Wiedmer: Seeing Baylor Red through Armstrong's voice

Wiedmer: Seeing Baylor Red through Armstrong's voice

November 8th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

About 30 minutes before tonight's 7 o'clock kickoff, Baylor School senior Alex Armstrong will slip on his broadcast headphones inside the Heywood Stadium press box and tell anyone tuned into WFLI 1070 AM or the school's web viewers:

"Good evening, Red Raider fans. Welcome to the Baylor Broadcast Network's production of the Red Raiders' Division II playoff game versus Pope John Paul II ..."

In today's sensory-overloaded society, that intro probably lacks the electricity of "It's football time in Tennessee," or "Are you ready for some football?" but such subtlety is by design.

"The school wants it to be as generic as possible," said the 17-year-old Armstrong, a senior in his second year of handling play-by-play duties. "They want to keep us away from trademark catch phrases."

If you just felt the earth shake, it was probably ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale imploding. Let the game be the star? What a concept.

But it's worked quite well for the BBN over the last decade, ever since Ryan Crimmins, class of 2006, decided he wanted to bring Baylor sports, most notably football, to a wider audience. Along with Knoxville's Webb School, it's also believed to be the only broadcast in the state produced entirely by students. And thanks to the website www.nfhsnetwork.com/channels/baylor-chattanooga-tennessee, the games can now be both watched and heard worldwide.

"It's pretty impressive," Baylor athletic director Thad Lepsio said of the work done by Armstrong, his sophomore color man Coleman Hobson and those who came before them.

"They don't get paid; they don't get class credit; they have to sell all the advertising themselves. And they probably get more criticism than praise. But they do what they do for the love of the school. I wish we had more students like that."

That advertising effort includes 11 sponsors. First downs are known as a "Chattanooga Lane Company first down." There's also a Lawson Electric halftime show.

But criticism? Of high schoolers working for free?

"We also control the [prerecorded] music," Armstrong explained. "Last year there were times when some grandmothers of players and other older women complained about the music, that it wasn't family-oriented enough."

And you thought Tennessee's Pride of the Southland Marching Band was the only group offended by ear-splitting rap and hip-hop teasers during games.

Armstrong and Hobson are strongly discouraged from criticizing Baylor coaching decisions or a player's performance. In what is surely a nod to fans, that same silence hasn't been demanded of perceived officiating blunders.

"That's something we do like to do when we get the chance," said a smiling Armstrong. "Especially when the call goes against Baylor."

His other favorite call to make?

"Whenever we have a long touchdown play," Armstrong said. "I'll say, 'He's at the 40, the 35, the 30 ... the 10, the 5, touchdown, Red Raiders! I always jump at the chance to do that."

Armstrong is hoping some college will jump at the chance to have him perfect his skills. He's considering Georgia, Mercer, Tennessee and Ole Miss, where he's applied for a broadcasting scholarship.

"Alex has pretty high standards," said David Padilla, Baylor's dean of students for the 11th and 12th grades. "His GPA is very high. He's the student body president and the captain of the baseball team. He's a fantastic classmate. Alex doesn't just want to be the voice of Baylor athletics -- he wants to make a difference in the whole school. But while he takes everything he does seriously, he's not so serious that he can't laugh at himself. He's a great kid."

A longtime Georgia Bulldogs fan, Armstrong's favorite broadcaster is understandable.

"Larry Munson," he said of the late Voice of the Dawgs. "He was the best."

Another of the South's best -- Jim Reynolds, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's matchless Voice of the Mocs -- had a huge hand in the success of the BBN by donating much of the necessary equipment.

"By luck, we were just going to next generation," Reynolds said. "It was still great stuff -- we'd just happened to be changing at that time. So I gave them all our old equipment. Otherwise it would have been sitting in my garage gathering dust."

Nor have the network's on-air efforts disappointed Reynolds, whether the voice belonged to Crimmins, Clay Stockett, Danny Kennedy, Jordan Gregory, John Morgan or Armstrong's predecessor, Bryan Starnes. In keeping with the BBN's formula for success, Hobson will now follow Armstrong in the play-by-play chair next season, with a new underclassman brought on board to provide color.

"I've heard them all through the years," Reynolds said. "Seen them on the web, too. It's a super thing."

Armstrong doesn't need much time to pick his most super moment.

"This year's Baylor-McCallie game," he said of the Red Raiders' 38-14 win, their sixth straight in the bitter rivalry. "Probably my favorite day ever. I've definitely had good fortune versus McCallie. I'm just grateful for our players. They're the ones who've made it special."

For Armstrong, those special moments will come to an end whenever the Red Raiders' playoff run concludes and he goes back to being a student body president, baseball captain and student only, as if those tasks wouldn't overwhelm most teenagers.

"I'll definitely be sad when it's over," he said. "I think it's going to hit me pretty hard. I just hope Coleman will enjoy his time doing this as much as I have, because it all ends too quickly."

Kind of like the magic of Munson.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com