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Labriola On

After 30 NFL seasons, Hillgrove retires

It was 1994, the telephone rang, and as he had done throughout his professional life both literally and metaphorically, Bill Hillgrove answered the call.

"At the time, Tony Quatrini was the sales manager at WTAE radio. He called me and said, 'Mr. (Dan) Rooney keeps asking for your (audition) tape,'" said Hillgrove about that conversation. "I said to Tony that I never submitted one. He said, 'Well, he has a tape of you, and he's using it to compare you to the other applicants.'"

Following the 1993 NFL season, Jack Fleming's retirement after decades as the team's play-by-play announcer had created an opening, and the Steelers were conducting a search for his replacement. Yes, there was a job opening, but Bill Hillgrove already had a job. Several jobs, in fact.

"Maybe a week-and-a-half later, I got another call, this one from (Steelers Director of Football Operations) Tom Donahoe, who said, 'We had a meeting last night, and things are looking good for you.' And I thought, my goodness, I'm a candidate for a job I never applied for. Apparently, Dan Rooney listened to a few tapes and said, 'Let's go with Hillgrove. He's the guy we know.' We met at the Duquesne Club."

In attendance that evening at the Duquesne Club in Downtown Pittsburgh were Steelers PR Director Joe Gordon, WTAE VP of Sales Jim Carter, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, and Bill Hillgrove, who was about to add Steelers radio play-by-play announcing to an employment portfolio that already included play-by-play duties for both Pitt football and basketball, plus more than occasional duties for WTAE-TV.

Today, after 30 seasons in that role, after 30 NFL seasons in which he witnessed so many fascinating and electric moments in franchise history and then instantaneously relayed them to Steelers fans all over the world, Bill Hillgrove announced his retirement.

"Bill Hillgrove's contributions to both the Steelers Radio Network and the Steelers organization have spanned nearly three decades that included him serving as our play-by-play announcer for four Super Bowl appearances and countless other memorable games during his tenure," said President Art Rooney II. "He has played a major role in broadcasting to our amazing fans on our radio network, but he also found time to be part of so many special events since he began working alongside the great Myron Cope on the airwaves in 1994. Bill will truly be missed by Steelers Nation, but we are excited for him and his family to enjoy his retirement."

Bill Hillgrove is and always was a "Pittsburgh guy." Raised in the city's Garfield neighborhood, he graduated from Central Catholic High School, where he is a member of the school's Hall of Fame, and then Duquesne University, where he studied sports broadcasting.

At Duquesne, Hillgrove soon joined WDUQ, the school's on-campus radio station, because "I knew I could get the hands-on experience that you need in our end of the business." That experience included a lot of work with the university's basketball team and a little bit of high school football, because WDUQ had a hook-up at South Stadium, which was just a short distance from campus in the city's South Side neighborhood.

After graduating from Duquesne, and shortly into his time at WTAE, Hillgrove was made aware the station was planning a move to get the Pitt football and basketball broadcasts away from WWSW. His experience doing basketball at WDUQ made that an easy transition, and because Pitt football play-by-play announcer Ed Conway had TV anchor duties and couldn't travel to road games, Hillgrove was assigned to help Conway with color commentary on football in 1970. "That's when I got to put my sports hat on," he said.

Hillgrove's first assignment doing football play-by-play was Pitt vs. Florida State in Tallahassee in 1974, and since the new color commentator, Johnny Sauer, had a CBS commitment that day, sitting in the chair next to Hillgrove would be Myron Cope. And of course there is a story to go along with that.

Towards the latter part of the broadcast, the radio booth was engulfed by a swarm of gnat-like insects that Cope came to refer to as "love bugs," and he made sure to apprise the listeners of the problem. "I don't know what they were," Hillgrove recalled, "but they were bugs, they invaded the booth, it was not pleasant, and it drove Myron crazy."

The Hillgrove-Cope partnership was put on hold, because Sauer was back in the Pitt booth doing color commentary and Cope went back to again pair with Fleming in the Three Rivers Stadium booth to call the games for a Steelers franchise that would win four Super Bowls over a six-season span of the 1970s.

For Bill Hillgrove, it was a time when he was known in the business as a "wild-card guy."

Hillgrove explained his job description this way: "In fact, one week I subbed for Jack Fleming on the 6 and 11 o'clock sports, and I did Myron's talk show and his radio commentaries, and I did the all-night disc-jockeying. I did it all in one week. How I did it, I don't know. I survived. But that's when I was like a wild-card guy, part radio and part TV. And when Ed Conway passed, they gave me the play-by-play for Pitt football and basketball. And I had a defined role for a few years."

That defined role had Hillgrove a part of the market's top TV sports team at the time, with him, Myron Cope, and Stan Savran all at WTAE, and the station's news broadcasts became must-see TV.

"It was special. We had it going, we knew we had it going," said Hillgrove of that period. "We knew how good we were. We knew each other's skills, what we could and couldn't do. We all had respect for each other. It was a great time. In those days, television was a great time. I used to look forward to walking in the front door at 400 Ardmore Boulevard (the home of WTAE's television and radio studios) because there was Paul Long and Joe DeNardo with their jokes and kidding. And Sally Wiggin, and people who were pros and knew that when they had to work they had to work, and they knew how to be professional. But off the air, we had a lot of fun. I'm not sure that the people in the television business today, particularly, have that much fun.

"Then when the Steelers came calling," continued Hillgrove, "I was able to get out of the television business. I thought Mr. Rooney got me out of a burning building because of what's happened to the local TV sports segments. There are some major market stations that don't even have a sports department anymore. They figure ESPN is going to attract all of the sports fans, and so they just do news and weather."

Maybe out of the television business, but starting in 1994 and continuing through the 2023 NFL season, Bill Hillgrove was an indelible part of Steelers history, and he provided a voice to a lot of it.

"First of all, it's a bigger stage," said Hillgrove of doing NFL football. "You're one of only 32 … "It's a bigger stage, but paraphrasing what Coach Norman Dale said in the movie, 'Hoosiers,' the field is still 100-yards long; it's still 53.3-yards wide; it's still four downs. A lot of similarities to what I had been doing, and I let that thought help relax me. And to have Myron as the color man, and I had done a season with him in 1983 at Pitt when Johnny Sauer had heart problems and couldn't work, that eased the whole process."

Hillgrove had to jump on a moving train. The 1994 season ended with a last-second loss to San Diego in the AFC Championship Game as a heavy favorite. The 1995 season almost ended with a last-second Hail Mary pass against Indianapolis, again in the AFC Championship Game. And then, the moments. Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round; Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL; Troy Polamalu's pick-6 in the fourth quarter of the 2008 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game that sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII; and Santonio Holmes' catch in that Super Bowl to bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh.

"That's the only time I remember the press box shaking was when Troy intercepted that pass against the Ravens and took it back to the house," said Hillgrove. "That's the only time I actually feared that the building might fall down. But overall, the plays I was the most proud of were the ones where I waited."

Of those, there were two significant incidences of waiting, and they came in two critical moments.

"Ed Conway always told me, 'Watch the official. Watch the official,'" said Hillgrove. "In the 1995 AFC Championship Game, (Colts quarterback) Jim Harbaugh throws that ball down the field and into the end zone, and there's a big scrum. I understand both the NBC-TV announcer and the Colts announcer called it a touchdown at the time. I waited because I saw Merril Hoge (then the third man in the radio booth) looking at the official, and when he saw the official point to the ground, he said, 'incomplete,' and I jumped on it. I was proud of the fact that I didn't call it a touchdown, too, because that was an unbelievable moment. If you call touchdown, you're misleading a lot of people into the absolute wrong thing. I waited and it paid off.

"And also in Super Bowl XLIII, I watched the official (on Santonio Holmes' catch), because I couldn't see where Santonio was. Our booth was at the other end of the field and on the opposite side of the field. So I'm looking at the official, and when I saw his hands come up to his waist, then I called it a touchdown, because I know at that point the official is coming up over his head to signal a touchdown. So I was kind of proud of that call, too."

There is much of Hillgrove's career in broadcasting to admire and respect, and stepping away from the grind of the NFL is more of a step back than it is an end. Bill Hillgrove is known to Steelers fans as the soundtrack to some of their greatest memories, but he has a career that defines him as a broadcasting Renaissance Man. He did an opera show on radio. He was a booth announcer on television. A disc jockey. The overnight sports guy on the radio who provided the daily scores and highlights at regular intervals. Sports Director at WTAE-TV. He is a jazz aficionado.

"As to the next chapter of my life, I'll do Pitt football, and I'll do Pitt basketball because my brother is the engineer, and we room together on the road," said Hillgrove. "Like we did as kids growing up in Garfield, we're sharing the same bedroom, only this one's bigger. I have all of July almost all of August to myself now. Every once in a while if the Steelers aren't playing on Sunday, I can get on a boat and enjoy the fall foliage at Conneaut Lake, which I was never able to do before. So it's all very positive in that way. And frankly, my wife, Rosette, is battling depression, and she probably needs me at home more now than she ever did. So there are a lot of various forces at play here."