Purple Mafia Profile: Glenn Geffner

One of the underrated benefits of attending a bowl game is the new Wildcat friends you get to meet.  Such was the case on my venture to the Gator Bowl. One such new friend is Glenn Geffner, who I was introduced to by good friend Mike Alzamora. Glenn happens to be the play-by-play man (along with Hall of Fame voice Dave Van Horne) for the Miami Marlins and is entering his 16th season in the Bigs behind the mic. Glenn has called games at every level – Single A, Double A, Triple A and of course, at the MLB. He has called games for the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres during his 21-year professional career. Like so many Wildcats alums that are in the sports media profession, he carved his career journey, in part, from his time working at the Northwestern student radio station WNUR. Let’s get in to it with another diehard Wildcat fan.

LTP:Let’s go back to your time at NU. I understand you were a member of Northwestern student radio station, WNUR,  and are now part of a pretty damn impressive alumni list from your time there. Did you know that you wanted to be a MLB play by play guy going to NU or did it evolve because of your involvement with WNUR? Help paint the picture of the career journey.

GG: While my bio says my broadcasting career began at WNUR, it really began in my bedroom in Miami at age 8. I loved playing baseball, but even more so, I loved to read and watch anything and everything about the game. We didn’t have a major league team in South Florida then, just Spring Training and the University of Miami, but I immersed myself in baseball. Remember, this was before the Internet, ESPN and the Extra Innings package, so it took some work. A local radio station carried every Yankees game, and I listened to Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer almost every night. Saturdays at 12:30, I watched This Week in Baseball with Mel Allen. Then when NBC’s Game of the Week came on, the volume went off. If the Reds were playing the Dodgers, I’d lay my Reds and Dodgers baseball cards in front of me as a source of statistics, and I’d sit in my room and call the game.

By the time I reached high school, I knew I wanted to find a way to be around baseball every day, and swinging the bat wasn’t going to be my ticket. I wrote for my high school newspaper and interned at the Miami Herald. My love for journalism—and, even more importantly Northwestern–was solidified when I was participated in the Cherub program at NU in the summer of 1985. By the time I arrived in Evanston as a freshman in the fall of 1986, I thought I wanted to cover Major League Baseball for Sports Illustrated, but during New Student Week I saw signs advertising WNUR Sports auditions. I figured what college freshman could have more broadcast experience than me? Heck, I’d already called 8 or 10 World Series from my bedroom by then.

I made my on-air debut doing a weekly sportscast in the coveted 9:50 p.m. Monday night slot. That led to the chance to do some football, basketball and baseball games over the next 4 years, and I was hooked.

I graduated a quarter early so I could accept an unpaid internship with the Triple-A team in Rochester, NY (an opportunity made possible by NU classmate and great friend to this day Josh Lewin, who was the club’s radio broadcaster). I paid my bills for that first year making mascot appearances at $25 a pop while also handling the team’s public relations. I had the chance to fill in on a few broadcasts with Josh, and ultimately I got a full-time job doing PR before joining Josh on Red Wings radio broadcasts in 1994. When he took a job in Baltimore, I became the lead broadcaster for the next 2 years before my ticket to the major leagues came with the San Diego Padres. I spent six incredible years out there, first as the PR Director before transitioning into an on-air role. When much of the Padres leadership left for the Boston Red Sox in 2002, I spent one last year in San Diego (a tough place to leave) before heading to Boston in 2003. With the Red Sox, I served as Vice President of Communications before again getting back on the air full-time. I was lucky enough to be in Boston for two World Series titles, then, after the 2007 season, I accepted the radio job with the Marlins, a chance to come home. So I took the scenic route, but I’ve come full circle back home to Miami, only now I get to do the games from the ballpark, not from my bedroom.

LTP: I’m a less noted WNUR alum than you are, but one of the things I  found so awesome was the indellible memories from calling actual Big Ten games in the athletic shrines we’d come to know so well as kids.  Give me your top one or two specific memories from calling a football and/or basketball game that really paint the picture of where the  program was at the time.

GG: If you want me to paint that picture, you’re going need a lot of black paint. Watching what’s happened since 1995 is amazing by any measure. It’s even more amazing though when you consider the state of NU football in my day. While admittedly the early-1980’s“Streak Era” was even worse, over my 4 football seasons (1986-89), we went 8-34-2. 4 of the wins came my freshman year when Francis Peay replaced Dennis Green. Who’ll ever forget going on the road and pasting Princeton 37-0? It was a huge year by NU standards at the time, leading to the expectation of 6 wins and a Bowl game the following fall (complete with speculation about finals being postponed). What followed though were a pair of 2-8-1 seasons and an 0-11 senior year capped off by a 76-14 loss to Michigan State and a 63-14 loss to Illinois in my final 2 games. We had some good players in those years–guys like Curtis Duncan, Bob Christian, Byron Sanders and Richard Buchanan—but it was rough. We had a rotation of broadcasters who did the games at WNUR, and as I think back on it, I don’t think I actually called a football victory in my 4 years. In fact, the single best football PLAY I ever called (and I remember this because it led off the first audition tape I ever made) was a long touchdown pass in a blow-out loss against Michigan. The problem with the highlight was I had to cut it very short on my demo tape, so I could get out before I mentioned the holding penalty that brought the play back. One broadcast that really stands out was week 9 of my senior year at Purdue. The Cats were 0-8, but Purdue was 1-7 and winless in the Big Ten. We were convinced this would be the week. As it turned out, we were down 14-0 about a minute in and trailed 32-0 at the end of the first quarter. Like I said, it was rough in those days.

In some ways, things were even bleaker in basketball (32 wins over my 4 years, never more than 9 in a season). Those were the first 4 years of the Bill Foster era. We went 2-16 and finished last in the Big Ten each season. In some ways though, it was easier to take in basketball because we were always deluded enough to think we were only a player or two away from turning things around. Only now do we realize those players would have had to have been Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. The Big Ten was loaded in those years, and Welsh-Ryan was nearly always packed for conference games. Cats basketball at least SEEMED like a lot of fun. We lost some heart-breakers against some really good teams, but could just never get over the hump.

As for a favorite broadcast, 2 memories stand out that both reflect the era and paint that picture of bleakness you asked for. The first was an absolutely meaningless Thanksgiving weekend season-opening win over the University of Chicago my junior year. For some reason, I’ll never forget we saw the U of C coach exiting the women’s room at Welsh-Ryan 30 minutes or so before tip. That seemed like a good omen. But even better, we won the game something like 101-46, and I remember being a little over-exuberant in calling the 100th point, saying something like, “If you’re a Wildcat fan, you’ve got to be in ecstasy tonight.”

Another broadcast that really sums up those years for me was an Illinois game at Welsh-Ryan. The Illini were loaded. Those were the days of Nick Anderson, Stephen Bardo, Marcus Liberty and Kenny Battle. They were ranked #2 in the country, and #1 Duke had lost a day or two earlier, so all Illinois needed was to beat the Cats to take over the top spot. It was an ESPN game in an era where we only appeared on national TV once a year. Welsh-Ryan was electric, and the Cats came out on fire. We jumped out to a 10-0 lead and, again displaying my youthful exuberance, I proclaimed “Lou Henson DEMANDS a timeout, and Welsh-Ryan Arena is up for grabs.” Whatever he said during the timeout, to no one’s surprise, spurred an Illini comeback win. Like I said, those were 4 tough years.

LTP: I love the admitted hyperbole. I think all of us that called games pre-1995 did something similar! We started to talk about the WNUR alumni club from your era and  how surprisingly, Mike Greenberg was there, but not an WNUR alum. Can you recall what your buddies from WNUR are now doing and where they are now?

GG:. The majority of the Northwestern friends with whom I’ve stayed in the closest contact over the years are people with whom I worked at WNUR. Some have remained in the business. Josh Lewin does radio for the Mets and Chargers. Jon Shainman is a television news anchor in West Palm Beach. Everybody knows Dave Revsine, the face of the Big Ten Network. Charley Frank was the Sports Director who hired me my freshman year. He’s now runs the Cincinnati Reds Community Foundation. Like Charley, a few others who could have gone a long way in broadcasting have moved into more sane lines of work, guys like Rob Grady and Mike Alzamora who now work in PR and marketing. Neil McManus travels the world doing something none of us can understand with coupons, and Jason DeSanto is now a Northwestern professor. They’re all a part of a circle of about a dozen WNUR alums that, to this day, emails and texts about the state of Northwestern athletics on a near-daily basis, sports keeping us all connected to the University in such a profound way.

As for some of my other contemporaries back in the late 1980’s: ESPN’s J.A. Adande spent some time at WNUR when I was there. Dennis Manoloff is a long-time sports-writer at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. You mentioned Mike Greenberg, who I don’t think ever worked at WNUR, but he was a couple of years behind me. David Schwimmer was on campus in those days too, but we were never “Friends.”

LTP: You’ve got a dream job by most guy’s standards. Let’s take a  different slant than talking about the debacle that was the Ozzie Guillen show. Take us through your Northwestern filter of being a MLB  PXP guy.  Moments during September when you’re trying to keep tabs on ‘Cats games, moments with NU alums like JA Happ, Mark Loretta, etc.. or even the network that is the MLB media and exec circuit. Basically,  paint us a picture of the purple factor in your day job.

GG:  While, September and early October can prove to be a challenge, the great thing about the baseball calendar is it lets me be on my couch (or sometimes on hand) for virtually every Cats football and basketball game between October and March. One of the sad byproducts of being around sports virtually every single day is, over the years, I’ve lost much of my ability to just relax and be a fan when watching most sporting events. The one exception for me though is when it comes to the Cats, and I live and die with every game to this day.

When the baseball schedule comes out each year, the first thing I do is look for trips to Chicago and Milwaukee. In 2011, I had a Saturday night game at Miller Park and I was able to rent a car and shoot down to Evanston for an 11 a.m. game against Central Michigan. Every trip to Chicago means at least one El ride north for a walk around campus and the obligatory meal at Buffalo Joe’s.

When I can’t be there, I’ve got plenty of stories about trying to stay up on the Cats during September and October baseball games. The technology has evolved so much over the years. Now, I can usually have the telecast or the radio broadcast on my phone to stay on top of things between innings, but it certainly hasn’t always been that easy. I remember being in San Francisco in 2001 for an epic Northwestern-Michigan State finish. My wife (not an alum, but she’s more than earned her purple stripes over the years) did the play-by-play of the final few minutes of the game for me over the phone as she watched on TV in San Diego and I sat in the press box, getting ready for a game against the Giants. Two years ago in Washington, I had a night game against the Nats, while the Cats had the mid-afternoon start at Army. I wish I could have been with you on the Sailgate, but I was at Nats Park. The Nationals PR Director, a close friend, spent two days trying to gain access to CBS Sports Network on the in-house TV feed so I could watch the game in my booth. They couldn’t get it done, and I wound up spending the three hours leading up to my on-air time listening to Dave Eanet’s call on my phone on a day we’d all love to forget. I’ve attended NU Alumni Association watch parties in various cities (the group at Blackfinn in Washington, DC is incredible). I’ve followed non-televised games via an endless stream of text messages. Whatever it takes, I go out of my way to not miss a moment with the Cats, while also never missing a pitch of my own game.

As for the NU influence around the game, there’s definitely more purple in the press box than on the field around Major League Baseball. In recent years, Joe Girardi and Mark Loretta have been the biggest NU names to wear major league uniforms. My younger brother was a teammate of Mark’s at Northwestern, and it was fun to watch Mark enjoy the career he did in the majors. We were together in Boston for one year in 2006. He’s one of the all-time good guys in the game, and I’d probably say that even if he weren’t a Wildcat.

I mentioned Josh Lewin, who I now get to see 18 times a year as he enters his 2ndyear doing the Mets games on the radio. I have an annual lunch with Charley Frank, who I mentioned earlier, when we’re in town to play his Reds. I see a lot of Jon Heyman from CBSSports.com and the MLB Network. We talk Cats a lot. He likes to point out he lived down the hall from Julia Louis-Dreyfus at Willard Hall. Mark Zuckerman is an NU alum who covers the Nationals for Comcast Sports Net. Amalie Benjamin is a fellow Medill grad at the Boston Globe. I see NU grad and Jeopardy champion Andrew Baggarly (CSN Bay Area) whenever we play the Giants. Tim Kawakami was a columnist at the Daily Northwestern when I was in school. He now writes a column for the San Jose Mercury-News. I know I’m leaving others out, but there aren’t many cities to which I travel in which I don’t see another member of the Purple Mafia.

Finally, when you ask about putting a purple slant on my job, one of my favorite days came back in 2006 when the women’s lacrosse team was in Boston for the Final Four. With Kelly Amonte Hiller and so many of the players having Boston roots, I invited the team to Fenway Park for a behind-the-scenes tour. They’d beaten Duke in an overtime thriller in the semi-final game the night before, and they swung by after practice for a couple of hours. They couldn’t have been nicer. I took them down to the field, up to the Green Monster seats, even inside the Monster. They took a lot of pictures. Then they went out and took care of business against Dartmouth the next day for the National Championship. That’s a great memory.

LTP: See, now that’s why I do what I do. I find out that you just combined my childhood dream stadium (Fenway) as a perk for the NU women’s lacrosse team.  Phenonmenal. OK, Glenn, We met at the Gator Bowl and just hours later we were both standing  there, borderline emotional soaking in the win and probably both doing the mental Rolodex recall of moments that led to a thought bubble of  “I can’t believe I’m witnessing this.” What did that moment mean to  you personally and what were you thinking?

GG: The funny thing about it is I was so much more relaxed in the hours leading up to the game than I usually am. While any Cats fan knows how dangerous this is, I really felt we were going to win the game. It wasn’t just what this team had accomplished all season but the way everybody seemed to go about their business, with a sense of purpose and an extreme confidence that has to start with Coach Fitz. Unlike some of our past teams, this wasn’t a team that needed trick plays or miracle fumbles or a crazy system to beat you. This team proved it had the talent to go nose-to-nose with just about anybody for 60 minutes. So when we made that last 4th-down stop and it was apparent we were going to win the game, there was certainly exhilaration and a sense that I was on hand for a special day in Northwestern history. There was the realization that the final negative had been erased from the program, and now we could shift the focus squarely to Big Ten and national championships. And, more than anything, I thought that for all Coach Fitz and those players had achieved, the victory needed to be shared with Gary Barnett and Randy Walker, with Darnell Autry and Zak Kustok and Dan Persa, everybody who’d come before. It reminded me of the 2004 Red Sox in that sense. When they ended that 86-year drought, it was as much about Pesky, Williams and Yaz as it was about Ortiz, Pedro and Schilling. I looked up toward the WNUR broadcast booth and thought about what my contemporaries and I would have given for the chance to call a Bowl victory. And it was special to share the day with my wife and our three kids (hopefully Northwestern classes of 2022, 2026 and 2030). I love that our 4-year-old daughter thinks that, as Wildcat fans, going to Bowl games every year is a birthright. It all just goes to show how far we’ve come. I think when it was all said and done, “How far we’ve come” was the ultimate take-away from the day in so many different respects.

LTP: There you go again, dropping Yaz references and the like to really strike a chord with me. Let’s throw it right back at you. Favorite sports moment (football) during your time at NU? Favorite  hoops moment? Favorite football player – while you were there and favorite  alltime ‘Cat?

GG: Having seen only 8 wins in my 4 years, choosing a football highlight from my time on campus is tough. There was the night they announced Coach Peay would be appearing at the Burger King just off campus. Reports were that 6 people showed up and 2 left after finding out they’d have to bag their own food (Ed note: Dave Revsine, in his PMP, details how he was one of these six and the read incites instant laughter as he describes Peay grabbing that metal mic and rousing up the six fans as 80-year-olds stared up from their Whoppers in disbelief).

On the field, there’s one game that comes to mind, and I’ll tie it into my favorite late-1980’s Wildcat football player. We lost a shootout to Minnesota in 1987. The game was played start to finish in a frigid monsoon at what was then Dyche Stadium. Only the most dedicated of Cats fans made it to the end that day, but those of us who toughed it out saw Byron Sanders carry 46 times for 295 yards. Byron had 2 really good seasons at Northwestern, and he became a good friend to us at WNUR. He sat in studio with us on our Sunday night talk show a couple of times and, in 1988, he helped us land one of the biggest interviews I can recall from my time at WNUR, when he convinced his brother Barry to take a ride on the old WNUR Sportswagon during his Heisman Trophy season at Oklahoma State. So both the Sanders brothers will always hold a special place in my heart.

As for basketball, that’s an easy one. The 66-64 win over Indiana in 1988, 25 years ago last Friday to be exact, was the most memorable sporting event I attended during my 4 years at NU. The Hoosiers were the defending National Champs. It was always a big deal when Bobby Knight came to town. Dick Vitale made his once-a-year appearance at Welsh-Ryan for ESPN that night. A quarter century later, I’ll admit that it was actually a pretty ugly game, but we went something like 22-for-22 from the foul line to pull it out. It was the only time I ever stormed the court. I was hoarse for days after that game and to this day remember virtually everything about that night. Four or five years later, I was talking with Bill Foster who, by that time, was serving as Athletic Director, and I asked him about that game. He told me he went home that night fully convinced that the program had turned the corner that night. 25 years later, we know how that turned out, but it remains my favorite sports memory from my days on campus.

As for an all-time favorite NU football player, I absolutely loved Dan Persa. They said he was too small. They said he couldn’t throw. And the guy worked his butt off to become an NU great. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed watching a football player as much as I enjoyed watching him pull rabbits out of his hat in 2010. The irony of his greatest moment probably being the game-winning TD pass against Iowa on which he got hurt adds to the Persa legend for me. I would have loved to have seen what he could have done with a full, healthy senior year.

LTP: Anything else you’d like to add? I love the stories and don’t want to miss anything.

GG: You mean I haven’t said enough already?!?

I’ll end with a public thanks to LTP himself. It was great to meet you in Jacksonville. The community you’ve built here is another great example of how far Northwestern sports has come. With the facilities plan in motion, I see two priorities on which to focus our energy. First, I share your obsession with filling Ryan Field with purple. And second, we’ve got to break through what seems like a glass ceiling in basketball. But that’s a conversation for another day.

LTP: Thanks Glenn. Let’s find the time for that other day perhaps after the hoops season.

Hoops News From The Wildcat Files

Not surprisingly, former Wildcat head basketball coach, Kevin O’Neill, has been fired by USC  (7-10) on yet another failed stop on his loaded resume. O’Neill went 6-26 last season after moving within the Pac12, if you will,  from Arizona where he was at one point the heir apparent to Lute Olson.
NU Lakefront Facility Nets $15Million More, Surpasses $70 Million Mark
There are fraternities and then there are fraternities. One fraternity includes the likes of the Ryan family, the Wilson family, the Hutcheson family and the Unger family. These families combined to launch the Northwestern lakefront athletic facility with large gifts totaling $55 million, headlined by a “lead” gift from Pat & Shirley Ryan that led to the complex being named the Ryan Fieldhouse. Now, NU just announced another member of the philanthropic fraternity has stepped up to give $15million which brings the total giving to the estimated $225 million project to over $70 million in just a few months. The latest gift is thanks to Lanny and Sharon Martin, whose name will grace the soccer and lacrosse stadiums along the Evanston lakefront campus.  Amazingly, Lanny Martin, Chip Hutcheson and Bob Unger were actually all literally fraternity brothers at Northwestern.  Now that is a fraternity of folks who are making a difference!
  • Great interview, LTP. Glenn is a first-class guy and always has been. I was a sophomore when he was a freshman and we both lived at Shepard. No surprise he’s such a success as a pro broadcaster. Go Cats!

  • A very enjoyable interview with Glenn.

  • Mark

    Great stuff!! Thanks. I was in Boston at the Head of the Charles in 2004 and Boston was electric because of the Series. (And I remember the 1964 Cardinals winning the World Series with Bill White at first base.)

  • Next Cat

    Fantastic. Thanks to both of you.

  • CoralSpringsCat

    Wait a minute…an entire interview with Geffner without one mention of “Shake Shack”? Must have been an imposter!

    • Glenn Geffner

      Buffalo Joe’s is my Evanston Shake Shack. Am heading up in a few days, and there are definitely some wings in my future.

      • Wildcats99

        Great interview. True Buff Joe’s fans make it there in time for 1st Sauce! It’s amazing how the same guy is there making wings since the mid-90s at least.

  • Paul K

    Got to get XM radio tuned to some Marlins games next year. Great interview.