O'Donnell: Broadcast giant Dennis Swanson once again helping to boost Illini athletics

  • Dennis Swanson and his wife, Kathy, are thanked before Illinois' Aug. 31 football game by athletic director Josh Whitman for their donation to the university's basketball programs. Grandson Derek Swanson, an undergrad, took part in the ceremony.

    Dennis Swanson and his wife, Kathy, are thanked before Illinois' Aug. 31 football game by athletic director Josh Whitman for their donation to the university's basketball programs. Grandson Derek Swanson, an undergrad, took part in the ceremony. University of Illinois Athletics

 
Updated 9/14/2019 12:18 AM

AS A BROADCAST EXECUTIVE, Dennis Swanson has moved Olympics.

Literally.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He was also the critical accelerant in the rise of Oprah Winfrey.

In Chicago, his masterwork was the quick and enduring flip of WLS-Channel 7 in 1983-85 from market floor mat to enduring sunroof.

"Television was decent to me and I'd like to think I was decent to television," Swanson told The Daily Herald.

Before he contentedly walked away from the games three years ago, Swanson:

• Succeeded Roone Arledge as president of ABC Sports;

• Turned flagship WNBC-TV in New York into the Big Apple's "Big A";

• Was exec VP & COO of CBS Television Stations under both Mel Karmazin and Les Moonves; and,

• Concluded his 60-year run in broadcasting at age 78 as president of station operations for Fox-TV.

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But now he and wife Kathy Swanson are assisting in what is a most daunting challenge and that's to help the basketball programs at the University of Illinois get back to higher ground.

The Swansons have donated $1 million to the university's renovation and expansion of the Ubben Basketball Complex.

The largesse is prompted by more than casual philanthropic intent.

"Two institutions completed my preparations for life," Swanson said.

"And that's the University of Illinois and the United States Marine Corps.

"And besides an incredible education, my years around Illinois basketball as a student manager was just a great and fulfilling time.

"I was passionate going in and am probably even more passionate today."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

His detailed view of Fighting Illini basketball extends all the way from the December evening in 1956 when George Bon Salle, Don Ohl and teammates snapped San Francisco's then-record 60-game win streak at Huff Gym on up to the prospects for coach Brad Underwood, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Trent Frazier in the upcoming campaign.

"Don't get me started on the non-call versus Michigan in the final minute of the 1989 NCAA semifinal that kept Lou Henson and 'The Flying Illini' out of the title game," Swanson said.

"Or the three quick fouls against James (Augustine) in the '05 championship against North Carolina that completely changed the way Bruce Weber had to coach.

"Or the '66-'67 team, with Rich Jones and Ron Dunlap, that was a legitimate national title contender, even against John Wooden and UCLA, until the whole slush fund thing started to unfold."

Swanson graduated from Illinois in 1960 with a degree in journalism. Even that achievement was gilded in grit:

"I had graduated high school in Springfield and my father was dying. My mother, who was an Illinois grad, was preparing me for the possibility of not being able to afford college.

"I entered a competition sponsored by a foundation in St. Louis for a $500 scholarship to major in chemical engineering and won.

"Tuition at the U of I at the time was $91 a semester. I hitchhiked to school. I waited tables at the Pi Phi (sorority) house for meals. Because my 'res' hall was across the street from Huff Gym, I walked over and asked (coach) Harry Combes for a chance as a student-manager.

"He kept me on for all four years."

Swanson also quietly switched majors.

He was in Navy ROTC, a decision that ultimately led to his commissioning in the Marines and rise to captain.

He missed duty in Vietnam only through a quirk of service dates. A suite mate from OCS at Quantico was killed at Pleiku.

"I was blessed … and fortunate," he now says.

Broadcasting was also blessed by his remarkable facility.

Asked to list his most satisfying professional times, Swanson cites two:

"List them either way but one would certainly be the day (Monday, Jan. 2, 1984) at Channel 7 when Oprah debuted as host of 'A.M. Chicago,' we had the syndicated run of 'Wheel of Fortune' at 6:30 and Floyd Kalber came out of a brief retirement to anchor the 6 o'clock news.

"And let's also not forget that was the day Mike White had Illinois in the Rose Bowl.

"The other would be the day I finally got the phone call from Juan Samaranch telling me that the International Olympic Committee had decided to stagger the Olympics every two years.

"I had been building a case with him for some time, lobbying, emphasizing the fact that if networks could budget every two years for one Olympics rather than every four years for two, the IOC would make more money.

"Finally, his call came to my office and he just said, with that incredibly authoritative accent, 'Svanson (sic), you've got it!"

And the bucket list of Dennis Swanson?

"I actually wrote two things on a pad in my office about five years ago," the broadcast giant admits.

"No. 1 was to see the Cubs win a World Series.

"OK, that's done.

"And No. 2 was to see the Fighting Illini win an NCAA basketball championship.

"The program has been jinxed. But Brad is a winner and he's moving things in the right direction the right way.

"Our day will come."

And who is to disagree with a man who has moved Olympics, Oprah and more?

STREET-BEATIN': Sure it's a civic blasphemy worthy of getting a fellow chain-linked to Rod Blagojevich, but much of Chicago sports media is more energized and exposed when the Bears lose. And all the key ingredients -- half-cooked head coach, info-overloaded QB, ferociously hungry hosts -- are in place at Denver Sunday (Fox-32, 3:20 p.m.; Dick Stockton and Mark Schlereth). … America had to go almost 72 hours without an NFL game and Tampa Bay's 20-14 win over host Carolina Thursday night on The NFL Network only marginally broke that drought. The game was poorly played, poorly coached, questionably officiated and had a predictably "dramatic ending" that seemed to take longer than Joaquin Phoenix's "Joker" in makeup. … Hard not to join the pontificating masses over Roger Goodell's "social justice" alliance with yacht-friendly thug rapper Jay-Z. (Now, if this were Pete Rozelle ponying up with Sly and the Family Stone in Spiro Agnew's America, that'd be a different story.) … Biggest surprise about the announcement that Ryan Baker is ditching sports for morning-news anchor at WBBM-Channel 2 is that the zap-through CBS o-and-o still has a news department. … Retrenching NBCSCH announced it will be carrying all 82 Bulls game this season. That's like hearing The National Geographic Channel is touting a multi-month series on "The Lost Treasures of Chicago's Skid Row." … And ABC/ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, who must have staff at Merriam-Webster on speed beg for new phrases, is once again hammering on about a receiver's "catch radius." Euclid shrugged.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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