By Christy Kyser Truitt
Rod Bramblett, lead announcer and director of Broadcast Services at Auburn IMG Sports Network, wondered if his head would fit through the front door. In November 2013, the Auburn Tigers had just defeated arch rival, the University of Alabama, by returning a field goal for a touchdown with one second on the clock. There goes Davis. Davis is going to run it all the way back. Auburn is going to win the football game!
It was the broadcast heard ’round the world. In a rare twist of events, Bramblett listened to his own voice on the drive home, all stations replaying the emotional outburst describing Auburn’s Chris Davis’s 109-yard dart from the end zone. Once signed off, Bramblett had turned to the broadcast team and said, “Please tell me I didn’t screw that up.”
“It’s every announcer’s dream. And somehow I got two in one season (referencing the miraculous end to the Auburn/Georgia game a few weeks prior). By the time I got home, I was quite full of myself and expected to see my family fall at my feet,” says Bramblett with humor.
Instead his wife of 25 years, Paula, and children Shelby, 15, and Joshua, 10, were asleep, and the house was dark. “Their lives are not impacted by Auburn sports. The garbage was bagged by the door for me to take out, and the dog had thrown up on the carpet. They keep me humble,” says Bramblett.
The 2013 Sports Illustrated Play by Play Announcer of the Year also found a love for broadcasting in humble beginnings. Bramblett grew up in Valley, Ala., with his grandparents and mother and listened to the Atlanta Braves on the radio when they weren’t on TV. “All I could think of was how cool it would be to go to all those games. It was a way for me to be involved in sports because I was too small to play any organized sports as a child,” says Bramblett. “My grandfather was always quick to remind me you could never make a living in radio. He was really quite concerned with my interest.”
However, Bramblett’s path to Auburn turned and twisted a bit. Raised a Georgia fan, he listened to the late great Larry Munson’s broadcasts and worked at the textile mill during the summers. “My grandfather was a great influence over me. He had no high school education, but eventually became the plant manager. He raised me to never have a sense of entitlement because all he knew was hard work,” says Bramblett.
Raised by a school teacher mom, the family searched for ways to send Bramblett to college. At the time, a trust fund in Chambers County provided scholarships to Samford University and because Bramblett hated scoring less than an A, he qualified. In spring of his senior year, the fund changed positions and only awarded money to members of the Baptist Church. “We were Methodist so there went that. I had no idea where I was going, but my grandfather had a connection with the College of Engineering at Auburn. If I enrolled in textile engineering, I’d get admitted. Their numbers were low so they were looking for anyone with a good enough GPA to come in as a major. After one year I switched to political science,” says Bramblett.
Broadcasting remained a childhood memory with his grandfather as Bramblett pursued his education and other vocations while dating his high school sweetheart, the former Paula East. Soon the path straightened as Bramblett searched for work in 1986 to supplement his income when not working in the textile mill. “A friend recommended WZZZ in the Valley that needed a weekend disc jockey from noon to six on Saturdays and six to noon on Sundays. I thought that could be cool, but I was scared to death. You have to remember, we’re talking real records back then. None of this computer stuff,” says Bramblett who remained at the station for a few years despite his grandfather urging him to move on.
As destiny often dictates, Bramblett ventured into other stations while pursuing a master’s degree and teaching classes at Auburn University. WAUD in Auburn provided weekend gigs, and in the fall of 1990, he began working part time at the Auburn station.
“Barry McKnight was the sports director at WAUD and asked if I wanted to do a tape- delayed broadcast of the Lee-Scott Academy football games. I thought I had hit the big time,” laughs Bramblett, adding the first game was against Chambers Academy in Lafayette, a true full-circle moment for the young enthusiast. “But there I was, climbing a ladder to the top of the press box because there was no room inside. I had to stand the entire game, and the equipment sat on Coke crates. But Lee-Scott won the state championship that year (1990), and I knew (broadcasting) was what I was going to do,” says Bramblett.
The couple moved to Tennessee after Paula’s graduation, and Bramblett worked as the news director for a station in Morristown. He was set to provide color commentary for the local high school team with retired former play-by-play announcer Bill Gardner of the NBA Baltimore Bullets. However, Gardner allowed Bramblett to do play-by-play instead, giving Bramblett another career-developing experience. “Bill could critique you without making you feel bad. He taught me a lot,” says Bramblett.
Then McKnight called again in 1992, this time with the offer to announce Auburn University baseball. Bramblett credits wife Paula for the decision to return to Auburn. “Paula loved her job and was the bread winner of the family. But we both missed Auburn and wanted to get closer to our families,” says Bramblett. The couple moved in with Bramblett’s grandparents.
Shortly thereafter, the late Jim Fyffe, legendary Auburn football announcer, entered Bramblett’s life.
“Jim was one of the greatest play-by-play announcers I’d ever heard,” says Bramblett, adding the most important lesson Fyffe taught him was how to interact with fans. “I’m incredibly shy which is something you have to overcome if you want to be in this business at the highest level.”
Fyffe passed away in May 2003. A month later, Mike Hubbard, president/owner of the Auburn Network, offered Bramblett the job. “This is one of the top 15 jobs in the country for a broadcaster. I’m incredibly grateful for Mike giving me the opportunity. He could have gone with a hundred different people, including Andy Burcham or Paul Ellen who were already on the staff. He went out on a limb for me, hopefully I haven’t let him down,” says Bramblett.
“When Jim died, I knew there would be big shoes to fill. I received resumes and audition tapes from all across the country, but fortunately, we had people already on our team who had a great deal of on-air experience and knowledge of Auburn sports. I decided on Rod because of his experience, his on-air delivery and to be honest, just a gut feeling that he was the right choice,” says Hubbard. “At the time, it was not a universally positive choice, but I believe Rod has become an Auburn icon in his own right and is one of the top play-by-play broadcasters in the nation. Plus, I appreciate him proving me right!”
The opportunity has stretched over the last 11 years while Bramblett continues to call Auburn baseball and men’s basketball in addition to football. Bramblett has shared the mic with fellow broadcaster Andy Burcham, station manager for WANI, for 20 of his 25 years at Auburn University. “We’re almost like an old married couple. We finish each other’s sentences. I like to think we are a great team. On top of that we’re dear friends. Hopefully that shows on the broadcasts,” says Bramblett.
Burcham concurs. “I introduce Rod as my partner and good friend before each Auburn baseball broadcast. It’s been that way since our first game together. Rod had one of the most remarkable broadcasting seasons last football year. To have two of the most remarkable calls in a span of two games against the two biggest rivals and to make those calls as legendary as Rod did is a dream come true. It goes down with Gary Sanders ‘Punt Bama Punt’ and Jim Fyffe’s ‘Bo Over the Top.’ His calls will forever be a part of Auburn Football lore. It’s my honor to be a part of this broadcast crew,” says Burcham.
Bramblett says while the schedule at times can be grueling, he’s thankful to work for a place which appreciates family. “I still can’t believe I get to do this for a living,” says Bramblett.
As the 2014 Auburn University football season begins, Bramblett once again will provide radio commentary for the games along with a host of other duties, but he can count on his family to keep him humble. “I’ll never forget sitting in a restaurant years ago, and someone approached me for an autograph. After they left, Shelby looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, if you think you are famous, you’re not,’ and went back to eating her lunch,” laughs Bramblett. “She’s right, I’m not famous, but I sure am lucky.”