‘Bronco Bruce’ Miller had Tulane at heart

Oh, brother.

That woeful, resigned refrain, which once served as code to a segment of regional sports fans, echoes again Friday.

Bruce Miller — known as “Bronco Bruce’’ to fans of a bygone era, the unmistakeable voice of Tulane athletics — will be memorialized Friday in New Orleans. Miller, who broadcast Green Wave football from 1959 through 1975, then came back for a couple of seasons afterward, died March 27 after a heart attack. He was 81.

He also was part of the Saints’ broadcast team, host of sports-talk shows at WWL-AM and WGSO-AM and was the sports anchor at WDSU-TV, but he left a deep imprint on Tulane sports.

“To say he was one of a kind would be an understatement,’’ said Angus Lind, a retired newspaper columnist and Tulane devotee. “He was more entertaining than a lot of comedians.’’

Over the airways, Miller spoke cryptically in a stream-of-consciousness lingo and phraseology seemingly only for Greenies to cipher.

“Man alive!’’ was generally reserved for positive plays. “Oh, brother’!’ was his most frequently used expression, serving for a variety of situations — a few good, most not so much. “Hold the phone!’’ became synonymous with late penalty flags, fumbles, dropped passes, interceptions, touchdowns called back and other assorted disasters.

There was also “Holy cow,’’ which he picked up growing up in Illinois listening to his professional idol, HarryCaray, calling St. Louis Cardinals games.

“Bruce wanted to be like Caray,’’ Lind said, “because Caray would say anything. First and foremost, Caray was a fan — and so was Bruce.’’

Todd Graffagnini, Tulane’s current play-by-play man, and Ken Berthelot, who broadcast Green Wave sports in the 1980s and ’90s, noted that Miller left a mark even though the program may have been close to its worse during his 17-year run.

The Green Wave had a cumulative record of 56-107-4 from 1959-75. But in that time, Miller called Tulane’s infamous “fifth-down’’ defeat to Miami in 1972 — in which Miller had a clear-eyed grasp of what happened, though the officials did not; and the 1973 last-second 24-17 victory against Duke — which Miller always maintained was his high point on the air. Quarterback Steve Foley hit his brother Mike for the winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds to play. “Oh, brother,’’ Miller exclaimed with an endearing but awful pun: “Brother to brother.’’

But the on-air moment nearest to the hearts of most Tulanians was the night the Green Wave broke LSU’s series stranglehold in 1973. With the clock winding down and the deafening noise of the crowd of 86,000 in the backdrop, sidekick Wayne Mack shouted, “The Greenies have the ball and the ballgame!’’

Then Miller, described by Lind as in his finest ad-lib free-flow, shouted: “The long, long dry spell, the long hot summers, the long hot winters are over, as the Greenies have broken it. ... Holy cow, as Harry Caray says, Oh, man alive.’’

Noted Lind: “He said ‘long hot winters’ and nobody blinked.’’

The game was rebroadcast days later, giving Wave fans (including Lind and Graffagnini) an opportunity to tape it — and each said he still has the recording.

An honest love

There have been few connections more pronounced than Miller on the mike and the Green Wave.

There was an honest love in the voice that carried to the Tulane faithful — something, not words, but in the voice that transcended mere description. With his corny maxims, sometimes tortured phrasing and a no-hiding-his-allegiances commentary, there were those who would charge a lack of professionalism, that he was too close to tell the whole story.

But that criticism is reserved for those who work only for money. It was love that held Miller to the mike, and there was something forgivable about a man you know had a spear piercing his gizzard after a painful moment on the field.

From the start, there was an emotional tie between the school and Miller. He watched Tulane, ravaged by athletic de-emphasis, attempt to compete against a killer schedule. The Wave was not a terrible team; it was terribly over-matched.

The only game he remembered of his first season was a 14-6 defeat to LSU. It took a long run late in the game to put down the Wave. One season before, LSU won 62-0.

He felt a kinship with the coaches, who were fighting a war impossible to win. He emphasized with the program and later admitted, “Tulane became an obsession. Tulane became my wife, my mistress, my home away from home.’’

Quite a team

Miller had worked with other analysts, but the Tulane broadcasts began flowering in 1967 when he teamed with Mack, a laconic Irishman with a wry sense of humor. It was Mack who hung the moniker “Bronco Bruce’’ on Miller after watching a horse by the same name at the Fair Grounds.

“Respect and kindness is a rarity in this business,’’ Miller said. “But the two of us worked at it. There was a mutual respect, and it became very good for me. ... We had a lot of humor, and it was very important to have humor because we had to describe some pretty bad games.’’

Some of the time-filling was memorable, too. When Tulane was being blown out by Georgia, the pair got into a discussion on why bulldogs’ tails are short and whether they can wag. At a snowy, lopsided game at Rutgers, it was snowflakes, their varied sizes and shapes. On the banks of the Monongahela River at West Virginia, the audience learned it was one of the few in the world that flows south to north — as does the Nile.

The digressions were often as entertaining as the discourse in the heat of battle, such as the 1972 game at Boston College.

Bruce: “The tackle made by Dennis McLeary, No. 66. You know, there’s a lot of Irishmen in Boston.’’

Wayne: “Oh, yes. You can see the beauty on the streets.’’

Bruce: “O’Hagan, McLeary. You know, if Bing Crosby ever comes to this town, he’d never run out of names, would he? Second down and 6.’ ”

“Seldom a dull moment, even when the games were,’’ Graffagnini said. “I sit in that chair in the broadcast booth now, calling Tulane games. But I really feel I’m just filling Bruce Miller’s spot.’’