By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets)
He has seen blowouts and nail-biters, thrillers and heartbreakers, and every other emotion that can be compressed into four quarters and one hundred yards. He has sat through brutal cold, blistering humidity, driving rain and every type of weather that fall in the South can conjure.
He witnessed the birth of the Black Watch, the rise of Joe Ham, the legend of Calvin and the transformation of the 1990 team from unranked to national champion. He was there when Sisson nailed the kick, Qua made the leap, Lance performed a miracle and countless other indelible moments at Bobby Dodd Stadium and beyond.
Since the fall of 1972, Tommy Barber has kept watch over it all, binoculars fixed on the field, faithfully serving as our spotter on Georgia Tech football radio broadcasts. But after 46 years as one of the unsung heroes of our booth, Tommy’s focus will turn elsewhere this fall. A 1972 Tech graduate, he’s decided to retire from his spotting duties to travel and spend more time with his family.
“It’s the greatest hobby you could have,” Tommy told me recently. “It’s been something that I’ll always cherish.”
And so will we. As another broadcast season awaits on the Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network, his teammates in the radio booth – past and present – wanted to pay him tribute.
“One of the best I’ve ever worked with,” said Wes Durham, Georgia Tech’s play-by-play voice from 1995-2013.
“He’s one of the easiest, most likable and loving human beings I’ve ever been around. And boy, did he bleed White and Gold,” added Brandon Gaudin, our “Voice of the Yellow Jackets” from 2014-16.
“My Dad would tell you one of the great joys he had calling Georgia Tech football games for 43 years was having Tommy and Kim [King] right by his side for over 22 of them,” said Al Ciraldo, Jr., Tommy’s longtime spotting partner and the son of Tech’s legendary play-by-play voice.
I’ll add to that chorus in a moment. But first, a word on Tommy’s role. For every game, a broadcaster prepares a chart – sometimes we call it a board – that contains the two-deep for each team, along with any information we may need to deliver an accurate account of the action. Whenever someone makes a tackle, a catch or a carry, a spotter points to that player on our board so we can identify him on-air.
But don’t let the simplicity of the job belie its significance. Working alongside Al Jr. – they’ve served as Georgia Tech’s spotting tandem since 1978 – Tommy turned it into high art. He was the ultimate security blanket, saving us from the embarrassment of calling out the wrong name or fumbling around on our chart for the right one. He could pick out, with uncanny accuracy, who forced a fumble, blocked a kick or laid a key block. He pointed out substitutions or injuries we may have missed. Tommy also did the spotting for the opposing team, adding an extra layer of difficulty to his job.
We’ll all remember that Tommy pose – hunched over, absorbed in the action, his 25 year-old Bushnells jutting out beneath that mop of white hair. There was a reason Al Ciraldo Sr. introduced him as “’Dependable’ Tommy Barber.”
“If Tommy Barber made any mistakes in spotting and assisting me, I don’t remember them,” recalled Brandon.
His duties weren’t limited to pointing out players, either. Tommy helped us with the quick math of punt lengths and yards gained, often faster than the stat monitor (he is a Tech grad, after all). As Al points out, his memory of Georgia Tech records was so sharp, he could spot trends as they developed and prep us for a potential record-setting performance. Tommy’s intuition gave our broadcasts a depth and clarity we couldn’t do without.
“To this day, I remember certain things that he did for me that I still think of, in the sense that I don’t know that I’ve had whose principal role is to spot do that,” said Wes.
“There’s so much to keep track at any one time during the game, between the 22 guys on the field, the and officials, and the general strategy, and everything else that’s going on, that it’s nice to have someone bring order to that chaos,” added Sean Bedford, our current color analyst.
Tommy, of course, described his work with typical humility. Modesty is the man’s default setting. “We learn to know what you’re looking for. You’ve got your own technique and we learn that, and we try to give you the information that will make it a more interesting production,” he said.
For Tommy, spotting was a natural extension of his love for Tech, which bloomed in earnest after arriving on The Flats from Winder, Ga., in 1968. In his final year, as he worked toward a degree in industrial management, he picked up some part-time work as a computer operator for a company run by Roy Mundorff, the son of Tech’s former head basketball coach from 1926-43.
That job, serendipitously, led to some other part-time work. Mundorff happened to be friends with Al Ciraldo Sr. Mundorff knew that Al’s spotter of 31 years, Joe Zoss, might have to miss some games that upcoming season because of health issues.
“He asked if I was interested. I said ‘Yeah, I grew up listening to Al on basketball, all those phrases that made him famous,’” Tommy recalled.
He still has the program from the first game he spotted, a 21-16 win over No. 18 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. on September 23, 1972. Tommy filled in for Zoss several times over the next two seasons. After Zoss passed away, he took over the job full-time in 1974, the same year Al Sr. and Kim King formed their famous partnership.
He has been a fixture of Tech broadcasts ever since, fitting his travel around jobs in the restaurant business, warehousing and, until his retirement in 2013, medical supply sales. In those early years, he drove to road games with Al Sr., Al Jr., network engineer Mike Lawing and a motley crew of others in a sprawling GMC motorhome, loaned to them by a dealer who did advertising with Al. That motorhome turned into a rolling celebration following Tech wins (ask Tommy about the trip home from Tuscaloosa after the Yellow Jackets upset No. 4 Alabama in the 1981 season opener). He and Al Jr. later became inseparable travel partners, flying together to meet the team.
His career stretched across 280 wins and nine head coaches. It wound through places as diverse as Provo, South Bend and Dublin, Ireland. If there was an iconic Georgia Tech game over the past four decades, Tommy has witnessed it, from the win over No. 1 Virginia in 1990 – still his favorite – to the 2014 Orange Bowl.
(There was one notable exception: in 1978, a work commitment prevented him from making the trip to Colorado for Tech’s game against Air Force. He wound up missing Eddie Lee Ivery’s NCAA record-breaking 356 rushing yards against the Falcons. He still calls it his biggest regret.)
His duties extended after the game as well. With minutes left in the fourth quarter, Tommy would head to the Georgia Tech locker room to set up our equipment for our post-game radio show. He also served as our “player wrangler,” shepherding student-athletes to our sideline reporter for interviews. It’s a thankless job, especially in the wake of a stinging loss, but Tommy’s kindness could coax even the most reluctant Yellow Jacket to speak.
“I never knew of any player turning down Tommy to come do a post-game interview,” said Randy Waters, our longtime sideline reporter and pre- and postgame host. “He always connected to the kids and made it less painful for them to have to talk about painful situations. Tommy’s always been so positive no matter the situation.”
More often than not, though, Tommy bore witness to history – and often with a better view than the broadcasters. After setting up our equipment, he usually had enough time to watch the final few minutes from the sidelines. That put him in close proximity to a laundry list of seminal Tech moments.
“He’s kind of, in some ways, a Forrest Gump of Georgia Tech football,” said Wiley Ballard, our new sideline reporter and pregame host.
Kerry Watkins’ clinching touchdown catch against Clemson in 2000? There was Tommy in the corner of the end zone, jumping up and down in celebration. Harrison Butker’s game-tying 53-yard field goal at Georgia in 2014? He can still see the ball clearing the crossbar above five feet from him. Tommy calls it the single favorite play of his career.
Wes, meanwhile, still laughs at the ending of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate in 1999, a 51-48 Tech win in which Luke Manget booted the game-winning field goal in overtime. Manget’s kick was toward the south end zone, away from the Tech locker room.
Amid the jubilation, Wes spotted his spotter, temporarily abandoning all veneer of impartiality.
“You look down and you see this guy in a gold sweater come running from under the goalposts carrying binoculars out onto the field to celebrate with the team. It’s Tommy Barber. He comes from the opposite end of the field. It’s nowhere near where the football locker room is. We laughed about that up until I left in ’13,” Wes said.
“The players just went crazy. Of course they all swarmed the field – and I did, too,” Tommy joked. “I got out there and somehow I got in the middle of that scrum and I said to myself, “What in the – What am I doing?’ Because there are about 14 guys on top of me that weighed 300 pounds. I never made that mistake again.”
But those stories, and many more like them, illustrate why Tommy was such a treasured part of our radio crew. He may have kept even-keeled while spotting, but Tommy loved Tech dearly. It reflected in the quality of his work. His voice caught several times when recounting his favorite moments.
And as passionate as he was for Tech, Tommy was also unfailingly positive. Win or lose, you could always count on his warm demeanor brightening up the booth, a Southern gentlemen whose love for the Jackets was matched only by his grace and good cheer. We all have stories of Tommy’s positivity raising our spirits, reassuring us, making us feel at ease.
“One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” Miller Pope, our longtime engineer, put succinctly.
He’s a friend to us all. And that camaraderie is what Tommy will remember, too.
“The reality is, what was probably just as much fun as the game, was the people,” he said, that old voice catching again.
But now, after 46 years of peering and pointing, Tommy is off to new adventures. He looks forward to spending more time with his bride of 43 years, Carolyn. They also plan on RV’ing more, a hobby they’ve picked up in recent years.
“The one thing that made my decision for this year is we’re going to Florida and to Gulf Shores [Alabama] for about a month in the middle of football season. When I made that decision, I said, ‘I’ve got to do one or the other.’ I decided this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he explained.
Georgia Tech, though, will never be far from his mind. He still plans on coming to Tech games whenever his schedule allows, though he acknowledges it might feel strange.
“Carolyn and I have been married for 43 [years] now. To be honest with you, she has never been to a football game with me,” he admits.
Carolyn, be ready to have your husband point out players to you. It’s in his blood.
We’ve been blessed to have some towering figures in our radio booth over the years. Tommy is no exception. So if you meet a Tech grad with a genteel Georgia twang in the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium this fall, possibly holding a pair of binoculars, make sure to say hello.
You’ll have spotted a legend.