TV Dean Back on Track

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 160 views 

Through the years, television sports anchors and reporters have come and gone in Northwest Arkansas.

Then there’s Mike Irwin, who just turned 64 and has covered the Arkansas Razorbacks as a sportscaster — nearly without interruption — since 1975.

“I was planning to retire at age 66,” Irwin said. “But I’m telling you right now, when I turn 66, if they want me to retire, they’re going to have to come in and pitch me out the door. I’m having too much fun.”

Irwin’s employer, local NBC affiliate KNWA-TV, likely isn’t in a hurry to give him the heave-ho. The station’s signature product is its sportscast, branded the Razorback Nation.

If it’s over-the-top reporting on University of Arkansas athletics you’re looking for, KNWA has it. It puts more resources into covering the Razorbacks than any other television station in Arkansas, news director Brook Thomas said, and it’s hard to argue.

Take, for example, the Hogs’ recent trip to the College World Series in Nebraska. KNWA covered the team’s weeklong stay with seven people from its sports department. That’s why it isn’t surprising to see Irwin on the KNWA payroll.

What is surprising is that he was available for hire earlier this year.

On May 1, KFSM-TV, Channel 5, announced it was letting Irwin go, 37 years after he opened the Fayetteville office as a bureau of the Fort Smith-based CBS affiliate. KFSM was the first television station to open an office in Fayetteville and, ultimately, cover the Razorbacks with a Fayetteville base of operations.

“I am still proud of that fact,” Irwin said.

Sports director John Engleman was also let go — he had been with the station since 2009 — as the station said it was going in a different direction.

“Very surprising,” said Rick Schaeffer, the sports information director at the UA from 1979 to 2000 and a longtime friend of Irwin’s. “As long as [Irwin] had been there and as effective as he had been, I think anybody would have been surprised.”

The only direction KNWA needed was to the nearest telephone. Irwin said he was unemployed for about six hours before fielding a call from KNWA sports director Jason Carroll, who, coincidentally, was hired by Irwin 13 years earlier as a sports cameraman at KFSM.

Carroll told his former boss KNWA was planning an even heavier approach to the Razorback Nation by creating a reporter’s position to go with its staff of on-air anchor/reporters.

“As he was describing this job to me, I remember thinking if I took a blank piece of paper and wrote the job description of a job I would want, and that I would be good at, it would be what I was hearing,” Irwin said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Irwin was one of several applicants. He said he never felt like his hiring was a sure thing, even though there was no one with television experience who could match his perspective on Razorback athletics.

“I had to convince them I was the guy they wanted,” he said. “And I guess I did, because I got the job.”

Said Thomas: “When Mike Irwin became available, it was a no-brainer. The guy’s covered Razorback athletics for nearly 40 years. Just his name recognition, credibility and contacts alone make him a valuable asset to the Razorback Nation.”

Four days after he was hired, Irwin was on the air in Omaha, covering the Razorbacks again, back on track as the unofficial dean of the state’s sportscasters. Considering he got his start in Georgia in 1971 because of a glitch made by the United States Army, it’s been quite a career.


Growing Up

Irwin, the oldest of three siblings, grew up in Morton, Texas, a cotton farming community 60 miles west of Lubbock.

“You could throw a rock and hit New Mexico,” he said.

Of course, the town of about 3,000 revolved around football, documented primarily in the weekly newspaper, which was owned and operated by Irwin’s father. Irwin recalled the lack of any organized football program for he and his friends growing up, so they played football in the streets.

“These were dirt streets, not asphalt,” he said. “We weren’t that tough.”

Irwin said a defining moment in his life occurred in 1957 when he was in the fourth grade, standing on the sidelines of a home game in Week 2 between the Morton Indians — led by a first-year coach who’d run off all but 12 players by the time the season began — and the Muleshoe Mules, a slightly larger school and the town’s chief rival.

“They were what Texas was to Arkansas,” Irwin recalled. “We almost never beat them. Almost never.”

Irwin and a childhood friend were just a few feet away when Morton’s star halfback (Eddie Thompson) survived a goal-line collision to score a touchdown, breaking a scoreless tie with less than a minute to play and winning the game. Irwin, as good and detailed a storyteller as a person can find, remembers names, uniform numbers, and other vivid details of the final play as if it happened yesterday.

He has replayed the ending in his mind countless times.

“This was real life,” he said. “Not a reality show; not a movie. This was real life in my hometown. To this day, it’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen in my life. [Eddie Thompson] was my hero from that point on.”

Irwin grew up to play linebacker and nose guard, and occasionally a down here and there on the offensive line when he reached high school. Schaffer said Irwin so values his career as a high school football player that he still talks about the lessons he learned to this day.

“The things he learned about life in football, he still holds those as very important, all these years later, to his character development,” Schaeffer said.

Irwin had dreams of playing football in the old Southwest Conference, and attended Texas Tech home games often.

“I was in love with the Southwest Conference,” Irwin said. “I liked them all except Texas and Texas A&M, and the only thing I had against those schools is I didn’t like their fans. They were very disrespectful.”

Irwin’s Indians were average at best, but he loved the game and worked hard at it. That did not, however, translate to a football scholarship.

Instead, Irwin headed to the University of North Texas in Denton. The reason was simple.

“It was the cheapest tuition in the state,” Irwin said. “My first tuition there, I took 12 hours and it cost me $72.”

Working and paying his own way through school — Irwin estimates he worked as many as 15 jobs in college, from being a janitor, selling playground equipment and even time at Six Flags — he graduated from UNT in four years.

“I had a degree and no debt,” he said.

He originally planned to coach high school football, but a bad experience as a student teacher in inner city Fort Worth soured him on the career choice.

That same year, a career path presented itself. Irwin was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1971, a development that, unpredictably, would lead to the beginning of his broadcast career.

“It was a total accident that I got into TV,” Irwin said. “A lot of things in my life are like that.”


A Computer Glitch

Irwin figured he was going to be sent to Vietnam. When he was finished with basic training, however, he didn’t have any orders. After two weeks, the company clerk informed Irwin that he was going to be a broadcast specialist for Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.

With no training in that area, Irwin was as surprised as anyone.

“He said the Army has just started using computers, and there has clearly been a glitch,” Irwin recalled. “They’ve given you a job that you normally have to go to school to get.”

Irwin thought he should rectify the situation, but after some assurance from the clerk, he accepted the assignment and was sent to Fort Benning, Ga. Irwin was sent to Fort Rucker, Ala., later that year during football season and began doing some weekend sports work for a local television station. He was even offered a job at the end of the season, but not wanting to be “stuck” in southeast Alabama, he returned to Texas and worked in a handful of markets the next four years.

In 1975, a friend at KFSM in Fort Smith told Irwin the station was going to open a bureau in Fayetteville. Irwin said his goal was to cover a college program, so even though the bureau’s presence was news-driven, he sought and accepted the job with an eye on covering the Razorbacks.

Shortly after the bureau opened, Irwin pleaded with decision-makers in Fort Smith that the office needed to be covering the Razorbacks. They agreed, and Irwin hired two part-time UA students to cover news — one of who, Phillip Bruce, is currently the news director at CBS affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston — and Irwin focused on sports.

“I never really thought when I got here that I was going to stay very long,” he said “After being here for a couple of years, I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I knew people were passionate about Razorback sports and I knew I had a job where that’s what I did, and everything I did from that point on was predicated on that. I basically did that up until a few months ago.”


Meticulous Mike

Irwin’s coverage of the Razorbacks also included a stint as host of the radio show “Press Row” for several years until 2007. He was also a contributor to fan-based websites, something he will now re-visit at as part of the site’s partnership with Razorback Nation.

Those closest to him describe him as meticulous, dogged and thorough in his reporting. And he is the type of challenging personality who has an opinion about things and says what he means. Schaeffer, a close friend and frequent tennis partner of Irwin’s when they first began their respective careers in Fayetteville, was hesitant to say on the record that Irwin “used to tell people that his goal was to make me mad. I think it sometimes aggravated him that I didn’t get mad.”

Irwin no doubt ruffled feathers of coaches he covered at one time or another. With a tell-it-like-it-is approach, it’s hard not to.

But, he said that never interfered with doing a professional job.

“I didn’t like [former football coach] Lou Holtz; didn’t have any use for him,” he said. “He was just an unpleasant person to be around but that was irrelevant. I was never unfair to him. On the other hand, [retired baseball coach] Norm DeBriyn is probably my favorite guy of all those coaches. He is a wonderful human being and a funny guy to be around.”

DeBriyn is at the top of Irwin’s list of coaches he most admired at the UA. Another is Nolan Richardson.

“He’s one of the most misunderstood people I’ve ever known in my life,” he said. “I think he’s a genius. He lives by the school of common sense and he makes more sense to me than any ten other people I’ve ever been around.”

Former football coach Bobby Petrino also has Irwin’s admiration.

“That will probably be misinterpreted by a lot of people,” Irwin said. “But I still admire what he did as a football coach and I refuse to criticize him. I’m not in the business of moralizing about people. I’ll leave that to somebody else. He got fired, he deserved it, but I really, really liked what he did with this program.”

Is Irwin a Razorback fan?

“Probably,” he said. “But you have to divorce yourself from that when you’re working. I’ve always tried to have an arm’s length relationship with coaches and never allowed myself to become personal friends with a coach.”


Nice Surprise

Aaron Peters, KNWA’s top sports anchor and a veteran of more than a decade in the local TV market, called Irwin’s hire, “the free agent steal of the century.”

“You can put me on record as saying it was foolish [to let him go],” Peters said. “He’s probably forgot more about the Razorbacks than I will ever know. We’re glad to have him.”

Irwin, who is working under a two-year contract, said the new surroundings have re-energized him.

“It’s a nice little surprise that somebody gave me toward the end of my career,” he said. “I don’t know that I deserve it, but I’ll take it.”

And if his presence can energize the KNWA ratings — its newscasts are historically third in the Nielsen ratings for this market — Irwin’s station switch might ultimately change the landscape in the local television market.

“Sometimes experience is undervalued,” Schaeffer said. “You can’t replace that kind of veteran observation that he has. It’s nice that at this stage of life that somebody else stepped in and said, ‘We value that’. And I am sure Mike must feel good about that.” 


• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Q&A with Mike Irwin

Northwest Arkansas Business Journal: Do you have a favorite pro team you live and die with?

Mike Irwin: It used to be the Dallas Cowboys, growing up in Texas. But I have to say I am not a big fan of Jerry Jones in some respects. He is a genius at marketing his product. There’s probably nobody on the planet better. Until Jerry lets somebody else run that team, I’m probably going to be skeptical about the Cowboys.


NWABJ: What is your favorite sport?

MI: College football. Not even close.


NWABJ: What’s your favorite movie?

MI: A movie called “The Ox-Bow Incident.” It’s an old black-and-white movie with Henry Fonda.


NWABJ: Favorite actor?

MI: There are a million of them. I really, really liked Paul Newman.


NWABJ: Who has been your favorite UA athlete to interview?

MI: It was a guy named Chris Bequette. Jake Bequette’s uncle. He was an offensive lineman. He should’ve been a head coach. Whenever we wanted good X’s and O’s [quotes], we’d go to him. He was just so smart and funny to be around, too.


NWABJ: If Bobby Petrino called and said he wanted you to do the first interview, what would be your first question to him?

MI: Why’d you do it? Why didn’t you follow your own rules that you gave your players, which is never let anything distract you from what you’re doing? Why did you do that? Why did you break your own rules?


NWABJ: A name to be considered as Arkansas’ next permanent football coach is who?

MI: Provided that it’s not John L. [Smith], I think the most intriguing guy out there is a guy that will never get the job. His name is Dana Holgorsen. He’s [head coach] at West Virginia. This guy flat knows how to score points. I like to see teams score points and I’d open the bank vault for that guy. But, he’s divorced and he likes to hang out at the casinos. I don’t think he would get the job but that’s who I would hire.


NWABJ: Favorite television show?

MI: I like “Longmire.” It’s a fairly new show on A&E about an older sheriff in a small town in Arizona. I don’t miss that. The writing in that thing is classic. Great fiction.


NWABJ: When you want a break from work, what are some things you like to do?

MI: I like to play golf, but probably more than anything else, I like to do home improvement projects.


NWABJ: Think of a perfect meal. What’s on your plate?

MI: My wife’s spaghetti. She can make spaghetti that’s better than anything at Noodles, better than anything at Olive Garden, better than anything in Tontitown. I like all those places, but I can sit right here at my kitchen table and eat better spaghetti than they make.


NWABJ: What’s your signature drink?

MI: I stopped drinking when I was 28 years old. I was abusing alcohol and I knew it and I knew I had to stop, so I just quit. I generally drink Diet Coke and Diet Dr Pepper.


NWABJ: What’s your favorite thing about NWA?

MI: The Razorbacks. What I think is awesome about Fayetteville is there is a rumor mill component to this town where you don’t even need the media. It works like a computer network. And I love that.