The Golden Era of Winter Sports Banquets

Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell was a guest at the B’nai B’rith dinner at Peony Park in February of 1973. Emcee Dave Blackwell is at the podium.
Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell was a guest at the B’nai B’rith dinner at Peony Park in February of 1973. Emcee Dave Blackwell is at the podium.

Big Names, Wise Cracks and Lots of Full Bellies

Story by Michael Kelly

Weeks after the most excruciating loss in Husker football history, when a 2-point conversion attempt failed in a 31-30 Nebraska loss for a national championship, coach Tom Osborne drew a zinger from emcee Dave Blackwell.

After dessert at an Omaha sports banquet, sportscaster  Blackwell playfully offered the coach an extra piece of pie. “Tom,” he said, extending a small plate, “would you like to go for two?”

The crowd of several hundred erupted in long laughter, partly in shock at the bold needling. Osborne, a careful eater who may not have consumed even a first piece of pie, could take the ribbing, though; his decision to “go for two” in the 1984 Orange Bowl had been controversial and he’d already heard just about everything.

But that wisecrack by Blackwell at an annual Christ the King parish fundraising dinner may stand as the most memorable from a kind of golden age of Omaha winter and spring sports banquets that included heavy doses of humor. And when it came to one-liners, Blackwell was the “master” of ceremonies.

“Dave wasn’t afraid to take a shot at anybody,” said Gary Java, a longtime Omaha broadcaster. “He’d say anything, just fire away. He was good at pushing the envelope to make everybody laugh.”

Gary Javitch, president of the Henry Monsky Lodge of B’nai B’rith, retains similar memories of Blackwell from the Jewish organization’s annual charity fundraiser. “He could rip somebody up and down but at the same time be funny.”

Javitch and Java, the two Garys (not related but they have met), are among many middle-age or older folks who remember the late Blackwell for his roast-style humor.

At a B’nai B’rith dinner, he teased then-Creighton coach Willis Reed, the NBA Hall of Famer, for recruiting a Jewish player named Goldberg. “Willis, you’d do anything to get a free ticket to this banquet.”

Blackwell claimed that the stone-faced Rev. Robert Gass, Christ the King pastor, drove a Jaguar “with stained-glass windows in the back.”

This time of year is the offseason for football but the traditional on-season for sports banquets. The aforementioned Catholic and Jewish dinners weren’t the only ones, but for years they were the big ones. “Christ the King in the winter and B’nai B’rith in the spring,” Java said. “It was a rite of passage in sports.”

B’nai B’rith held its final dinner in 2017, ending a custom of 62 years. Javitch cited a combination of factors, including competition with other functions, rising costs and finding enough volunteers to produce the event.

Because of the pandemic, the Christ the King Sports Club paused its annual banquet after 2019. The club hopes to resume with another one in May or June featuring a local speaker.

The Omaha Sportscasters Association Midwinter Banquet named a local sports-person of the year, but its last dinner was its 36th in 2002. The Boys Town Booster Banquet continues, though, welcoming Purple Heart recipient and Paralympian Melissa Stockwell as an inspirational speaker on April 26.

Various schools, universities and hall of fame inductions still draw crowds, as do Creighton Jaybacker Jamborees. So do a couple of national events in Omaha – the Outland Trophy banquet honoring the best college lineman and Johnny Rodgers’ Jet Award for the best college kick returner.

Humor has long been a premium at sports banquets, and sometimes the spontaneity is over the top. In 1991 the Platte Valley Booster Club in Kearney honored Husker athletic director and former football coach Bob Devaney on his 75th birthday. Unannounced as a surprise guest, and dressed as a chef pushing a cart bearing a birthday cake, was Barry Switzer, the former Oklahoma head coach.

Switzer took the microphone and gave his friend Bob a bad time for not recognizing him. Devaney faux-apologized, ad-libbing: “Barry, if you’d been carrying a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, I’d have known who it was.”

At a B’nai B’rith dinner honoring Devaney, Osborne poked fun at himself by saying it was tough to follow Devaney as coach, but that Bob never interfered. “He stood back and watched me run the football up the middle for 17 years and never said a word about it.”

The great Purdue and New Orleans Saints passer Drew Brees, in town for a Boys Town banquet, was asked if Osborne ever called him as a high school recruit. “Have you ever seen me run the option?” Brees quipped. “That’s the reason he didn’t call me.”

LaVell Edwards, the Brigham Young University coach, razzed Oklahoma’s supposed academic standards for Sooners with the old saw about how many it took to screw in a light bulb.  “One,” he said. “But he gets three credit hours.”

Lou Holtz, the Notre Dame coach, spoke with Devaney to 1,200 attending a 1988 motivational night for the Sales and Marketing Executives of the Midlands at the old Civic Auditorium Music Hall. Holtz previously coached Minnesota, taking over the year after the 1983 Huskers demolished the Gophers 84-13.

“The athletic director told me there was potential, and that they had lost to Nebraska by 10,” Holtz said. “I didn’t know he meant 10 touchdowns.”

The Omaha Press Club Gridiron Shows, with dinners that ended in 2016, for decades spoofed politicians but often included a Husker parody. Portraying Nancy Osborne, a cast member sang, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a Husker, pinnin’ all your hopes on just one man. Stand by my man!”

When an NU athletic director was adding luxury boxes to Memorial Stadium, a singer in 1997 parodied “Ghost Riders in the Sky”:

 

One day Bill Byrne was sitting down

in a stadium seat.

Bring in more cash, pile it up high.

Skyboxes i-i-i-in the sky!

 

And when Nebraska won the 1994 national championship over nemesis Miami:

 

Ding dong, we finally won

The Orange Bowl – we’re No. 1!

Unfinished business now is done.

Heigh! Ho! The merry-o,

The Hurricanes are feeling low.

 

Big-name national speakers often drew big crowds, ranging from football’s John Madden for B’nai B’rith in 1977 to baseball’s Joe Maddon for Christ the King in 2017. Some celebrities spoke to both in different years, including Devaney, Osborne, Switzer and, yes, Lee Corso – now famous for wearing a costumed mascot head from the team he picks to win on ESPN’s “College Gameday.”

The Boys Town banquet started in 1969 with boxing champ Rocky Marciano and has included such household names as Ernie Banks, Oscar Robertson, Jesse Owens, Johnny Bench, Ted Williams, Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach and Dick Vitale.

An especially memorable night for the Omaha Sportscasters Association came in 1970, when hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who once played for the Omaha Knights, received the award from the 1967 recipient, baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who played basketball and baseball for the Creighton Bluejays.

Among the most widely known speakers at Christ the King have been Scott Frost, Bill Walton, Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, Bobby Bowden, Mike Tirico, Greg Gumbel, Billy Packer, Red Auerbach, Ray Nitschke, Ara Parseghian and, in 1998, Archie Manning.

A former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints’ star himself, Archie spoke just weeks after Nebraska had defeated son Peyton Manning’s Tennessee team 42-17 in Osborne’s final game as NU coach. The coaches’ poll voted the Huskers the 1997 national champs, Nebraska’s third national title in four years.

The previous year, everyone wondered if Peyton would return for that season, his senior year, or would “go pro.” Everywhere Archie went, people asked: “Peyton goin’ pro? Peyton goin’ pro?” The elder Manning, a Protestant, told the Catholic audience that he had the honor of standing in line to meet Pope John Paul II, who leaned forward and asked, “Peyton goin’ pro?” (Banquet jokes don’t have to be true to be funny.)

The largest crowd for B’nai B’rith, more than 1,800, was for Switzer in 1986 at the old Peony Park ballroom. Other speakers for the group over the years included Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Mike Ditka, Arthur Ashe, Howard Cosell, Bud Selig, Bob Knight and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Oh, and Peyton Manning in 2016.

Peyton was a good “get” for B’nai B’rith because that was the year of Manning’s famous “Omaha” calls at the line of scrimmage. The Denver Broncos quarterback said before the banquet that everywhere he went, he got suggestions for a new word to call out.

“A city, a state, a company, a new website – you can only imagine,” Peyton said. “Well, I am here to tell you, I’m sticking with Omaha.”

Manning was true to his word. After his football career, he launched an entertainment company and gave it a great name – Omaha Productions.

Sports are played out with tension on fields and courts, but folks enjoy relaxing at other times over a meal, reminiscing and at times enjoying laughter. Postseason banquets provide that.

“They are such a great connection with the community,” said Tod Kellen, athletic director at Christ the King School. “A lot of folks who are not parishioners come, and companies sponsor tables. Just about everyone there is a fan who enjoys the camaraderie and excitement of sports. It’s always a great time to hear someone you’ve seen on TV or heard on the radio talk about their experiences and life.”

The B’nai B’rith and Christ the King banquets for years were called “sports stags,” meaning they were for men only. Both dropped the “stag” name and began welcoming  women around 1990. That was an era when Rotary Clubs opened full membership to women after a U.S. Supreme Court decision said the service club could no longer discriminate by gender. Doors were opening everywhere for women.

There had been no hue and cry from women to attend the sports banquets, but the change was a sign of the times. Previously, at last one quiet incident had occurred that was hurtful. A B’nai B’rith spokesman said a divorced mother who had raised her son was naturally unhappy when the son was honored as a high school athlete of the year at the banquet, but only the father was allowed to attend.

For the most part, sports banquets are enjoyable. And Blackwell, who died in 2005 at 66 from complications of diabetes, is well-remembered not only for his humor as an emcee but for keeping things moving.

Blackwell became popular in Omaha as a KMTV sportscaster starting in 1964 and then as a color commentator alongside Lyell Bremser on Husker football broadcasts. Even after he took a sports broadcasting job in Salt Lake City in 1973, Christ the King and B’nai B’rith continued to bring him back as emcee for 20-plus years. (Java, now sales manager for the Pinnacle Bank Championship on the Korn Ferry pro golf tour, succeeded him at CTK for several years. Radio personality Otis XII emceed B’nai B’rith.)

Unlike today, when it’s easy to go online and keep up with local news from elsewhere, Blackwell in Utah subscribed to print editions of the World-Herald. He clipped articles as the basis for topical jokes.

“People thought he winged it,” said his son, attorney David Blackwell of San Francisco. “But I remember how much preparation he put into it, scouring the newspaper for material. I’ve done some public speaking, but I’m not as funny as he was.”

Playful insults were the elder Blackwell’s style, like Don Rickles’. You felt left out if Dave didn’t zing you. But Blackwell could take a joke, too.

“You have to like Dave when you first meet him,” UNO football coach Sandy Buda once told a crowd. ”But sooner or later, he talks you out of it.”

Ha, it’s fun when even the zinger gets zinged. In any case, sports banquets have provided a filling menu for fans, serving up a big helping of sports talk – and then a tasty second course of laughter.

 

Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.

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