HARRISONBURG – As Bill Phipps approaches the start of his 20th consecutive season as the voice of Bridgewater College football, Eagles coach Michael Clark describes WBOP radio’s play-by-play announcer as both a “teammate” and a “colleague.”
During his tenure, Phipps – who underwent a full-scale craniotomy to remove a brain tumor in June – has missed only one BC football game, skipping the Eagles’ 2010 home date against Hampden-Sydney to attend a family wedding.
“We’re not letting a head shaving become an excuse to miss his second,” Clark said.
When BC opens its 2014 season Saturday at Gettysburg, the only noticeable difference pertaining to Phipps in the announcers’ booth will be his buzz cut.
The 63-year-old, who returned to work just over two weeks after his surgery and said he has been given a “very optimistic” prognosis, said his motor functions were unaffected by the procedure and he’s excited as ever to call another season of Eagles football.
“I love my job,” said Phipps, who announces BC’s men’s and women’s basketball games in addition to Turner Ashby High School athletics for WBOP while also working as a public address announcer for the Clover Hill Bucks of the Rockingham County Baseball League. “And, you know, come May every year, I’m ready for a little break. About four weeks later, I’m ready to go again. I just have a blast every year.”
Said Eagles athletic director Curt Kendall: “I think he just has a passion for what he does. I mean, he enjoy announcing, he enjoys supporting Bridgewater College and our various sports. So, anybody that has that kind of passion and puts that into his work like he does is certainly appreciated by all.”
Both Clark and Phipps – an Atlanta-area native who left Georgia State two years into his undergraduate education to take his first broadcasting job at a TV station in Jackson City, Tennessee — came to BC in their current capacities prior to the 1995 season. Over Clark’s first four seasons with the program, the then-traditionally abysmal Eagles went 7-32-1 – including winless campaigns in 1995 and 1998.
“In my 20 years here, I’ve been on both ends of the parade,” said Clark, who survived his early struggles and went on to build BC into a Division III power that reached the NCAA national championship game in 2001. “… The people who will always be dear to me are the people that were good to you, were loyal to you when you weren’t popular – when it wasn’t a popular thing to be. And there’s no question in those early years, Bill Phipps had to sit through some ugly football, certainly, and try to make it interesting on air. And for him and people like him, they’ll always have a special spot in my book.”
Phipps’ most endearing quality inside and outside of the booth, Clark said, is his point-blank honesty. One instance that stands out for Clark came in the 2008 season, when BC suffered its first-ever loss to Old Dominion Athletic Conference opponent Shenandoah. Following the 10-6 debacle, one Clark described as “butt ugly,” the longtime coach asked Phipps for his opinion on BC’s performance before the duo went on air for their postgame radio show.
“I knew I’d get an honest answer,” Clark said. “I asked, ‘Was it as ugly from up there as it was on the sidelines?’ And he said yes. And sometimes football coaches need those types of friends.
“… Media’s got a big challenge. In this day and age, where institutions are trying to become their own media, I appreciate what these guys battle and what they do. And I’ve always said this: I think broadcasters and beat reporters in particular, they’ve got to teeter a fine line because you build a relationship. … But they also have to be honest, and I think Bill’s been able to teeter that.”
As for Phipps’ recent bout with brain cancer, he said he first recognized something was wrong when he completely lost feeling in both his left thumb and left pointer finger. But it wasn’t until Phipps’ daughter, T’Neil, told him he was slurring his words that he finally sought medical attention. A trip to the emergency room followed, and a computerized tomography scan and magnetic resonance image scan ultimately revealed his tumor.
Phipps said he was initially told he would undergo a non-invasive gamma knife radiosurgery to eliminate the cancerous tumor but its larger-than-originally-thought size led his doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Center to opt instead for a craniotomy. The procedure is performed by temporarily removing a bone flap from the skull to reach the tumor. Phipps now is sporting a hair style that Clark describes as a “Vin Diesel look.”
“Everybody took it worse than I did,” Phipps said of his diagnosis. “I said, ‘All right. I know what it is. Let’s go get it. Let’s fix it if we can and if not, we’ll go from there.’ So nobody said anything about inoperable, nobody said anything about terminal. I said, ‘Great. Let’s go.’”
Phipps – who has been married to his third wife, Paula, for the past six years — said he plans on continuing to bring that same attitude to his broadcasts, too.
“If you make a dumb play, I’m going to say it’s a dumb play,” he said. “If we make a good play, I’m going to say it’s a good play. If the other team makes a great play, I’m going to say it’s a great play. If an official makes a bad call against the other team, I’m going to say it was a bad call against the other team [and] I thought the Eagles got a break. I’m not going to pull any punches just because I’m a Bridgewater announcer.”