Memo to the teachers at Lord Beaverbrook High School in Calgary, Alberta: Remember the little Wrubell Kid? Surprise! He talks for a living.
Imagine that. They pay Greg Wrubell to do the same thing that got him kicked out of class and sent into the hall.
Teachers couldn't get him to shut his yapper, and now his employers don't want him to.
Wrubell is the Voice of the BYU Cougars for KSL Radio, which means he gets to do the two things he likes most: Talk and watch sports — BYU sports.
This fall will mark his 10th year of providing the play-by-play for BYU football games (and 14th for basketball).
After years of hustling on BYU sideline duty, he was given the play-by-play assignment following the retirement of Paul James, the Voice of the Cougars for 35 years. He still feels as if he's living in James' shadow, which might partly explain the efforts he makes to perfect his craft.
Wrubell listens to replays of his play-by-play calls in cars and planes, looking for ways to improve.
"I try to listen as if I were a listener," he says. "Did I give the score often enough? Did I provide down and distance? Did I describe the play accurately and in an interesting fashion? How did I handle the end-of-game scenario? Did I slow down enough to let things develop in front of me to let them register so I can translate those things correctly? You only get one shot to get it right."
There is one call that still irritates him: the last play of the BYU-Utah football game in 2006, a 13-second marathon that ended with John Beck throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Jonny Harline on his knees in the end zone. "I didn't do that well," he says. "I was bothered by it for a long time."
As luck would have it, BYU fans like to greet him on the street with cell phones in hand. "Listen to my ringtone!" — It's Wrubell's call of the Harline-Beck play, which is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard for him.
"There are a couple of phrases I repeated three times — 'plenty of time, plenty of time, plenty of time,' 'shuffling, shuffling, shuffling,' 'caught for the touchdown, caught for the touchdown, caught for the touchdown.' It's repetitive. Then I say, 'He's running to the right and throws behind him.' That's not right. Who's behind him? Who is him?"
Notwithstanding, Wrubell is a natural for play-by-play work. He not only likes to talk, he likes to talk fast. In his early days in radio, he was repeatedly told to slow down. Which is easier said than done. The rapid-fire gab is an outgrowth of his frenetic personality, which is fully on display during a two-hour interview at the KSL offices. He wrings his hands, bounces his knee, fidgets in his chair, and tidies his cubicle, which is easily the neatest in the office.
"I'm a big fan of organization," he says.
Not to mention preparation. His half-hour pregame show sounds spontaneous, but every word of it is scripted. Using his T-Rex typing technique (two fingers on each hand), Wrubell types the script on a computer, leaving blank spaces for color analyst Marc Lyons' remarks.
"I want it to sound the way it would if we were having a conversation," Wrubell says. "This ensures that we'll cover the things we should, so when the game begins people will feel like they received good background info."
Wrubell is relatively new to the American sporting staples of football and basketball. Raised in Saskatoon and Calgary, he was an ardent fan of — what else? — hockey, as well as baseball.
Wrubell, who skipped first grade ("They said I was smart," he notes, wryly), was always the shortest and youngest of his class. "I wore glasses, too," he recalls. "I looked like a geek. I was the young guy. I did not have a wide social crowd. The girls were friendly. I was the cute kid with glasses. I don't mean that in any positive way."
He did not play high school sports, participating instead in choir, drama and public speaking competitions — pursuits that helped prepare him for his future career. He was a devoted sports fan, reader and sports trivia buff who liked to spend his free time in the library.
"I got in trouble for talking in class," he says. "I had a tough time reining it in. Occasionally, I would get put in the hall. That usually corrected it pretty quickly. My first instinct is to open my mouth. Sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not. In this line of work, it doesn't hurt to be verbose."
In high school he decided on a career in broadcasting — "I knew I loved sports and I talked a lot." His father Allan was a public address announcer for the Saskatoon Blades.
"That's where I first got used to the notion of speaking behind a microphone," says Wrubell. "He took me up to the press box during the games. Dad has a great voice."
He applied to several schools with strong broadcasting programs and eventually chose BYU. Wrubell and his family had converted to the Mormon faith when he was 10 (he interrupted his stay at BYU to serve a two-year LDS Church mission in Brazil).
As a 17-year-old BYU freshman, Wrubell was instantly swept up by the Cougars' improbable run to the 1984 football national championship. He watched his first college game — BYU at Pitt — on the big screen in the Marriott Center. He was hooked on football and BYU sports.
During his first week at school, he asked KBYU for a job. His first assignment was to report on the fencing team. After his mission, he applied for and won a spring semester internship at KSL Radio. He clipped newspaper articles, collected sound bytes and post-game interviews and was rarely heard on the air.
In the fall, KSL offered him the weekend news anchor position, which called for a 12-hour shift on Saturday and four hours on Sunday. A year later he was hired full time as the overnight news anchor, which he did while finishing his last semester of school and maintaining an exhausting schedule. He worked from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., then took a bus to Provo and attended class for a few hours that morning while trying and usually failing to stay awake. After an afternoon nap at home, he returned to work. He's been working at KSL since then.
"I've had one job," says Wrubell.
In the fall of '92 he began doing sideline reports for KSL, and four years later he drew his first play-by-play assignment when James underwent heart-bypass surgery — the BYU basketball team's 50-point loss at Washington.
"I remember he came and sat by my bedside and he wanted to know all the little tricks of the trade," recalls James. "He was a very conscientious, bright kid."
When James retired in 2001, Wrubell took over the football play-by-play duties full time (by then the kid had already been doing basketball play-by-play for four years).
"Paul showed me how it's done," says Wrubell. "He is the gold standard." Of his own style, Wrubell says, "I don't have the voice some of those other guys have. I compensate with accuracy and reporting."
On the air, Wrubell leaves no doubt about where his loyalties lie. He seems to come out of his chair for BYU's big plays, nearly shouting into the microphone with a certain take-that intensity.
"He is a fan, so he does get involved," says Lyons.
Says Wrubell, "I have struggled with the right way to get excited and not get overbearing. Sometimes it's just the way you sound when you get excited. You yell and scream sometimes. It's genuine. It might be a little much for some people."
Having grown up without football, Wrubell has schooled himself in the game. He reads coaching manuals and books, written by coaches for coaches. He studies the football rulebook each summer and frequently refers to it in the booth. Beginning during two-a-days, he pastes typed depth charts into notebooks throughout the season, eventually filling three notebooks.
"I love the preparation for the season and for a game," says Wrubell, who is on the air about seven of the eight hours that a gameday broadcast requires. "That probably means 20 to 24 hours of preparation for me," he says. He makes meticulous, color-coded spotting boards for each game, showing the starting players, their jersey numbers and statistics, along with notes Wrubell tries to work into the broadcast.
Ever the trivia buff, he loves arcane stats — i.e., BYU hasn't lost an away conference game when played in the afternoon. But his research sometimes produces numbers that even BYU coaches find useful. Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall has been known to take some of Wrubell's numbers to team meetings.
Wrubell's dedication to work and detail has provided much personal growth along the way. His weight ballooned to 197 pounds three years ago in the middle of the school year (he's 5-foot-10). "My wife showed me a photo, and I had jowls!" he says. So he began running for the first time, at the age of 38, which led to marathons and 10K road races. He runs 25 to 30 miles a week, and his weight has dropped below 175 pounds. "I'm on the third hole of my belt — I was on the first," says Wrubell, who has a marathon best of 3 hours, 33 minutes.
He works his running around his TV and radio duties and family life. Wrubell and his wife, Tauna, who married while they were attending BYU, live in Cedar Hills along with their four children — Jocelyn, Caitlan, Regan and Afton.
"Regan has autism, which is a challenge for us," says Wrubell, who participates in various events that benefit those with the disorder. He has testified before the Legislature for funding, solicited sponsors and acted as emcee for benefit-auctions.
His job has afforded him the visibility to aid such causes, not to mention the bonus of getting to watch and describe ballgames that feature his favorite team. His pastime is his avocation.
"This is a great job for me," he says. "It's my school. I call games for the team I am passionate about. I don't want to be in another city doing this for another station or team. I could do this for a long time and be quite happy."
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