Orange Watch: A history of Syracuse Football TV broadcasts

Coach Mac1
Former Syracuse football head coach Dick MacPherson watches from the sidelines. Photo Credit: John Zych, The Juice Online.

Item: We take for granted in the 2020s that every Syracuse football game will either be televised or streamed live for our enjoyment. That was rarely the case between the 1940s-1970s with an occasional regular season game and bowl appearance the only broadcasts and chance to spotlight the program far and wide. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that SU games were somewhat regularly televised. Even the famous 1987 West Virginia last-second victory, the thriller to cap an undefeated regular season, was solely available to view either in West Virginia, or with an old C-Band satellite receiver on the Mountaineer Sports Network. Only as recently as the 2006 season was every ‘Cuse game televised on a weekly basis.

The sports broadcasting website has assembled a fascinating look at college football national and regional TV broadcasts, dating back to the first season of network telecasts in 1945 (one game between Army and Navy on NBC).

That year Syracuse made its TV debut meeting Columbia in New York City, a local telecast shown on both New York’s WNBT-TV, the city’s NBC affiliate at the time, and Schenectady’s WRGB-TV, with the great Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber calling the action. It was an inconspicuous broadcast unveiling for the Orangemen, a 32-0 SU defeat during a dismal 1-6 campaign.

The 1946-48 seasons proved no better. Syracuse lost three more games at Columbia by a combined margin of 121-57 in games televised locally on WCBS-TV, including the TV play-by-play debut of 1939 SU grad and broadcast Hall of Famer Marty Glickman.

By 1949, Ben Schwartzwalder’s first season coaching on The Hill, college football was being televised coast-to-coast on a weekly basis, but it wasn’t until Syracuse made its initial bowl game debut in the Orange Bowl following the 1952 season that the Orangemen would again be on network TV.

Once more Barber called the game (on CBS) on January 1, 1953, as SU was blitzed 61-6 by Alabama, ending what was otherwise a successful 7-3 season under Coach Ben.

During the 1953 season, Syracuse’s game at Illinois on October 24 (a 20-13 defeat) was part of what NBC labeled a college football “Panorama,” an experiment of switching to live action in key moments of four pre-selected games, a 60-year forerunner to what eventually became ESPN’s Goal Line program from 2010-2019 and the current NFL Red Zone channel.

“Panorama” was an instant failure. Viewers complained of the interruption to the flow of watching games in the still embryonic stage of televised football, and a second scheduled “Panorama” two weeks later was canceled by the network, opting to switch the games to regional coverage.

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The first network televised game on the Syracuse campus occurred in the 1955 season opener when the Orangemen fell 22-12 to Pittsburgh at Archbold Stadium. The broadcast by NBC featured Lindsey Nelson on play-by-play and the immortal Red Grange handling the analysis.

In 1956, the Nelson-Grange duo returned to town to cover Syracuse’s 7-0 victory over Army in front of 40,053, and they also handled SU’s disappointing 28-27 loss to TCU in the Cotton Bowl, and the 1957 regular season loss (20-12) to Penn State.

Here’s a look at the other Syracuse live network TV games from 1958-1990, when with the explosion of ESPN and other cable telecasts, games were more frequently broadcast as each season progressed:

Season Game(s) Note
1958 Oklahoma-Orange Bowl ABC’s Jim McKay on the broadcast as the color commentator.
1959 Texas-Cotton Bowl CBS broadcast SU team already named national champions before January 1 game.
1960 at Kansas / at Army ABC’s Curt Gowdy announced both contests.
1961 at Penn State / at Boston College / Miami-Liberty Bowl The freezing Liberty Bowl final SU game for Ernie Davis.
1962 at UCLA The 12-7 win capped off a 5-5 season.
1964 at Holy Cross / Pittsburgh / LSU-Sugar Bowl Holy Cross was an Eastern Independent rival in that era.
1966 at Baylor / at Penn State /

Tennessee-Gator Bowl

First year of standard color TV game broadcasts. 
1968 at Michigan State / at Penn State Legendary Chris Schenkel/Bud Wilkinson duo on ABC telecasts.
1973 Michigan State Onetime SU assistant Duffy Daugherty on ABC broadcast.
1978 at North Carolina State One of only five games on TV in the Frank Maloney coaching era (1974-1980).
1979 at Pitt / at Navy / McNeese State-Independence Bowl ABC’s Al Michaels called regular season games.
1980 Pittsburgh First televised game in the Carrier Dome’s first season.
1982 at Indiana First ‘Cuse game on cable TV – “Superstation” WTBS Atlanta.
1984 Nebraska / at Boston College Famous upset of No. 1 Cornhuskers on USA Network.
1985 Maryland-Cherry Bowl The short-lived bowl game in Auburn Hills, Mich. the only TV game of a 7-5 season.   
1987 Penn State / at Pitt / Auburn-Sugar Bowl “What a story Syracuse is this season,” said CBS’ Brent Musburger at Pitt Stadium.
1988 at Ohio St. / at Penn St. / at WVU / Pitt / LSU-Hall of Fame Bowl Five of the 12 games on live TV most up to this point in SU history.
1989 at Pittsburgh / Georgia-Peach Bowl  Chris Fowler served as ESPN’s on field reporter at Pitt game.
1990 USC-Kickoff Classic / at Penn State / at Miami / Arizona-Aloha Bowl  “Whoa, Nellie.” ABC’s Keith Jackson called Coach Mac’s final game on Syracuse sidelines.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.