WEST DES MOINES — A man solemnly put on a bear costume moments before he walked into the Lutheran Church of Hope to say a final goodbye to Iowa broadcasting legend Jim Zabel.
Yes, Zabel, whose rocket ship of enthusiasm and love for Iowa football and men’s basketball enthralled Iowa faithful for more than half a century, lived the kind of rich life that had a man in a bear costume roaming the halls and taking a seat during his life celebration.
Zabel, who died May 23 at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home at the age of 91, of course hosted the show “Beat the Bear” for 25 years at WHO TV in Des Moines.
The fact that a bear mascot is kind of the tip of the ice berg for Zabel, who started his broadcast career as a reporter for WHO-AM radio in 1944.
Zabel was, of course, renowned as the voice of Iowa Hawkeyes sports for 48 years. His “I love it, I love it, I love” — which originated after the Hawkeyes hung 100 points on Bobby Knight’s Indiana team at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 1987 — became a celebratory howl for scores of Iowa fans.
There were a few videos of Zabel doing his thing during Friday’s life celebration. He described his style as “emotionalizing.” The audio of the 1987 Chuck Hartlieb-to-Marv Cook touchdown pass that beat Ohio State in the finals seconds punctuated that description.
Zabel’s voice jumped several octaves during that call and even cracked a little. Ed Podolak, who sat beside Zabel doing the color commentary for that play and since 1981, went through a little of the same during the ceremony.
“This is a surreal moment for me, because I never thought we’d lose Jim,” said Podolak, a former Iowa running back and NFL star who was recruited away from NBC sports by Zabel to do Iowa radio. “He was everywhere and did everything.”
Zabel wrote three cookbooks. In addition to “Beat the Bear,” he also hosted “Let’s Go Bowling.” That show ran 39 weeks a year for 33 years.
Ray Johnson, a longtime colleague of Zabel’s at WHO TV, told a story from the Bear set. This was during the dark days of Iowa football, when the Hawkeyes went through 19 non-winning season — all of which Zabel broadcast — Iowa was set to play Michigan. The panel included Zabel, former Iowa coach Forest Evashevski and former Iowa quarterback Randy Duncan. Everyone picked Michigan except for the bear.
Zabel made a joke about “fermented honey.”
Van Harden, who served as program director and Zabel’s boss at WHO-AM, acknowledged the fact the job often took Zabel away from his family, which included three great-grandchildren.
“Thank you for sharing Jim with us,” Harden said. “What a gift.”
There was a certain zaniness with Zabel. You kind of never knew what was going to happen. When he was breaking in Podolak, he told him the microphone was live and to “start talking until you thought of something to say.” Iowa associate athletics director Mark Jennings, a longtime Zabel friend, talked about the time in Paris, during a European trip with the Iowa basketball team, when Zabel jumped into a bachelorette party and danced the “CanCan.”
The ceremony ended with a photo montage of Zabel set to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
A man in a bear costume, three cookbooks, “I love it, I love it, I love it.” This was a celebration of a man who, indeed, was everywhere and did everything.
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