hen Marc Vandermeer broadcast UMass sports in the late 1990s, the football team won a national championship and the basketball team reached the Final Four. When Vandermeer spoke, people listened.
Things certainly have changed since Bob Behler replaced Vandermeer as radio voice of the Minutemen. Last fall, football coach Mark Whipple called his team better than his national title squad, but the Minutemen failed to make the playoffs. This winter, the basketball team got off to a 2-9 start before winning its last two games.
Meanwhile, Vandermeer, who moved on to become radio voice of the University of Miami, nearly called another national championship football season. The 11-1 Hurricanes ended up second in the rankings behind Oklahoma this year. Last winter, Vandermeer was behind the microphone when the Miami basketball team reached the Sweet 16.
Vandermeer and Behler talk on the telephone, but Behler doesn't complain. He's happy to be in his second year in Amherst after spending the previous 13 with Bucknell.
“I didn't think they'd be a top-20 team,” Behler said of the UMass basketball squad, “but I thought they'd contend for the Atlantic 10 championship.”
UMass coach Bruiser Flint knew this would be a make-or-break season for him. He hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game in the four years since he replaced John Calipari as coach, and his teams haven't made the NCAAs the past two. Irate fans may be calling for Flint to be fired, but Behler insists the affable Flint has not let it affect how he deals with people.
“He has been great to work with,” Behler said. “He's very professional. During his coach's shows, he's very positive. It's been a tough year for him, but for me, he's made it very easy.”
According to Behler, it's no secret why the Minutemen haven't won more.
“We have a lot of athletes, but we don't have a lot of basketball players,” Behler said. “It basically comes down to, we don't shoot the ball well enough.”
The Minutemen struggle especially when star guard Monty Mack doesn't shoot well, and Mack hasn't shot well all season.
Behler and radio analyst Jack Leaman, the winningest basketball coach in UMass history, must walk a fine line during broadcasts. They can't be too upbeat during losses or they won't be believable. If they criticize the Minutemen too much, they'll chase away their few remaining listeners.
“You're not there to hatchet anyone,” Behler said. “What you do if a team's not playing well is you paint a picture of what's happening and give facts, and let your listeners decide for themselves.”
Despite the basketball team's worst start in 20 years, Behler still enjoys the games.
“I always have a good time,” he said. “If you don't, you might as well go home. It's only a game.”
For 13 years, Behler served as director of radio and television broadcasting and sales for Bucknell University. He announced football, basketball, even volleyball. Two of his most vivid memories occurred at Holy Cross. Bucknell came to Fitton Field late in the 1994 season with football coach Lou Maranzana struggling to keep his job. After Holy Cross completed a long touchdown pass late in the game to beat the Bison, Behler watched Maranzana hug his wife on the field.
“It was as if he was telling her, 'We're done,' ” Behler said.
A few weeks later, Maranzana was fired.
The year before, the HC basketball team beat the Bison at Bucknell to become the only Patriot League tournament champion to win the title game on the road.
“Watching Holy Cross cut down the nets wasn't any fun,” he said.
Behler had no more fun watching HC demolish UMass in basketball at the Centrum in November.
Behler, a 37-year-old native of Stockton, Calif., came east to attend the University of Georgia. He broadcast the college's baseball and women's basketball teams on the campus radio station. Four-time Olympian Theresa Edwards and former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lilliquist were among the athletes whose plays he called. The women reached the NCAA title game Behler's senior year.
After graduating, Behler called games for the Chattanooga Lookouts minor-league baseball team for a season and a half. Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez was the Lookouts' top player.
“He was completely opposite of what he is now,” Behler said. “He was a glove guy who was a singles hitter.”
As sports director of UMass flagship station WHMP-AM (1400), Behler not only announces Minutemen sports, but lines up all the affiliates and advertising. Nine stations -- less than half the number when UMass reached the 1996 Final Four -- carry UMass basketball.
“It's been a lot harder than when Marc did it,” Behler said. “People aren't as enthusiastic about UMass basketball.”
Worcester's WVEI-AM (1440) does most of the UMass games. WVNE-AM (760) will do Saturday's game at St. Bonaventure and the Feb. 24 game at George Washington. WTAG-AM (580) will carry the Feb. 20 game vs. Rhode Island.
Behler wouldn't turn down the opportunity to broadcast a professional team, but he's in no hurry to leave Amherst, even if the Minutemen keep on losing.
“I stayed at Bucknell for 13 years after signing a 10-week contract to do football only,” he said. “I'm enjoying myself.”