Blog by Kevin Knight
Popular Wrestling Pitchman Gene Okerlund Passes Away
Blog by: KEVIN KNIGHT
Posted: January 3, 2019
(Courtesy TAPinto.net) – Another link to childhood is gone.
For those that grew up during the golden age of professional wrestling in the 1980’s and 90’s, Mean Gene Okerlund was the voice of our youth.
Okerlund passed away Wednesday at the age of 76.
You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to know who Mean Gene was. He was a pop culture figure. He was a slice of Americana.
Locally, we’d see him every Saturday at 10 am and midnight on WOR-TV Channel 9 interviewing Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre The Giant and Macho Man Randy Savage about upcoming cards presented by World Wrestling Federation (now called WWE) at Meadowlands Arena, Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum.
Okerlund announced on NBC’s monthly ‘Saturday Nights Main Event’ broadcast that aired when ‘Saturday Night Live’ was on hiatus. Gene hosted MTV’s ‘War to Settle the Score’ featuring Cyndi Lauper, which was the birth of the ‘Rock n’ Wresting Connection.’ He hosted ‘Tuesday Night Titans’ on USA Network, a ‘Tonight Show’ styled grappling talk show.
In February 1988, Gene was the pitchman during WWE’s first prime time network special, NBC’s ‘The Main Event’ where Andre defeated Hogan in controversial fashion as a record 33 million viewers tuned in.
Mean Gene became a household name.
“He was the best,” WWE tag team legend B. Brian Blair of The Killer Bees told TAP. “I’m still in shock.”
“Gene was amazing to work with, a consummate professional on camera who not only made the talent look good, but with his demeanor and emphasis on the right things, he sold tickets,” explained Blair, who is also President of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a non-profit organization that assists retired wrestling stars. “Away from the camera, Gene was always smiling, in a great mood and the life of the party.”
Okerlund was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. His presenter was none other than Hogan, who was inducted a year prior.
Okerlund and Hogan were synonymous with one another, as Gene held the microphone for Hulk while the tanned blonde champion ranted about how he was wronged ‘last month’ and would be seeking revenge ‘next month’ – so you better get your tickets in advance!
"Mean Gene's sometimes serious, sometimes sarcastic face of WWE's Hulkamania era is the memory that is timestamped on the minds of a generation of wrestling fans,” legendary ring announcer and Kearny native Gary Michael Cappetta told TAP. “Nobody did it better."
The Okerlund-Hogan relationship began prior to both entering the WWE in December 1983. Gene got his start in 1970 with Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minnesota. Hulk burst on the AWA scene in 1982, just as his memorable appearance in Rocky III playing ‘Thunderlips’ alongside Sylvester Stallone hit the big screen.
That’s when Hulkamania started running wild.
Gene was there to ask Hulk about his upcoming bouts at St. Paul Civic Center against the likes of future Minnesota Governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan and Olympic strongman Ken Patera.
Hulk would always begin his rebuttal with, “let me tell you something, Mean Gene!” A catchphrase still used by professional athletes in all sports.
“As a kid growing up in Minnesota during the 70’s, I spent so much time watching the AWA’s All-Star Wrestling after coming home from church every Sunday,” said Michael Brandvold, a marketing expert and old-school wrestling fan. “Wrestling was real to me, and Mean Gene Okerlund – in his suit and tie – looking like my dad was a great contrast to all those larger than life wrestlers like Jesse The Body, The Hulk, and my favorite – Baron Von Raschke.”
Ventura, Heenan and Patera soon followed Hogan and Okerlund to the WWE. That was the beginning of the end for the AWA as rival owner Vince McMahon began his national expansion leveraging the explosion of cable television to showcase his stars on USA Network and MTV.
“Mean Gene was real, he was the guy next door just trying to interview and keep order amongst all these wild men in tights,” Brandvold added. “He looked out of place, his shock, his surprise, always trying to keep a straight face – he played the role perfectly. I could never be a wrestler, but I sure could be Mean Gene. Gene, you were one of the best-ever in wrestling.”
After studying broadcast journalism, Okerlund landed a job as a disc jockey at KOIL, a popular radio station in Omaha, Nebraska. Okerlund would later move to Minneapolis, working behind the scenes at a local television station.
Okerlund left the broadcasting business for a job at the AWA in 1970, where he started as a ring announcer.
“Gene Okerlund was the consummate professional,” said Richard Ross, a career broadcaster in the New York City area. “His style and talent made him one of the best broadcast announcers of all-time. His ability to connect with the audience, gain their trust and tell an amazing story was second to none.”
Okerlund was seen regularly until his passing hosting special programming on WWE Network.
The mainstream popularity of wrestling has taken a dive in recent years without over-the-top personalities akin to Okerlund, Hogan, Piper, Savage, Heenan and Ventura. But the memories Mean Gene helped provide live on forever via YouTube and WWE Network.
Rest in peace, Mr. Okerlund. You were one of a kind.
Learning from Legendary Sportscaster Spencer Ross
Blog by: KEVIN KNIGHT
Posted: November 22, 2018
With his distinctive voice and smooth delivery, legendary sports broadcaster Spencer Ross was the soundtrack of my childhood.
Growing up, my dad was Public Affairs Manager at PSE&G and part of his duties were managing a Luxury Suite the company owned at Meadowlands Arena. I was lucky enough to attend almost every event. The suite was in section 108, dead center, behind the press box. I sat behind Devils and Nets broadcasters and was fascinated with how it all worked. The announcers would give me media guides and game notes. I was just as interested in those broadcasting the game as I was in the players.
Spencer called the play-by-play on radio and television for almost every New York area sports franchise, including the Nets, Knicks, Yankees, Giants, Jets, Devils, Rangers and Islanders. He did soccer and horseracing, hosted shows on WFAN and did updates on WINS. Outside the New York market, he called games for Florida State and Boston Celtics. Nationally, he worked for NFL on NBC, MLB on CBS Radio, and the Olympics.
As a student at William Paterson University, well-known for their top-notch radio and television departments, I got involved immediately. The only problem was the faculty advisor taught us nothing. All he did was write memos. We were without guidance. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, we all quit under protest. WPSC immediately returned to the original faculty advisor who launched the station, John Kiernan. We happily returned! Kiernan was a true professional, teaching us the nuts-and-bolts of radio. He previously owned a commercial station so he brought a no-nonsense, business-like approach to the table. He ruled with an iron fist. It was a welcomed change.
I was promoted from Sports Director to Operations Manager, yet still did play-by-play announcing. John taught me almost everything, however, he didn’t know sports. Department chairperson Dr. Anthony Maltese and Dean George McCloud brought in Spencer as guest professor to teach a Sports Broadcasting course. Having worked at the radio station for two years doing play-by-play for every Pioneer sporting event, I was first of 20 students to register.
Learning from Spencer in the classroom was a helluva wake-up call. The first day of the semester, he asked the class “how many of you are involved in the radio or television stations?” I was the only one. He was baffled as to how 19 others could take a broadcasting class yet not be on the air. We hit it off and in the first session I was really the only student who asked questions and participated in the group discussion.
That Friday was the first football game of the season, and Spencer decided to pay a visit to the booth where I was the radio play-by-play man. He thought I had potential and wanted to see what I could do in-person. I was excited to have this legend critique my performance. This dream opportunity soon turned into a disaster as I was terrible. I was ill-prepared and had no clue what I was doing. During every break, he ripped me. "You aren't painting a picture for the listener!" "You aren't telling a story!" "You don't know the formations!" "Why aren't you wearing a suit?" “Why did you arrive 30-minutes early instead of 3-hours early?” His parting words were “bring the tape of this game to class Monday!”
Monday arrives and he played the tape of my awful broadcast. He ripped my mistakes apart during the entire three-hour class. What a verbal beating! If it was a fight, they would have stopped it! But, he told me why I was wrong, how to correct it, and what I needed to do to improve. It was constructive criticism. I listened. I got it. I had my notebook and wrote down every word. I didn't quit, and after class, I asked for extra help. He gave me his phone number.
On his own time, he taught me lessons he learned from his mentor, the legendary Marty Glickman. Spencer helped me prepare roster charts. Told me how to read formations. Explained how to tell a story and paint a picture. He told me that a broadcaster, even on radio who isn’t seen by the listeners, needs to wear a suit because you represent the university. He told me to go to practice during the week to talk with players and coaches. Arrive 3 hours before kick-off. Get on the field and get a feel for the game during pre-game drills.
My broadcast the next week was tremendous. He played the tape in our next class, praised me and explained everything I did right. The following week, he brought in Ian Eagle for a seminar, who was at WFAN and now does NFL on CBS. Later, Erik Spitz held a seminar, who was WFAN operations manager. After the four-month semester, I was the only student to receive an A.
I did radio play-by-play for football, men's and women's basketball, and baseball. I then moved to television and did those same sports plus men’s and women's soccer, and volleyball. My partner on television was Kevin Burkhardt. Burkhardt took Spencer’s course the following semester and was the standout student in another group of 20. He also got an A.
During this same time while still in college, I was working professionally at WGHT Radio in Pompton Lakes, NJ, as Morning Show Co-Host and Sports Director. My first hire was Burkhardt, and we were partners again on the College and High School game of the week for football, basketball and baseball. We made a great team!
Kevin moved on to WFAN, then joined the Mets on SNY, and now is a play-by-play man for NFL on FOX and studio host for MLB on FOX. I was lucky to also work with many other soon-to-be stars at WPSC including Rich Kaminski of 106.7 WLTW, Joe "Monk" Pardavila of 95.5 WPLJ, and IWF Hall of Famer Richard Ross.
Spencer was a great mentor. He taught me professionalism and the art of storytelling. There is no handbook for success. To learn any craft, you must listen to those who were successful in that profession, surround yourself with great people, and do whatever it takes to improve. The lessons I learned from Spencer Ross are still carried with me today.