On February 3, Denver sports and broadcasting icon Irv Brown died of cancer at age 83, and looking back on his career offers an opportunity to reflect on both an extraordinary life and just how much television and radio broadcasting has changed on the local as well as national level.
A Denver native, Brown originally made his mark as a baseball coach, overseeing squads for Arvada High School, Metro State College and the University of Colorado Boulder.
He also worked as a big-time basketball referee, calling fouls at several Final Fours in the 1960s. And he was an early hire at a nascent sports network called ESPN, calling the service's first college football game (between Colorado and Oregon) and covering plenty of less high-profile contests, too, like bowling tourneys, as seen in the screen capture at the top of this post.
Still, generations of Denver media consumers know him best as a radio host, teaming at multiple stations, including 104.3 The Fan, with several notable cohorts — among them longtime columnist Woody Paige.
Paige was one of many sports personalities in town to eulogize Brown. In a tweet, he wrote, "The pride of North Denver. Irv became the No. 1 college basketball ref in nation and worked six Final 4’s. College baseball and football coach. I coerced him to join my sports talk show in 1980. Irv was the best. Devoted husband and father and friend. RIP."
Still, Joe Williams was arguably Brown's most significant on-air relationship. Irv and Joe, as they were known, bantered about sports like a pair of old drinking buddies, often drilling down to the atomic level on any topic that came to mind. In addition to discussing minutia related to the Broncos or the CU Buffs, they'd talk about obscure high school ballers from years gone by likely remembered only by the players' parents — and, of course, them.
It was a hearty, collegial approach that fans found incredibly endearing. Yet as sports radio became increasingly slick and professional, their style could seem quaint and old-fashioned, as noted by Darren McKee, aka 104.3 The Fan's D-Mac, in a 2017 Westword interview.
"When I first got here, it was Irv and Joe radio," McKee recalled. "And I love Irv and Joe — but it was, 'I remember Tommy. He was a great little shortstop for Arvada West back in 1954.' Irv would literally sit there with business cards that people would give him and go, 'Timmy's Plumbing. Good guy, Timmy.' It was like that. Irv and Joe are icons, no doubt about it. But Irv and Joe didn't have to get ratings, they didn't have to drive revenue, they didn't have to do the things you have to do at most commercial radio stations, because it was just different. The expectations were different. It wasn't their fault. It's just that they came out at a different time."
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My one cameo on Irv and Joe's show came back in 1999, when I was shadowing pilot and traffic spotter Sam Hammer for a Westword profile. (This was several years before Hammer was arrested and charged with attempting to produce child pornography by requesting explicit Polaroids from what he thought was a fourteen-year-old girl — whom he allegedly tried to impress by sending her our article. Creepy.) In attempting to prove what a longtime Broncos supporter I was, I told Brown and Williams that I'd been living and dying with the orange and blue since the quarterback was Steve Tensi — a field general so shaky that he makes current QB Case Keenum seem like a lock for the Hall of Fame by comparison. It turned out to be a good call.
Less fortunate was my wife, a Denver-area principal. During her introduction to Brown, he asked her what sports she'd played while attending school. When she told him none, the conversation ended right there.
However, it continued with her students. Brown came to her school year after year to chat with the kids about all the things he'd done in his life — and all the things they could do in theirs.
This story is hardly unique. People all over Colorado have similar memories of Brown's kindness and generosity. At his best, he could make Denver seem like a small town — one in which we were all lucky to live.