In 40th and final year, Dick Groat reflects on broadcasting Pitt basketball | TribLIVE.com
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Jerry DiPaola

When Dick Groat got the news not long ago that this will be his last season offering analysis of Pitt basketball games on the radio, he didn’t immediately think about what he was losing.

His thoughts first turned to his broadcast partner of 40 years, Bill Hillgrove. The two comprise the longest-tenured broadcast team in college basketball.

He will miss Hillgrove as much as he’ll miss the games.

“He was the first one who got me into broadcasting,” Groat said Wednesday afternoon by phone from Charlotte, N.C., where he called Pitt’s second-round ACC Tournament game Wednesday night against Syracuse. “He gave me 40 years of great fun.

“I didn’t know that much about broadcasting. He hand-walked me through everything. Working with Bill Hillgrove has been an absolute joy. I can never thank anyone for anything as much as I can thank Bill Hillgrove.”

Groat, 88, is not leaving the courtside broadcast table by his choice. He was recently informed this will be his last season.

“It hurts,” he said. “It’s a tremendous disappointment. Basketball has always been my first love.”

But he handled the news with dignity and respect.

“That’s life. You have to live with what goes on,” he said. “The University of Pittsburgh has been good to me.”

Younger Pitt basketball fans might only know Groat as a basketball analyst. But, in reality, he is one of the greatest multisport athletes in Western Pennsylvania history.

Born in Wilkinsburg in 1930, Groat was a three-sport athlete at Swissvale High School (basketball, baseball and volleyball) and went to Duke on a basketball scholarship.

Before Groat’s senior season of 1951-52, a Pittsburgh Pirates scout worked him out and invited him to meet with general manager Branch Rickey at a game at Forbes Field.

Rickey offered to play him the next night, if he signed a contract on the spot. But Groat said he felt an obligation to finish what he started at Duke.

“I said, ‘Mr. Rickey, I’m going back to Duke to play basketball and baseball,’ ” Groat said, remembering the conversation vividly 68 years later. “But if you make the same offer a year from now, I’ll be glad to sign with the Pirates.”

Rickey agreed.

“And, true to his word, when I came back from the College World Series on a Sunday,” Groat said, “I signed and joined the Pirates in the Polo Grounds (in a game against the New York Giants).”

Groat played the next night and knocked in two runs in an 8-1 Pirates victory, only three months after he was named a basketball All-American for the second time and 1952 national player of the year.

The memory of the game that launched his Major League career is just one reason Groat loves visiting New York City. He met his wife there and, of course, called many Pitt games in the Big East Tournament from Madison Square Garden.

In 1952 and ’53, Groat split time between the Pirates and the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Pistons of the NBA. He was the Piston’s first-round draft choice in ’52 and averaged 11.9 points that season.

He’ll tell you that basketball was his first love, but he is best known for playing shortstop for the Pirates on their way to victory against the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. He won National League MVP honors that year. Later, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and won the ‘64 World Series, beating the Yankees again.

“The Yankees weren’t supposed to lose to anyone,” Groat said, “much less to us twice.”

Splitting up the broadcast team is difficult for Hillgrove, too.

“I grew up idolizing Dick Groat and that ’60 Pirates team,” Hillgrove said before Wednesday’s broadcast.

Hillgrove said he approached Groat with the idea of being his broadcast partner after consulting with former Pitt coach Tim Grgurich.

“I was either doing it by myself or with Dean Billlick (Pitt sports information director at the time),” he said. “I told Grgurich, ‘Dick Groat loves basketball. I play at his golf course (in Ligonier). I’ll ask him.’

“Well, it was a cathartic moment. He thanks me to this day for putting him in this position.”

Hillgrove’s most cherished memories of working with Groat involve their many trips to New York City.

“Yankees fans worship the ground he walks on, even though he beat them twice,” Hillgrove said.

Hillgrove said it was a pleasure “just being in his company and being on the air with him. As great as he was, he was always very fair, and he was always toughest on the guards (Groat played the position, of course).”

Groat said he has received many messages in recent days from friends and fans, including former Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon and his father. Dixon, the coach at TCU, called from Kansas City, where his team is competing in the Big 12 Tournament.

Groat said he believes current Pitt coach Jeff Capel has the program pointed upward.

“They are so much fun to watch,” he said. “They’re young. This guy (Capel) will turn this program around. It’s only a matter of time. He’s a very solid basketball coach and a great recruiter.”

Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke said in a statement Wednesday the university hopes to honor Groat’s years of service at a game next season.

“True to form,” she said, “Dick wanted the attention on our seniors and team at the last home game and did not want recognition for himself. We hope he will allow us to honor him at a game next season.

“Dick has been a legendary voice and asset to Pitt. As he steps away from the microphone at the end of the year, we are grateful for his passion and commitment to Pitt and creating so many memorable moments for our fans.”

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