Jim Zabel died in a fitting way, said one of his longtime broadcast partners and best friends.
"He died with his boots on," Ed Podolak said early Friday morning. "Jill (Zabel's wife) said he was working on this weekend's show he did with Jim Walden. He loved that show."
The show was "Two Guys Named Jim," a Sunday night staple on WHO-AM, the Des Moines radio station that employed Zabel since 1944. Zabel may have been retired and living in Arizona, but he stayed involved in broadcasting and the Iowa sports scene his entire adult life. He died Thursday night at 91.
Zabel was known for many things in his career, but perhaps nothing as much as his 49 years of doing play-by-play for radio broadcasts of University of Iowa football games. For the last 15 years of that time, his on-air partner was former Hawkeye running back Podolak, who still serves in the capacity of analyst for Iowa games.
"He interviewed me at a high school state basketball game in 1964," said Podolak, an Atlantic native. "Our friendship spanned a lot of years."
Podolak was lucky. Though he played during the Hawkeyes' streak of non-winning seasons from 1962 to 1980, he didn't have to describe any of those games on the air.
"One of his comments I always liked was when he said Iowa football only had two bad decades, and he got to announce them all," Podolak said, who laughed yet again at the recollection.
"There was one game, I think it was against Ohio State, when Iowa just got crushed. Afterward, the spotter in the booth told Jim 'I don't know how much they pay you, but it isn't enough to make it sound the way you make it sound.' "
Meaning, Zabel always described the silver linings in games full of dark clouds. Once the Hayden Fry era took off in the early 1980s, he and Podolak didn't have to manufacture excitement. Their calls of games like Iowa's 1985 win over Michigan in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, and the Hawkeyes' 29-27 win at Ohio State in 1987 on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Chuck Hartlieb to Marv Cook with six seconds left remain YouTube favorites of Hawkeye fans.
"It's an Iowa touchdown! Marv Cook!" Zabel hollered. "I can't believe it! Marv Cook! Got in the open at the 5! Hartlieb passes to him! Ed Podolak is hugging and kissing me!" Oh my God!"
In 2011 and 2012, Podolak joined Zabel for "Sound Off," WHO's postgame call-in show after Iowa football games.
"Nobody was more dedicated to making the Iowa sports experience the best it could be than Jim Zabel," Podolak said.
In Zabel's book, "I Love It! I Love It! I Love It! 65 Years of Fun & Games," he wrote this:
I feel that Podolak and I fit well together as a broadcast team. Podolak is a superb analyst, the best around. I knew that when I hired him. He also has nine lives. A few years after he started working with me, a newly-hired executive who I knew was a “cost-cutter” took me to lunch at the Des Moines Club.I knew he wanted something. Shortly after the salad course, he said to me, “Do you realize what we’re paying Ed Podolak?” I said I did. He said, “That’s more than the Bears pay Dick Butkus.” I replied, “That’s because he’s better than Dick Butkus.” He then tried to placate me and asked, “Would you be willing to take so-and-so from your sports department as your color man?” (He’s no longer there, and the guy he referred to couldn’t ad lib sleep after drinking Ovaltine). I said, “No.” I added, and these are my exact words, “If Podolak leaves, I leave.” End of conversation.