Paul Rogers: Cawood Ledford was a ‘great boss, great friend, mentor’
Rogers’ mom answered the phone. “Paul, it’s for you,” she called.
Once Rogers took the phone, the voice he heard on the other end was familiar. “Paul, this is Cawood Ledford.”
I was like, “Wow!” Rogers recalled earlier this summer.
On the air continuously for WHAS radio and/or TV in Louisville since 1973, Rogers, 68, has enjoyed an unusually enduring career at a high level of the Kentucky sports media. As radio play-by-play announcer of University of Louisville football since 1992 and men’s basketball since 1995, Rogers is now a staple of U of L sports.
Yet he owes his start in broadcasting to Ledford, the radio voice of the University of Kentucky Wildcats from 1953 through 1992.
A 1969 graduate of Eastern High School in Louisville, Rogers came to UK that fall to study telecommunications with the goal of becoming a sports broadcaster.
For one with that aspiration, there was then no better contact one could make in Kentucky than Ledford, who was sports director at Louisville’s WHAS radio and television in addition to his UK duties.
At Christmas break during Rogers’ freshman year at UK, a “friend of a friend” arranged for him to meet Ledford.
“I went to his office and was like, ‘OK, how do I get into this business?’” Rogers said.
Ledford’s advice: Go to UK’s campus radio station and offer to sweep the floors if that was what it took to get a foot in the door.
Rogers did just that. As a result, he spent his final three years at UK calling Wildcats home football and basketball games on WBKY (now WUKY).
During that time, Rogers would see Ledford at Wildcats games and say hello. “At one point, I gave him an audition tape,” Rogers said.
In 1973, not long after he had finished college, Rogers heard that WHAS was looking to hire another sports announcer to join Ledford, Van Vance and Mike James on its staff.
In response, Rogers sent Ledford another, more recent tape of him calling play-by-play.
That led to Ledford’s fateful phone call to the home of Rogers’ parents.
“The first thing he said to me was, “’Paul, you have really improved,’” Rogers said. “I was like ‘Woah, this is really good.’ So Cawood said, ‘Come in and talk to me.’ And I did. And he hired me.”
Learning from an icon
As a boss, Ledford “was whatever you needed,” Rogers said. “He could be a mentor. He was a good manager of things. He would get on you a little bit now and then — but it was probably for something you deserved. He was never harsh.”
Once on a Sunday night television sportscast, Rogers referred to U of L as “second-ranked Louisville.”
The following day at WHAS, he found a note from Ledford. “In what poll is Louisville ranked No. 2?” the note asked.
Said Rogers: “They had been number two, but I had forgotten they had slipped to number six.”
At another point in his early career, a colleague initiated a conflict with Rogers.
“The next day, I asked Cawood to go to lunch,” Rogers said. “I told him what happened, told him I was a little concerned, not sure what to do. He said ‘Listen, you only have to please one person — and that’s me. If (the colleague) gives you any (crap), next time just punch him in the nose.’”
Echoes of Cawood
In his time broadcasting Louisville games, Rogers’ most-lasting basketball memories are from the Cardinals’ run to the 2013 NCAA title.
The five-overtime, regular-season loss to Notre Dame. The comeback victory over Syracuse in the finals of the Big East Tournament. The gruesome injury suffered by Kevin Ware in the NCAA Tournament round of eight win over Duke. The well-played NCAA finals victory over Michigan.
Subsequently, of course, the NCAA vacated that championship due to violations related to U of L’s “strippers/escorts in the basketball dorm” scandal.
“I’m sorry it’s no longer on (Louisville’s) record,” Rogers said of the vacated championship. “But, personally, I cannot deny what I saw.”
On the football side, a chance to broadcast Lamar Jackson’s run to the 2016 Heisman Trophy was an unexpected career highlight. “It was fun. It was weird in a way because it’s something we’ve never seen around here,” Rogers said.
In his broadcasts, Rogers hopes people hear echoes of the man who offered him his first full-time sportscasting job.
“The thing I loved about Cawood, he had this timber in his voice, this tension in his voice, that you knew it was a big moment without (him) screaming his lungs out,” Rogers said. “I don’t necessarily think I do it as well as him, but I try very hard not to get overexcited.”
Ledford died in 2001 at age 75. That meant he lived long enough to see Rogers settle in as the radio play-by-play announcer for U of L.
“I think he was proud of me,” Rogers said.
Forty-six years since the phone call from Ledford that launched his career, Rogers said, “I kind of get goosebumps thinking about it, even now.”