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Dream Job
By David O'Brian
Binghamton Athletic Communications
 
 
bubearcatsSynopsis: Roger Neel, the voice of the Binghamton University men's basketball team since 1999, has established an impressive resume the past three decades. Still, his current role with the Bearcats has fulfilled a lifelong goal.  

It was 1986 and Roger Neel had already established a prolific portfolio in the sports broadcasting profession. He had spent eight years as a play-by-play announcer for minor league hockey teams in the Binghamton area. From 1980-86, he was the announcer for the Binghamton Whalers, the top minor league affiliate of the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League. In addition to his broadcasting duties, Neel had also worked full time at WNBF News Talk Radio since 1978.

Following the 1985-86 season, Neel became aware of what he considered a dream job. The Hartford Whalers were looking to hire a play-by-play announcer for their televised games. For Neel, it seemed like a natural fit, especially since he had worked within the Whalers' organization the previous six years.

"Everyone who gets into sports broadcasting wants to be at the top of their profession," he said. "That means either working in professional sports or with a (NCAA) Division I program. Even if that meant moving to a different city it was a dream of mine and if the right opportunity came along, I would take it."

Much to Neel's disappointment, he wasn't interviewed for the job.

"It was a very tough time for me," he said. "I understood that this is a very competitive business but to not even have been considered was a bummer."

In 1986, the Binghamton sports scene consisted of high school sports, minor league hockey and Binghamton University, which at the time was still competing at the NCAA Division III level. Neel was already a fixture in the community and he would continue to branch out and take on additional broadcasting assignments.

"I wasn't bitter," he said. "I got a lot of good opportunities to broadcast high school and small college games after things didn't work out (with Hartford) but I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I might never get a chance to land a job like that. Working in a professional organization or with a Division I program seemed like it would always stay just a dream."

He had no idea at the time that one day his dream job would find him.

Opportunity Knocks

Following the disappointment in not getting the Hartford job, Neel continued to work full time for WNBF. When the Whalers left Binghamton, the New York Rangers moved their top minor league affiliate to Binghamton and Neel became a member of the television broadcast team for games that aired locally and on the MSG Network. When the New York Mets relocated their AA baseball affiliate to Binghamton in 1992, Neel was the stadium announcer the first 12 seasons. He even did play-by-play for the Empire Sports TV Network for ECAC hockey. Neel continued to work at WNBF and in the late 1990s, he took over as the host of the morning show, a position he still holds today.

Neel thought he had done all in sports that he could, until he learned that Binghamton University was planning on moving up to the NCAA Division II level in 1998 and eventually, to the Division I ranks. The general manager of WNBF met with the Binghamton athletic department and expressed an interest in getting involved with their men's basketball program. Although the opportunity seemed good for Neel, he was concerned that it might conflict with his role as the morning show host.

"Our boss at WNBF had a vision of being involved in a Division I program but I was concerned that I would be tied up with the morning show," he said. "He was so adamant about being involved that he was willing to make it work for me. I thought I would just be announcing the home games so it surprised me that he wanted me to even travel to the road games and still keep my job as the morning host. It worked out perfectly for me."

Following three years at the Division II level, Binghamton transitioned to the Division I ranks in 2001. It didn't take long for Neel to have his first memorable Division I broadcast. On Dec. 16, 2001, Binghamton took North Carolina, one of the most storied college basketball programs in history, to the wire before losing 63-62. It was a game that put Binghamton on the national radar.

"Here we are at the Smith Center, one of the most famous arenas in the country leading the Tar Heels for most of the second half," he recalls. "Every time I announced the score I wondered if people back home who just turned on the game thought I had it backwards. It was a great moment for the program and for me personally."

Binghamton played its home games at the West Gym until January 2004 when it moved into the state-of-the-art Events Center. One year later, the Bearcats hosted the first three rounds of the America East Tournament and the memory of Binghamton's 76-70 win over Albany in the quarterfinal round was the moment Neel knew he had made it to the top of his profession.

"There were over 5,000 fans at the game and both teams brought their peps band and cheer teams," he said. "As we took the air, the crowd noise was already deafening and they never let up the whole game. Even though we lost to Vermont in the semifinals the next day, the game was regionally televised and the crowd was just as big and as enthusiastic. Those are the types of moments that as a broadcaster, you work so hard for."

A Pillar in the Community

While Neel is finally fulfilling his career-long dream, his place in the Binghamton area has long been secure. He was inducted into the Binghamton Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 and when he retired as the Public Address Announcer for the Binghamton Mets that same year, the organization honored him on Opening Day the following season. His morning show on WNBF is tied for second in the latest local ratings and he has volunteered to emcee many charitable events in the Southern Tier.

Mary Beth Walsh is the Market Manager of Citadel Communications, which oversees WNBF Radio. She has worked with Neel for over a decade and remains amazed by his professionalism and his work ethic.

"He not only one of the hardest working people in broadcast radio but also the nicest person," she said. "He is very passionate about what he does and he will do anything to help out anyone. Roger Neel is the definition of a team player."

With Neel sometimes returning from road trips with the basketball team in the middle of the night, Walsh finds it hard to figure out how he manages to go on the air just a few hours later.

"I have three kids and I think that my life is crazy some times," she said. "Then I look at Roger's schedule and I don't know how he does it. You'd never know by his demeanor how much he has going on."

Mo "Reese" Taylor has worked with Neel for 10 years at Citadel Communications. He is currently the Assistant AM Programming Director and has also served as the producer and engineer for the basketball broadcasts.

"Roger is the consummate professional," he said. "Being the host of a morning show on a news station can be stressful because there are a lot of different satellite feeds and calls coming in (during a broadcast) but he always handles the situation great. When it comes to how to handle every aspect of the News and Sports Broadcasting field, Roger has been someone worth emulating."

Scott Brown is the current General Manager of the Binghamton Mets and has known Neel for over a decade. He points to Neel joining the then fledgling organization in 1992 as a factor that gave them instant credibility.

"Roger is the dean of sportscasters in this area and him wanting to be a part of our organization was big for us," he said. "He is just an exceptional person both professionally and personally."

Like Walsh and Taylor, Brown witnessed Neel trying to balance hosting a morning radio show and working as an announcer for games that took place primarily at nights.

"Roger was never in a bad mood no matter how many hours he worked," he said. "He was always very classy to everyone no matter how many endless hours he worked."

Beginnings

Neel's tireless work ethic was formed during the years he grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania. Although he was an only child, he was part of a family that quickly learned the value of hard work. His dad raised chickens for living and worked seven days a week to make his business a success.

"There was no down time for my dad if he wanted to make a living," Neel said. "He told us that if he wanted us to be able to eat, he had to work hard."

As passionate as his family was about work, Neel's family was equally so about sports. At nights during the summer after his father was done working, the family would listen to the Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio.

"Bob Prince was the Pittsburgh Pirates radio announcer back then and listening to him every night inspired me to get into sports broadcasting," Neel said. "He was one of the best play-by-play announcers of all time and years later, he was inducted into the Broadcasting Wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame (in Cooperstown)."

Neel played Little League baseball and would play both baseball and football in high school and college. His dad told him early on that although he should enjoy playing sports growing up, very few people actually made it to the professional level and that he should think seriously about what he wanted to do when he was no longer competing. What that piece of advice in mind, Neel knew right then what he wanted to do when he grew up.

"I was fortunate to have someone like Bob Prince to listen to growing up," he said. "He was my inspiration to get into the business and years later, I was lucky enough to meet him."

Neel played football and baseball at Westminster College, where he graduated in 1973. During the winter months, he was the basketball play-by-play announcer for the student station. In the first year following college, he worked part time at a pair of radio stations 50 minutes apart.

"I worked the 6-10 p.m. shift at a station in Grove City (Pa.) and the 11 p.m.-5 a.m. shift in Mercer (Pa.)," he said. "Everyone who gets into the business has to start off part time at minimum wage. You have to work very hard for very little, which is a real eye opener to a lot of people."

Neel loved sports but the strong work ethic instilled by his family was a key factor in helping him make it through those early years.

"My whole family worked long hours for small gain," he said. "One of my grandfathers worked in a steel mill by Pittsburgh and my other grandfather worked on the railroad. Being around them instilled the work ethic I needed that first year."

In 1974, Neel's career began to solidify when he was hired by WJAC in Johnstown, Pa. He was the voice of the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League for four seasons and also covered high school football and basketball games. Four years later, he relocated to Binghamton to begin his eight-year tenure as a minor league hockey announcer.

Beyond the Call of Duty

Although Neel was hired by Binghamton as an announcer for men's basketball games, his service to the school has encompassed so much more. He has emceed the Athletic Department's Awards Banquet the past five years and has interviewed several of Binghamton's other head coaches on his morning show. When the athletic department added a weekly Binghamton basketball coaches' show to its radio package last year, Neel jumped right in as one of the hosts.

"Roger Neel has been a terrific asset to our athletic program throughout the nine years that he's been affilliated with us," Binghamton Director of Athletics Dr. Joel Thirer said. "He brings keen insight to his work and has been wonderful at bringing our message to our listening audience. Whether it's broadcasting our men's basketball games, emceeing at our awards banquet, or interviewing members of our coaching staff and teams on the radio, Roger is always a first-class professional. His voice is well known to all of our fans, and we're honored to have him continue to be one of the primary voices of the Bearcats."

Since Neel started working at WNBF 29 years ago, the Citadel Broadcasting Company has encouraged its each of its radio stations to get involved in community activities. To say that Neel has done that would be an understatement.

"I think everyone here would agree that Roger does as much for the community as anyone," Walsh said. "He loves being a part of the different organizations in this area and puts a lot of passion into everything he does for them."

For Neel, he willingness to engage in community activities, whether it be at Binghamton University or elsewhere, goes beyond trying to fulfill the wishes of his company.

"This area has been wonderful to me all these years," Neel said. "I have met so many wonderful people here and have been able to fulfill my professional dreams. It is important to me to try and give back in any way that I can."

No Looking Back

It's been 21 years since Neel had to deal with the disappointment of not being interviewed for the Hartford Whalers job. The Whalers have since relocated to Raleigh, N.C. and are now known as the Carolina Hurricanes. Last year, the Hurricanes won their first-ever Stanley Cup. Neel, however, has stayed right in Binghamton and between his role with Binghamton University, his job at WBNF and his several other roles in the community, he doesn't once think about what might have been.

"Binghamton has become my home, he said. "I have loved this community for years and to see Division I college athletics in this area has been fantastic to watch. It's been great for the community and couldn't have been a better situation for me personally."

There is, however, one wish Neel still has left.

"I can't wait for the day when Binghamton hosts the America East Conference men's basketball championship game on ESPN," he said. "It would be an honor for me to (broadcast) that game. As much as hosting the first three rounds (of the America East Tournament) did for the community, hosting the final game would energize this area even more. With the direction the program is heading in, it is just a matter a time until that happens." 

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