Hillgrove keeps going strong

There’s so much to like about Bill Hillgrove it’s hard to know where to start.

The longtime Pittsburgh sports broadcaster, a native of the city he knows so well, serves as the play-by-play voice for the Steelers and for Pitt football and basketball. He’s been working Steelers games since 1994 and Pitt sports since 1969.

His about to enter his busy season, and at 77 years old (he’ll be 78 in November) he has no plans to slow down. This weekend his schedule included Penn State-Pitt on Saturday night and then the Steelers’ opener at Cleveland this afternoon.

After more than a dozen hours of preparation during the week, gamedays allow him to slip into a familiar routine — one he enjoys immensely.

“It’s fun regardless, and this season both Pitt and the Steelers look like they’re going to have really good seasons,” Hillgrove said earlier this week.

“For me, no matter the outcome, I have a job to do. I can do it with emotion, but there’s never any ‘we’ or ‘us’ in it. I try to avoid the ‘we’ because I don’t play, and I don’t take any of those hits, and I don’t dish them out. Plus, you have your own credibility in the mix.”

Still, Hillgrove is rightfully associated with Pitt and the Steelers. He’s spent a lifetime (or at least the lifetime of many of his listeners) in his roles.

He’s also an example of the substance-over-style approach necessary for a Pittsburgh sports broadcaster. He worked for years with the city’s ABC affiliate, WTAE-TV, and he still hosts a weekly jazz show on radio. He tapes that Fridays and it airs Saturdays, year round.

“It’s a meat-and-potatoes town,” he said. “I’ve seen so many examples through the years when marketers get in charge and they bring someone in and you just know they’re going to fail. It’s a different market.”

Hillgrove’s job is not without challenges, including tight travel turnarounds a couple times this season when Pitt and the Steelers play back-to-back days in Chapel Hill and Tampa, Orlando and Pittsburgh, Winston-Salem and Jacksonville and Miami and Denver.

Still, he’s dealt with those things before, and little truly worries him.

This weekend was easy by comparison. After the game Saturday night, he planned to drive from Pittsburgh to his house in Conneaut Lake and then get up early Sunday and drive from there to Cleveland.

“Actually when you go in I-90 that way, it’s not bad in terms of traffic,” he said.

Among the things to like about Hillgrove is his honesty. He’ll tell you what he thinks. He’s earned that right, but it’s who he’s always been. That’s especially true when he offers insights on things like rivalries, including Penn State-Pitt and Steelers-Browns.

“It’s a shame Pitt-Penn State will end, and I think fans should speak up,” he said. “They should contact their legislators — it happens in other states — and point out that they’re not just fans but constituents, and they want someone to find a way to make it happen.”

“The Steelers’ rival was always the Browns. It’s two similar cities, close to each other. I know Baltimore has become the rival, and that they moved from Cleveland. They’ve gotten that attention because they’ve been the best teams in the division, but the cities are really not that similar. If the Browns got good again, or even competitive, I think Cleveland-Pittsburgh could be fun.”

Friday fault

In my most recent column in this space my mention of Penn State’s upcoming (Sept. 21) game at Illinois as the program’s first Friday night game was incorrect. It’s just Penn State’s first game on a Friday night as member of the Big Ten Conference.

Thanks to my friend, Penn State football historian Lou Prato, for pointing out Penn State’s first Friday night game was Oct. 13, 1941, at the Polo Grounds in New York vs. New York University.

Penn State also played Friday nights in 1947, 1967 and 1976 (that one was the Friday night after Thanksgiving vs. Pitt in Three Rivers Stadium).

The 1989 Holiday Bowl against Brigham Young was also played on a Friday night.

Tuner tidbits

n A big change happened in terms of NFL game availability this week when the league announced it would not require viewers to login or validate that they have a cable or satellite provider to watch games online. That’s a move toward more access when ratings are down, and a change to accommodate the kind of access people want. It could free up more access going forward, and further hamper cable and satellite providers who had those games somewhat locked down as their own. Still, it’s the right move.

n “Get Up,” ESPN’s ratings-challenge morning show, was shortened by an hour this past week. It starts at 8 a.m. weekdays instead of 7 a.m.

n Penn State alumna Melanie Collins will work as a sideline reporter for CBS covering NFL games this season. She joins a big on-air team: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and Bruce Arians (also a rookie in his role). That group will work the Steelers-Browns game.

Sampsell can be reached at stevesampsell@gmail.com.