Before he called Tony Dorsett’s 303rd rushing yard against Notre Dame in 1975, Kenny Pickett’s fake slide in the 2021 ACC championship game or M.J. Devonshire’s pick-6 against West Virginia last year, Bill Hillgrove’s first venture behind a microphone required him to play the part of a brat.
It was in a live production of a series of stories about a Catholic family in the 1950s that aired on WDUQ entitled “Morning, Noon and Night.”
Hillgrove was 13.
Seventy years later, he’s still holding onto a microphone, and he’ll be at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday — his partner and color analyst Pat Bostick by his side — beginning his 50th season calling play-by-play of Pitt football.
Then, on Sept. 10, he’ll be back at Acrisure for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opener, starting his 30th season with the professional team in town.
Later this fall, Hillgrove will be inside Petersen Events Center to tip off his 55th season of Pitt basketball.
“Being around somebody like that is the reason why I always wanted to go to Pitt,” said former Pitt All-American tight end Dorin Dickerson, who handles sideline duties with Larry Richert during Panthers broadcasts on 93.7 FM. “There are people and staples at Pitt that everybody knows, and everybody knows Bill Hillgrove. To hear him call my name for a touchdown, it’s a surreal feeling. He’s one of those people, you just don’t get tired of listening to him.”
Bostick is starting his 11th season with Hillgrove.
“From the first time I worked with him,” Bostick said, “his presence, his voice, his recall, his passion are all evident. But what I think people don’t get to see is what a professional he is, how much work he puts into it.”
Added Richert: “It’s the voice that is the soundtrack to our sports memories.”
The kick-start to Hillgrove’s career came from his aunt, Sister Mary Bernard O’Brien of the Sisters of Charity. Sister Mary had a friend, Sister Rosalie, who ran the Pittsburgh Diocesan Radio/TV school.
“She said you like to putz around with radios like your dad (who was an electrician),” Hillgrove told the Tribune-Review on Thursday morning. “Why don’t you go there and see what you can learn?
“I show up, and (Sister Rosalie) handed me a script and said, ‘Read it.’ I read it, and she said, ‘Exactly what I’m looking for, a 13-year-old brat.’ ”
Hillgrove’s response: “I don’t need a script for that, Sister.”
And off he went.
“At a young age, I discovered I had a talent for being on this side of the microphone,” he said.
Hillgrove graduated from Duquesne University in 1962 — so long ago, he said, recalling the old joke, “The Dead Sea wasn’t even sick.”
He was former play-by-play man Ed Conway’s color analyst for four seasons, ascending to the lead chair when Conway died in 1974.
Johnny Sauer, a West Point man who coached in college and the NFL, was named the color man. Hillgrove’s first game was at Florida State on Sept. 14, 1974, but Sauer, who also worked for CBS-TV, was scheduled to work an NFL game that weekend.
The legendary Myron Cope pinch-hit for Sauer during Pitt’s 9-6 victory, lamenting the bugs — Cope called them “love bugs” — that infested the visitors’ radio booth at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
Cope also filled in for Sauer during the 1983 season. Hillgrove remembers Cope trying to beg off when the boss said, “You have to double up.” Cope also was doing Steelers games.
“I’m busy enough,” Hillgrove recalls Cope pleading to the boss. “I have morning commentaries, evening commentaries, TV commentaries, the talk show. And the boss said, ‘But your contract is up in January.’
“Cope said, “I’m all ears.”
“It was great for me,” Hillgrove said, “because it was an introductory to what it was like to work with him and develop chemistry, and that served me well when the Steelers came calling.”
Along with Sauer and Bostick, some of the region’s most recognizable sports figures have worked with Hillgrove, including Dick Groat, Tunch Ilkin, Craig Wolfley, Merril Hoge, Bill Osborn and Bill Fralic.
Asked to name his favorite Pitt coach, Hillgrove rattled off the names Johnny Majors, Jackie Sherrill, Dave Wannstedt and Pat Narduzzi. Asked to pick one, he chose Majors, who led Pitt to a national championship in 1976.
“He was a dream, always conscious of the public, always conscious of the image,” Hillgrove said. “We’d sit in the room when he edited the footage for “The Johnny Majors Show” and he said, ‘Take that play out. It showed too many empty seats.’
“He was the perfect fit. He made a miracle happen, and it was a miracle.”
The Voice of Football in Pittsburgh ????
This Saturday, Bill Hillgrove begins his 50th season on Pitt play-by-play duty ???? pic.twitter.com/RzvPzyqkSH
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 30, 2023
Bostick said he learned how Hillgrove approaches a broadcast the first time they shared a booth.
“First game I called, I knew he got the running back wrong on a touchdown run,” Bostick said, “and I waited to break and I told him. That’s the only time Billy yelled at me. ‘Partner, you have to correct me.’
“He doesn’t care about making a mistake. He’ll own up to it. The listeners are most important to him. He just wants the listener to know the truth. I don’t think everyone’s like that.”
Bostick said working the ACC championship game with Hillgrove is among their most memorable moments together.
“For (the Pitt victory) to mean as much as it did to the program and to have him narrate Pitt and to be right next to him as he did it in real time, it was like something out of a movie, man. It was really cool.”
Before that, there was the lightning delay at the Syracuse game at Heinz Field in 2018.
“He said, ‘Partner, we’re going to need to tap dance for a while.’ We ended up talking about jazz. We ended up talking about Count Basie. It was special.
“He’s bigger than life.”
Hillgrove said he doesn’t like “the earthquakes” that are happening in college football, referring to conference realignment.
“I don’t like the fact that everybody is going after the buck,” he said. “College administrators preach the high road, and then they stuff the cash in all four pockets.
“Jackie Sherrill told me this a couple years ago, ‘Billy, the culprit is ESPN. They toss the money around and, then, of course, the colleges go after it.’
“I don’t think it’s good for college football, and I don’t know how they fix it.”
Yet his love for the games and the job overrides those concerns. He said he’ll keep turning on his microphone until it’s no longer fun.
“Every game,” Hillgrove said, “it’s a magic carpet ride.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .