Back in 1966 when Tommy Suggs came to Columbia from his tiny hometown of Lamar – well before I-20 connected the Florence area to the capital city – he was impressed by what he discovered at the University of South Carolina.
For a young football player arriving to play quarterback for the Gamecocks, he found life different from his youthful days of cropping tobacco and picking cotton for 35 cents an hour. He had never taken an elevator ride until he got to campus.
During his career as the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback from 1968-70, when he helped beat Clemson three straight seasons, he also witnessed the facilities upgrades such as the Carolina Coliseum and the Roost made by athletics director and football coach Paul Dietzel.
“I thought it was amazing. I was impressed with everything we had,” Suggs said.
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After his collegiate career was over, Dietzel installed Suggs on the USC radio broadcasts alongside veteran play-by-play man Bob Fulton because the coach wanted a former player analyzing the action just like Don Meredith was doing on “Monday Night Football.”
That was in 1973.
Thursday night, Suggs will celebrate his 40-year anniversary in the radio booth by calling the game against North Carolina with play-by-play announcer Todd Ellis, another former USC quarterback. He remains amazed by what’s going on around him, from the record-setting 11-win seasons to membership in the SEC to the explosion of national television coverage to a stadium that has gone from a 43,000-seat capacity during his playing days to 80,250.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be here this long. I did not have any idea of how long I’d want to do it,” Suggs said. “I just did it because Coach (Dietzel) asked me to do it, and it kept me close, but not too close, to the football program. I’m as shocked as anyone to still be here.”
Suggs, who is president and CEO of the KeenanSuggs insurance firm, has worked with the late Fulton, Charlie McAlexander and Ellis. He chuckles over breaking in under the legendary Fulton, who sometimes would ask Suggs a question, answer it himself, and then throw it over to Suggs, who could only say, “That’s right, Bob.”
He has learned to adapt to each one.
“Bob was the godfather so you clearly made adjustments to Bob,” Suggs said. “But Bob knew football and his analysis was pretty good. Charlie would call the play and get it to you. I was able to be little more relaxed and not have to rush as much with my comments.
“Todd knows the game and sets it up quickly and concisely because of his understanding. I’ve enjoyed working with him. He’s a real professional.”
Suggs learned from Fulton that it’s impossible to please all the listeners all the time. His goal remains to keep USC fans informed without being overly positive or negative.
“They want me to be the Carolina fan on the broadcast. I want fans to know if they’re hurting, I’m hurting. And if they’re excited, I’m excited,” he said. “But the critical thing to me is the integrity of the broadcast. I can’t say we’re horrible on defense, but I can’t sugarcoat it so much that I lose my credibility. I try to be straight-forward and candid with the understanding it’s a Carolina broadcast.”
Suggs, who’s a member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame as well as the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, considers his philanthropy and support of the university as important as his athletics endeavors. He and his wife, Jane, entertain before home games, before he has to enter the booth to prepare for the broadcast – something he takes very seriously.
Ellis, who broke Suggs’ school passing records while playing at USC from 1986-89, appreciates how accommodating Suggs was when he took over the play-by-play role. Their dedication to the football program – and their similar backgrounds as former players – has led to a strong friendship.
“Tommy has lasted because he’s good at what he does. He’s an affable guy and a genuine guy who’s fun to be around,” Ellis said.
Suggs said he gets anxious because he wants the team to play well each week. He shares superstitions with Ellis involving game-day routines and clothing.
“Honestly, we’re nervous as cats. I don’t think it’s as much about broadcasting as it is about caring so much. We care so much for this football team, these fans and this program,” he said. “I was more confident when I was a player because I could do something about it. I have no control now. I can’t play. I can’t throw a pass.”
Suggs, who has worked with eight football coaches and nine athletics directors, has enjoyed the level of success in the Steve Spurrier era. He said the days of “Wait ‘Til Next Year” and the “Chicken Curse” are over with the program reaching new heights over the past three seasons and heading into this one as the nation’s No. 6 team.
Spurrier, a fellow college quarterback in the 1960s, recognizes Suggs’ contributions over the years.
“Obviously, any person who holds the job that long of a period is a good person who has the ability to get along with everyone. That’s Tommy Suggs,” Spurrier said.
His former teammates admire what he has accomplished as well. Fred Zeigler, a wide receiver who was Suggs’ favorite target on the 1969 ACC championship team and now an attorney in New York City, fondly remembers listening to Suggs on the radio.
“He’s good at what he does,” Zeigler said. “For away games back in the day, when we weren’t on TV that much, you really got to hear him a lot. Tommy is a natural. He was a natural athlete, and all of a sudden a natural broadcaster. And, apparently, a natural businessman.”
As he analyzes Thursday night’s game against the Tar Heels, Suggs likely will have a few more anxious moments. Ellis laughs that his partner doesn’t let his guard down even when the Gamecocks have a big lead with little time remaining.
“He lives every play,” Ellis said. “Not only is he analyzing every play, either right or wrong, he’s feeling it as a Gamecock.”