If you ask Steve Jones about highlights from 20 years as the play-by-play announcer for Penn State football, you might expect him to mention some big plays, like the Marcus Allen field-goal block that Grant Haley ran back for a touchdown against Ohio State during the White Out in 2016. Or perhaps you’d expect him to mention head coach Joe Paterno’s 400th win in 2010, when Jones pronounced, “You’ll never see this again: One man. One school. 400 wins.” Maybe you’d think he’d bring up the time running back Larry Johnson surpassed 2,000 rushing yards in 2002, and Jones famously quipped, “2K for L.J.!”
You’d be right. Those are all memorable moments that Jones holds dear. But the most important play he’s ever called, he says, was a play most Penn State fans wouldn’t remember at all – nor would they want to.
“The most important play I felt I’ve ever called in my career was a blocked punt by USC in the Kickoff Classic,” Jones says.
The year was 2000, and it was the first season Jones and color analyst Jack Ham were working together as the voices of Penn State football. Jones, who is known for his thorough preparation and steel-trap memory, called out the names of each of the Trojans’ players involved in the play as they blocked a Penn State punt and returned it for a touchdown early in the first quarter.
“We went to a commercial break, and Jack looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know a lot of guys who could’ve done that,’” Jones says. “I won his respect that day. That’s why that play was so important to me.”
“I looked over and I thought he was making it up,” Ham says. “I thought, no one would know those players’ names like that. … He was spot on, and I was just amazed. That is Steve Jones. That’s an example of how thorough, how exact, he is. Combine that with the fact that he doesn’t have an ego, which in the broadcasting world is truly unique, and that combination is why I have enjoyed these 20 years in the broadcasting booth.”
A season like no other
The pair have certainly experienced a lot during their two decades together as the voices of Penn State football: three head coaches, plus an interim head coach; four losing seasons; 14 bowl games; three Big 10 Championships; the 2000 spinal cord injury of freshman cornerback Adam Talafierro; the 2011 Jerry Sandusky scandal and ensuing NCAA sanctions; and now, what promises to be the most unusual college football season in modern history due to a global pandemic.
On October 24, the Jones/Ham team kicked off their 21st season together on the Penn State Sports Network – a season that almost didn’t happen at all, until the Big 10 Conference reversed an earlier decision to cancel fall sports. The adjusted season will include only nine games, all within the conference, and no public ticket sales, meaning very few, if any, fans will be in the stands.
The lack of fans in the stadium could mean an even bigger radio audience than ever, even as in-person media access to players and coaches is limited for safety reasons. Jones and Ham are up for the challenge.
“We’ve negotiated other challenges before and we’ll negotiate this one, too,” Jones says, adding that his experience announcing basketball games during sparsely-attended holiday tournaments has prepared him for a season without fans in the stadium.
“From my view, it doesn’t change what you do. … It’s not quite as daunting as people think it is,” he says.
Although they most likely will not be able to attend practices or spend time physically in the presence of players and coaches, Jones believes they’ll still be provided with everything they need to stay informed.
“Obviously, you get much more when you’re actually standing there. But we’ll talk on Zoom, and there are other ways of knowing what’s going on in practice,” Jones says. “(Coach) James Franklin is a remarkable person to work with, he really is. James makes sure that Jack and I have every tool possible to do this job right.”
The big question is, does this year’s Penn State football team have the tools to get the job done?
“One of the reasons why Jack and I so badly wanted to see them play this year is because we felt that James had been building and working to get the program to this point,” Jones says. “But when you look at what they have in front of them, they’re not going to get eased into this thing, not by a long shot. You’re going to find out right out of the gate. I feel like they’re in a nine-game playoff for the College Football Playoff.”
“I look specifically at the linebackers, because of being a linebacker in my era,” Ham says. “This group of linebackers coming up now is as talented a group for Penn State that they have had in a long, long time. … But [this season] is going to be an experience for everybody. Players, coaches, and broadcasters are all going to have to fight their way through it.”
For example, Ham says, “The White Out, with 110,000 fans, was a huge home field advantage. Now that’s no longer there. For the players, their mental toughness is going to be really at the forefront. Whoever can be mentally tough and disciplined throughout all of this and come out the other end is going to be successful.”
The road to the broadcast booth
Ham knows a thing or two about success. A Johnstown native, he played football for Bishop McCort High School before coming to Penn State, where he became an All-American and was eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1971 and went on to win four Super Bowls, become an All-Pro six times, and be named to eight straight Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
Upon his retirement from the NFL in 1982, Ham was approached by Mutual Radio and started calling NFL games, as well as the occasional college game, he says. When the Penn State announcing team of Fran Fisher and George Paterno retired after the 1999 season, Ham was approached by his former coach, Joe Paterno, about taking over the color analyst spot.
“Having played at Penn State for Joe Paterno, and now going back as a color analyst, I thought it would be a perfect scenario,” Ham says.
Meanwhile, Jones had been preparing for the play-by-play job his entire life.
As a child growing up in Enfield, Connecticut, he listened to baseball broadcasting legends like Jack Buck, Bob Prince, Chuck Thompson, and Harry Kalas.
“I thought, ‘Man, what a great job!’ I never even thought that you could get paid for it. I just thought the job was really cool,” he says. “But then I would watch Curt Gowdy on NBC, and he would do the NFL and then the Super Bowl. Then he’d do Major League Baseball and he’d do the World Series. And then NBC would do the Final Four and he’d do college basketball. And I thought, ‘Wow, that guy can do all three sports!’ And that was the influence that made me think I could do it, switch season to season to season.”
Jones, who always had family ties in State College (his great-uncle built five stone houses that stand along Park Avenue), majored in speech communication-broadcasting at Penn State. In 1977, he called his first basketball game on a 10-watt radio station at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, and he knew he had found his calling.
Jones graduated from Penn State in 1980 and went to work for State College radio station 1450 AM. What he cites as his big break came in 1981, when he was asked to fill in to call a Penn State basketball game for Fran Fisher, while Fisher was busy calling the Nittany Lions’ famous 48-14 football win over Pitt. Jones soon became Penn State’s full-time basketball announcer, a job he still holds today. He also earned a spot as the third announcer for Penn State football until 1991, when he took over as the Beaver Stadium public address announcer – a job he held through the end of the 1999 season, when he and Ham were hired to take over for Fisher and George Paterno.
“I’ve always thought that the next biggest break I got was being paired up with Jack. I felt that being paired up with him gave the broadcast instant credibility,” he says. “When (Associate Athletic Director) Budd Thalman told me that Jack had accepted the job, my first thought was, ‘We have a great chance at success, because that guy is going to make me better.’ Any perceived success I’ve had is in a lot of ways tied directly to working with him.”
“I’m a big Steve Jones fan,” Ham says. “Twenty years have gone by very, very quickly and I’ve enjoyed every minute of the games we have done together. He doesn’t care about recognition. He cares about making the broadcast the best it can be.”
Jones says they figured out early on how to share the mic, citing a game early in their career when Jones felt Ham was rushing to say what he wanted to express.
“At halftime, I said, ‘Why are you rushing?’ And Jack said, ‘I want to make sure you get it back.’ I said, ‘Who cares? Everyone wants to hear what Jack Ham has to say, especially me!’ We look at it as two friends sitting together talking about a game. Neither one of us seeks out the limelight or anything like that. We just want to go out there, do a great job, and have fun,” Jones explains.
Now, Ham says, the two are so in synch, “It’s like we have our own language, the way twins have their own language.”
Beyond the booth
Knowing that Ham is not likely to bring up his own accomplishments (“Jack Ham is a man of zero ego. Zero.”), Jones takes it upon himself to brag about his colleague and friend.
“Everything he’s ever done, he excels at,” Jones says, describing Ham’s success in the coal industry with his business, Ham Enterprises, and recounting Ham sinking a hole-in-one at Sunnehanna Country Club this summer.
“He is as well-rounded as anyone I’ve ever known. If I ever needed advice on something, I would talk to him. If he ever needed advice on something, he’d go to somebody else,” Jones jokes.
Ham lives in Sewickley Heights outside of Pittsburgh. Besides being an avid golfer, Ham says he is a World War II buff, and he and his wife, Joanne, are anxiously awaiting the return of live theater and the symphony after the pandemic.
Jones lives in State College with his wife, Kathy. The father of five adult children, he describes himself as a hands-on grandfather to six grandchildren. Following the trail blazed by Gowdy, in addition to announcing Penn State basketball and football, Jones also is the announcer for the State College Spikes baseball team.
Jones has a studio inside of his house, and he does two talk shows each day – one on 1450 AM and one on WKOK in Sunbury, as well as a Thursday night call-in show with Franklin during football season. Jones teaches one sports broadcasting course at Penn State each semester, and even has a production center in Rec Hall named after him – the Steve Jones Student Sports Broadcasting Complex, which came about through a donation by his friends, Rick and Sue Barry.
Neither Jones nor Ham plans to retire from broadcasting anytime soon.
“I signed a new contract, and I’m going to be around for a few more years at least,” Ham says. “I’ll step back when I no longer enjoy it. But it’s fun for me.”
Jones also says he plans to stick around as long as the powers-that-be will let him.
“I get to sit next to Jack Ham, and we’ve got the best seat in the house,” he says. “Every single game I do … at some point during the course of the broadcast, I look around and say to myself, ‘I am really fortunate to be doing this.’ You can never, never take for granted something you know that so many people want. It’s something I always wanted, and was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to do.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.