Dick Harmon: BYU broadcasting pioneer admires BYUtv's progress
He bought his family homestead in Mt. Pleasant and now dutifully tends his grandchildren, but back in the day, Jay Monsen broke a lot of ground as a sportscaster in Utah and was a real pioneer in the realm of TV and radio.
The West Coast Conference announced Friday that BYUtv will air eight games in the league's men's and women's tournament in Las Vegas next week. Monsen, now 78, is amazed and impressed at the exposure BYU sports are getting on ESPN and especially BYUtv. More than 40 years ago, he helped assemble a few bricks that became the foundation of the high-tech machinery seen today.
Mikel Minor, who just left ESPN in Bristol, Conn., to return to BYUtv this year as senior coordinating producer, was a producer with Monsen when KBYU-TV began broadcasting sports. The BYU alumnus also kicked off the Blue and White Network.
"Jay is perhaps the most influential figure in the development of my career in sports broadcasting," Minor said. "When I began televising BYU games as a student with KBYU-TV, Jay was The Voice of the Cougars — his presence and perspective as the primary play-by-play man resonated with enthusiasm, clarity, wisdom and experience. Although I was initially intimidated to be working with a veteran of his stature, Jay quickly became both my mentor and my friend. His passion for BYU and the sports we televised are a profound example to me, and I'll always be grateful for the lessons he taught about integrity and the love of the game — values I still rely upon each day as a professional broadcaster."
Monsen began his broadcasting career in 1956 at KUSB Radio doing games for SUU, which was then a junior college. He also took on high school basketball games and built a network of stations that aired regular season and tournament games from Montpelier, Idaho, to St. George. Back in the day of the A and B state high school tournaments, Monsen once did 22 of 26 games for different radio stations.
Doing those high school games, Monsen did play-by-play announcing for games involving players like Gary Hill, Neil Roberts and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who played for Dixie.
One day KSL station manager Joe Blair heard Monsen announcing high school games and offered him a job doing news. When BYU hosted USC in the Stan Watts era, KSL broadcaster Paul James had a conflict and Blair asked Monsen to do the play-by-play of the event.
"It was a lifetime dream come true for me," Monsen said.
While at KSL, Utah Democratic Rep. Gunn McKay hired the Republican Monsen as his press secretary in Washington, D.C. During Monsen's second year in politics, KBYU-TV director Bruce Christensen called and asked Monsen to come help increase sports coverage at BYU.
"That was the only thing I was interested in," recalled Monsen, who arrived on campus in the early '70s. "We first started doing replays of home games in football and basketball."
But even that wasn't easy. Then-coach Tommy Hudspeth didn't want rebroadcasts; he thought it would give opponents an unfair advantage in scouting his team. The plan didn't take root until LaVell Edwards replaced Hudspeth and supported the idea completely. Basketball coach Watts, on the other hand, didn't mind rebroadcasts but was picky about camera locations on the floor.
Monsen found BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett to be his biggest advocate. When the LDS Church set up satellite dishes in LDS stake centers around the globe, KBYU-TV approached leaders about sending games to those locations.
"We had a lukewarm response," Monsen recalled. "The satellites were to bring meetings into those buildings. We were told we could do one or two, but this was not going to become a sports network."
The thing is, it caught on like wildfire. People began gathering in LDS stake centers throughout the country. They had pep rallies and even cheerleaders as crowds gathered and watched BYU games.
"LDS leaders then approached KBYU and asked, 'How many games can you do?' " Monsen said.
In 1979, KBYU-TV broadcast a BYU game at Texas A&M when quarterback Marc Wilson had just had an attack of appendicitis and the Cougars won on a two-point conversion.
"When we got back to Provo, we found out the town went crazy over the broadcast, and that greatly increased interest," Monsen said.
Those satellite games led to creation of the Blue and White Network, and Monsen employed color commentators that included Gifford Nielsen, Steve Young, Tom Steinke and current MWC and BYUtv sportscasters Blaine Fowler and Dave McCann.
"When we didn't do BYU games, we'd pick up Air Force games. That was the beginning," Monsen said.
Russ Merrill, an early producer with Minor at KBYU-TV, recently returned to campus to reunite with Minor at BYUtv and is now supervising director.
"Jay Monsen always had an interest in BYU sports, and he loved telling stories," said Merrill. "He started doing both years ago and opened the doors at BYU to make broadcasting the games on television a reality. We wouldn't be doing the games today the way we are without the vision and dedication of Jay Monsen. He was a sports broadcast pioneer and, in the early years of broadcast, became the conduit through which many fans have been able to enjoy the unfolding stories of BYU sports and events. We still enjoy them from his innovative and visionary perspective today."
After formally retiring from BYU as a specialist in the athletic department's sports information department, Monsen did BYU women's basketball games for eight years up until 2011, a year he was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame.
He moved from Lindon to Mt. Pleasant, where he and his wife Lauretta have worked in the Manti LDS Temple the past decade.
Monsen fought and won three battles with cancer in the past 12 years. In 2000 he was diagnosed with lymphoma and given two years to live. During that time, LaVell Edwards called him in Lindon and talked at length. Monsen tears up remembering the conversation.
"He is just that kind of man, and I appreciated his thoughtfulness and kindness and what he took the time to do that day," he said.
Monsen has had treatments for prostate and skin cancer, which are also apparently under control with no life-threatening issues.
"I think some of the things we did in the day laid the groundwork for what you see today on BYUtv, which I believe is comparable and as competitive as any sports production out there," Monsen said. "Their technical work, their talent is for real. They can compete in the marketplace, and I'm proud of what they are doing. The facility at BYUtv is unbelievable, state-of-the-art, and they are taking full advantage of it."
"I have family members in Washington, D.C., who used to drive to mountaintops to hear BYU game broadcasts," Monsen continued. "Now they see them live in their living rooms. This is a great accomplishment."
Today, Monsen fills his days with his grandchildren. His days on the airways are over, but it's not too late to salute this pioneer, a man who simply loved to tell the stories of live games and laid down a lot of track for those who follow.
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