• Editor’s note: This is the third in a series about the voices of Sooner football and basketball.
This list of writers and broadcasters who turned to covering sports when they could no longer play them may not include everybody, only most.
Yet, hardly any has a story as perfect as Toby Rowland’s.
The radio voice of Oklahoma football, basketball and baseball since Bob Barry Sr. concluded a 50-year run on both sides of Bedlam following the 2010-11 academic year, Rowland was a basketball player at Southern Nazarene.
Originally an accounting major, he flipped to broadcast journalism halfway to graduation, though remained on the hoops squad, taking up a scholarship coach Bobby Martin thought might be better spent on somebody else.
“Coach basically said give me the scholarship back and I’ll give you the opportunity to begin a sports information department,” Rowland remembers.
At the time, SNU only played basketball and volleyball, but new sports were in the pipeline, like football and baseball. Talk about the fortuitous hand of fate.
Rowland took Martin’s offer and soon found himself on color commentary alongside play-by-play man Larry Mills, who happened to be an old Southern Nazarene basketball coach himself.
“Halfway through the season,” said Rowland, “[Mills] said, ‘You know what, let’s switch.’”
With that, a play-by-play man was born, some might argue a natural.
That argument may be defied by Rowland’s vast experience, little of which was known when he ascended into Barry’s chair.
Given the year he called games as an undergrad and six more as Southern Nazarene’s sports information director, football and baseball added along the way, he gained a mountain of experience quickly.
Thus, the one night I spent at Bricktown Ballpark for reasons not remembered and poked my head into the radio room, listening to Rowland call a few pitches during the brief spell he called RedHawk baseball, it’s hard to know if the relaxed polish that made such an impression on me was rooted in that quick experience or if he had it all along, even as an Indiana youngster, listening to Marty Brenneman call the Cincinnati Reds.
That’s the thing about listening to Rowland.
He gets excited. His voice amplifies quickly. He can be moved by the moment in an outsized way. Yet, before any of that, in the calm spaces that that fill the tapestry of each broadcast, what you notice is the utter comfort he offers behind the mic.
Also, listening to his call matched with footage, which you can’t get on the radio but might in a highlights package, is to realize how much he picks up on the periphery of the ball.
What he sees with his eyes is out of his mouth in no time. Rowland’s never catching up to the play.
How he calls the game is a separate matter.
Rowland looks up to John Brooks, the man who preceded Barry as the Sooner voice, yet believes his call to be stylistically more like Barry’s.
“I don’t have as much flair as John Brooks,” Rowland said.
He has plenty, yet Brooks had this way of standing apart from the game he was calling, a trick allowing him to offer classic play-by-play while seamlessly stepping into a critic’s role when required, expanding his authority.
You knew which team Brooks was there to call, but you knew he wore his own colors, too, often the black and white of a tuxedo.
What’s so interesting about Rowland is, though decked out in crimson and cream, he still gives you the whole game.
It’s his own trick.
“It’s certainly obvious who the crew and I hope to win the game. However, I think you lose respect very quickly as a play-by-play guy if you’re not honest with your listeners,” Rowland said. “I don’t think it’s about not getting excited when your team scores and less excited when your team doesn’t, but I think the respect lies in the honesty of the call.”
Asked about Rowland, Brooks took the opportunity to bring Dave Hunziker, who calls Oklahoma State, into the mix, too.
“I think Toby does a good job and I think Hunziker does a good job,” he said. “Both of them give you enough honesty and a true feel for how the team’s playing that they are believable homers and I think I was a believable homer.”
Maybe, but Brooks’ honesty tended to be less varnished, a fact his fans cherish.
Those who prefer Rowland likely appreciate his making the unpleasant easier to digest.
What’s clear is that within the construct of the choices each has made, both are terrific at it and appreciate the other.
About Barry, Rowland said, when you heard his voice, he “immediately sounded friendly … like somebody you wanted to spend three to seven hours with.”
About Brooks, despite a difference in styles, Rowland is effusive.
“When I hear John Brooks highlights, I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “He’s one of the most entertaining play-by-play guys that’s every lived.”
Beyond melding the two schools from which his predecessors came, another endearing fact about Rowland is that he calls the diamond, too, a responsibility he actually requested.
“I just love baseball,” he said.
Funny thing, it’s not like Rowland had a specific dream and it was to be the Sooner voice.
Yet, still at Southern Nazarene, realizing his comfort on the call, that he might even be good at it, he had a thought.
“The greatest job I could possibly think of,” he said, “would be to be the play-by-play guy for the Oklahoma Sooners.”
Look where he is.
When he got the job, there was blowback. He was young. He didn’t have enough experience. His name wasn’t very big.
He actually had a bunch of experience, but the other two charges, yeah, he was guilty.
He had a thought then, too.
“In my heart, I was like, I can’t wait to show them that I can do this,” he said. “They just haven’t heard me. Wait until they hear me call a game.”
We all have.
He’s very, very good at it.
Follow me @clayhorning