Paul James has described the play-by-play action of every BYU-Utah football game since 1959. When the Utes and Cougars collide at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday, he will call the annual grudge match on the radio for the 42nd consecutive and final time.
Fittingly, his last broadcast will take place right where he started at the University of Utah. Indeed, James' broadcasting career has come full circle. While he has been the Voice of the Cougars on KSL Radio (1160 AM) since 1965, he started out as the Voice of the Utes from 1959-64.
James, who announced his retirement from the booth last August (the same day that BYU's LaVell Edwards announced his retirement from coaching), says he won't do anything out of the ordinary on Friday. Even if it is the end of an era.
"I'm going to treat it like any other game. I'm not going get hyped about it," James said. "I have nothing special planned. For the Utah game, I always try to stay out of the media hype and treat it like it's BYU-UTEP."
For a long time, James had planned to retire with Edwards, who will coach in his last game Friday. But he wasn't sure it would happen. "I was ready to go out two years ago," he said. "I was going to retire this year whether LaVell did or not."
James says he regrets announcing his retirement the same day Edwards did. "I never wanted to detract from LaVell's day," he said. "I just wanted to be a footnote. An asterisk. I just want to slip quietly into the sunset."
One of the reasons for retirement is his health. Six years ago, James, 70, underwent back surgery, and he suffers from nerve damage in his foot. He says he is in pain 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
At the same time, James figures he's lucky to have been able to do Cougar games as long as he has. His final broadcast could have come four years ago at Rice-Eccles Stadium during a BYU-Utah game. He suffered a heart attack just before kickoff but stubbornly refused to go to the hospital. "The paramedics were trying to drag me out of the press box," James recalled. While he was doing the play-by-play, paramedics attached electrodes to his back and chest to monitor his heart. A few days later, he underwent six-bypass heart surgery.
"I don't remember a lot about that '96 game," James said. "I don't think about that experience a lot. I'm just glad to be here."
James was genuinely touched last week when he was honored at halftime of the BYU-New Mexico game in his last broadcast in Provo. "I'm not an emotional person, and I told my wife I wouldn't get emotional," James said. "But when I stood at midfield as the school gave me some gifts and the crowd cheered, I just started to cry. I couldn't help it. Tears were streaming down my cheeks."
Don't believe that because James is retiring from broadcasting that he'll have nothing to do. James does more in a few months than many people do in a lifetime. He plays the piano, paints, teaches a bridge class and plays golf. He is a voracious reader and enjoys traveling.
In the future, James will follow BYU football, but he's not going to miss the job. He began television broadcasting five decades ago as a 20-year-old college student. For 32 years James worked the evening and nightly TV news, hosted two radio shows a day, did a weekly coach's show and called play-by-play for at least one game a week from September through March. He retired from TV work in 1989 and stopped broadcasting Cougar basketball games in 1997.
"When I started, I was a fanatic. I worked seven days a week and didn't spend any time with my family," James said. "If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't have done it as long, and I wouldn't have worked so much. I wish I had spent more time with my family."
Through the years, James has witnessed, and reported, amazing games and events at BYU. He had a birdseye view of the Cougar football program's rise from the throes of mediocrity to the heights of a national championship. "It's been a wonderful career," James said. "My biggest thrill is that I was there for the glory days in the 1980s. I'm not sure we'll ever see a dynasty like that at BYU again."
When James signs off on Friday night in his final broadcast after 36 years as the Voice of the Cougars, he plans to keep it simple. "I'll just say So long,' " he said.