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Sports media: Dave Eanet’s connection to Northwestern runs deep

As with many college alumni, Dave Eanet’s allegiance to his alma mater is strong. But Eanet’s might be stronger than others’. In 1996, he changed jobs because of it.

Eanet, who graduated from Northwestern in 1977, had been the school’s football play-by-play voice since 1990 on WBBM-AM. The station’s rights deal had expired, and Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor was looking to capitalize on the Wildcats’ run to the Rose Bowl in the 1995 season.

He reached an agreement with WGN-AM, which would carry Northwestern football and basketball games. Eanet still was under contract with WBBM, and he was perfectly happy there. That didn’t stop WGN from asking whether he’d be interested in continuing to call football.

“I met with them and said, ‘I’d love to keep doing the games,’ ” Eanet said. “And I said, ‘It won’t be a problem with me staying at BBM, is it?’

Dave Eanet, the sports director at WGN Radio, has been the play-by-play voice for Northwestern football since 1990, when the Wildcats were on WBBM. Eanet added basketball in 1996, when he joined WGN.

“They said, ‘No, no, no, you don’t understand. If you’re going to do the games on WGN, you have to work for us.’ ”

As tough as it was to leave the station where his career started, Eanet followed his heart – and Northwestern – to WGN.

Now, 22 years later, Eanet will be on the call with longtime analyst Ted Albrecht and sideline reporter Adam Hoge for a potentially seminal game for the school. Undefeated Notre Dame, ranked fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings, will visit Ryan Field for the first time since 1976 on Saturday night.

It’s a unique situation. The Irish’s playoff hopes could be doomed with a loss. But the Wildcats’ Big Ten title hopes won’t be affected either way. The West Division leaders visit second-place Iowa next week with a chance to all but seal a spot in the conference championship.

“I think it puts people in a weird place,” Eanet said. “You want to get through this game, you know what a win would mean for the prestige of the program. And yet at the same time, I think a lot of people are thinking, the next big one is Iowa a week from Saturday.”

Still, the game will be an event. Eanet likened it to the 1995 team’s game against Penn State, which happened 23 years ago Sunday. The Wildcats’ 21-10 victory before a national TV audience was validation for all they had achieved, including road victories against Notre Dame and Michigan.

“Remember how Penn State and Joe Paterno were viewed in college football at the time,” Eanet said. “History may have changed the narrative, but at the time, Penn State was college football. And to have them come in and a Northwestern crowd packing that place, I have very vivid memories.”

Fortunately, Eanet’s memory is foggy regarding Notre Dame’s last visit, a 48-0 Wildcats defeat.

But he remembers well what else was happening at that time of his life: He was learning the ropes at WBBM.

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A year earlier, the station hired students at minimum wage to come in at night and answer the phones in the newsroom and change the ribbons on the teletype machines, among other tasks. Eanet was one of them, and he eventually became a newswriter. But he wanted to do sports. So he hung out in the corner of the newsroom where sportscasters Brad Palmer and Rich King worked.

When WBBM began carrying the White Sox in 1980 (the station had been carrying the Bears since 1977), sports needed more help. Eanet got his wish.

He also got one of Chicago’s first sports-talk shows, which he co-hosted with King. But they had an element to their show that others couldn’t touch: White Sox voice Harry Caray.

Caray either would call in from the ballpark after night games or visit the studio on nights off. Whatever the case, hilarity often ensued.

“Harry would come in, sit around and talk sports for 90 minutes,” Eanet said. “One night I remember he comes in with [former Orioles manager] Earl Weaver, just brings him to sit in for 90 minutes. They’ve got their Budweiser going, they’re just having a great time.”

Eanet left WBBM in 1983 to return to his native Washington, D.C., for the sports director job at WRC. But his stay lasted only a year. NBC, which owned the station, sold it and fired everyone.

“It was just like the end of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ ” Eanet said.

He figured his best option was to return to Chicago. With the Cubs en route to their first playoff appearance in 39 years, WGN was looking for more help. During the playoffs, Eanet had a weeklong on-air audition with renowned morning-show host Wally Phillips. He got the job.

In 1985, WGN picked up the Bears, whose broadcasts became a big part of Eanet’s job as assistant program director. But in 1988, Eanet had his eye on another football team.

“I still had a fondness for Northwestern, and Northwestern was on a small station at the time. You could barely pick up the games,” he said. “So I worked on setting up this deal to bring Northwestern football to WGN.”

But then WBBM called, offering a promotion to sports director, a spot on the morning show and a weekend talk show. It broke his heart to pass up calling the games, but with his wife, Karen, expecting their first child, Eanet had to go.

Two years later, Eanet and the Wildcats finally came together. WGN had dropped Northwestern for Notre Dame, and Eanet took the idea of carrying the Cats to his bosses.

“They talked to Northwestern, and they agreed to take the games, which was kind of a leap of faith because Northwestern had gone 0-11 the previous year,” Eanet said. “So, 1990, on BBM, Brian Davis and I did the games. That’s where it started.”

Today, Eanet is synonymous with Northwestern athletics. In 2014, the broadcast booth at Ryan Field was named the Dave Eanet Broadcast Booth, one of his many honors.

But what’s most important to Eanet is painting a picture in the mind of listeners and sharing the feeling of the moment. With many college teams’ broadcasts bordering on obnoxious, Eanet keeps his call classy. His descriptions are keen and quick, no easy task with so much information to disseminate.

Eanet also maintains objectivity, which he attributes to the way he was brought up in the business. But given Northwestern’s history, Eanet can be forgiven for an overly exuberant call here and there.

“If people tune to our broadcast, you’re going to understand this is the Northwestern broadcast,” Eanet said. “But, look, Notre Dame is a great team, and I will certainly emphasize that on Saturday night. But if Northwestern scores, I’m gonna get excited. And when they win like they won against Nebraska three weeks ago, am I gonna just about jump out of the booth? Yeah.”

Remote patrol

  • WGN-AM (720) will carry the Northwestern basketball team’s exhibition game for the first time Friday night to commemorate the first game at the renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats host McKendree at 7 (pregame at 6:45).
  • The Bears-Bills game at noon Sunday will be called by Fox’s No. 5 crew of play-by-play voice Chris Myers, analyst Daryl Johnston and sideline reporter Laura Okmin.