Dolphin, Podolak bring insight, laughs into 20th year as tandem

Chad Leistikow

The 2011 Insight Bowl in Phoenix was dragging. Back in Iowa, it was past midnight. In another 2 minutes, 22 seconds, the Hawkeyes’ loss to Oklahoma would mercifully be official.

It had been a forgettable football game.

What happened next led to unforgettable radio.

An ESPN sky camera suspended by wires crashed to the ground. A few feet to the right, and it would’ve been a direct hit on Iowa’s Marvin McNutt. After it was clear nobody had been hurt, Hawkeye radio voices Gary Dolphin and Ed Podolak transitioned into vintage form.

“It’s got a mind of its own, somebody shoot it!” Dolphin said in his crisp, baritone play-by-play voice as the wounded camera slithered across the grass field on a wire, with a helpless ESPN employee in pursuit. “Get Sheriff Ron!”

“They have rodeoed it!” Podolak said, choking through laughter and tears. “They’ve tied it down like a calf coming out of one of those rodeo chutes.”

For five minutes – a radio eternity – the air waves in Iowa were filled with gut-busting cackles and one-liners, bringing levity and laughs to the painful conclusion of a 7-6 season.

“Oh, Edward,” Dolphin would say as they tried to collect themselves on-air, “what a way to conclude our 15th year together.”

And Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game against Miami of Ohio kicks off Year 20 together bringing Hawkeye football – with a deft combination of professionalism and humor – into living rooms and headsets across our state. That’s five years longer than Podolak worked alongside the late, legendary Jim Zabel – one of the “Big Three” play-by-play announcers that Dolphin was hired to replace when Learfield Sports purchased exclusive rights to Hawkeye broadcasts following the 1996 season.

“The university made exactly the right move by bringing Gary in,” Podolak says today. “He’s such a pro. I had to do a little bit of correcting with Z. Sometimes he got a little bit ahead of himself. I loved him. But my job’s a lot easier now.”

Bringing in Dolph

Dolphin’s hiring was contentious 20 years ago, and he understood why. The Cascade native was seen as pushing legends Zabel, Bob Brooks and Ron Gonder literally to the sidelines.

“WHO (in Des Moines) was upset because they wanted Zabel, and I get that,” Dolphin says now. “WMT (in Cedar Rapids) wanted Gonder. And Bob Brooks had his faction.

“Frankly, that’s why I never applied for the job. Until they called me.”

To Dolphin’s surprise, he was aggressively pursued by the six-person selection committee that included then-Iowa athletics director Bob Bowlsby. For six years, he had commuted from Dubuque to Evanston, Ill., as Northwestern basketball’s play-by-play voice.

On Dec. 13, 1996, Dolphin was introduced as the new Voice of the Hawkeyes. Though Dolphin jokes about the ominous nature of a Friday the 13th press conference, he notes, “we didn’t lose any affiliates that I’m aware of.”

Zabel, Brooks and Gonder became contributors on game day. And even though this was supposed to be the Dolphin-and-Podolak duo, the new guy was deferential. He gently waded through frosty waters, especially with Zabel.

“One of the best things Gary did in that transition,” says Bobby Hansen, who will enter his 20th season as Dolphin’s radio sidekick in basketball, “was (show) respect of those three legends.”

Dolphin looks back on the transition now with humor (naturally): "That booth was really full."

Podolak interjects with a laugh, “A lot of people grabbing for the mic.”

Gary Dolphin and Ed Podolak hit it off from the start of the 1997 season. On the first play from scrimmage as a Hawkeye football radio duo, Tavian Banks ran for a touchdown against Northern Iowa.

19 seasons of strife, elation

Before Learfield bought Iowa's rights, it was a radio free-for-all. Dolphin had called some Hawkeye games for a Dubuque radio station, so he knew Podolak as part of the press-box contingent. Looking back as Year 20 approaches, they appreciate how quickly they clicked in Year 1.

Perhaps it was fitting that the very first snap they called together turned into a long touchdown run by Tavian Banks in the 1997 opener against Northern Iowa.

"Gary and I just fit together like a glove right away," Podolak says. "I like his humor so much."

It hasn’t been all laughs.

Podolak retired briefly after the 2008 season, his 27th in the booth, after embarrassing photos of he and a woman in a hotel bar at the Outback Bowl surfaced online. He entered an alcohol-abuse treatment center, then decided to return to the radio booth.

Two offseasons later, Podolak was crossing a Scottsdale, Ariz., street when he was hit by a pizza-delivery car going 45 mph. Both his legs, some ribs and an orbital bone were broken. He endured 15 surgeries and spent the first month of the 2011 season in a wheelchair, but he fought back.

Also in 2011, Dolphin was battling prostate cancer. After 42 radiation treatments, he fought back, too.

If they were cats, Dolphin jokes, “we’d be down to three lives collectively.”

Inside the booth, there have been harrowing football moments, too.

Probably their most famous call was the finish to the 2005 Capital One Bowl, when Dolphin and Podolak were pleading with Iowa to call timeout (“Nine seconds to play, and Drew Tate doesn’t know that!”) before Tate’s miraculous Hail Mary touchdown pass to Warren Holloway.

But Dolphin goes to Oct. 24, 2009, for his No. 1 memory.

“To my dying day,” he says, “that’ll be my favorite.”

Iowa was going for its first 8-0 start in school history, under the lights at Michigan State. Down 13-9 with just 2 seconds left, Ricky Stanzi completed a quick-slant pass to McNutt for the win.

“What is so great about it is the eeriness of the crowd that is roaring so loud, that you can’t even collect yourself,” Podolak says. “And it goes to dead silence. Just dead … silence.”

They still click

Dolphin, 65, maintains his day job in business development at a Dubuque bank.

Podolak, who turned 69 on Thursday, is further removed geographically. For most of the year, he stays in Costa Rica, where he is developing his third boutique resort (, a business venture inspired by longtime friend Jimmy Buffett (yes, that Jimmy Buffett).

Yet those commitments and distance haven’t dimmed the football savvy Podolak accrued while starring with the Hawkeyes (1966-68) and the Kansas City Chiefs (1969-77).

To underscore Podolak’s expertise, Dolphin tells the story of the 2009 home game against Michigan. It was a wet, windy night at Kinnick Stadium, and Podolak tipped off Dolphin (and listeners) to something he saw while watching Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier in warmups. “The wind’s howling out of the north. That pig is so cold and slippery. And this kid has some of the smallest hands I’ve ever seen on a quarterback. He’s going to put at least two on the ground," Dolphin recalls Podolak saying. "And I’ll be damned if he didn’t.”

Indeed, Forcier lost a fumble and threw an interception in an 8-of-19 passing performance before being replaced by Denard Robinson in Iowa’s 30-28 win.

That’s one of Dolphin’s football-announcing secrets: Tee it up for Podolak, and let him shine.

“He never uses binoculars, which I always found unique in that he wants to see the defense,” Dolphin says. “Because he played the game at the highest of levels as a running back and quarterback, he really understands defenses. (And) he can analyze it so a sixth-grader or a Ph.D can understand it.”

Going into their 20th year, it’s been a great match of personalities, with enough stories for a book.

Dolphin giggles as he recants the time Podolak went shirtless in the sweltering Miami of Ohio press box. In the recent Rose Bowl, they panned the Stanford band's inaccurate anatomic portrayal of a Holstein (Podolak grew up on a Cass County farm).

Health willing, they both want to keep their on-air blend of insight and yuks going.

“As long as the fans like me,” Podolak says, “and as long as Learfield employs me.”

The Friday the 13th press conference and Big Three animosity is a distant memory.

Dolph and Podi have come a long way together.

“Here we are 20 years later, already with a lot of really good memories,” Dolphin says. “I think it’s worked out OK for everybody involved.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.