The defenestration of Charlie Mac by Todd Ellis and Learfield/ISP
The story of how South Carolina replaced one of the most decorated play-by-play commentators in the industry with an underqualified novice.
On Sept. 4, Shane Beamer will become the fifth different person since 2015 to serve as head coach of the South Carolina football team. By contrast, USC has employed only three different people as the radio play-by-play voice in the history of the football program. That’s one of those facts that completely unmoors me from my sense of time. Like finding out there was a Civil War veteran’s daughter who was still alive in 2020.
Much of the awe derived from this statistic is owed to the job of Voice of the Gamecocks not having existed until 1952 — and then Bob Fulton acting as its sole occupant for 42 years. Still, in an era when it’s rarer and rarer for employees to stick around at a company for five years — much less a whole career — doing play-by-play for the Gamecocks has been one of the most stable jobs in America.
That is, unless you’re Charlie McAlexander.
McAlexander — or “Charlie Mac,” as he is known — had the most impressive radio résumé of anyone who has ever accepted the job as the Voice of the Gamecocks. And he continued racking up accolades and adulation during his time behind the mic at Williams-Brice Stadium, to the tune of three SC Sportscaster of the Year awards from the National Sports Media Association. And yet his seven seasons calling play-by-play at USC make for, by far, the shortest tenure of anyone to enter this exclusive fraternity. And, just months after adding his final NSMA trophy to his collection, Charlie Mac’s reign ended with a humiliating demotion that essentially forced his resignation.
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Mike McGee’s golden touch
In 1995, athletics director Mike McGee had already done quite a lot of work toward cultivating his legacy as a man capable of selling South Carolina to the biggest names in coaching. Even when McGee erred, he seemed to have a knack for finding a way to come out on top in the end. In 1993, McGee’s infamously doomed courtship of former USC basketball star Bobby Cremins felt like a disaster, but he still ended up striking a deal with Dean Smith disciple Eddie Fogler. One year later, McGee pulled the plug on the Sparky Woods era, and new hire Brad Scott’s debut season saw the Gamecocks claim their first-ever bowl victory. We know now that Brad Scott did not work out in the long run, but getting hung up on that ignores 1) how hot a commodity the up-and-coming Florida State offensive coordinator was at the time and 2) the overwhelming success McGee enjoyed when hiring his second and third Carolina football coaches.
Three years into a bold new era of SEC competition, McGee had South Carolina hiring coaches in a manner suggesting he and USC were quite at home competing alongside the Alabamas and Georgias. And when Bob Fulton announced his retirement after 42 years calling play-by-play, McGee seemed to bring that same ethic to finding a new Voice of the Gamecocks. No one would seriously argue that hiring a play-by-play person was anywhere near as important as hiring a good football coach. But in an era when it was not unusual for a team of South Carolina’s standing to go several weeks in a row without having their game broadcast on television, for many fans, their most regular — and perhaps only — direct contact with a university spokesperson was through the voices of the gameday radio crew. So it was pretty important.
In the end, McGee landed on 25-year broadcast veteran Charlie Mac, who he plucked away from calling football and basketball for Kentucky.
“We had a lot of worthy applicants,” McGee told The State, “and I mean worthy. But Charlie McAlexander's name kept coming up.”
“Charlie's credentials are top-flight,” McGee told the Post & Courier, “and he brings a strong and impressive track record to our program.”
WVOC sports director Jim Powell, who went on to an award-winning career with the Milwuakee Brewers alongside the legendary Bob Uecker, had been the early favorite to replace Fulton. But McGee didn’t think South Carolina fans would accept someone quite so young.1
One quality McGee wanted in his new announcer was maturity.
After 43 years of Fulton, USC fans might be jolted to hear a youngster "of 25 or 30" doing the Gamecocks. Also, those fans might be slow to accept what they might perceive as a "rookie." It should be an easier transition with a veteran such as McAlexander.
Charlie "Mac," as he is called, also has had national exposure on ESPN ("The NCAA Today") and on CBS radio where he served as analyst for the NCAA radio basketball game of the week.
Scott thinks that kind of recognition is good for his Gamecock football program.
"Charlie Mac has got a reputation that's already established throughout the Southeastern Conference," Scott said. "And when he's doing those other things (like on ESPN), his name is going to carry Carolina with it. That will give us special notoriety."
When he was hired at USC, Charlie Mac had won Sportscaster of the Year in each of the three states where he’d plied his trade. He would soon add three South Carolina Sportscaster of the Year trophies to his collection. Soon after his hire at USC, Charlie Mac’s colleagues appointed him president of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.
In short, McGee’s radio play-by-play hire was every bit as decorated as the coaches he would go on to hire. And during Charlie Mac’s early days in Columbia, all indications were that he was living up to the hype:
“He’s quite good,” hailed the Post and Courier, pointing to Charlie Mac’s skill as the lone bright spot in an episode Brad Scott Show with too many advertisements and too few highlights.2
Later on in South Carolina’s 4-6 campaign of 1995, the Post and Courier further proclaimed, “Despite South Carolina's struggles, Charlie McAlexander, the new ‘Voice of the Gamecocks,’ is doing a heck of a job calling the games on the radio.”3
In announcing that a South Carolina away game to Arkansas would not be televised, The State advised that “Gamecock fans who don't make the trip must rely on Charlie McAlexander's splendid play-by-play.”4
In the midst of South Carolina’s winless first season under Lou Holtz, Gene Sapakoff opined, “If you have to suffer through losses, you won't find a better radio broadcasting team in college football than Charlie McAlexander, Tommy Suggs, Todd Ellis and Steve Stewart.”5
In short order, Charlie Mac had become part of the scenery on the USC campus. His “hang a Garnet 6” touchdown call became a well-known signature of his broadcasts. He’d even taken up teaching a beloved sports broadcasting class at the university. In the late 90s, I was a child just coming into my Gamecock fandom, and it never occurred to me that there was a time when football and basketball games were narrated by someone other than Charlie Mac. I would go to sleep listening to Charlie Mac and Casey Manning describing a midweek battle against Florida or Arkansas or whoever, and wake up, radio still tuned to WVOC, anxiously waiting for the morning show hosts to tell me what I’d missed. I remember my 13-year-old self being impressed by Charlie Mac describing a Gamecock football player beating a defender to the end zone “by a country mile” and making an unsuccessful attempt to work this phrase into everyday conversation with my middle school friends.
But in the midst of South Carolina’s 21-game losing streak, Gamecock fans with more exacting requirements of their play-by-play host than I apparently had — and more exacting requirements than the National Sports Media Association had — began formulating a complaint:
Charlie Mac wasn’t enough of a homer.
The rise of Todd Ellis
Todd Ellis joined the South Carolina radio broadcast team in 1993 as a sideline reporter. Ellis was just two years removed from the end of his short-lived professional football career and four years removed from the last time he suited up as quarterback in the garnet and black.
“I’m very much excited about working with somebody like Bob Fulton and Tommy Suggs,” Ellis said upon being hired. “They’ve been doing this for a long time. They’re strong, stable and creditable. I hope I don’t mess things up.”
Though he would relinquish the role to Charlie Mac the next year, in 1994 Ellis added hosting The Brad Scott Show to a growing portfolio of responsibilities. With the news, Ellis issued an ominously incorrect appraisal of his own broadcasting future.6
Former USC quarterback Todd Ellis will host Brad Scott's television show this season. But don't look for the holder of most Gamecock passing records, who sometimes will host Scott's radio call-in show with Jim Powell, to make broadcasting a fulltime job. He plans to pursue a career in law as soon as he completes his final year of law school.
"It's only for this time of the year," Ellis said. "It's a good outlet. It also helps pay for some of those tuition bills."
In his capacity hosting the post-game call-in show, Ellis often found himself putting the happiest possible face on another bad performance from the team. This was an attribute appreciated by some, but not all.
“The USC post-game call-in show sounds the same week after week and year after year,” groused a fan in a letter to the editor of The State following a 47-21 loss to Clemson, “with Todd Ellis and company making excuses and softening up the criticism from the fans, who use this show to voice their feelings and frustrations.”
By 1999, Ellis regularly earned plaudits from Gene Sapakoff as a “top-notch sideline reporter” and “one of the best in the business.” Examples of some specific moments deemed praiseworthy included Ellis challenging Lou Holtz on a decision to have fumble-prone Derek Watson field punts and Ellis sharing the details of a pre-game speech that he was invited to give the team before a Clemson game.
Clearly, the role of sideline reporter played to Ellis’s strengths. The skilled sideline reporter feels enough at home mixing among the players and coaches that they’re able to make key observations into on-field adjustments, developing injury situations, or the mood of the team after a pivotal play. Having made such an observation, the sideline reporter can communicate to the broadcast director what they’ve learned. Then, at the right moment, the commentary crew can throw to the sideline reporter who, when prompted, delivers remarks that add depth and context to the broadcast.
But just as oncology and obstetrics are different and highly specialized professions within the field of medicine, so is sideline reporting an altogether different job from play-by-play. For that matter, radio play-by-play should be thought of as a closely related but nevertheless distinct skill from television play-by-play.
The best radio play-by-play broadcasters synthesize intense preparation with a fluidity of thought and speech that is almost difficult to fathom. There are few skills I marvel at quite as much as the ability of broadcasters to receive a visual input, instantly determine the most important details of what you’re seeing, and immediately produce a coherent — and sometimes even approaching poetic — description of events. Television play-by-play features many of the same challenges, but it’s common practice to let the visuals do their fair share of the talking. That’s obviously not possible on the radio.
“I had a guy call me one time when I was in Nashville,” Charlie Mac said in 1995. “He told me he was blind, and that the way I called a game allowed him to see what was going on. I've always remembered that. So now I just try to do a game as if I were explaining it to a blind person.”7
For the 2000 season, South Carolina games were rebroadcast midweek on SC ETV, and Ellis was tapped to do play-by-play commentary with fellow ex-Gamecock Corey Miller. Only Ellis and Miller didn’t provide live commentary; they recorded their remarks over a replay of the game tape. Ellis said it was the first time in his life he had done play-by-play, such as it was.
“I'm not sure how us already knowing the outcome of the game will affect our comments,” Ellis said. “We're not going to try to fool anybody about this. We're not going to try to make them think it was done during the game.”8
Ellis got his proper play-by-play debut in 2001, when he left his sideline reporting gig to call the games live for Comcast Sports Southeast. The broadcasts were available on a mid-week replay and live on pay-per-view. (Hey, remember pay-per-view?) Comcast saw fit to renew this arrangement for the 2002 season. And that was the extent of Todd Ellis’ live play-by-play experience when he was given one of the most coveted jobs in sports broadcasting.
In come Learfield and ISP
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