and Dave, as always, was on the call. After a tailback rips off a run of some magnitude, I often say something insightful like, “I wish you could have seen that.” Talent shortage.
But inspired by the goings-on after this particular run, I tried to offer some perspective. I said, “That guy might be faster than Forrest Gump. Dave, when’s the last time you saw Forrest Gump?”
Brain cramp on my part. I should have known but…
Dave looked at me like a kid who’s lost his momma in the mall looks at a stranger, then he put his finger at the top of the alphabetical roster and immediately started working his way down to the G’s. Gump wasn’t on our team.
Then he went to the top of the other team’s roster. Started working his finger, frantically, down.
And I said, “My bad Dave. Wrong guy. Bulldogs in the hurry-up…”
Dave: “Empty backfield. Here’s the snap. Higgins drops, looking…”
And there you go. True story. An American who had no idea who Forrest Gump was.
I’ve known Dave for 40 years, and even I was flabbergasted. He’s an unchanging man who remains a constant surprise, a human paradox who wears his hard-headedness like a badge of honor.
One autumn evening we were five minutes from Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field in Starkville to tangle with Mississippi State. We’re five hours ahead of kickoff, which is the norm for the gang in the radio van. We’d been to this hallowed site several times but were going by Google Maps to be safe. Dave had other ideas.
“My map’s in my head,” he said. “Take a right.”
Memory fails, so maybe he said take a left. Either way, we parked 40 minutes later.
And still…that’s the Dave we all know and love/hate. If you work with him, you gripe about his over-eagerness for truck stop food, his refusal to eat at any nice restaurant that doesn’t have his fallback –chicken strips — and a flip phone that rudely blares Almost Heaven, West Virginia each time it rings. (Tech played Marshall for the Conference USA football championship in December 2014, and not during our three days in Huntington, 30 minutes from Dave’s boyhood home of Milton, did I ever see anything naturally green or blue. Not the sky. Not a tree. West Virginia’s default color was gray. The only blue I saw was on Tech’s jerseys and the only green I saw was on Marshall’s jerseys. “I love it,” Dave said. Sigh…)
But listening to Dave do play-by-play, that’s another ballgame. On the mic in a game, that’s his wheelhouse, where the colors come alive, where you can tell you’re listening to a guy who loves what he does.
Malcolm Butler, because of his position as Tech’s Associate Athletics Director/Communications for the past 20 years, has been forced to go head-to-hard-head with the Off-The-Air Dave all of that time. Gripes over parking passes, lost press badges, tickets requests. It’s awkward to have to stiff-arm a legend and childhood hero.
“But Dave will always be the voice in my head when I remember listening to Tech ballgames as a kid,” said Butler, who, as the Voice of the Lady Techsters, knows intimately the demands of broadcasting. “Hearing Dave was hearing Tech to me.”
Of course none of the ribbing bothers Nitz, who was told as a young man he might have a place on the staff of an East Coast rookie league baseball team. But by then he had steady work at a radio station and decided to see where that led.
Sixty years of radio later, that seems to have been a good move.
The first play-by-play he did was in his backyard in Milton, back in West Virginia. The only child of a coal miner, a bat boy on his dad’s baseball teams beginning at age 3 and a kid who loved sports, Dave would shoot hoops alone and pretend he was whoever the stars were on the West Virginia Mountaineers’ basketball teams, literally calling his own shots.
He listened to Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio and wondered if he could do what Bob Prince made seem so effortless.
His break came at Fairmont State, where he’d gotten a basketball scholarship. When his JV games were over, he’d shower and keep stats of the varsity games for Frank Lee, who did play-by-play for Fairmont hoops on WMMN.
A new station came on the air in Spencer, West Virginia, and the owner was a friend of Dave’s grandfather. “I think he finally let me on the air so I’d quit asking him,” Dave said. “Made $40 a week; they gave me an extra $5 if I cleaned up the station after I signed off and locked up.”
Tom. T. Hall, who wasn’t yet the famous country music songwriter and performer Tom T. Hall, was the station’s night director. It was his idea that the station needed to become more involved in the community and broadcast some high school football. By default, they decided to “let the 19-year-old kid do it.” So off Dave went to do Game No. 1, Spencer vs. Glenville.
That was more than 4,000 athletic events ago.
He worked at more than a dozen stations during the next dozen years, did play-by-play for William & Mary and Georgia Southern for a while, and found himself with no ball to call when his latest employer decided to quit carrying sports. So, he answered an advertisement for the Louisiana Tech job. He told Marlene they’d move to Louisiana and be back in Ohio or West Virginia within three years.
“Guess I lied,” Dave said.
Tech fans are glad he did. Many of them feel the same way as Tech’s faculty athletics representative and chair of the University’s Athletics Council, Dr. Donna Thomas. Dave’s called the Tech baseball careers of both her husband and their two boys; daughter Anna Claire is an assistant director on Tech’s Athletic Communications staff.
“It’s difficult for me to separate Dave from anything that has to do with Tech and Tech Athletics,” she said. “The minute you turn on the radio and you hear ‘Hello, everybody, this is Dave Nitz,’ from wherever he is, you’re listening to an old friend and you’re at the game. It feels like he’s a member of our family.”
He’s formed a habit of continuing to show up for Tech fans during the past five decades for sure.
“My first thought about Dave is he’s always been a pro,” said fellow Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Keith Prince, Tech’s sports information director during Dave’s first 20 years at the university. “He’s always ready to go.”
That was never more true than in January of 1981 when the Lady Techsters made a West Coast trip and beat San Francisco, No. 6 Long Beach State and No. 4 UCLA on their way to a 34-0 record and the national championship.
“The only time we saw Dave was courtside at the games,” Barmore said. “Otherwise he was sight-seeing.”
The trip inspired Barmore to write “The Ballad of Freeway Dave.” A nickname was born, one that fits Dave like a pair of headphones.
“I rented a car with unlimited mileage,” Freeway said, “and managed to exceed that.”
He’s been on the road and on the air since. Forrest Gump wishes he could be so lucky.