The Voice of the Pittsburgh sports gets his day

| Friday, April 8, 2011

The boy stood before Sister Rosalie and began reading lines from the script.

He was barely a teenager at the time, but little Billy Hillgrove wore the confidence of someone knowing exactly what he wanted.

"She said, 'Perfect,' '' Hillgrove said. " 'That's just what I'm looking for, a 13-year-old brat.' "

Hillgrove earned the role as the obnoxious son on the WDUQ-AM weekly drama, "Morning, Noon and Night," in 1953, and a radio/TV career was born.

Nearly six decades after impressing the nuns at Pittsburgh Diocesan Radio and Television school, Hillgrove remains perfect for his part.

The voice of the Steelers and the Pitt basketball and football teams will be honored with "Bill Hillgrove Day" today in Pittsburgh.

"He's the ultimate professional in every way," said Pitt basketball color analyst Dick Groat, Hillgrove's on-air partner for 33 years. "He's just absolutely perfect when it comes to being a broadcaster."

Hillgrove, 70, of Murrysville, has been the play-by-play voice of Pitt football for 37 years and Pitt basketball for 42 years. He just finished his 17th season with the Steelers.

Among active college basketball announcers, only three have a longer tenure than Hillgrove, including Duquesne's Ray Goss (43 years).

"He's been there for us through thick and thin," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said of Hillgrove. "He's just a really special human being."

Today's activities begin with an 8 a.m. mass at St. Lawrence O'Toole Catholic Church in Garfield, where Hillgrove was raised, followed by a proclamation at 11:30 a.m. in the courtyard of the downtown City-County Building and a 2 p.m. reception at Petersen Events Center.

Hillgrove is one of a handful of play-by-play men who work three major sports in one city. Two years ago, he called a noon basketball game at Pitt and a 3:45 p.m. Chargers-Steelers playoff game at Heinz Field on the same day.

Through it all, Hillgrove has never missed a Steelers game. He has missed two Pitt football games -- the 1999 opener against Bowling Green and the 2010 opener at Utah -- due to conflicts with the Steelers.

But it's always been a passion for Hillgrove, a Central Catholic and Duquesne University graduate and son of an electrician. Bill and younger brother John converted their bedroom into a make-shift radio studio, complete with a reel-to-reel tape, speakers and a boom microphone. A custom-made sign, with the radio call letters "WHIL," hung on the wall.

He was, it turned out, practicing for real life. A disc jockey for WTAE-AM, Hillgrove got his break when the station won the rights to air Pitt football and basketball games in 1969.

Hillgrove, who had called basketball games at Duquesne, worked his first Pitt game for the 1969-70 season-opener at Rutgers. When football play-by-play man Ed Conway died in 1974, Hillgrove took over.

He completed the broadcasting trifecta when the Rooneys hand-picked him after Steelers' play-by-play man Jack Fleming retired in 1994.

Along the way, the light-hearted, ebullient Hillgrove watched Pitt basketball go 6-21 one season and 31-5 in another. He saw the football team win a National Championship and endure a forgettable 2-9 disaster.

Hillgrove and his wife of 46 years, Rosette, have two children (and two grandchildren). He hopes to keep working for many more years.

"This is fun and games," he said. "I will keep going until I feel a wall. I don't see that happening anytime soon."

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