He’s worked coast-to-coast as a disc jockey, joined the Beatles at their last concert in the United States, interviewed Joe DiMaggio, covered the Masters and — as many around here know — been the radio announcer for the University of Maryland football and basketball teams for the past 36 years.
And that’s only half of it.
Johnny Holliday’s many exploits have enabled him to accumulate enough mementoes, photos and awards to fill his entire house in Kensington, Md. Most of those keepsakes, however, have been boxed and stuffed in the attic under the orders of Mary Clare, his wife of 56 years.
Surely, Holliday has done enough already to slip into retirement at age 77. Guys his age with far less to talk about would probably prefer to share treasured memories with their grandchildren rather than get home at 4:15 a.m. after covering a basketball game in Kansas City, Mo., which Holliday did Nov. 24-25.
If his only job these days was doing Maryland broadcasts that would be plenty enough. But Holliday is also the studio co-host at Washington Nationals games, the co-host of radio shows with Maryland coaches Randy Edsall and Mark Turgeon, and he is constantly recording TV and radio commercials.
Which brings us to this question: Why the heck does Holliday keep at it, day after day after day?
“John truly loves his job, working for the Washington Nationals and working for Maryland,” Mary Clare said. “It is a pleasure for him to go to work. I’ve never asked him to retire. I definitely want him to slow down a little, but I don’t want him to retire. If this is what he loves doing, then I want him to continue it.”
Given the choice of kicking back in a rocking chair or sitting courtside with headphones, Holliday will always choose the latter.
“If it wasn’t enjoyable, I would not be doing it,” he said. “My line is always, ‘If I had to work for a living, it would be tough.’ This is not work. My daughters, all three of them, have tough jobs. My son-in-laws have tough jobs. It’s not easy what people do, and I’m calling games and sitting in the best seat in the house, flying on chartered airplanes and eating fine meals at the best restaurants. It’s a dream come true for a young kid who really didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do.”
“From Rock To Jock”
Holliday had just graduated from high school in 1956 when the owner of a radio station in Georgia gave him a disc jockey job for the meager sum of $32 a week. The man signing the paycheck convinced the teenager that his given name, Johnny Bobbitt, wasn’t particularly catching for a radio personality. So Johnny went with his middle name (and mother’s maiden name), and a radio personality was born.
Johnny Holliday went on to spin records in many of the country’s most significant music hubs, including Cleveland, New York and San Francisco.
While in Cleveland, Holliday expanded his workload by hosting “College Scoreboard,” a TV show that reviewed the football scores each Saturday. That led him to ask Art Modell, the then-owner of the Cleveland Browns, if he could work as public address announcer in 1962 at the first doubleheader in NFL history.
“Nicest man in the world,” Holliday said of Modell. “I remember when I called him up, I said, ‘My name is Johnny Holliday.’ He said, ‘Hi Johnny, I listen to you every day on the way home.'”
Modell paid Holliday $25 to announce the first game between the Redskins and Eagles. Holliday did the job while on the field, following the action from the sideline. He ended up doing the second game, too, between the Browns and Giants. Years later, he became the public address announcer for the Oakland Raiders (up in the booth) and San Francisco Warriors.
In 1966, Holliday worked at Candlestick Park on what would be the Beatles’ final concert on their last tour, even though nobody knew it then. Holliday introduced the first act, The Remains, and one of his peers brought out the Beatles.
Although it was a rare occasion when Holliday served as the figurative backup band, he still includes this event among his fondest memories.
“Musically,” Mary Clare said, “that’s very high on the list.”
Holliday eventually worked his way to Washington in 1969, continuing as a disc jockey while dabbling in sports. Then, after someone asked him to be the play-by-play man at Georgetown basketball games and he complied, Holliday realized maybe it was time to shift jobs.
“The pay that I got for that game was more than I was making all week playing records,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? Maybe I should try to do more things like this.'”
That wasn’t the only factor in his decision to go “From Rock to Jock,” the title of his 2002 autobiography.
“I kind of always hoped that I would be able to make the transition,” Holliday said. “I did not want to be a 50-year-old disc jockey. I did it when it was at its peak — when guys were on the radio playing records, doing dance-hops, hosting dance shows and things like that. They were very instrumental in the upbringing of young people.”
Holliday was the anti-Howard Stern, the shock jock who ultimately replaced him at WWDC-FM.
“When I was in Cleveland, 21 years old, just four years older than a high school senior, you’re setting a good example for them,” Holliday said. “In my heyday, there were no off-color conversations. There was no cursing on the air, no suggestive stories, no double-entendres. You just didn’t do it, because the station wouldn’t allow it. What I did then wouldn’t play today, because I wasn’t controversial. I wasn’t stirring up the audience and getting them mad. I just couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t be successful today. Now, it’s shock talk and news and sports. That’s fine. But disc jockeys, they just don’t exist today.”
“A Renaissance Man”
Where Holliday is today suits him just fine. It’s hard to remember anyone doing Maryland games before him, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else announcing those games in the future.
“Everywhere you go, everyone knows Johnny Holliday and that he is the voice of the Terrapins,” Maryland football coach Randy Edsall said. “There is no one better in the business.”
That’s because Holliday never takes any assignment for granted. There are two reasons why many of his souvenirs are stashed in the attic: Mary Clare deemed the house wasn’t going to be a shrine to her husband’s job, and Holliday is more interested in what lies ahead than what he’s already done.
“I came home one day around 15 years ago, and Mary Clare and the girls were on stepladders, taking down pictures and plaques,” Holliday recalled. “She said, ‘This is a family room.’ So we decided to take all of your mementoes, pictures and trophies and put them in real nice boxes and put them in the attic. So if anybody wants to be impressed by all these things you have, you can pull the stairs down, go up in the attic and show them off.”
Holliday didn’t care. He’s got all the stuff he cares about in his office.
“There is a little reflection, only because the longer you’re doing this — which for me is 58 years — you do look back,” he said. “Mostly in my case, it’s utter amazement that I did this or I did that, considering that I had no experience in just about everything I did.
“But I also look to the next ballgame I’m going to do, the next television show. I’m always looking ahead and seeing what the next challenge will be and try to do the next assignment that I have better than the last one I did. I don’t think you can ever be perfect in anything. You just try to be close. If you don’t do that, you’re kind of cheating yourself. You’re certainly cheating the audience.”
No one has ever accused Holliday of just phoning it in. When he interviews a player or coach, he does so only after conducting extensive background research. On game day, the same procedure applies.
“Johnny Holliday is the ultimate professional,” Edsall said. “He’s always very well-prepared and extremely passionate about his job and the Terps. He works tirelessly to put the best product out with every game he calls. You can tell how much he enjoys what he does through his game-day calls.”
Hired in September 2010 as Maryland’s athletic director, Kevin Anderson is a relative newcomer at Maryland compared to Holliday.
“Anywhere I go in this country, when I tell people what I do at the University of Maryland, the first thing they say is, ‘You work for Johnny Holliday.’ Not with. For Johnny Holliday,” Anderson said. “That’s fine, because Johnny has been a supporter of mine from the very beginning. With everything going the way it is, it’s been a pretty good ride, and I don’t know if I could have done it without Johnny.”
When Anderson had a knee replacement, Holliday and Mary Clare were the first ones to visit him.
“What Johnny and I have goes beyond just a working relationship,” Anderson said. “I’ve been blessed to know him on a personal level, and what he does professionally? Well, there’s no one better than Johnny Holliday.”
There have been times when Holliday did both a Maryland basketball game and football game on the same day, without a hitch. It takes a whole lot of concentration and stamina to pull that off, but if there are three words that describe Johnny Holliday, they’re versatile, talented and tireless.
“It sounds trite, but he’s a Renaissance man,” Mary Clare said. “He’s done so many different things with his life, so many things that he loves.”
“Every Day, I Thank The Good Man Upstairs”
Holliday rarely sleeps more than five hours a night, a trait he reluctantly adopted when he got up at 4 a.m. to do his radio shows. As far as his mind goes, Holliday learned all about memorization while practicing yet another one of his loves, acting. Holliday has appeared in dozens of shows and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award as best actor in a Washington musical.
“I always knew I could do theater,” he said. “I had some pretty tough roles, too, challenges I didn’t think I could handle. I did a few shows in high school, nothing professional, but I’ve been doing theater since 1962. The challenge is learning the script, learning songs, learning choreography. It helps me in football, baseball and basketball, especially when you memorize an entire theater script. So when you have to do ad-libs or something during a game, that’s nothing compared to being on stage for 10 straight minutes with 25 pages of dialogue.”
His affection for acting hasn’t vanished, but the time to do so just isn’t there.
“I would love to do theater again,” he said, “but baseball prohibits me from doing that.”
Not that Holliday has any regrets. There’s plenty left for him to do, even though he’s already accomplished so much. You might think it would be impossible for Holliday to pick out his one favorite moment from a lifetime filled with incredible assignments during nearly six decades in several different continents.
Turns out, the answer is easy. His singular most wonderful memory occurred in Atlanta on April 2, 2002, as Maryland was closing out a 64-52 win against Indiana to capture the NCAA basketball championship.
“When I listen to tapes of that game, which I still have, I had no idea what I was going to say in case they won it,” Holliday said. “And as the final seconds ticked off, I could feel myself almost on the verge of breaking down and crying — really happy for [coach] Gary [Williams] and the kids. That would be the highlight of everything I’ve done. I’ve done the Masters, done boxing, Olympics, everything, Super Bowls, all those things. But nothing brought the emotion that winning the national championship did. There were no McDonald’s All-Americans on that team, just a bunch of guys that worked together, played together and won everything — nothing better than that.”
Professionally, anyway. Holliday is a workaholic, but family will always come first. It’s tough to have a conversation with him without hearing about Mary Clare, his daughters and grandchildren, especially 16-year-old Jack Rolle, who was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer at age 11, beat it, and now is a standout golfer at Georgetown Prep.
“I tell you, I’m more proud of my family than anything I’ve ever done professionally,” Holliday said. “The love of my life is all these grandkids.”
Perhaps sometime in the future, Holliday will call it a career and show off family pictures on the deck of a cruise ship. Not yet, though.
“As long as the University of Maryland is happy with my work, as long as MASN is happy, as long as the Nationals are happy and the supply and demand is still there, I’m going to keep at it,” Holliday said. “It’s going to stop one day. It stops for everybody. You just don’t go on forever. Every day, I thank the good man upstairs for being as lucky as I am, to do something I really enjoy and can still do it.”
Issue 204: December 2014