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.
I’m packing for a vacation to North Litchfield, S.C., so instead of a new story today, I’m taking this one, originally published in July 2021, out from behind the paywall.
In 2021, Shane Beamer became the fifth different person in six years 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, including 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.
But in the midst of South Carolina’s 21-game losing streak that spanned the 1998 and 1999 seasons, Gamecock fans with more exacting requirements of their play-by-play host 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.”
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 Gamecocks. 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
The event that precipitated Charlie Mac’s removal as the Voice of the Gamecocks occurred in April 2003. Learfield Communications and ISP Sports outbid South Carolina’s previous media rightsholder, Host Communications, and signed USC to a five-year, $9.5 million contract. The two companies assumed responsibility for producing the Gamecocks’ radio broadcasts, including hiring and firing the on-air talent. The changing of the guard immediately raised questions about Charlie Mac’s employment status. And an equivocal answer from sports information director Kerry Tharp did little to quiet the rumors.9
“As far as I know, Charlie Mac is still the voice of the Gamecocks,” Tharp said. “I haven't heard otherwise. But I've been in this business long enough to know that you take these things one day at a time.”
Gene Sapakoff responded with a column bearing the headline “USC should insist on Charlie Mac.”10
McAlexander’s classy, insightful radio play-by-play delivery has made him a Gamecock fan favorite. This guy is so good at what he does, fans of other schools are jealous.
Few sportscasters are as well-respected by their peers. Add more tenure to the talent and “Charlie Mac” starts to become a [Vin] Scully-like figure at South Carolina.
McGee told Sapakoff that “these people (Learfield) won the bid and the proverbial ball is in their court” but that Carolina retained the right to veto any decision they made on personnel.
“But there has been no ‘Charlie Mac is staying’ announcement,” Sapakoff wrote. “In this case, no news isn't good news.”
Finally, on May 28, USC announced that Ellis would take over football play-by-play and that Charlie Mac was still considering an offer to continue calling basketball games. In their public messaging, Ellis and other university spokespeople relentlessly hammered the talking point that Ellis is a Carolina homer — very nearly to the exclusion of any other defining qualities.
“The fans need to know two things: Number one, they can be assured that I will be as prepared as I can and be informative as I can,” Ellis said. “Number two, it will be abundantly clear where my allegiance lies.”
“Todd is so bright, we feel he can deliver on game day,” said Liz McMillan, head of Gamecock Sports Properties. “One of the things we took into consideration, too, was Todd’s passion for the Gamecocks. He's so positive, yet objective. He demonstrated that with the (postgame) call-in show, answering tough questions when the team was 1-10 and 0-11 (in 1998-99), yet staying positive.”
Ellis added that he thinks fans “want the essential information, but they also want to feel good about USC for those three hours. That doesn't mean everything painted in unrealistic terms, but they want to know the radio team is enthusiastic.”
From a day-after story in The State:11
Ellis, who declined to comment about McAlexander's situation, said a “large segment (of USC's fan base) wants (the play-by-play voice) to be an obvious Gamecocks backer.”
McMillan, who also declined to discuss the decision to replace McAlexander, praised the 30-year broadcast veteran as “a true professional who's done a good job in the basketball area.”
Learfield/ISP on May 16 offered McAlexander the chance to retain the basketball job. McMillan says he has not responded as of this week.
“We'd love Charlie Mac to consider basketball,” McMillan said. “We'd like to bring closure to this, but it's his decision."
The reader is left to wonder why Charlie Mac’s failure to be an “obvious Gamecock backer” necessitated his removal from football play-by-play but “in the basketball area” made him a “true professional.”
Charlie Mac declined the offer. He moved back to Nashville and, through a connection from his days at Vanderbilt, got a job at a health insurance company. Later, he did play-by-play for MTSU and got another teaching gig at UGA.
“Now, (the USC radio crew) is all Carolina grads,” Charlie Mac reflected in 2006. “That's what the school wanted. That's what they got.”12
If the play-by-play voice’s homerism was indeed paramount, then it should be noted that this broadcasting philosophy was at odds with Fulton’s.
From an interview given to The State shortly before Fulton died in 2010:13
Fulton’s philosophy never changed; if a team wanted a “homer,” the school should look somewhere else.
He ignored veiled threats from former USC athletics director Bob Marcum and, he said, “I never once said, ‘It’s our ball.’ Enthusiasm is great, and I understand how times change in terms of wanting a 'homer,’ but that’s just not my style.”
Rather, his style called for a smooth delivery with a distinctive voice - and few did it better.
If this post is your first introduction to the Charlie Mac debate, then there’s something I should make plain. Though I think it’s clear from the tone of this piece that I strongly prefer Charlie Mac, many South Carolina fans prefer Todd Ellis. I might even go so far as to say that most of them do. These fans genuinely believe that it is more important that the person in this role clearly articulates their South Carolina fandom than that they possess the skills of a competent play-by-play broadcaster.
I do not agree with this position, if for no other reason than that one’s being a South Carolina fan need not foreclose the possibility of also being a competent play-by-play broadcaster. But I think technological developments have made the argument for Ellis a bit stronger today than it was in 2003. In the year 2023, the radio broadcast of football games feels like a vestigial relic of a bygone era. Whereas televised South Carolina games were once a rarity — my dad tells me they would wheel TVs in to the Tapp’s department store floors so employees working on Saturdays could witness the spectacle — now it is difficult to imagine the unlikely set of circumstances that would result in it being impossible to watch the Gamecocks on TV. (Unless, of course, you’re the visually impaired person Charlie Mac always kept in mind.)
Perhaps, then, it is correctly decided that the defining characteristic of the Voice of the Gamecocks is their ability to relentlessly pump sunshine. After all, possession of such a quality undoubtedly promotes a spirit of harmony between the coach and the host during the Thursday call-in show and the Sunday morning recap show. And I imagine keeping the coach happy about what’s said on the radio is among the considerations here.
On the other hand, one might argue — and I do argue — that a culture of rewarding connections and loyalty ahead of competence and demonstrated achievement was a recurring theme of the South Carolina athletics department during its late-2010s decline.
In the end, Charlie Mac’s decision to turn down the offer of a diminished role at USC opened the door for someone else: a young man who was fresh off of winning the admiration of Gamecock fans for a memorable play-by-play call that heralded the end of the baseball team’s 17-year College World Series drought. A man who, like Charlie Mac, would also come to see his prospects for internal career advancement headed off at the pass by South Carolina’s unflagging loyalty to Todd Ellis.
This July will mark 20 years since the men’s basketball play-by-play position was accepted by Mike Morgan.
Doug Nye, “SEC veteran McAlexander takes over as Voice of the Gamecocks,” State, The (Columbia, SC), March 30, 1995
Frank Wooten, “Scott's show cheats Gamecock fans.,” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), September 14, 1995
Frank Wooten, “Panthers wear out TV welcome,” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), September 28, 1995
Frank Wooten, “Even peerless Costas can't save baseball from itself,” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), October 16, 1997
Gene Sapakoff, “Well, at least it didn't rain,” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), October 3, 1999
David Newton, "Scott ready to close practice, but first must deal with dad," State, The (Columbia, SC), August 20, 1994
Ken Burger, “Charlie Mac: Right place, right time.” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), July 22, 1995
Doug Nye, “Ellis preparing for new job in the booth,” State, The (Columbia, SC), September 1, 2000
Doug Nye, “Money a factor in change of broadcast rights,” State, The (Columbia, SC), April 18, 2003
Gene Sapakoff, “USC should insist on Charlie Mac.” Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC), April 30, 2003
Bob Gillespie, “Ellis won’t try to be new ‘Voice’,” State, The (Columbia, SC), May 30, 2003
Bob Gillespie, “The Voice carries,” State, The (Columbia, SC), November 17, 2006
Bob Spear, “‘He was Carolina athletics,” State, The (Columbia, SC), November 4, 2010