The Big Daddy of sportscasters
• KOIN's venerable Ed Whelan is as innovative and raucous as ever
You want to talk about an enduring Portland sports celebrity? Look no further than Ed Whelan, the Big Daddy of Portland sportscasters. It's a title he's held for almost 24 years now, not counting a six-year TV stint in Cleveland.
Heck, he'd probably get asked for his autograph there, too. But for the KOIN (6) sportscaster, covering the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers was just a time-out from a career nurtured in Portland, where Whelan's Burnt Biscuit awards and Stymie sightings are familiar to thousands of TV watchers.
Eating lunch at a Multnomah Village restaurant with the 55-year-old Whelan Ñ who may very well be the most recognizable television personality in Portland Ñ provides an ongoing demonstration that longevity combined with personality pays off.
Lunch is interrupted by a steady stream of 'I watch you every night'; 'I grew up watching you'; 'I've always liked the way you do sports.' The compliments just keep on coming for Whelan, who responds with hearty thank-yous and enough chitchat to leave his admirers grinning.
'If I don't feel like being Ed Whelan, I don't go out anywhere,' he says afterward. Normally, that doesn't happen, though. You can often find Whelan listening to blues or jazz at local clubs, or tooling around in one of his dual Mercedes. (He has a 2000 SL 500 Roadster and mint-condition '85 300 TD station wagon.) He's learned to take the attention in stride. 'The great Detroit Tigers' sportscaster Ernie Harwell told me once, 'It's time to worry when they don't come up to ya.' People are very kind.'
Maybe that has something to do with Whelan's philosophy about TV sports: 'With only 20 percent of the audience caring about sports,' he explains, 'you've got to do sports for people who don't care about sports.'
For them, Whelan has perfected a comically raucous style that includes zany video cutaways amid the nightly sports-action highlights. No Whelan sports report would be complete without Stymie from 'Our Gang,' the 'little daddies' and enough scene stealers to empty the Paramount Studios film library.
'Ed is one of the more creative and innovative sports guys I've ever seen,' says KOIN general manager David Lippoff. 'He doesn't just go through the motions.'
'I've got five boxes full of stupid stuff on tape,' Whelan says. 'During the Super Bowl highlights, I used the Howard Dean scream and put in 'Baby Sam' (nighttime reporter Margy Lynch's son), who looks like a nose tackle.'
Indeed, it's a rare sports story that Whelan can't have some fun with. On Feb. 27, for example, after the Oregon Arena Corp. filed for bankruptcy, Whelan established the Paul Allen Relief Fund, hoping to provide some tongue-in-cheek charity for the 'little sisters' of the poor.
And one of the wildest sports interviews ever aired on a Portland newscast took place in the early '80s, when Whelan stuck a microphone in front of Philadelphia 76ers center Darryl Dawkins immediately after former Blazer Billy Ray Bates dunked over Dawkins for a last-second victory at Memorial Coliseum. A frustrated Dawkins went on and on about how 'nobody' could dunk over him.
So Whelan innocently asked, 'Not even Mike Donahue?' Dawkins, unwilling to slow down even though he wouldn't have known the KOIN anchor if he fell on him, answered, 'Nobody!'
Whelan isn't alone in thinking that most sports coverage on local TV newscasts is boring. In Portland and at stations around the country, the time devoted to sports has been slashed. When Whelan first went on the air, a typical sports segment could run up to six minutes. Now, Whelan has been reduced to less than three minutes in the dinner hour's news, and two minutes, 30 seconds at 11 p.m.
So every instant counts, and Whelan makes the best of it, having learned to write crisply and succinctly for television by working with Donahue when the two joined the station in the mid-1970s. 'If people don't like me,' says Whelan, who admits that it was a chore for him to match words with pictures, 'they can blame Mike.'
Whelan got his start in broadcasting as a news intern for now-defunct KYXI radio in Portland ('working for free,' he adds). But within six months, he was a full-fledged news reporter pulling down $300 a month. About a year later, he was hired by KOIN and encouraged to try sports by sportscaster Rick Metsger, now a Democratic state senator from Welches.
For the Spokane native, the move to sports kicked off a wild ride that almost came to a screeching halt on a couple of occasions. The first came when, as a TV sports novice, Whelan was jailed for drunken driving. 'I was struggling with my job,' he says now. 'I was either drunk or hung over. I spent Saturday night at the Washington County jail, and when I got out, I walked by a church in Northeast Portland. I said, 'God, if you help me quit drinking, I'll never drink again.' I haven't had a drink in over 20 years.'
Whelan credits his former news director, the late Ted Bryant, for helping him get sober. As a recovering alcoholic himself, Bryant was tough on Whelan. 'He was the Bobby Knight of news directors,' says Whelan, who spoke at Bryant's memorial service, tearfully recounting Bryant's counseling. 'If Ted hadn't been on my ass during those drinking days, I wouldn't be here.'
Whelan packed a lot into a six-year stint in Cleveland that ended in 1989 and began with a name change. For starters, he began using his birth name, Wayland Boot, on the air because the station manager liked the sound of it. His time in Ohio also included a marriage and a divorce, and came to an end when the fourth of his four news directors at the station didn't renew his contract. KOIN was more than happy to hire him back.
Bump in the road
His second close call came six years ago during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when he suffered a stroke. 'I remember getting off the bullet train and seeing a great big flash. I tried walking straight, but kept walking in wide loops.
'They originally thought it was vertigo. The worst part is they dropped me off at the airport in Tokyo, and I sat there by myself for 10 hours. When I landed in Portland, I went straight up to OHSU, where they diagnosed it as a stroke.'
Whelan was off the job for 10 months while undergoing therapy. Some of the effects are still faintly noticeable in Whelan's speech, and he has admittedly slowed down physically. But his trademark touches (including his greeting, 'Hello, everybody! Nice seein' you again!') are still as bright as they ever were.
As a sportscasting veteran, Whelan recently has seen some signs indicating that yes, he has been working the gyms and locker rooms for a long, long time.
'I'm now covering the kids of the athletes I used to cover,' Whelan says. He mentions Oregon State forward David Lucas, the son of former Blazer Maurice Lucas, and his teammate Michael Johnson, son of another former Blazer, Steve Johnson.
Among his favorites over the years: 'Billy Ray Bates, Clyde Drexler, Buck Williams and 'the Duck' (ex-Blazer center Kevin Duckworth). I miss Ralph Miller and Dee Andros. I loved 'Bottom' (former Blazer Lloyd Neal) and Baby Face Woodside (former Oregon State center Steve Woodside).
'I love the high school athletes and pros the best,' Whelan says. 'I just think college athletes are exploited. It almost makes me say bad words. The NCAA is the biggest racket in America.'
And if you've caught Ed Whelan's act, well, you can almost see the Burnt Biscuit award being inscribed.