The first time John Fitzgerald was behind a microphone at Illinois State University, he was succeeding current University of Colorado broadcaster Mark Johnson.
When Fitzgerald was introduced Thursday morning as the new play-by-play voice of the Redbirds’ football and men’s basketball teams, he succeeded recently retired broadcaster Dick Luedke, who signed off after calling more than 350 football games at the school since 1981.
“The first time around, I followed the voice of God, and now I’m following Dick,” Fitzgerald told Prairie State Pigskin with a laugh. “It’s a professional dream just to be associated with those guys. To try to live up to the legacy they built is really attractive.”
Fitzgerald is returning to call ISU football and men’s basketball games two decades after he spent the 2002 season as the sports director at WJBC radio and the voice of both sports as a 25-year-old.
Since then, his career has included broadcasting men’s basketball at Loyola University Chicago on radio and TV, baseball coaching stints at Illinois Institute of Technology, Notre Dame, North Central College and the University of Chicago, working in collegiate sports marketing and the past year as the associate director of athletics for external relations at Lewis University in Romeoville.
“I knew that in the back of my mind, if the opportunity ever arose (to return), it was one that I wanted to look in to,” Fitzgerald said. “I so enjoyed my time at Illinois State. I was absolutely flattered just to be considered for this position. … It was really a no-brainer.
“It’s a great area. It’s a place where they really care about Illinois State athletics,” he said. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
Fitzgerald’s wife, Kelly, works in education. The couple has two children – 9-year-old son Colton and 7-year-old daughter Vivian.
Following an icon
Fitzgerald said he got to know Luedke in 2002 “when I first got to town” and reconnected earlier this week when the two met at an Illinois State basketball event.
“Dick was an iconic voice for a number of generations of Illinois State fans,” Fitzgerald said. “The bar has been set very high.”
When the Redbirds kick off the football season Sept. 3 at Wisconsin, there are certain to be some emotions.
“There’s probably going to be some butterflies,” Fitzgerald said. “Not because of the venue, but because this is a position I really cherish. I want to do well. I want to live up to Dick’s legacy.”
Fitzgerald’s first home game will be Sept. 10 when the Redbirds host Valparaiso.
Danny Dunbar, the general manager for Redbird Sports Properties, said the job drew 65 applications from broadcast professionals. He called Fitzgerald “a big-time voice.”
“John brings with him a wealth of knowledge from having worked in college athletics,” said Dunbar, who serves as ISU’s primary liaison with LEARFIELD, the college sports marketing and broadcasting company that represents more than 200 schools, including Illinois State.
Having worked in both radio and TV, Fitzgerald said he wants his voice to resonate with the ISU fan base.
“I want people to know that I’m prepared, and that I have a great passion for the craft of play-by-play, especially on radio,” he said. “I want people to envision what I’m seeing.”
While some national broadcasters only arrive a day before games, Fitzgerald said he wants to “be a trusted voice” for the programs as a person who attends practices regularly to get to know the people in uniform and on the sidelines.
Broadcasting college games also is a uniquely different path than coaching.
“If I have a bad broadcast, I know it’s on me,” he said. “That wasn’t the case in college coaching. There’s a litany of things (that can go wrong) when your livelihood is in the hands of 18- to 22-year-olds that have nothing to do with you.
“My time in coaching and my time as an administrator has helped me have a better understanding of what coaches go through,” he said.
Valley and EIU connections
In 2002, none of the four Dakota schools currently in the Missouri Valley Football Conference was part of Illinois State’s schedule.
Today, national powerhouse North Dakota State rules the league with its neighbor, South Dakota State not far behind. Missouri State and Southern Illinois also are in the preseason Athlon poll’s top 10 teams nationally.
Since Fitzgerald’s last stint at Illinois State, Brock Spack arrived as head coach and became the winningest coach in school history, guiding the team to the national championship game in January 2015.
“It’s a conference, from top to bottom, that’s a war of attrition,” Fitzgerald said. “It makes these games events and not just another Saturday. I’m really excited about it.”
On Sept. 17 in Normal, Fitzgerald also will call the annual Mid-America Classic game between ISU and Eastern Illinois.
The Panthers will be led by first-year head coach Chris Wilkerson, who was the University of Chicago head coach when Fitzgerald was coaching the school’s baseball team.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Fitzgerald said. “Chris Wilkerson is one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. We became incredibly good friends during our time there.
“Just the opportunity to do a game this year with Chris on the sidelines is exciting. I think the world of him,” Fitzgerald said.