I really, really shouldn’t have written this column last night. There was so much other work I could have been doing, but the fact is, the words simply wanted to come out too much.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Columbus media over the past few days, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read the tributes to the retiring Larry Larson. The former high school football coach and radio broadcaster aired his final show on WTVN-AM on Sunday morning, and he’s a few short weeks away from moving to California, where he can be closer to his daughter.
In fact, there have been so many tributes to Larry that you might be tired of reading them. However, I’m of the opinion there can never be too many for a man like Larry, and I’m the guy with the keyboard and the website, so I have to say what I have to say.
Chances are, if you’re in Columbus, you’ve had some sort of interaction with Larson over the years. He was a larger than life figure in many ways, first while serving as the head coach and athletic director at Grandview Heights High School. His radio career beamed his gravelly voice into homes and cars across the city. His speakers program and internship program provided countless opportunities to young people throughout the capital. And his time spent at Plank’s Café on Parsons introduced his unique personality to a whole new audience.
All of those jobs have made him a Columbus icon, but he’s known mostly around town as “Mr. High School Sports” for his unending role as a champion of prep athletics both in his work as a coach and a broadcaster. He has also been feted for his undying work covering the Columbus Blue Jackets, and to its credit, the Jackets’ organization has treated Larry not as a media member but as family in recent years.
However, there is one side of Larry’s work that hasn’t been discussed quite as much, and that’s his coverage of Ohio State athletics. While most people who cover Ohio State focus mostly on football and basketball, Larry was a constant presence at OSU’s Olympic sports despite his already hectic schedule. And if he couldn’t be there, he’d send an intern.
While Larry was known for spending time with the Rich Nashes and Dario Franchittis of the world – yes, I’ve heard he has quite a friendship with the former Indianapolis 500 winner – he also made sure to make time for the Jackie Bartos and Chuck Merzbachers. (Those are Ohio State’s women’s hockey and women’s tennis coaches, by the way). I know for a fact Barto was one of Larry’s favorites before her retirement this spring, mostly because Larry would always ask me who my favorite Ohio State coaches were; he knew I spent time covering all 36 sports.
I once had a member of Ohio State’s sports information department joke that when Larry called their office to set up interviews at the start of each week, staffers simply passed him from phone extension to phone extension until he had talked to every SID and set up an interview in every sport. Of course, it wasn’t really a joke.
Not all of Ohio State’s sports make it into the public eye unless they’re competing for national championships, but Larry has always known those competitors put as much time and effort into their work as professional hockey players, OSU football stars and his beloved high school competitors.
It has been only one part of Larry’s personality over the years, but it’s a part I think has been overlooked in recent days.
Of course, Larry also covered his fair share of Ohio State football games, which was fitting considering he grew up only minutes from Ohio Stadium. The past few years, Larry would lend a hand to the Associated Press at postgame news conferences, asking questions of head coach Jim Tressel that would help the AP writer turn around the game story quickly.
One of my favorite exchanges of all-time, then, came after Ohio State’s season-opening win against Youngstown State in 2007. A noted admirer of the ground game while coaching at Grandview, Larry started his question in this fashion: “Jim, being a former high school coach, the only thing I knew going into our first game is we weren't going to pass. That was back in the '70s.”
Tressel, who never showed much emotion in postgame, quickly arched an eyebrow.
“You weren’t going to pass?” he said.
What was the rest of the question? It doesn’t matter. It was just classic Larry – 100 percent authentic, 100 percent of the time, even in the Ohio State interview room, and that’s why Tressel made it a point to call into his final show Sunday.
Lastly, any conversation about Larry – at least in my mind – has to include a section on his work as a mentor for countless youngsters. It always seemed that every high school athlete of note in the Columbus area was a member of his high school speakers group, and a number of them have talked publicly in recent weeks about the impact that program had on their lives.
Then there was his internship program, which I must admit I have been much more familiar with. The program helped produce Columbus radio personalities Lori Schmidt and Kelsey Webb, among others, though its impact ran much deeper than that.
I’ve been proud to call a number of those recent interns – from Colin Smith to Jena Smith to Sam Clark to Diana Hardbarger to Jess Laicy to Megan Short – friends over the years, and I know more than one considered Larry to be akin to family. If the judge of a person is the company they keep, Larry’s track record more than speaks for itself.
I was lucky enough to be present about a month ago when the Ohio Center for Broadcasting – which provided Larry with many of his interns – honored him by naming one of its studios after him. At the event, Larry gave an impassioned speech about how much he loved the school because it provided so many people with an opportunity that they otherwise would not have.
At that moment, I had some clarity. I had always known Larry was a great guy – heck, the whole town knows it – but I hadn’t quite realized how much he sincerely wants everyone he comes across to have the resources to make themselves better people. Not many people can say the same thing, and it’s a standard to which we can all aspire.
Having said all that, it’s no surprise Larry has always treated me well, from the time I was working for Ohio State’s student radio station and student newspaper to this very day, especially when I’m enjoying some time at Plank’s, the unofficial hangout of BSB for decades. If there’s ever been a better marriage of person and place, I’ve yet to see it, and I know Larry has treasured his time behind the bar after the unfortunate passing of his beloved bride, Jeannie, in 2008.
A number of Larry’s favorite expressions are time-honored truisms, particularly the saying, “It’s very nice to be important, but it’s much more important to be very nice.” But the one Larry has quoted the most in recent weeks as his time in Columbus has ticked down is advice he got from Jeannie during her final days, as quoted in the final moments of his last show: “Never, ever look back. You only think about what is coming next. … You can’t go backwards; you can’t wish it was yesterday because that is not going to happen.”
I know Larry has been been grateful for the kind words and tributes his retirement has gathered, but he’s also been taken aback and slightly uncomfortable by the attention. After all, we’ve all been looking back and thinking about the past, not looking to the future.
Sorry, Larry, the memories are just too good.
Quite simply, you will never be replaced. No one could ever do as much work as you – after all, you sleep only about four hours per night – and even if they could, they could never do it with your trademark sincerity, enthusiasm and warmth.
Best of luck in California, Larry. Don’t be a stranger.
To hear Larry’s final broadcast on WTVN, click here. A video tribute to Larson featuring a number of his friends and colleagues can be found here.