You may not know the face, but you know the voice of Bill Roth, who for 27 years teamed with Mike Burnop as the radio voices of the Virginia Tech Hokies football and basketball teams. Bill left Tech and Blacksburg for the city lights, taking the same job with UCLA in Los Angeles in April, 2015. He worked there for a year. Then he moved back. He moved home.
He was kind enough to join my daughter Whitney and me at a local restaurant to talk about that experience.
“Tech asked me to come back,” he said. “I wasn’t happy in L.A. The university asked me to come back and join a new Sports Multimedia Journalism Program that Tech wanted to put together. We always thought Tech would be a great place to do that. The university had made the commitment to build an incredible studio.”
“But Bill,” I pleaded, “it’s UCLA! It’s Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl!”
“Sure, it’s one of the truly iconic jobs in sports,” he admitted. “UCLA recruited me. They wanted me. They are the winningest athletic program in sports. It’s a great city. They have a great media presence. To give you an idea, in the Olympics, the USA has the most medals all-time. Russia/Soviet Union is second. Germany is third. China is fourth. And UCLA students and alums are fifth.
“Their greatest player in every sport, you would recognize. In baseball, Jackie Robinson played there. In basketball, Kareem (Abdul Jabbar). Bill Walton. Flo-Jo (Joyner) and Jackie Joyner Kersey in track. Women’s soccer. Lisa Fernandez in softball. You’d know them. Arthur Ashe in tennis.
“The difference for me at Tech was that I knew people. I knew (former presidents) Jim McComas, Marshall Hahn, and Paul Torgerson. (Coach) Frank Beamer. They were friends of mine. The athletic department uses the line, ‘This is home,’ but for me it really is. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great job at UCLA. The grass was definitely green. They have 113 national championship trophies (in all sports). Tech is still trying to achieve its first. But culturally it wasn’t what I wanted.
“We have a feeling of community (at Tech). Ut Prosim. You can’t snap your fingers and get that. What Virginia Tech is institutionally permeates this entire state.”
He explained how important UCLA is to its region, with highly ranked medical and law schools. They get tens of thousands of applications every year. “It is top-five in everything. It seems crazy to say, but I didn’t like LA. It surprised me. I like cities. I like palm trees and beaches. I had family there. But it wasn’t for me.”
I asked when he knew he belonged back here instead.
He said, “It didn’t happen overnight. But looking back, I called a basketball game at Pauley where UCLA beat Kentucky. Kentucky was number one in the country. It was the first time the teams had ever played on campus. UCLA and Kentucky are perhaps the two most storied teams in the history of collegiate basketball. It was a great game. UCLA won. But it didn’t do for me emotionally what Tech beating Duke or Carolina when they were number one did here.
“Not only did it not resonate with me, but it didn’t resonate for the fans either. (The sentiment was,) ‘That’s what we’re supposed to do.’ They can recruit any player they want. Great weather. Unbelievable traditions. Great academics.
“I think my lack of emotion affected my work. No, I wasn’t doing the best work I could. I remember driving through downtown LA at night after some games. The skyline, the massive freeway; it was cool! I was listening to the radio station replay the highlights. I had a sense of professional pride and an ego-jolt for a second. It was great. And that lasted about twenty seconds. I missed the relationships here.”
“That’s a great story, Bill,” I said, getting moist eyes.
“Thank you. There are a lot of great people in LA. But people here are genuine, generous, and sincere. Here, the relationship between the players, the fans, and the university at large is unique. It can’t be duplicated or engineered or bought. I needed to leave to fully understand how much that meant to me.
“It’s different here, it really is. If you’re a Hokie, you know what that is. That’s not an indictment of UCLA. What brought us together after April 16 is unique. That was the worst day in the lives of so many, of those kids and their families and our campus and state and county. But over 20 of the kids shot that day survived. Not one of them transferred. Not one student who took a bullet in their body transferred. There is a reason for that. I hope and pray that no university anywhere will ever go through that again, but the fact that everybody hung in there and stuck together says a lot about this place. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this. I knew this. But I didn’t know how much that meant to me. It’s what lures people back here. If you’re a Hokie, you know that.
“People here are saying to me over and over, ‘Bill, we really missed you.’ This is a FACT: I missed you all more than you missed me. I missed Mike Burnop; I love the guy. Working with him was the best 27 years of my life. Period.
“Everything that we want at Virginia Tech, they have at UCLA. But everything they want, we have here.”